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Denying History: Excerpt

Chapter One — Giving the Devil His Due:
The Free Speech Issue

William Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law.
Sir Thomas More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that.
More: Oh? And when the law was down — and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

—Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons, act 1, scene 6

On December 1, 1996, the New York Times reported that Benjamin Austin, a sociology professor at Middle Tennessee State University, found literature in books on the Holocaust at his college library that more than implied that the Holocaust did not happen. Not long after he removed the leaflets from the books, Austin discovered that they had been replaced by more Holocaust denial material. When he looked into the matter further he came across the same literature placed in Holocaust books at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, Nashville’s largest independent bookstore. The publishers of the literature, he soon learned, were the Institute for Historical Review and National Vanguard Books, a division of the West Virginia — based National Alliance. The Institute for Historical Review, in southern California, is the leading Holocaust denial organization in the United States. The National Alliance was founded by William Pierce (aka Andrew Macdonald), author of the famed Turner Diaries, an inflammatory novel about the bombing of a federal building, similar to that by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City.

Should the Institute for Historical Review be allowed to publish pamphlets, journals, and books denying the Holocaust? Should it be allowed to place them in public libraries and private bookstores? Should the National Alliance be allowed to publish potentially incendiary books, like The Turner Diaries, if they appear to offer blueprints for violence and destruction? At the heart of these questions is one of the most controversial issues any democracy must deal with as it attempts to strike a healthy balance between freedom of expression and protection of the rights of its citizens.

The Free Speech Issue

In the United States of America, the First Amendment protects the right of all citizens to question the existence of anything they like, including the death of Elvis, the Apollo moon landing, and the single-bullet theory in the JFK assassination. No matter how much an individual may dislike someone else’s opinion — even if it is something as shocking as denying that the Holocaust happened — that opinion is protected by the First Amendment. In most countries of the world, however, this is not the case. In Canada there are “anti-hate” and anti-pornography statutes and laws against spreading “false news” that have been applied to Holocaust deniers. In Austria it is a crime if a person “denies, grossly trivializes, approves or seeks to justify the national socialist genocide or other national socialist crimes against humanity.” In France it is illegal to challenge the existence of “crimes against humanity,” as defined by the military tribunal at Nuremberg:

Crimes Against Humanity: namely murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war, or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.

On July 3, 1981, for example, the French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson was found guilty in a Paris court of defamation and incitement to racial hatred and violence, based on a law passed July 1, 1972. Specifically, the court ruled: “In accusing the Jews publicly of being guilty through cupidity of a particularly odious lie and of a gigantic swindle … Robert Faurisson could not be unaware that his words would arouse in his very large audience feelings of contempt, of hatred and of violence towards the Jews in France.” As recently as April 21, 1998, the journal Nature ran a news item on a brewing controversy in France’s national scientific research agency — the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) — involving “the revisionist activities of Serge Thion, a CNRS researcher, as well as those of several other scientists.” One of those CNRS scientists was Gabor Rittersporn, who was accused in the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung of denying that the Nazi gas chambers had been used for mass homicide. In response Rittersporn successfully sued the paper and cleared his name, but in the trial it came out that in the 1970s and 1980s he belonged to “extreme left-wing groups that favoured free expression for revisionists.” The article pinpointed the free speech problem for the CNRS, “which is split between the need to preserve academic freedom and a desire to discipline such individuals.”

In Germany the Auschwitzlüge, or “Auschwitz-Lie” Law, makes it a crime to “defame the memory of the dead.” This statute was the result of a judgment by the Federal German Supreme Court on September 18, 1979, when a student whose Jewish grandfather was killed in Auschwitz sued for an injunction against an individual who had posted signs on the fence of his house proclaiming that the Holocaust was a “Zionist swindle.” The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff:

In calling the racist murders by the Nazis an invention, the statements complained of deny the Jews the inhuman fate which they have suffered on account of their origin … This means an attack on the personality of the people who have been singled out by the anti-Jewish persecutions in the Third Reich … Whoever tried to deny the truth of past events, denies to every Jew the respect to which he is entitled.

