Historical Revisionism and Worldwide Conspiracy: Techniques and Agendas of Three Holocaust Deniers
Writer’s comment: Having been recently introduced to the new field of history and memory, I seem to have applied the approaches of this field to just about everything. My term paper for Dr. Vogt’s course,Why the Holocaust? (HIS 142), is no exception. Although I intended to write about survivors’ memories of the Holocaust, I found myself pursuing something more controversial, and perhaps even more frightening. The following essay is not meant to give undue intellectual credibility to deniers of the Holocaust, but to examine one of many techniques with which they can distort the reality of a well-documented tragedy.
Instructor’s comment: History 142 (Why the Holocaust?) is an upper division course that analyzes the genocide of European Jews during the Second World War. The students were given the opportunity to write a research paper on a topic developed in consultation with the instructor. In the following essay, Erica Spinelli tackles one of the most troubling aspects of the legacy of the Holocaust: the continuing existence of a well-organized and vocal group that denies the Holocaust actually occurred. As her paper shows, those who seek to deny the Holocaust attempt to cover their fascist and antisemitic motivations with a veneer of legitimate historical revisionism. With its solid research and insightful analysis, her paper uncovers both the faulty reasoning of the leading deniers and the hypocrisy of their claims to objectivity.
—Timothy Vogt, History Department
Coming to terms with the culturally constructed nature of history, academic historians in the last decades have embraced two growing subgenres: historical revisionism, which has advocated the reassessment of standard historical narratives, and history and memory studies, in which historians have tried to understand how history is remembered in light of needs and agendas in the present. As academic historians have incorporated these techniques into more of their work, the theorists of “Holocaust Revisionism” (as they call themselves) or “Holocaust deniers” (as professionals in Holocaust studies refer to them) have co-opted the historian’s tools to spread the erroneous belief that there was no systematic Nazi policy to exterminate the Jews. In the perspective of Holocaust deniers such as Paul Rassinier, Dr. Arthur Butz, and Greg Raven, their modification of history in regard to present needs is necessary revisionism, yet when believers in the Holocaust similarly seem to shape their histories in regard to their present agendas, these same historians call it evidence of a mass Zionist conspiracy.
Although “each professional denier has developed an expertise” in the tactics he uses to deny the Holocaust (some dispute the six million death toll, whereas others deny the existence of the gas chambers), Holocaust deniers generally agree that there was no systematic policy of extermination carried out by the Nazis on the Jews.1 As with their varying tactics, individual Holocaust deniers may also have different motives behind their attempts to disprove the historical reality of the Holocaust. As Pierre Vidal-Naquet asserts, “The various components of [Holocaust denial] can be easily discerned: German nationalism, neo-Nazism, anticommunism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism. These ingredients are to be found in differing forms and proportions, depending on the author.”2
Despite such differences among them, Holocaust deniers, in addition to asserting that the Holocaust never occurred, also share a common reliance upon historical revisionism. In order to legitimize their reassessment, or more properly, distortion, of facts and documents in the historical canon, Holocaust deniers often claim to be the ideological descendants of post-World World I revisionists who argued that Germany was not solely responsible for the start of WWI.3 In claiming such a tie to revisionism, deniers also align themselves with the newer school of revisionism that aims to supplement canonical history with the voices of women and diverse ethnic groups. By “claiming the mantle” of these two incarnations of a legitimate historical approach and “denying they have any objective other than the dissemination of truth,” deniers have attempted “to acquire an intellectual credibility that would otherwise elude them,” as Deborah Lipstadt argues.4
The most overt example of the deniers’ attempts to align themselves with revisionism is the title of a collection of Paul Rassinier’s works. Debunking the Genocide Myth is clearly an allusion to a 1928 WWI revisionist work, Harry Elmer Barnes’ In Quest of Truth and Justice: De-bunking the War Guilt Myth. Rassinier attempted to gain legitimacy not only through this tie to revisionism, but also through his claim that he merely sought to “bring people back to a sense of objectivity and, at the same time, to a better conception of intellectual honesty.”5 Rassinier’s single stated motive to disseminate the truth appears pure in light of his background as a member of the French resistance and inmate at a concentration camp. These roles would logically embitter him against the Nazis, yet he “one day . . . realized that a false picture of the German camps had been created” and, as his story goes, he sought to expose inaccuracies to bring history more in line with the truth.6 Despite such claims to objectivity, Rassinier’s arguments, so overtly shaped by his political agenda, betray him.
As Michael Kammen, a central figure in the study of history and memory, asserts, “In recent years we have come to understand that instant and invented traditions fulfill needs that may be social, political, cultural, ideological, or any combination thereof.”7 Indeed to some extent, all people (even professional historians) revise and create history in terms of conscious and unconscious needs in the present, yet Rassinier, like Butz and Raven, has made a political tool out of the alteration of memory. In many of his works, Rassinier created a double standard in which he defined his politically-employed arguments as mere revisionism in the pursuit of truth even as he simultaneously defined survivor literature and eyewitness testimony as conspiratorial pursuits of political agendas.
