Whitewashing the past

by Kate Taylor

When Primo Levi wrote his acclaimed testimony chronicling the barbarity that he had experienced in Auschwitz, his motives were clear. If This Is A Man stood not only as a moving literary accomplishment, but also as a stark reminder to all in the past that we cannot forget, if a better future is to be attained. 'A new fascism, with its trail of intolerance, of abuse, and of servitude, can be born outside our country and be imported into it, walking on tiptoe and calling itself by other names - At that point, wise counsel no longer serves, and one must find the strength to resist. Even in this contingency, the memory of what happened in the heart of Europe, not very long ago, can serve as warning and support.' (Levi 1979: 396)

Entering the new century, we find ourselves facing a new threat. The Holocaust stands as one of the most significant events in living memory. But very soon, there will be few left to give testimony to the atrocities that were carried out in the name of Nazism. As collective memories fade, the task of those wishing to hijack history is made much easier. Accompanying a political swing to the right and the resurgence of neo-nazism in much of Europe is a growing number of people who claim that the Holocaust, as we understand it, did not happen.

There is no tool more powerful to those who wish to alter the past than the fading of memory. But denial of the Holocaust is not simply an anomalous position that lends itself to exonerating the past. It is a further prop that holds together the age-old myth of an international Jewish conspiracy. For far-right groups that hold antisemitism at the core of their world view, Holocaust denial is a crucial tool.

The far right in both Britain and mainland Europe has attempted to throw a cloak of respectability around its shoulders. But the neo-nazi label has always brought with it images of barbarity that were carried out in its name. The biggest obstacle in the way of political credibility for these groups is the image of the Holocaust and the swastika. The modernised, clean image that Austria's Freedom Party presents is an image that Nick Griffin's 'new' British National Party attempts to emulate. It is a position that seeks to distance far-right politics from the neo-nazi label. In order to shun this label, or to revive neo-nazism while removing its most unsavoury aspect, many groups are finding it necessary not to explain the Holocaust, but to explain it away.

As the late Ulster-born David McCalden, one of the founders of the Institute for Historical Review (IHR) - an American pseudo-academic organisation whose primary aim is to deny the Holocaust - has said: 'If we can take the Holocaust propaganda and put it away, then there will be an open, frank and free discussion on ethnic matters - If we can show that it didn't happen as they said it did, the Israelis won't have an excuse for depriving the Palestinians of their civil rights.' The IHR parades itself as an independent academic body, but the lie is given to that claim by the fact that another of its founders was Willis Carto, founder and leader of the viciously antisemitic and racist Liberty Lobby and propagator of the hate-sheet, Spotlight.

A distinction is commonly made between Holocaust deniers, who refute the Holocaust outright, and Holocaust revisionists, who question certain aspects of it. It must be noted from the outset that revisionism in itself is not inherently bad. Our understanding of the past has benefited much from revisionist works that challenge the orthodox view. Indeed not all revisionism in relation to the Holocaust is sinister in agenda and content. The most notable example in recent years is Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. The conclusions of this book have been heavily criticised, but it sought radically to alter the accepted view about the role of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust without placing menacing connotations on interpretations of the Holocaust.

In the words of E H Carr, in What is History? [1975], 'it does not follow that, because interpretation plays a necessary part in establishing the facts of history and because no existing interpretation is wholly objective, one interpretation is as good as another'. Not all revisionists are Holocaust deniers, but all those who revise fact are. What we see with most deniers is an attempt to match evidence with a preconceived conclusion, and an agenda that is often antisemitic and political in nature. What Deborah Lipstadt illustrates so clearly in Denying The Holocaust is that most revisionism in relation to the Holocaust is tantamount to denial when an agenda is sought. To revise the accepted view that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz, or to claim that the numbers that died were a vast exaggeration, is no less reprehensible than denial itself when the claims fly in the face of fact.

