Published Online: February 16, 1994

Books: Excerpts: Assault on History, Insult to Truth

In the first full-scale history of Holocaust denial, Deborah Lipstadt examines the common motives and tactics of deniers of the genocide of European Jews by the Nazis, as well as the undercurrents of modern culture that have taken this once low-profile phenomenon from the realm of crank antisemitism to the front pages and college lecture halls of this country and others. Ms. Lipstadt, who occupies the Dorot chair in modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University, builds her case in the excerpt below for the seriousness of the threat posed by this "assault on truth and memory'':

My previous book on the Holocaust dealt with the American press's coverage--or lack thereof--of the persecution of the Jews from 1933 to 1945. Much of the story that I told justly deserved the title Beyond Belief. For most editors and reporters this story was literally beyond belief, and the press either missed or dismissed this news story, burying specific news of gas chambers, death camps, and mass killings in tiny articles deep inside the papers.

When I turned to the topic of Holocaust denial, I knew that I was dealing with extremist antisemites who have increasingly managed, under the guise of scholarship, to camouflage their hateful ideology. However, I did not then fully grasp the degree to which I would be dealing with a phenomenon far more unbelievable than was my previous topic. On some level it is as unbelievable as the Holocaust itself and, though no one is being killed as a result of the deniers' lies, it constitutes abuse of the survivors. It is intimately connected to a neofascist political agenda.

Denial of the Holocaust is not the only thing I find beyond belief. What has also shocked me is the success deniers have in convincing good-hearted people that Holocaust denial is an "other side'' of history--ugly, reprehensible, and extremist--but an other side nonetheless. As time passes and fewer people can personally challenge these assertions, their campaign will only grow in intensity.

The impact of Holocaust denial on high school and college students cannot be precisely assessed. At the moment it is probably quite limited. Revisionist incidents have occurred on a number of college campuses, including at a midwestern university when a history instructor used a class on the Napoleonic Wars to argue that the Holocaust was a propaganda hoax designed to vilify the Germans, that the "worst thing about Hitler is that without him there would not be an Israel,'' and that the whole Holocaust story was a ploy to allow Jews to accumulate vast amounts of wealth. The instructor defended himself by arguing that he was just trying to present "two sides'' of the issue because the students' books only presented the "orthodox view.'' When the school dismissed him for teaching material that was neither relevant to the course nor of any "scholarly substance,'' some students complained that he had been unfairly treated.

During my visit to that campus in the aftermath of the incident, a number of his students argued that the instructor had brought articles to class that "proved his point.'' Others asserted, "He let us think.'' Few of the students seemed to have been genuinely convinced by him, but even among those who were not, there was a feeling that somehow firing him violated the basic American ideal of fairness--that is, everyone has a right to speak his or her piece. These students seemed not to grasp that a teacher has a responsibility to maintain some fidelity to the notion of truth.

High school teachers have complained to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council that when they teach the Holocaust in their classes, they increasingly find students who have heard about Holocaust denial and assume it must have some legitimacy. I have encountered high school and college students who feel that the deniers' view should at least be mentioned as a "controversial'' but somewhat valid view of the Holocaust. Colleagues have related that their students' questions are increasingly informed by Holocaust denial: "How do we know that there really were gas chambers?'' "What proof do we have that the survivors are telling the truth?'' "Are we going to hear the German side?''

This unconscious incorporation of the deniers' argument into the students' thinking is particularly troublesome. It is an indication of the deniers' success in shaping the way coming generations will approach study of the Holocaust. ...

While Holocaust denial is not a new phenomenon, it has increased in scope and intensity since the mid-1970's. It is important to understand that the deniers do not work in a vacuum. Part of their success can be traced to an intellectual climate that has made its mark in the scholarly world during the past two decades. The deniers are plying their trade at a time when much of history seems to be up for grabs and attacks on the Western rationalist tradition have become commonplace.

This tendency can be traced, at least in part, to intellectual currents that began to emerge in thelate 1960's. Various scholars began to argue that texts had no fixed meaning. The reader's interpretation, not the author's intention, determined meaning. [The] Duke University professor [of English and of law] Stanley Fish is most closely associated with this approach in the literary field. It became more difficult to talk about the objective truth of a text, legal concept, or even an event. In academic circles some scholars spoke of relative truths, rejecting the notion that there was one version of the world that was necessarily right while another was wrong.