In the wake of the Nuremberg Trial, which in some respects was the ultimate discrediting of national socialism, Rassinier began his “prolific publishing career, the bulk of which was devoted to vindicating the Nazis by proving that atrocity accusations against them were inflated and unfair.”8 Rassinier utilized a popular technique to rehabilitate the Germans as he argued that the concentration camps (the worst of German crimes in his mind because systematic murder never occurred) were equivalent to the war-time conduct of the Allies. He claimed, “The behavior of the Allies during their occupation of Germany was so generally atrocious that it has been a subject that most liberal apologists for the American participation in WWII would like to forget, especially when moralizing about the crimes and the shortcomings of Germans.”9 In The Crossing of the Line (1950), Rassinier again attempted to rehabilitate the Nazi regime in the embarrassing years after Nuremberg by demonstrating the regime’s good intentions and subsequent betrayal by the inmates. He claimed, “When the Nationalist Socialists came to power, they decided, in a gesture of compassion, to put all of their adversaries in a place where they could be protected from public anger.” But, as Rassinier argued, “Nationalist Socialism was taken over by events and, particularly, its agents, . . . the former unemployed illiterates . . . who were selected from among us [the inmates].”10
Despite the influence of the Nuremberg Tribunal on his own rhetoric, as demonstrated in his timely assertions that the inmates running the concentration camps betrayed the Reich, Rassinier also accused inmates of falsifying stories of their experiences because of their own personal agendas in the present. In his writings following Nuremberg, Rassinier claimed that inmates of the camps had conspired to “wantonly create a story of horror” in which each of them paralleled Ulysses who “each day added a new adventure to his Odyssey, as much to please the public taste of the times as to justify his long absence in the eyes of his family.”11 Rassinier thus described his perceptions of conspiracy theory in which Holocaust survivors took their cue from personal needs and the “taste of the times,” yet Rassinier did not directly link his conspiracy theories to Zionist agendas until the social and political climate necessitated it. Ironically, and hypocritically, Rassinier posited these early arguments amidst burgeoning concentration camp literature and eyewitness testimony by discrediting all such testimony because its purveyors were supposedly doing exactly what he was: shaping the past through the eyes of the present.
As Rassinier continued in his attempts to rehabilitate the Reich and to counter the testimony of eyewitnesses, he supplemented his earlier conspiracy theory in light of the political and intellectual context of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1951, the government of the newly created state of Israel requested reparations from Germany for the cost of the resettlement of Jews displaced by the Reich. A decade later, in 1961, Raul Hilberg published his multi-volume work, The Destruction of the European Jews, which deniers refer to as the “most systematic presentation of the Exterminationist case ever made.”12 With Hilberg’s challenge to Rassinier’s assertions that there was no intentional destruction of the Jews, and within the continuing context of German reparations to a Jewish state, the door stood open for Rassinier to link the two.
Rassinier claimed that Hilberg wrote his book out of his political need to define a past in which the Holocaust occurred and which would justify German reparations paid to Israel. As Rassinier explained,
Not only did Rassinier assert that Hilberg’s Destruction of European Jews was intended to shape the past in a way that would legitimize Israeli requests for aid, but Rassinier also claimed that Hilberg sacrificed accuracy to fulfill this Zionist agenda. In his view, Hilberg did “not seem to find it necessary to read anything more than what comes from the prophets and the political friends.”14
As such, Rassinier again raised the specter of conspiracy and labeled it a Zionist conspiracy by arguing that Hilberg was listening to political friends and shaping the past in terms of Israel’s dilemmas in the present. From this assertion, Rassinier developed the next logical step: Hilberg’s arguments about the reality of the Holocaust were thus unreliable due to his political bias. By Rassinier’s logic here, his own view of the past, as colored by his desire to defend national socialism and to buttress his denialist claims against Hilberg’s documentation, would also be unreliable due to his own political bias. In contrast, however, Rassinier defined his shaping of the past in light of the present as necessary and objective revisionism by a “specialist”:
Rassinier’s double standard is clear: there is a “Zionist line” and then there is revisionism by a “specialist.”
