April 16, 2009
Denying the Deniers
Q&A With Deborah Lipstadt
This month marks nine years since Holocaust denier David Irving lost his libel suit against historian and scholar Deborah Lipstadt, who chronicled her battle against him in the book, “History on Trial: My Day in Court With David Irving” (HarperCollins, 2005). Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, has just unveiled the translations of the popular “Myths & Facts” sheets, which help refute deniers with historical evidence, in Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and Russian.
On this Holocaust Remembrance Day — 70 years since the start of World War II — Lipstadt discusses with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency the changing face of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, how the next generation of Jews relates to the Holocaust and the role it should play in forging Jewish identity, and why Hollywood loves her story.
Deborah Lipstadt: After the lawsuit I didn’t change in any way, what I have to say didn’t change in any way, but people give me more credence and listen more carefully to what I have to say. I went head-to-head with the world’s leading Holocaust denier, and thanks to terrific lawyers and a terrific research team and the support of lots of people, we were able to expose the lies and distortions in which he engages — and by extension all Holocaust deniers, [who] either make up the lies or repeat the lies.
Have we solved the problems of Holocaust denial? Of course not. We did provide precise explanations by following their footnotes. By tracking their sources we proved that what they said are lies and inventions. We didn’t prove what happened, we proved that what they say happened did not happen.
DL: There’s a difference. I wasn’t proving how many people were murdered at Auschwitz. But when they say only 68,000 people were killed — it didn’t happen. We weren’t proving how many people were killed — we were showing that their contentions are based on lies, distortions and inventions and there’s nothing to what they say.
DL: The first way is to see if the facts prove the case — but you might have to be more of a specialist to do this: If they say ‘At this meeting Hitler said X, Y and Z,’ you can go and check if they changed the date or a fact — and suddenly their point is not a point. The second way is by citing the facts: If they say, ‘How do we know there were gas chambers?’ you can say, ‘Let me show you the German plans for gas chambers.’ The third way is deductive reasoning or logic. Deniers will say that the very fact that there are so many survivors proves that the Holocaust never happened, because the Germans were so powerful and so efficient that if they wanted to kill the Jews, they would have killed the Jews. How do you counter that? [You say], ‘The Germans wanted to win the war, the Germans wanted to defeat Moscow’ but they didn’t — this claim that the Germans were so all-powerful, we know this is not true, it makes no sense. But I don’t bother to answer deniers. Just the people who might be influenced by them.
Q: Why don’t you fight deniers?
DL: It’s like trying to convince a committed anti-Semite that not all Jews are rich or conniving. It all starts from an illogical premise. Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism [are] prejudice. Think about the etymology: pre-judge. Don’t confuse me with the facts, I’ve made up my mind. So if you try to argue with a person who is committed to a completely illogical premise, then you’re lost to begin with — you’re already sucked into their world of fantasy.
DL: I see the evolution of Holocaust denial — there is what I call ‘soft-core denial.’ Hard-core denial is David Irving or Bishop [Richard] Williamson. Soft-core is more slippery. It’s ‘Why do we have to hear so much about the Holocaust?’ or saying, ‘the genocide of the Palestinians.’ Soft-core denial is not denying the facts, but either inverting it so the victims become the perpetrators — ‘Why did the Germans hate the Jews? Because they Jews were rich and conniving’ — as if to say they deserved it. It’s justifying it. Soft-core denial is also making a false comparison, and that dilutes what the Holocaust was. It’s a much more slippery kind of manifestation, but it’s very much there.
DL: It’s much harder. You have to go back and zero in on what it is — you can say, ‘Look, you might disagree with Israel’s policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians or that they should not have gone into Gaza, but to call this a genocide is to deny what a genocide is.’ They are not denying the Holocaust but they are making a false comparison, which elevates by a factor of a zillion any wrongdoings Israel might have done, and lessens by a factor of a zillion what the Germans did. And that’s not to defend everything Israel does, but you can’t call it a Holocaust unless you want to distort what the Holocaust is. When you begin to use the Nazi term and you begin to compare Israeli soldiers — who are not angels and sometimes do awful things for which they should be criticized and punished — that’s different than genocide. The Holocaust was state-sponsored. It came from Berlin, and Berlin worked to make sure that every Jew on which it could lay its hands would be killed. In no way can you compare what’s going on in the Middle East to that. Even if you have the extreme belief that there should be no State of Israel, to make the argument that Israel is committing genocide is a complete fabrication and a worm of soft-core denial.
DL: Holocaust denial is rising. I’m not going to yell, ‘The sky is falling.’ It is increasing. In part because of the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel [feelings], like you’ve seen ‘Sharon=Nazi,’ ‘Bush=Nazi.’ And because of anti-globalization forces, and because Israel is so close to America. Accusing Jews of atrocities is a very convenient way of engaging in anti-Semitism. It becomes a vehicle for anti-Semitism.