Proponents of this methodology, such as the prominent and widely read philosopher Richard Rorty, denied the allegation that they believed that two incompatible views on a significant issue were of equal worth. But others disagreed. Hilary Putnam, one of the most influential contemporary academic philosophers, thought it particularly dangerous because it seemed to suggest that every conceptual system was "just as good as the other.'' Still others rightfully worried that it opened the doorsof the academy, and of society at large, to an array of farfetched notions that could no longer be dismissed out of hand simply because they were absurd. ...

[B]ecause deconstructionism argued that experience was relative and nothing was fixed, it created an atmosphere of permissiveness toward questioning the meaning of historical events and made it hard for its proponents to assert that there was anything "off limits'' for this skeptical approach. The legacy of this kind of thinking was evident when students had to confront the issue. Far too many of them found it impossible to recognize Holocaust denial as a movement with no scholarly, intellectual, or rational validity. A sentiment had been generated in society--not just on campus--that made it difficult to say: "This has nothing to do with ideas. This is bigotry.'' ...

[A]ttacks on history and knowledge have the potential to alter dramatically the way established truth is transmitted from generation to generation. Ultimately the climate they create is of no less importance than the specific truth they attack--be it the Holocaust or the assassination of President Kennedy. It is a climate that fosters deconstructionist history at its worst. No fact, no event, and no aspect of history has any fixed meaning or content. Any truth can be retold. Any fact can be recast. There is no ultimate historical reality.

Holocaust denial is part of this phenomenon. It is not an assault on the history of one particular group. Though denial of the Holocaust may be an attack on the history of the annihilation of the Jews, at its core it poses a threat to all who believe that knowledge and memory are among the keystones of our civilization. Just as the Holocaust was not a tragedy of the Jews but a tragedy of civilization in which the victims were Jews, so too denial of the Holocaust is not a threat just to Jewish history but a threat to all who believe in the ultimate power of reason. ...

The natural inclination of many rational people and social scientists is to dismiss [Holocaust deniers] as an irrelevant fringe group. Some have equated them with the flat-earth theorists, worthy at best of bemused attention but not of serious analysis or concern. They regard Holocaust denial as quirky and malicious but do not believe it poses a clear and present danger.

There are a number of compelling reasons not to dismiss the deniers and their beliefs so lightly. First, their methodology has changed in the past decade. Initially Holocaust denial was an enterprise engaged in by a small group of political extremists. Their arguments tended to appear in poorly printed pamphlets and in right-wing newspapers such as the Spotlight, Thunderbolt, or the Ku Klux Klan's Crusader. In recent years, however, their productivity has increased, their style has changed, and, consequently, their impact has been enhanced. They disguise their political and ideological agendas. Their subterfuge enhances the danger they pose. Their publications, including the Journal of Historical Review--the leading denial journal--mimic legitimate scholarly works, generating confusion among those who do not immediately recognize the Journal's intention. Their books and journals have been given an academic format, and they have worked hard to find ways to insinuate themselves into the arena of historical deliberation.

One of the primary loci of their activities is the college campus, where they have tried to stimulate a debate on the existence of the Holocaust. It is here that they may find their most fertile field, as is evident from the success they have had in placing advertisements that deny the Holocaust in college newspapers. They have also begun to make active use of computer bulletin boards, where they post their familiar arguments. Certain computer networks have been flooded with their materials. Their objective is to plant seeds of doubt that will bear fruit in coming years, when there are no more survivors or eyewitnesses alive to attest to the truth. ...

I was reminded of the potency of history when, on the eve of the Louisiana gubernatorial election in 1991, one of David Duke's followers remarked in a television interview that there was all this talk about Duke's past views on Jews and blacks and his Ku Klux Klan activities. That, the follower observed, was the past; what relevance, he wondered, did it have for this election? The answer was obvious: His past had everything to do with his quest for election; it shaped who he was and who he remained. It has never been more clearly illustrated that history matters. (Neither was it pure happenstance that the late Paul de Man, one of the founders of deconstructionism, also falsified his past and reworked his personal history.)

And if history matters, its practitioners matter even more. The historian's role has been compared to that of the canary in the coal mine whose death warned the miners that dangerous fumes were in the air--"any poisonous nonsense and the canary expires.'' There is much poisonous nonsense in the atmosphere these days. The deniers hope to achieve their goals by winning recognition as a legitimate scholarly cadre and by planting seeds of doubt in the younger generation. Only by recognizing the threat denial poses to both the past and the future will we ultimately thwart their efforts.

Reprinted with the permission of The Free Press, a division of Macmillan Inc., from Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, by Deborah Lipstadt. Copyright 1993 by Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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