Reading the definitive book on Holocaust Denial 25 Years Later
In 1993 a relatively unknown historian, Deborah Lipstadt, published Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, to little notice outside of the field of Holocaust studies. She initially thought that there wouldn’t be enough material to put together a whole book, and even after successfully doing so she never thought that she would become the public face of the movement to challenge Holocaust Deniers. But this would change after one particular Holocaust Denier, David Irving, discovered her book and her less than flattering portrayal of him, and would eventually sue her for libel in the UK, forcing Lipstadt and Penguin to justify their description of him as a racist, anti-Semitic, holocaust denier. The trial would make both Lipstadt and her book famous, but you don’t hear much about the book itself anymore. The legal drama around it became the focus. Considering the book and legal battle occurred back when I was too young to notice it, and my utter surprise that there hasn’t been a 25th anniversary edition released, I decided to finally read the book myself, and see what all the hoopla was about.
Ok, so what exactly is the book about? Well, Holocaust Denial, but its not covering what you might assume a book on the subject would be. Most books, articles, and documentaries you find about Holocaust Denial focus on the arguments used by Deniers, and then debunk them. The primary function of these works is to equip people with the necessary information to debate Holocaust Deniers (something that Lipstadt doesn’t do, and advises others not to). Instead, Lipstadt decides to focus on the history and evolution of Denial, all the while warning about the things that inadvertently give Holocaust Deniers more publicity. If you’re looking for something that debunks Holocaust Deniers this isn’t the book you’re looking for. However if it wasn’t for this book and the huge boost in attention that Holocaust Denial received from the trial with David Irving, those other works probably wouldn’t exist. So this book, I believe, is an invaluable piece in your arsenal for debunking Deniers, because even abhorrent ideas have a history of their own. They don’t just come out of the ether.
Lipstadt traces the origins of Holocaust Denial to the WW1 revisionists, those who didn’t agree with the consensus that Germany was solely responsible for the war. They also like to point to allied propaganda during the war that either exaggerated, or outright fabricated atrocities. These pro-German/anti-Allies arguments would form the genesis of the anti-war movement in WW2. The second war saw numerous atrocities publicized, which resulted in numerous revisionists from the previous war questioning the veracity of the reports, considering how many false ones accumulated from the previous war. Even after the war when footage of the concentration camps made it back to the home front many had a hard time believing such a thing could or would have been done. The more extreme revisionists began to justify or minimize the Holocaust, but never denied it. But from the true revisionists, the Deniers would be born, refusing to believe the evidence and the accounts of survivors. From there Lipstadt traces the evolution of Holocaust Deniers through the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.
The first Deniers were ardently anti-Semitic and openly associated with Neo-Nazis. Their writings are not expansive, and are mostly limited to pamphlets such as Did Six Million Really Die? and The Myth of the Six Million. Even when Holocaust Denial found its way into full length books it was never the main topic, but rather a small part of a bigger attempt to rehabilitate the Nazis and Hitler. The 1970s saw a book with proper scholarly formatting that was fully dedicated to Holocaust Denial in 1976 with The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, by Arthur Butz. It was the first Denial text to go mainstream because it was written by a tenured professor, (he taught electrical engineering, nothing related to history). Holocaust Denial would be openly embraced by some far right historians in the 70s and 80s, among them David Irving, who’s libel suite would make Dr. Lipstadt famous.
While researching the book and afterwards Deborah Lipstadt was asked to debate Holocaust Deniers, but she has always refused. Her primary reason for doing so is as a statement that the Deniers shouldn’t be taken seriously. However, she does believe that the ideas they push forward should be addressed, but they should be addressed with as little attention to the author as possible. This seems like a perfectly reasonable position myself, but something the author kept saying throughout the book would give me pause and force me to rethink her as a scholar. I wasn’t second guessing the historicity of the Holocaust, but every time Lipstadt said that we shouldn’t consider Holocaust Denial as “another side” of the debate had me confused. To me it seemed that it obviously was another side by the sheer fact that it existed.
It took me the entire length of the book to come to an understanding of what she meant by saying that Holocaust Denial wasn’t “another side” of the debate, or at least this is what I think she was getting at. In her mind, she only describes a position as being a genuine side of a debate if the arguments are based on facts and evidence. Because Holocaust Denial doesn’t use actual facts and evidence, it isn’t considered a genuine side of the debate. I personally wouldn’t make that distinction. I prefer making distinctions between well supported sides of a debate, and sides that aren’t supported. But her distinction, it seems, is motivated by ensuring that as few people take Holocaust Denial seriously as possible, and that’s a goal I can sympathize with.
Overall, I would give the book a positive review, and encourage everyone who is interested in both the Holocaust and Holocaust Denial give it a read. Here’s a tip though, if you buy it used on Amazon there’s a fair chance that you will receive an autographed copy.