Switzerland, Belgium, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, Sweden, and Australia have similar laws on the books. These laws are all ambiguous enough to allow courts to interpret various Holocaust deniers’ activities as illegal. In December 1982, for example, Sweden arrested Dietlieb Culver Felderer, an associate of a leading Holocaust denier, Willis Carto, when Felderer accused Mel Mermelstein, a Holocaust survivor, of “peddling the extermination hoax.” Specifically, Felderer was tried because, as the Swedish prosecutor explained, his “obscene propaganda against Jews abroad and in Sweden is so large that he must have huge financial backing.” This was the first time such a prosecution had been undertaken in Sweden.

In Great Britain, the Race Relations Act forbids racially charged speech “not only when it is likely to lead to violence, but generally, on the grounds that members of minority races should be protected from racial insults.” In like manner, in Australia, the New South Wales parliament amended the 1989 Anti-Discrimination Act to include a ban on “racial vilification.” The sweeping scope of the government’s power to determine what constitutes vilification is remarkable:

The law invests in the Anti-Discrimination Board the power to determine whether a report is “fair,” and whether a discussion is “reasonable,” “in good faith,” and “in the public interest.” The Board will pronounce upon the acceptability of artistic expression, research papers, academic controversy, and scientific questions. An unfair (i.e., inaccurate) report of a public act may expose the reporter and the publisher to damages of up to $40,000.

In conflict with more laws of this nature than probably any other historian today, and arguably the most widely known Holocaust denier, David Irving was told by Polish authorities in July 1998 that he would not be allowed to film a documentary at Auschwitz. “They have written refusing even to allow me — an historian of worldwide reputation — at the site,” he wrote in an Internet posting. “It is an unprecedented ban.” This kind of censure is nothing new to David Irving, who has been banned from numerous countries around the world. While he cannot be legally prohibited from speaking in America, he can be so loudly shouted down that he is, essentially, banned. On Friday, February 3, 1995, for example, Irving was invited by the Berkeley Coalition for Free Speech to lecture at the University of California, Berkeley. The university allowed it, but student groups did not. More than 300 protesters surrounded Latimer Hall to keep Irving from speaking and the 113 ticket holders from entering the building. The police were at first unable to control the crowd, fistfights broke out, and Irving was forced to retreat behind his book table for protection until order was restored.

The event sparked a heated debate at the university and a flurry of letters to the editor and op-ed pieces in the university’s newspaper, The Daily Californian. Writing in support of the administration’s decision to allow Irving to speak, Robert Post, a law professor, explained that its tolerance did not mean “that we ought to have legitimated Irving by engaging in dialogue with him … [or including him] in the conversation of our community.” Aaron Breitbart, a senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, opined: “The university is a guardian of truth. I do not believe that Mr. Irving belongs on the university campus except as an example of those who murder history.” But one student, Gurman Bal, countered: “Protesters have a right to speak also and show their point of view, but I think it’s wrong to prevent him from speaking.” A graduate student named Nick Virzi accused the protesters themselves of Nazi stratagems: “They’re the ones showing actual Nazi tactics. I was called an Aryan Supremacist. I told them I’m an Italian-Hispanic. Long live free speech in Berkeley, right?”

Should free speech live and flourish without restriction? Our position regarding the freedom of speech of anyone on any subject is that while the government should not be in the business of limiting speech, an institution should have the freedom to restrict the speech of anyone at any time who utilizes resources within the jurisdiction of its own institution (such as a school newspaper, classroom, or lecture hall). The Holocaust deniers should have the freedom to publish their own journals and books, and to attempt to have their views aired in other publications, as in college newspaper ads. And colleges, since they own their own newspapers, should have the freedom to restrict the deniers’ access to their readership. Walter Reich, former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, has noted that we must not confuse freedom of expression “with the obligation to facilitate that expression.” We must never pass a law that says Holocaust deniers may not publish their own literature. But we are not obligated to publish it for them in our own publications. The Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel submitted an advertisement to be run in Skeptic magazine (published by one of the authors of this book), but it was declined, even though the editors of Skeptic are in favor of free speech. Being in favor of someone’s right to freedom of speech is quite different from enabling that speech.

