Debating the Holocaust: A New Look At Both Sides
By Thomas Dalton, Ph.D
This is a book about the Holocaust, and about two competing views of that event. On the one hand we have the traditional, orthodox view: the six million Jewish casualties, the gas chambers, the cremation ovens and mass graves. Traditional historians have thousands of surviving witnesses and the weight of history on their side. On the other hand there is a small, renegade band of writers and researchers who refuse to accept large parts of this story. These revisionists, as they call themselves, present counter-evidence and ask tough questions. They are beginning to outline a new and different narrative.
Thus there has emerged something of a debate, a debate of historic significance. This is no peripheral clash between two arcane schools of thought, regarding some minutiae of World War II. It is about history, of course, but it also speaks to fundamental issues of our time: freedom of speech and press, the operation of mass media, manipulation of public opinion, political and economic power structures, and the coercive abilities of the State. It is an astonishingly rancorous and controversial debate, with far-reaching implications.
Most of the reading public is only dimly aware of this debate, if at all. Everyone knows that six million Jews were killed by the Nazis, and that gas chambers were used in the killing. But few have any idea about the origins of this story, its rationale, and its justification. Fewer still know that serious questions have been raised against the traditional view; if they have heard of such questions, it is in the context of a few right-wing neo-Nazi anti-Semites who are trying to attack the Jews by questioning the Holocaust. And not more than a handful of people know about the serious issues raised by the revisionists, and the attempts by certain traditionalists to respond.
The fact that so few are aware of what may be called the Great Holocaust Debate is perhaps not surprising. Much has been invested in the conventional story. Textbooks and encyclopedias have been written about it. Historians have staked their personal reputations on it. Politicians have passed laws defending it. And wealthy and powerful interests have good reason to sustain it. In short, very few of those in positions of influence want to acknowledge any kind of legitimate debate. There is no incentive to publicize it, and strong disincentive. Those in the public eye know that, should they broach this subject, they will suffer the consequences. Advertisers will drop out. Financial backers will disappear. They may be sued. They will lose access. They will be shunned. And it will all be legal.
Only a dramatic turn of events can force this debate into the public realm. Such a turn occurred in early 2006, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that there would be a Holocaust conference in Teheran. The purpose would be to examine its scientific and technical basis with an eye to reinterpreting the facts. Reaction was rapid and fierce. Most called it a Holocaust denial conference, dismissing it as so much anti-Semitic raving. But Ahmadinejad followed through, and the conference was held in December of that year. The sky did not fall, and hoards of crazed lunatics did not rise up and slaughter Jews around the world. But the topic broke through the wall of silence; and more people now than ever suspect that all is not well with the traditional story hence the need for a book such as this.
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The Great Debate is marked by a striking partisanship. The traditional story is defended primarily by survivors, Jewish writers and researchers, and those who suffered at the hands of Nazi Germany in other words, by people with a self-interest in sustaining the dominant view of a genocidal Nazi regime and an innocent and victimized Jewish people. Of the thousands of books on the subject, the vast majority are by Jewish authors. The revisionist perspective is promoted by a very small number of people, primarily Germans, people of German origins, and those who are ideologically inclined to be pro-German or anti-Jewish again, not an unbiased group.1 Charges of lies, conspiracy, and hoax are frequently launched by both sides. This leaves the vast majority of the public in a quandary: the average person is faced with partisan advocates on both sides, and rarely, if ever, gets a complete and balanced picture.
My goal is to remedy this shortcoming. I intend to present an objective, impartial look at this debate. I will discuss the latest and strongest arguments on both sides, examine the replies, and offer an unbiased assessment. This is a challenging task, to say the least, but I believe that I am reasonably well suited for it. Unlike the vast majority of writers on the Holocaust, I am not Jewish either by religion or ethnicity; nor are any of my family members. I am not of German descent. No one in my immediate family suffered or died in World War II. I am neither Muslim nor fundamentalist Christian, so I have no religious bias. My background is as a scholar and academic, having taught humanities at a prominent American university for several years now. I have a long-standing interest in World War II, and in the present conflict in the Middle East. In the end, whether I have succeeded in offering an objective analysis of this debate will be for the reader to judge.