DL: I just gave a seminar to the executive staff of the Holocaust museum on this subject. In the last few years, since Durban [the 2001 U.N. conference against racism], it has escalated, although it began long before that. There is a level of attacks that hasn’t been seen before. I am more concerned now than I have been in a long time, but I am not yelling ‘gevalt’ or yelling ‘head for the barricades’ or ‘the sky is falling.’
DL: After my trial, Emory University felt there should be a digitized Internet access archive of the trial — it had the judgment, the appeal and everything. Over the course of time, we felt it was being used by a lot of lawyers, students, international agencies bringing cases against Holocaust deniers — but it was not easily accessible to a person on the street who has to respond to a Holocaust denier. It’s putting content in the hands of people who don’t know how to respond to Holocaust denier material — particularly sophisticated material. And then we realized in places like Iran, Russia and Turkey, there was an absence of a narrative to counter the charges. In America, there are a thousand sources you can use to answer a denier, but if you hear it in Egypt, that’s what you think is the truth because there’s no basic books on the Holocaust in the Arab- and Russian-speaking world. Eventually, we want to publish in Spanish — there’s a lot of denial in South America and Latin America.
DL: What the Internet has done is put a lot of unfiltered information out there, and by so doing it makes it harder for people to differentiate what is legitimate information and what is not; what is fact and what is fiction. The Internet is a wonderful thing — it allows us to spread information in a way we never did before. But it puts out a lot of lies and it’s easy access for people. Someone wrote to me that his son Googled ‘Jews, Soap and the Holocaust’ and the first four sites were Holocaust denial sites. This is a myth. Jews were not made into soap. It never happened — there might have been experiments. Deniers say, ‘This is another lie that Jews made up.’ That’s why I’m such a stickler and I get so upset and worried when you have people making up Holocaust memoirs like ‘Angel at the Fence.’ It’s fodder for the deniers. The deniers then say, ‘Here’s another example of a Jew being a denier. How can you believe “Night” [by Elie Wiesel] or “The Diary of Anne Frank” — it’s all lies.”’
DL: We grew up knowing survivors. We took it for granted. But they’re getting older, and they may have passed away. Those who were in the camps are few and far between. When I first started teaching my course on the Holocaust, I could choose between the survivors. Now it’s getting harder and harder.
DL: When I hear someone say, ‘I studied the Holocaust in the fourth grade,’ I get nervous. It’s too young to understand! That’s a mistake. The Holocaust is much more de rigueur today. When we were growing up, no one studied it. There’s a Hebrew phrase [that means] ‘You tried to grab too much, you didn’t grab anything at all.’ We make too easy references and too easy comparisons to the Holocaust. I get very disturbed when people say, ‘Isn’t what’s going on right now, like 1939 in Europe?’ and I say ‘No, that’s ridiculous.’ But people often will make that statement. What’s going on now is bad. But it’s not a Holocaust, it’s not 1939. Jews in most places are living quite securely, but there are enough developments on the scene that there’s a cause for concern. I’m not saying things are good, but let’s think strategically instead of overreacting and not thinking smart.
Q: How does the Holocaust and anti-Semitism play a part in Jewish identity?
DL: I think we have to be very careful not to build Jewish identity on ‘oys,’ but on joys. We can’t build Jewish identity by saying, ‘Everyone hates the Jews’ — that’s a lousy reason to motivate Jewish identity. That’s why when you say to people, ‘Israel is under attack, so you should support it,’ it’s a very negative way to build a connection to Judaism. Support Israel because it’s a Jewish homeland, because it’s an amazing country. And it needs your support because it’s under attack.
DL: I would teach about the Holocaust. I would never say, ‘Be strong in your Jewish identity because of the Holocaust,’ that’s a terrible message to teach a younger person. Be strong in your culture because of the amazing things that Jewish culture and heritage and tradition represent. And because it’s yours — not because everyone wanted to destroy us. Because it has given so much to the world, it has so much to teach, it has so much value to it. That’s why you should identify — not because of, but despite. I remember many years ago someone once said to me, ‘It’s so important that we have a Holocaust museum just to show deniers.’ Wrong. It’s important to have a Holocaust museum not because of the Holocaust deniers, but to teach about the event.
DL: Producers at Sony Pictures were taken by the story of this trial. They think it’s important historically and [telling] the story of standing up against what they see as a struggle against an effort to twist history and spread hatred.
DL: I’m writing a series for Nextbook on the impact of the Eichmann trial 50 years later , and I’m also doing another book on Holocaust denial in the 21st century. In my first book [“Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory” (Plume, 1994)] there was no Internet to address, we didn’t have the rise of Holocaust denial in the Arab-Muslim world. We didn’t have all these Holocaust denier trials. We didn’t have soft-core denial. If you had told me way back when I wrote my first book that I would have been writing a second book, I would have said, ‘These people are like flat-earthers.’ I would have said, ‘They’re not important.’ I’ve come to see that they’re not important, but they can do significant damage.