An example of this important distinction concerns the Holocaust denier Bradley Smith, who publishes Smith’s Report, “America’s only monthly Holocaust revisionist newsletter” (according to its subtitle). Smith has his own Web site ( [Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust]) and is the author of the widely distributed pamphlet entitled The Holocaust Controversy: The Case for Open Debate. Smith makes it all sound so banal and innocent: “Students should be encouraged to investigate the holocaust controversy the same way they are encouraged to investigate every other historical controversy. This isn’t a radical point of view. The premises for it were worked out some time ago during a little something called the Enlightenment.” True enough, the Enlightenment did spawn honest and open debates on all manner of historical questions, including and especially religious, political, and ideological assumptions of centuries past. And the Enlightenment gave birth to the ideas of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But the Enlightenment also shifted science and rationality to center stage and propounded that logical analysis and empirical evidence must take precedence over personal biases and political ideologies. In the bright light of open discussion the truth will emerge. Let Smith publish his newsletter, make his Internet postings, and distribute his pamphlets. But let’s not allow him to do so without a response, without using logical analysis and empirical evidence to show his arguments for what they really are.

How, then, should we respond to Holocaust denial, or any other radical claim? This is a question of strategy: Does one ignore a false claim and hope it goes away, or stand up and refute it for all to see? A decision on this point will be different for different people and different claims. We believe that once a claim is in the public consciousness (as Holocaust denial undeniably is), it should be properly analyzed and, if appropriate, refuted vigorously in the public arena. That is what we intend to do here. Specifically, we hope that our analysis will:

  • Draw a fuller picture of the controversy for those who, because they are unfamiliar with the history of the Holocaust, might be open to the deniers’ arguments.
  • Provide another avenue for people to learn about the Holocaust.
  • Teach readers how historians use evidence to verify that anything in the past happened.
  • Demonstrate how anyone can come to believe almost anything because of ideology.
  • Show how professional historians have already been revising our knowledge of the Holocaust in light of fresh evidence or interpretations that more closely approximate the truth of what happened. The ultimate irony about Holocaust “revisionism” is that historians, not “revisionists,” are the ones who have been revising widely accepted views of the Holocaust and will continue to do so as new material on specific events becomes available.

Most Americans will say that they are in favor of free speech and that they believe in the First Amendment. They may even call themselves civil libertarians. But these same people, when their beliefs are challenged, may just as loudly proclaim that their challengers should be censored. We want, again, to make our stance clear: no one, in our opinion, is required to publish or aid in the presentation of the Holocaust deniers’ views, but we are against legal attempts to censor those views. Such attempts are what Louis Brandeis called “silence coerced by law — the argument of force in its worst form.” The problem was succinctly summarized by Thomas More, who would give the Devil his due for his own safety’s sake.

Let us pretend for a moment that the majority of people deny the existence of the Holocaust and that they are in the positions of power. If a mechanism for censorship exists, then the believer in the reality of the Holocaust may now be censored. Would we tolerate this? Of course not. The human mind, no matter what ideas it may generate, must never be quashed. By way of example, when evolutionists were in the minority in Tennessee in 1925 and politically powerful fundamentalists had passed legislation making it a crime to teach evolution in public schools, Clarence Darrow made this brilliant observation in his opening remarks in the Scopes trial:

If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and next year you can make it a crime to teach it in the church. At the next session you can ban books and the newspapers. Ignorance and fanaticism are ever busy, indeed feeding, always feeding and gloating for more. Today it’s the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lecturers, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After awhile, your honor, it is the setting of man against man, creed against creed, until the flying banners and beating drums are marching backwards to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the man who dared to bring any intelligence, and enlightenment, and culture to the human mind.

The Duty to Respond

Not only is it defensible to respond to the Holocaust deniers; it is, we believe, our duty. The Holocaust deniers have succeeded in spreading their beliefs in the media and in the academic world. They are featured on national and local TV and radio talk-shows, are invited to speak on college campuses, and have succeeded in placing full-page paid advertisements in college and university newspapers, including those of Brandeis University, Boston College, Pennsylvania State University, and Queens College. Some of these ads arguing that the Holocaust never happened ran without comment; others generated op-ed pieces by professors and students.