Indeed, it is this softer side of revisionism that perhaps poses the greater threat to the memories of those who fell victim to the Nazi regime. Those who seek to relativise or minimise the Holocaust are far more likely to be taken seriously than those who deny the Holocaust outright. By presenting themselves as serious academics and scholars, they begin to cast the seeds of doubt. For these people, the term revisionist is a term of respect, and is one that minimises their true agenda: the eradication of the truth at all costs, not as they would have us believe, the quest to find it.

Pierre Vidal-Naquet in his eloquent study, Assassins of Memory: Essays on the Denial of the Holocaust [1992], admits that the American revisionist bible, Arthur Butz's Hoax of the Twentieth Century [1976], has been alarmingly successful in the sense that it conveys an appearance of historical narrative and critical investigation. The book, claims Vidal-Naquet, has 'all the external features defining a work of history, except for what makes it of any value: truth'.


What is Holocaust denial?

Holocaust denial does not take the form of one overarching, coherent ideology, but takes a multitude of forms. There are those who claim the Holocaust did not happen because there was no single, systematic 'master plan' for the extermination of the Jews. David Irving has tried to show in his book Hitler's War that Adolf Hitler had little knowledge of the final solution, and thus the Holocaust was in no way systematic or planned from above.

A fairly common theme in denial literature is the rebuttal of the gas chamber as a site for mass extermination, particularly at Auschwitz. To deny the existence of gas chambers is to deny the core of the Holocaust. Most Holocaust deniers, including Paul Rassinier, Butz and Robert Faurisson, have subscribed to this notion. But the most notorious proponent of this thesis is Fred Leuchter. Leuchter is a self-styled 'scientific' expert on the gas chambers who concluded, after carrying out 'tests' on the site of Auschwitz, that they could not possibly have been used for killing millions of Jews. Despite the fact that Leuchter has no professional qualifications, Irving has himself admitted to being converted to the idea that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz after meeting him in 1988, when testifying at the trial of Ernst Zündel, one of the most vicious Holocaust deniers.

There are those who try to minimise the number of deaths that resulted from the Holocaust. Alongside this are the pernicious effects of relativism. In an attempt to downplay the systematic nature of the Holocaust, it is often argued that all wars produce casualties, and compared for instance to Stalinism or 'Jewish bolshevism', the Holocaust was in no way unique.

In some instances, the notion of 'Jewish Bolshevism' has been taken so far as to blame the Jews themselves for antisemitism. This notion, particularly, very neatly ties up two areas of far-right ideology: antisemitism and anti-communism. By linking Jews to communism, the antisemitic far right can further typecast them as inherently problematic people. McCalden, in his publication Exiles from History [1982], attempted to demonstrate this by condemning Marx and Trotsky by virtue of their Jewish roots. The contradictory aim of the booklet was to blame Jews for antisemitism, and yet also for the 'lie' of the Holocaust. Far from Holocaust deniers suffering from lack of reality, McCalden contends that, 'the denial of reality, the seeking of refuge from facts, is a phenomenon to be found throughout Jewish life and Jewish history'.

Holocaust denial is not new. As soon as the war had ended, there were those who attempted to deny the obvious and unambiguous, that the mass exterminations had taken place. One of the most important early revisionists was Paul Rassinier, a French historian. In his book entitled The Drama of the European Jews [1964], he attempted to minimise the numbers who had been killed. He claimed there was no Nazi policy of genocide against the Jews and put forward the thesis that no gassings took place. Rassinier, the acknowledged pioneer of the revisionist movement, is held to be a valuable figure by the far right, not simply for the antisemitic attitudes that infused much of his writings, nor merely for his claim to be one of the first revisionists. He is revered as a revisionist for his unique position as a Holocaust survivor, imprisoned in Buchenwald and Dora for his socialist beliefs. Rassinier's stature is quite remarkable. His opposing political views, coupled with the notion that his is the 'voice of experience', has lent much authority and mileage to the Holocaust denial espoused by the far right.

Rassinier greatly influenced Harry Elmer Barnes, one of the founders of US revisionism. Writing in the 1950s and 1960s, he too subscribed to the notion that the Holocaust was invented by Zionists to extort reparations from Germany and much of the West. Barnes was one of the main contributors to The Myth of Six Million, financed by Carto.