Although Dr. Arthur Butz’s career as a Holocaust denier was not long enough for him to modify his arguments in light of multiple historical contexts as did Rassinier, Butz similarly shaped The Hoax of the Twentieth Century (1976) around revisionism, the context of his time, and the theory that the evidence supporting the existence of the Holocaust was itself politically motivated, and thus of questionable reliability. Dr. Butz, an Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at Northwestern University, anticipated criticism that his scientific background did not qualify him to write about historical issues and thus justified his work in his forward to The Hoax of the Twentieth Century. Butz explained, “If a ‘scholar,’ regardless of his specialty perceives that scholarship is acquiescing, from whatever motivation, in a monstrous lie, then it is his duty to expose that lie, whatever his qualifications.”16
This revisionist stance in which Butz claimed to be a qualified scholar objectively correcting history was particularly important to him given the sociopolitical context in which he was writing. Because Holocaust denial in the United States “had little currency except in anti-Semitic publications and with extremist racist and anti-Semitic groups” from the 1950s (when denial reached the United States) to the 1970s, Butz needed a technique in this context that could grant him extra credibility. As such, his reliance on revisionism and emphasis on his doctoral degree gave him an aura of credibility as he additionally applied “a veneer of scholarship” to his work by including the trappings of scholarly writing such as “source notes, long quotations, references to reputable scholarly books and a bibliography” in his book.17
Once he had established this semblance of scholarly objectivity, Butz attempted to establish the existence of a classical Jewish conspiracy, and thus the non-existence of the Holocaust, with evidence from the political situation he encountered in his present. He outlined how American aid for Israel in the “aftermath of the Yom Kippur War of 1973” was “completely contrary to the interests of the West,” who themselves believed that Israel’s land was rightly Arab land.18 With such an assertion, Butz argued that the United States supported Israel not for its own interests but because of the “six million legend,” a fabrication Butz claimed was the “justification that the Zionists invariably” gave to the Americans with requests for aid.19
In this way, Butz could further his own political desires to end American aid and German reparations to Israel by asserting that the Holocaust was fabricated to justify such financial assistance. After arguing to his liking against the existence of the Holocaust, Butz claimed in his conclusion that “Israel owes Germany a lot of money, since the proposed justification for the reparations has been invalidated.”20 In this confusing manner, Butz conflated his Holocaust denial with his assertions about a Zionist hoax and used each to reinforce the other with circular reasoning: the Holocaust did not occur and thus theories about its existence are mere Zionist ploys for financial assistance, but the existence of the Zionist ploy for gaining reparations also confirms the existence of a conspiracy against the truth and, consequently, the mythical nature of the Holocaust.
What is fairly certain, despite Butz’s games with reality, is that his view of the past was tied up in his views of the present. As his modifications of history in regard to Israel’s contemporary political and financial context was merely revisionism to relieve the “pressure of intellectual conformity” that “paralyzed historians” when he engaged in the practice, it was simultaneously a “Zionist hoax” when Israel and the West relied upon the past suffering of the Holocaust to justify and continue German reparations and U.S. military and financial aid in the present.21 Like Rassinier, Butz theorized about a Zionist conspiracy, except Butz even implicates others in the Zionist hoax: “The media in the Western democracies are exposed as constituting a lie machine of vaster extent than even many of the most independent-minded have perceived.”22
Much as Butz attempts to confirm the existence of a worldwide Zionist conspiracy from his scholarly perch supposedly buttressed by revisionism, so too does the Director of the Institute for Historical Review, an association of Holocaust denial writers and theorists that publishes denialist pamphlets, books, and the Journal for Historical Review. Although the Director, Greg Raven, maintains an Internet web page that he claims is not supported by the IHR, with his personal comments and Internet links to the mission statement of the IHR and to the index of the Journal for Historical Review, one can gain insight into both his views and the views of the IHR by visiting this site. Much like Rassinier and Butz, Raven attempts to forge a connection between his organization and revisionist traditions.
In addition to the obvious link embedded in the organization’s name, Raven also explains in decidedly revisionist terms the belief that motivates the IHR, “As more facts about past events come to light, it becomes necessary to reevaluate them taking the new information into account. All history is constantly being reviewed. It is a natural process. It is an important process.”23 In addition to relying upon this revisionist stance and to making the indexes of the IHR’s seemingly scholarly journal available in a link from his web page, Raven also attempts to claim legitimacy for the IHR by aligning the organization with academia. He asserts that “libraries of leading universities and academic centers around the world” subscribe to IHR publications and that “more than 20 distinguished historians, educators and other scholars are members of the Journal’s Editorial Advisory Committee.”24
Just as Raven uses tactics similar to those of Rassinier and Butz to claim legitimacy for himself and his organization through revisionism and credible scholarship, he bases his arguments upon his political context, as did the other two denialist writers. In his Internet link to the IHR Mission Statement and in language that duplicates the aims of legitimate revisionism, Raven describes how he, along with other members of the IHR, engages in this process. According to Raven, he and the IHR aim “to separate historical fact from propaganda fiction by researching and publicizing suppressed facts about key chapters of history, especially twentieth-century history, that have social-political relevance today.”25 Despite his language condoning the modification of history when it has current “social-political relevance” and is carried out by the IHR, Raven, like Rassinier and Butz, also demonstrates Israel’s political agenda in order to support his claims of a Zionist conspiracy.