This book is targeted at the general educated reader, but holds to a high standard of scholarship. Hence it is as suited for university use as for general readership. In examining the writings of the two opponents, I have taken nothing for granted. To the extent possible, I have verified all quotations, checked all calculations, and noted errors though I must say that the level of scholarship on both sides has been laudably high. I have attempted to use commonly available sources, should the reader wish to confirm any statements or quotations I offer here.2 I have concentrated on English language sources; this has its drawbacks, but fortunately most of the important sources are in English, so the problem is not too great. Where relevant, I have cited essential non-English writings as well.
I have also shown a preference for hard-copy publications books and journal articles over Internet publications. Web-based material is always questionable. It can change from one day to another, and disappear the next. Such sources are typically less well researched, and often rely on other, equally unreliable, Web-based sources for their arguments. On the other hand, much controversial material can be published only on the Web, and this point must be noted. It is very convenient, for example, that several of the key revisionist texts complete books are available free online. (This very fact should mitigate the notion of a profit motive of the revisionists.) And the rise of YouTube and online video services allows access to audio-visual material that can have a greater impact than printed works. Thus, as appropriate, I have included relevant Web page information.
Finally, I use terminology indicating the provisional nature of claims about the Holocaust. My use of alleged, so-called, scare quotes, and similar devices simply is meant to indicate that I am withholding assent until the case is fully examined. I tend to be skeptical of most things told to me by those in positions of power and influence, and this subject is no different. I recommend that the reader do the same. As for my occasional quips, jabs, and weak attempts at humor, I can only say that this is not intended as insult or dismissal. I aim to take a sometimes plodding and tedious debate and make it interesting and readable. But when one makes outrageous claims, or puts forth obvious nonsense, and then expects to be taken seriously then a sarcastic jab may be entirely appropriate.
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Some might question the relevance of this whole topic. They might point out that the event under discussion happened over sixty years ago, that most who experienced it are dead, and that the enmities of the war are long gone. America and the European nations are friends, and at peace (with each other, at least!). Japan is an important trading partner, and poses no military threat. So why bother with the Holocaust? What’s the big deal? Yes, the Jews suffered, some may say. So just leave them alone. Let them have their ol’ Holocaust.
I think it does matter, and not only to those who have a vested interest. First, there is the straightforward question of history. Regardless of what one may think, the Holocaust was an event of major historical importance. As with any historical event, it is important to get the facts straight, and to develop consistent and coherent views about what happened. To understand what did, or did not, happen is important for understanding the world of the twentieth century, and by extension, the world of today.
Second, we are not allowed to forget about it, even if we wanted to. Coverage of the Holocaust is standard fare in every school curriculum.3 Children the world over read The Diary of Anne Frank, Number the Stars, Waiting for Anya, and Butterfly. Students learn about the gas chambers and the six million, about the Nazi atrocities.4 We watch Holocaust miniseries on television, Schindlers List, and documentaries like Night and Fog. We celebrate Holocaust Education Week, and we acknowledge January 27 each year as the International Day of Commemoration of Holocaust victims, as declared by the UN in 2005. School children collect six million pencils, or six million paperclips.5 We visit Holocaust museums. We take college courses from endowed chairs in Holocaust studies. This is not by accident. It is a deliberate plan, to make sure we never forget. And if we can never forget, then we should at least get the story straight.
Third, there is the drama of the debate itself. It is unlike anything else the name-calling, the suppression of ideas, the jailing of dissenters, the burning of books. It is a debate that can scarcely be mentioned in polite company. It is, in a real sense, one of the last taboos in Western civilization. But as we know, taboos never last. They are the product of a given era, of specific social and political forces. When those forces shift, as they inevitably do, the taboo is lifted. Now is perhaps such a time.
Fourth, we have the underlying issue of free speech. I take a position in support of radical free speech. Speech is an (almost) absolute right. There is virtually no topic that should be out of bounds. Barring only such obscure cases as an immediate threat to human life (one thinks of the contrived example of crying fire in a crowded theater ), no words or ideas should be beyond discussion. I support vigorous and open debate on every conceivable topic, the Holocaust included. Suppressing speech only drives it underground, and can only lead to unethical and reprehensible manipulation of the public’s ability to think for itself. Those in power always have reason to fear free speech all the more reason to defend it.