Far-righting history

But it was not until the early 1970s that revisionism as a political tool really took off. Perhaps the most notable examples can be found in the work of Richard Verrall, a leading member of the National Front and author of the booklet Did Six Million Really Die? This publication started a proliferation of material attempting to challenge the Holocaust as an historical fact. Under the subtitle Historical Fact No 1, Verrall also produced Six Million Lost and Found, in which the Holocaust was portrayed as a Zionist plot to arouse sympathy and extract large reparations for the state of Israel. Other members of the British far right have used the concept of Holocaust denial to advance their antisemitic ideology. Michael McLaughlin, formerly the leader of the extreme nazi British Movement, produced Historical Fact No 3 - For Those Who Cannot Speak, in which, like Irving, he advanced the view that the Allied war crimes were just as serious, if not more so, than German war crimes.

Antisemitism is the glue that holds together the world view of the British National Party, now headed by Griffin. This is illustrated nowhere more clearly than in Griffin's own booklet, Who are the Mindbenders? In it Griffin subscribes to the notion of an international Jewish conspiracy, but to give his party an image of respectability, he has also attempted to downplay the Holocaust. In one issue of his publication, The Rune, Griffin launches a vicious attack on Irving for playing the 'numbers game'. Labelling it the 'Holohoax', Griffin writes: 'I am well aware that the orthodox opinion is that 6 million Jews were gassed and cremated - Orthodox opinion also once held that the earth is flat - I have reached the conclusion that the 'extermination' tale is a mixture of Allied wartime propaganda, extremely profitable lie, and latter witch hysteria.'

Again, Griffin sees the Holocaust as a lie propagated by Jews to make money: 'As your Hollywood friend is fond of remarking, 'there's no business like Shoah business'.'

For these antisemitic statements denying the Holocaust, Griffin received a two-year suspended jail sentence for inciting racial hatred.


'The Jewish problem'

Fascists refer endlessly, yet ambiguously, to 'the Jewish problem'. The myth of a Jewish conspiracy goes back centuries, but the idea really took hold in the twentieth century through the mass distribution of the notorious forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in the 1920s and 1930s. Printed by the antisemitic Tsarist regime in Russia, the book purports to be the minutes of a meeting of leading Jews across the world, in which they plan global domination. The book was widely distributed in the Nazi era. The historian Norman Cohn labelled it a 'warrant for genocide'. Many of the views propagated by Holocaust deniers can be traced back to The Protocols.

The theme that the Jews are in some way to blame for their own predicament has fed much of the Holocaust denial literature. Faurisson, a former professor of literature, is the main propagator of Holocaust denial in France. He continues this idea of a Jewish conspiracy to account for the 'myth' of the Holocaust: 'The alleged Hitlerian gas chambers and the alleged genocide of the Jews form one and the same historical lie, which permitted a gigantic financial swindle whose chief beneficiaries have been the state of Israel and international Zionism, and whose main victims have been the German people and the Palestinian people as a whole'.

Through this theme anti-Zionism is used to mask antisemitism. Ahmed Rami, through Radio Islam, Stockholm, is another major propagator of the theme of the financial swindle created by the state of Israel.

But work like this also contains the seeds to its own destruction. For at the heart of most denial literature is an inescapable paradox. On one level, deniers appear to be justifying the Holocaust by referring to the behaviour of the Jews themselves. Yet at the same time they claim it never happened. They offer an excuse for antisemitism and genocide, while not conceding that it was a reality.

Holocaust denial is part of the long historical literature that lends itself to the myth of a Jewish conspiracy. Rich or poor, communist or capitalist, religious or non-religious, the Jews have been vilified. Holocaust denial leaves intact the stereotype of the deceitful, dishonest, powerful Jew, and no doubt this is why it is so important to the antisemitic far right.