By also publishing a number of professional-looking books, monographs, and a journal, Holocaust deniers attempt to assume the mantle of respectability and credibility. Few would agree that the deniers have achieved their goal, but they have succeeded in getting people to discuss the question of whether the Holocaust occurred. What do they hope to accomplish? Some Holocaust scholars, like Yehuda Bauer, go so far as to argue that deniers are trying to create preconditions to deny the Jewish people the right to live in the post-Holocaust world. In a similar vein Walter Reich asks, “What better way to rehabilitate antisemitism than to make antisemitism arguments seem once again respectable in civilized discourse and even make it acceptable for governments to pursue antisemitic policies than by convincing the world that the great crime for which antisemitism was blamed simply never happened — indeed, that it was nothing more than a frame-up invented by the Jews, and propagated by them through their control of the media? What better way, in short, to make the world safe again for antisemitism than by denying the Holocaust?” This thought reverberates in Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s book Assassins of Memory: “One revives the dead in order to better strike the living.”

Consider this: Some Holocaust deniers, particularly those with extreme right-wing leanings, might gain greater acceptance if the crime attached to fascism had never actually happened. Without the Holocaust perhaps fascism would seem a more acceptable alternative to democracy. Moreover, if people can be convinced that the Holocaust never happened, perhaps they can also be persuaded to believe that slavery is a hoax perpetrated by blacks to coerce Congress to institute affirmative-action programs. Once we allow the distortion of one segment of history without making an appropriate response, we risk the possible distortion of other historical events. For this reason, Holocaust denial is not just a Jewish issue. It is an attack on all history and on the way we transmit the past to the future.

Why, some people ask, do we need to respond at all to the Holocaust deniers? Can’t we just dismiss them all as a bunch of antisemitic neo-Nazi thugs? No, we can’t. Like all sociopolitical movements, Holocaust denial attracts a wide variety of individuals, each with different motives and intentions, loosely held together by a common set of beliefs and ideologies. The subtleties and complexities of the Holocaust denial movement defy such global labels as “antisemitic” or “neo-Nazi.” To resort to labels is to misunderstand what is really going on and therefore to swat down straw men.

We think it is time to move beyond name calling and present the evidence. Failure to do so might create serious consequences. Imagine a student who tells her teacher, “I read in a college newspaper ad that gas chambers were used only for delousing clothing and not for mass murder. How do we know these chambers were used to kill people?” If the teacher responds, “Oh, that ad was placed by an antisemitic neo-Nazi,” what is the student to think? First, she gets no answer to her question. Second, she learns that an ad hominem attack is an appropriate response. Third, she may begin to wonder if there is something to the claims she has read because her teacher did not (could not?) provide answers. We must be forthright and honest about what we know and do not know about the Holocaust.

We can no longer ignore the deniers, calling them names and hoping they will go away. They are not going to go away. They are highly motivated, reasonably well financed, and often well versed in Holocaust studies. Like most fringe groups, deniers may seem relatively small and harmless, but remember the adage: For evil to triumph it only requires that the good do nothing. We cannot remain silent anymore. It is time to respond. As the Holocaust historian Robert Jan van Pelt observed, “Academics who choose to ignore Holocaust deniers are like the crew of the Titanic straightening the deck chairs while the ship is going down.”

Some may wonder if a book like this does not give credibility to the deniers, in the same way the media might be accused of calling attention to a problem of which few were aware. We believe that the public has a “right to know” about a potential social problem and that it is the duty of informed experts on a subject to share their knowledge. To that end this book is not just for Holocaust scholars and historians, it is for teachers and students, libraries and research facilities, and general readers of all levels interested in history, the Holocaust, and the ways that ideologies and belief systems can distort reality and our view of the past.

It is our belief that truth will always win out when the evidence is made available for all to see. “It is error alone which needs the support of government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia. “Truth can stand by itself.” The Holocaust as an event has never been only of scholarly interest. Dozens of movies and thousands of popular books have made it highly unlikely that we shall ever forget. But the details of the Holocaust, and how historians know that it happened as it did, are still relatively unknown to most members of the general public. This is why Holocaust denial has had a modicum of success (and more success in America and Canada than in Europe, where too many people know firsthand that these events occurred). The deniers know a great deal about the Holocaust. In conversation, it is easy for them to convince the uninitiated person that there might be something to their claims. To refute the deniers’ arguments, we examine Holocaust history, evidence, and methods; present an outline of how the science of history works; and in the process show how truth emerges through rational discourse. As Jefferson explained in his original draft of that greatest of all free speech documents, the Declaration of Independence:

And, finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

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