Fifth is the monetary angle. Billions of dollars have been given as restitution, to Israel, to individual survivors, and to Jewish organizations. These are tax dollars, provided by the workers of the affected nations primarily Germany and Switzerland (to date). Restitution claims have not ended, and will likely not end in the foreseeable future; as recently as March 2008, the Belgian government agreed to pay $170 million to survivors, their families, and the Jewish community. This is rather astonishing, given that Belgium was a victim of the war, not an aggressor! (The official reason: Belgium failed to resist hard enough against Nazi deportation of Jews.) Compensation money, arising directly from the conventional Holocaust story, in turn flows back to sustain it. Restitution money buys political clout, where in the U.S. at least it ends up as campaign contributions and issue ads. It encourages lawmakers to legislate in support of Israel and against revisionism and they do.
Sixth, there are the far-reaching conflicts in the Middle East that stem, in large part, from the Holocaust in a number of important ways. First, the state of Israel itself is due largely to the persecution of Jews in the war (Israel was created in 1948).6 Its creation sparked the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs, which led to several wars and ultimately to the present Israeli occupation of the West Bank and other Palestinian lands. This occupation in turn is a crucial factor in the global war on terror, and in the present bloody conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, it is a crucial factor in the United States giving $6 billion per year, every year, to Israel in the form of military, economic, and indirect aid. Third, if there is a future conflict with Iran, it too will stem in part from conflicting views of the Holocaust;7 Ahmadinejad knows this, hence his willingness to challenge the traditional account. And finally, the influential group of people who promote and defend the Holocaust are by and large the same people who supported the wars in the Middle East. The same ideology “militant right-wing Zionism” is a major factor in both. Thus by better understanding their thinking and actions we may perhaps head off future wars.
Seventh: If we can be misled or fooled, or deceived, or lied to about the Holocaust, what other events might we be misled about? The same social forces that could give rise to, and sustain, a deficient Holocaust story could produce countless other stories that might be exaggerated, embellished, distorted, or falsified.
Finally, the Great Debate tells us something important about the power structure of Western nations. Revisionists challenge not only orthodoxy; they challenge the power of the State. Advocates for the conventional view are in positions of great influence. They are wealthy. They have many supporters, and virtually unlimited resources. They are able to turn the power of the State, and public opinion, against revisionism. The revisionists, few in number and poor in means, have only ideas. But, as the masked man once said, ideas are bulletproof. They have a power of their own, unmatched by money, military, or government. Ideas can penetrate to the heart of truth. This is the promise of revisionism. Whether it succeeds, time shall tell.
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To repeat, I attempt here to take an impartial look at this clash of views. Arguably this is doomed to failure. I can be sure that both sides will accuse me of biased thinking, of disregarding important points, of undervaluing critical issues. Trying to remain neutral in this cantankerous debate is rather like taking a stroll through no-mans-land amidst trench warfare. I am guaranteed to be shot at by both sides.
Nevertheless, I am not concerned with befriending either camp. The hardcore partisans of both sides are few in number, even if one side wields disproportionate power. My concern is the vast middle ground of people, neither Jew nor Muslim nor German, who are directly and indirectly affected by the Holocaust, and who deserve to hear all perspectives on the matter. I stand with that group.
I am not a revisionist, and I do not endorse their claims. I am a bystander in this debate, observing and commenting on a collision of ideas. This book is not a book of revisionism. It is a book about revisionism, and about two competing views of the truth. It addresses the ability of each side to marshal evidence, and to create a clear and consistent picture of the past.
The revisionist view of events is so shocking, so far from what we have been told, that we have a hard time comprehending its possibility. A colleague once told me that he would be no more shocked to find no Eiffel Tower in Paris than he would to learn that the revisionists were right. Yet we can scarcely avoid asking ourselves this question: Is it really possible that the traditional Holocaust story is wrong? And not merely a little wrong, but significantly and fundamentally flawed? This is for each reader to decide. My objective is not to impose an overall conclusion, but rather to illuminate and articulate the main points, and to comment on their validity. The reader must decide.