As Griffin wrote in Spearhead, the magazine published by the former leader of the BNP, 'Some 'antisemitism' may be provoked by the actions of certain Jews themselves, and thereby have a rational basis'. Yet he too fails to recognise the Holocaust as a reality. In a leaflet distributed by the BNP entitled Holocaust News, the headline screams ''Holocaust' Story an Evil Hoax'. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the Front National in France, has also picked up on the ideas of Holocaust denial, particularly the work of Faurisson, and once referred to the Holocaust as a mere 'detail' in history.

Faurisson's Mémoire en Defense brought with it more controversy than almost any other revisionist text, not just for its denial of the Holocaust and its antisemitic basis, but for the notorious foreword that lent the work authority in its impassioned plea for free speech by an acclaimed writer. This defence of Faurisson was penned not by a right-wing extremist or fellow Holocaust denier but by Noam Chomsky, the acclaimed left-leaning American linguistics professor. For Faurisson and his peers this was an extraordinary coup, turning their futile arguments into a legitimate opposing view. They were lent the dignity of being allowed to represent 'another' side to the Holocaust 'debate'. By defending Faurisson's right to free speech no matter what his views, Chomsky had, in the view of Gill Seidel [1985], 'guaranteed Faurisson a measure of authority and a following largely, of course, on the fascist right, but also among some sections of the anti-imperialist, anarchist left'.

Academic trends may lend legitimacy to the arguments used by Holocaust deniers. As the assault on history, reason and rationality began to set into academia under the name of postmodernism, it became reasonable to question anything. When, in 1991, the French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard wrote an essay entitled 'The Gulf War did not happen', using arguments very similar to those propagated by Holocaust deniers, the floodgates opened for similar works questioning the unquestionable. The challenge to rationality and grand narratives heralded a new kind of irrationality whereby anything was possible, even the impossible.

More and more, Holocaust denial is becoming academic. When those claiming to be serious academics, such as Irving, attempt to give mainstream legitimacy to such destructive ideologies, we cannot ignore the threat. The more academic the denial is in appearance, the more dangerous the rhetoric becomes. This assault on history is evident in a speech Irving made while in Portland, Oregon: 'It [the Holocaust] is something like a religion - The intellectual adventure is that we are reversing this entire trend within the space of one generation - that in a few years time, no one will believe that particular legend any more'.

What has been labelled 'the Holocaust industry' has taken on an increasing significance in recent times. It is a notion that has been used as further ammunition against Jews. It is not necessarily the facts of the Holocaust that are contested, but the reactions of the Jewish community to it. The idea of a 'Holocaust industry' is a mythical notion that merely serves to perpetuate the stereotype of the greedy, money-making Jew who is obsessed with the Holocaust, primarily for financial gain. This approach does not in itself deny the Holocaust, but it opens the door for those who do to further vilify the Jews for their perceived behaviour. In some instances the Jewish 'Holocaust industry' has been blamed for provoking antisemitism. Memory of the Holocaust, it is claimed, has been manufactured to extort money and sympathy from the West for Israel. One of the main propagators of this view is Norman Finkelstein, author of the forthcoming Holocaust Industry, whose anti-Zionism is used as an ideological tool to criticise Jewish reactions to the Holocaust. On one level, propagators of this thesis can downplay the Holocaust by denying that it was in any way unique. Yet at the same time they put forward ideas that can be interpreted by some as a justification for antisemitism. A door is opened for those wishing to feed off such notions to disseminate antisemitism and further to downgrade Jewish experiences of the Holocaust.

Of course there will always be those, such as the neo-nazi White Aryan Resistance in America, who proclaim 'the truth is, if ONLY one Jew was gassed, then that indeed would be the great tragedy'. But for those on the far right who seek political success through the electoral system, questioning the past is the greatest tactic for revival in the future.

The importance of the Holocaust is the lesson that it holds for the whole of humanity. If we allow deniers to weaken memory, then similarly, they will also weaken history. Inscribed on the memorial of Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish Marxist writer who committed suicide while fleeing the Nazis in 1940, is an epitaph reminding us of the true purpose of history: 'Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless'. When the far right uses the concept of Holocaust denial, it is not trying to rewrite history, it is trying to annihilate it.