As Raven outlines in his Holocaust Revisionism: Frequently Asked Questions section on his web page, “Without the Holocaust, there is no demonstrated need for a Jewish state. The Israeli government therefore considers any questioning of the Holocaust to be a questioning of Israel’s right to exist.” With such comments, Raven implicitly argues that the Israeli government, and by extension all those who support the existence of a Jewish state, are perpetuating what he calls the “Holocaust story” because they require such a myth to preserve Israel. Although Raven is not as explicit in his accusations of Zionist hoaxes as were Rassinier and Butz, he does insinuate that the Israeli government is complicit in the perpetuation of myth and in the abridgment of freedoms of speech: “It [the Israeli government] passed a law in the early 1980s making questioning, or minimizing the Holocaust a crime punishable by a sentence of five years in prison—a sentence more severe than the one in Israeli law for questioning God’s existence.”26
He furthers this implicit argument about a Zionist conspiracy with an Internet link from his web page to an article, “Studies Suggest False Memories Can Be Ingrained,” from the Orange County Register. Raven implies that people’s memories of the Holocaust are, like the myths of the Israeli government, of questionable reliability: “Given a few bogus details and a little prodding, about a quarter of adults can be convinced they remember childhood adventures that never happened.”27 By publicizing Israeli agendas and presumably casting doubt on the accuracy of Holocaust survivors’ memories, Raven thus follows in the denialist traditions of Rassinier and Butz, who speak of revisionism when they rewrite history for political relevance but cry controversy when the Israelis or eyewitnesses substantiate the historical reality of the Holocaust.
From a strictly academic point of view, there does not seem to be anything inherently wrong with the deniers’ intellectual exercise of denying the Holocaust with double standards. However, the deceptive double standards of revisionism and conspiracy as created and perpetuated by Rassinier, Butz, and Raven have, as Lipstadt argues of Holocaust denial in general, “demonstrated the fragility of memory, truth, reason, and history.”28 By carving out this psychological space in which the reality of the Holocaust becomes arguable, deniers have developed an arena in which they can further their anti-Semitism in the vein of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. As such, they have developed and perpetuated worldwide Zionist conspiracy theories under the guise of legitimate historical revisionism.29 Not only do the deniers’ double standards allow room for anti-Semitism, but as Vidal-Naquet argues of Holocaust denial, the intellectual framework developed by deniers “is a question of depriving, ideologically, a community of what represents its historical memory.”30 Most disconcerting about the ironic hypocrisy of the deniers’ double standards is that Rassinier, Butz, and Raven have created those paradigms with the academic historian’s analytical tools and techniques. The very methods of historical revisionism and history and memory studies designed to preserve and record historical memory have thus been co-opted to deprive a group of their common memory and to place reality in flux for the rest of us. Perhaps that is one of the greatest “conspiracies” of all.
1 Kenneth S. Stern, Holocaust Denial (New York: American Jewish Committee, 1993), 8-9.
2 Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Assassins of Memory: Essays on the Denial of the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 20.
3 Deborah E. Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993), 20.
4 Lipstadt, 20.
5 Paul Rassinier, Debunking the Genocide Myth: a Study of Concentration Camps and the Alleged Extermination of European Jewry (USA: Institute for Historical Review, 1978), 109.
6 Rassinier, 109.
7 Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: the Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 99.
8 Lipstadt, Denying, 53.
9 Rassinier, Debunking, 287.
10 Rassinier, 36-37.
11 Rassinier, 112.
12 Rassinier, back cover.
13 Rassinier, Debunking, 214.
14 Rassinier, 224.
15 Rassinier, 399.
16 A.R. Butz, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century (Richmond: Historical Review Press, 1976), 8.
17 David S. Wyman, ed., The World Reacts to the Holocaust (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1996), 736-7.
18 Butz, Hoax, 249.
19 Butz, 249.
20 Butz, 250.
21 Butz, 250.
22 Butz, 249.
23 Greg Raven, Holocaust Revisionism: Frequently Asked Questions. Cited on May 24, 1997. Available: http://www. kaiwan.com/~ihrgreg/misc/faq.html.
24 Raven, Frequently Asked Questions.
25 Raven, Record and Mission of the Institute for Historical Review. Cited on May 23, 1997. Available: http://www. kaiwan.com/~ihrgreg/pamphlets/v15n5p18_Staff.html.
26 Raven, Frequently Asked Questions.
27 Daniel Q. Haney, “Studies Suggest False Memories Can Be Ingrained,” Orange County Register, 16 February 1997, News section, p. 27. Cited May 23, 1997. Available at: http://www.kaiwan.com/~ihrgreg/misc/970216ocr.html.
28 Lipstadt, Denying, 206.
29 Wyman, World Reacts, 736-7.
30 Vidal-Naquet, Assassins of Memory, 20.