I sense a turning point in the debate. It seems to be moving out of the shadows and into the realm of serious and legitimate discourse. Revisionists have strong arguments in their favor, and, despite book burnings and jail terms, they are not going away. Traditionalists seem of late to have lost their momentum. Perhaps they have no more counterarguments. Perhaps they have tired of defending the conflicting stories of survivors and witnesses. Perhaps they have reached the limit of their ability to fashion a comprehensible picture of those tragic events of sixty years ago. The debate will reach a new resolution, and I suspect that the result will be something different than we presume today.
1. Of course there are other revisionists not among these groups. Prominent revisionist Germar Rudolf has argued that, proportionately, the French are the most represented group.
2. Wherever possible, quotations include in-text citations. For example, (Hilberg 2003: 29) refers to page 29 of Hilbergs 2003 publication (The Destruction of the European Jews), which can be found in the bibliography at the rear. Such citations both let the reader know the time frame of the quotation, and avoid an excessive multiplication of footnotes. (Recent scholarship, especially by the revisionists, is footnote-crazy. This is useful from a scholarly perspective, but can make for awkward reading.) The end objective, after all, is to clearly cite reliable and verifiable sources, and I think I have achieved this goal. And, unlike most books on the subject (of either side), I have included a full and complete index and bibliography.
3. One example: On November 7, 2008, the British Times Online reported that every secondary school [in the UK] is to get a Holocaust specialist to ensure that the subject is taught comprehensively and sensitively. Ten percent of these specialists will receive a masters degree in Holocaust education. The scheme is part of a wider Holocaust education project funded by the Government and a national charity. The project will also send two sixth-formers [ages 16 and 17] from every school to Auschwitz each year.
4. In February 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed strengthening an existing mandate to teach the Holocaust; his idea was that every fifth grader will have to learn the life story of one of the 11,000 [Jewish] French children killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust. (New York Times, February 16) The proposal was rejected by the Education Ministry five months later. Yet we should ask what might have compelled Sarkozy to attempt this. One factor could be his family background; his grandfather was Jewish, and he clearly views himself as a friend of Israel. Another might be the strong Jewish minority in France; the country has the third-highest percentage of Jews outside Israel (though small”just under one percent”it is nonetheless very influential; see Chapter 12).
Furthermore, we should consider the numbers involved. The standard definition of a child victim is anyone under age sixteen. Most traditionalists claim that children represented about one third of all victims. So 11,000 child deaths implies about 30,000 French Jews in total. (Of course, we dont know if Sarkozy is using a different definition of child “perhaps only those of middle-school age.) But a figure of 30,000 is far less than that mentioned by, for example, Gilbert (1988: 244), who claims 83,000 French Jewish deaths. As so often happens in the Debate, ill-defined numbers are thrown around that are rife with contradiction.
If the total was 30,000, French Jews accounted for just 0.5 percent of the six million victims”virtually insignificant in the overall picture. (If 83,000, then 1.4 percent.) And they would represent only 6 percent of all 500,000 French war casualties.
5. On September 20, 2004, the AP reported on a middle school in Tennessee, where, back in 1998, students hoped to collect 6 million paper clips”one to remember each person killed in the Holocaust. Thanks to global publicity, they had collected 30 million clips by 2004. In that same year Paper Clips, an award-winning Miramax documentary, was released. Regarding the pencils, a Texas junior high school issued a press release on May 15, 2007: Six million pencils for Holocaust project. They hope to get 167,000 per month, achieving their total by 2010.
6. It is true, however, that the Zionist push for a Jewish homeland had begun in earnest as early as 1900; the Balfour Declaration of 1917 declared British support for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. The process was thus in motion several decades before the end of World War II, but it was the Holocaust that was the last straw, inducing the UN to create the state of Israel in 1948.
7. The Holocaust is often invoked in the Iranian conflict, both in reference to Ahmadinejad’s denial of it, and to a future attack on Israel. The threat of military action comes from both the United States and Israel (but from nowhere else). A recent example: On August 7, 2008, Time magazine reported the story Israel Preparing for Iran Strike. The Israeli Deputy Prime Minister is quoted as saying, Israel takes Mahmoud Ahmadinejads statements regarding its destruction seriously. Israel cannot risk another Holocaust.
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