Revisionism Unbound

Published: 2006-01-12

The Germans are about to take over the rotating presidency of the European Union, and they have promised that one of the first items on their agenda will be to criminalize Holocaust Denial in all member countries. Of course, Holocaust Denial is already illegal in many countries in Europe; Great Britain, Denmark, and Italy are among the few exceptions. Yet the new law will attempt to put all Europeans on the same footing in terms of questioning any aspect of what happened to the Jewish people in World War Two. Mandatory sentencing guidelines are calling for a minimum three year prison term.

These new attempts to make dissent on historical matters a crime simply repeat a pattern that we have seen repeatedly since the French passed their Fabius Gayssot law in 1990, which made it a crime to contest any verdict arrived at by the Nuremberg court. Indeed, such laws follow other trends, that in recent times have made it a crime to question the Armenian genocide (in France), and legislation promoted by various groups, including Muslims, to make all kinds of public utterances felonious. Yet these new laws, as they touch on Holocaust Revisionism, are not likely to succeed in practice. If the point of the earlier laws was to suppress free speech and free communication, things have gone too far for that now: the two main aspects of revisionism are too widely spread.

A major part of Holocaust Revisionism since its beginnings in the 1950's was to attack Israel's use or "instrumentalization" of the Holocaust, whether that be to extract concessions from Germany, or to stifle criticism of the Jewish State, or to manipulate other Jews, either by fear or guilt, into supporting Israel. Paul Rassinier, in particular, opposed these abuses, not only because he felt them to be manipulative and dishonest, but because he believed that such Holocaust promotion served to perpetuate anti-German feeling. By the 1970's, when Holocaust Revisionism hit its stride, the anti-Zionist component was a major part of revisionism, to the extent that the leading Holocaust Revisionist authors, Butz and Faurisson, both declared that the Holocaust was essentially a Zionist creation.

Yet this aspect of Holocaust Revisionism, turning on criticism of Israel and Zionism, has become much more common since Peter Novick's "Holocaust in American Life" was published in 1999, and, arguably, since Norman Finkelstein's "A Nation on Trial" in 1998. Both books sharply criticized the use and abuse of the standard Holocaust narrative for advancing Israel's interests, and, in fact, Finkelstein's "Holocaust Industry", published in 2000, was an even harsher, and more detailed, rebuke.

Novick and Finkelstein have been followed by many others, including the Washington Post's Richard Cohen, who recently called the creation of Israel a "mistake", and Tony Judt, a professor at the New School in New York City, who in a notorious article in the New York Review of Books in 2003, declared the Zionist project moribund and Israel doomed to a binational future.

It is important to note that all of the above critics of Israel, and of Israel's manipulative use of the Holocaust, are firm believers in the standard Holocaust story, and have few, if any, kind words for revisionists. Yet by mainstreaming criticism of Israel, and its promotion of the Holocaust for political and other purposes, these intellectuals have co-opted a major part of the revisionist position and made it part of common discussion.

There is a certain irony here. The harshest criticisms of revisionists have always been, not their questioning of atrocities at specific locations, but rather their coupling of such questioning with attacks on Zionism. The implication of classic Holocaust Revisionism was that the Holocaust was concocted by Zionists, and since the Holocaust was false, then Israel lost its legitimacy. But what happens when one self-consciously supports the standard Holocaust story, and still questions the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state? Faced with this unpleasant reality, a new word has entered the ADL sanctioned lexicon: "Israel Deniers", a term of art meant to marginalize and anathematize anyone who criticizes Israel. The new Holocaust Denial legislation, however, will be unable to find a way to silence the Israel Deniers, with the result that the main source of irritation from Holocaust revisionists will remain untreated.

The other part of Holocaust Revisionism, again, since the beginning, has involved skepticism towards many of the unexamined Holocaust claims which entered the historical record via the Nuremberg trials in the postwar period. The terrain is well known to revisionists: how many people can one really kill with diesel exhaust or pesticide, how many bodies can one really burn in a crematorium, or in a hole in the ground, why should one lend credence to eyewitness testimony which in most cases is clearly untrue, because it violates the facts on the ground, and why should one believe anything that comes from the Soviet Union, the main promoter of Holocaust "facts" at the postwar trials.

Suppressing these parts of revisionism would of course be part of the reach of the new laws. And yet the situation is not the same as it was in 1990, or in 1995. There are two main reasons for the change in circumstances: the Internet, and David Irving.

The Internet has made it possible for revisionist writings to be read by anyone who might want to read them, even in countries where revisionism is currently against the law. Before, revisionist writings were rarely printed and distributed, and could only be obtained with great difficulty, or happened upon by chance in isolation. For the past 12 years, however, revisionist writings have been instantly available, and not only revisionist writings, but, thanks to the efforts of CODOH and VHO, in many cases the original documents on which revisionists base their arguments have also been copied and put online. The hit counts make it clear that these articles and documents have been accessed many thousands of times in the past decade, not only by other revisionists, not only by students or by people stumbling on them by accident, but probably, at this point, by anyone who has a sincere interest in understanding the facts of the Holocaust. No longer obscured by the cheap binding and crude design of revisionist pamphlets in earlier decades, Holocaust revisionism, since the late '90's, has been unbound.

David Irving's role in the spread of Holocaust revisionism should also not be under-stressed, although he has paid a fearful price for his advocacy and is not really a Holocaust revisionist in the traditional sense: for one thing, he has never written anything on the subject. Nevertheless, in the late '80's, he championed Leuchter's Report, and thus a prominent historian emerged supporting some revisionist views. The reaction, however, was to reduce his prominence by silence, mispresentation, or libel, and by suppressing his books. When Irving reacted, by taking one of his main detractors — Deborah Lipstadt — to trial in 2000, he failed in his effort to extract damages, but he did give revisionism a world stage. As a result, his critics and frankly anyone who had ever heard of David Irving or read one of his books, was now aware of the various revisionist positions on the Holocaust, and thanks to the Internet (including Irving's own Focal Point website), could study the arguments in detail. Irving's challenge also compelled the community of Holocaust historians to respond to his arguments directly, which in turn bright lined the differences between revisionists and their detractors.

Of course, the broad dissemination of revisionism described above would cause severe agitation among those who feel that revisionists are satanic and should be shut down. But for all that, there has been a curious consequence of all of this revisionist exposure in the past twelve or so years. That is, nothing: there is no measurable rise in anti-Semitism as a result of Holocaust revisionism, no measurable rise in anti-Jewish violence as a result of Holocaust revisionism, and, certainly, no perceptible gain in the harshness of the criticism of Israel as a result of Holocaust revisionism. Nor, for that matter, has their been any increase in rightwing political forces either in Germany, Austria, or Europe in general that can be tied into such things as the "question of the gas chambers." So, what, exactly, is served by outlawing Holocaust revisionism?

In short, the new law, if enacted, with give no succor to those who are promoting it. Since Holocaust revisionism has nothing to do with the occasional rightward swings in European politics, outlawing it will not stop that progression. Since Holocaust revisionism has nothing to do with the (usually Muslim based) violence that Jews endure, criminalizing it will bring no peace to the Jews of Europe or the Middle East. Finally, since the Holocaust is no longer on the table when the educated classes attack, or even defend, Israel or its right to exist, it is hard to see how making Holocaust revisionism a felony will do anything to help the beleaguered and perhaps fatally flawed Jewish state. The new law will simply proclaim that Holocaust revisionism cannot exist. It will, in other words, and in its own way, be a form of denial.

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Author(s): David Wilson
Title: Revisionism Unbound
Published: 2006-01-12
First posted on CODOH: Dec. 30, 2006, 6 p.m.
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