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.
Since its fall, the Roman Empire (by which I mean the western Roman Empire) has been at the forefront of western political thought. Every great power is compared to, by others or itself, to Rome, and they all wish to reach its heights, and to avoid its fall. During times of economic or political downturn we see slew of books and articles comparing the current state of the United States to the fall of Rome, but perhaps there is another period of Roman history that the current United States should be compared to. Mike Duncan, the creator of the History of Rome and Revolutions podcasts, and author of The Storm Before the Storm, argues in his first book that rather than comparing the current United States to the 5th century Roman Empire, we should be comparing it to the Roman Republic of the First and Second Century BCE.
The Storm Before the Storm is a narrative history, so very little of the text is dedicated to pointing out the similarities between the current U.S. and the late Roman Republic. In fact, if you didn’t listen to the numerous interviews of Mike Duncan on other podcasts around the books release in fall of 2017, or read the author’s note at the beginning of the book, you probably wouldn’t be aware that his intent was to draw attention between those two periods. In the author’s note, Duncan makes his intentions clear, “I was asked the same set of questions over and over again: “Is America Rome? Is the United States following a similar historical trajectory? If so, where does the US stand on the Roman timeline.” Attempting to make a direct comparison between Rome and the United States is always fraught with danger, but that does not mean there is no value to entertaining the question.”(pg. xx) He accomplishes this task by crafting a narrative that anyone who is following current affairs is sure to notice the parallels.
He begins the narrative after Rome’s defeat of Carthage in the Second Punic War. Although not yet a Roman lake, Rome has no true rival for control of the Mediterranean. The Republic sees a lot of wealth streaming in after the war. Reading this immediately brought to mind the post World War Two United States, or even possibly the Post Cold War world. I think the author may have intended the post Second Punic War Rome to represent the post Cold War U.S., “After the Second Punic War ended in 202 BC, the economy of Italy endured a massive upheaval. The legions… returned home with riches on an unprecedented scale… For the majority of Roman citizens, the conquest of the Mediterranean meant privation, not prosperity…. Wealthy noble families exacerbated the sharpening divide between rich and poor.” (pg. 19-20) In these passages Duncan is channeling the modern Marxist concern over income inequality of the 21st century. The economic comparisons are continued into the labor market.
Among the “riches” brought by the legions back to Rome were slaves, whom displaced many peasants in agricultural labor, “The plight of the dispossessed citizens might not have been so dire had they been allowed to transition into the labor force of the commercial estates. But the continuous run of successful foreign wars brought slaves flooding into Italy by the hundreds of thousands. The same wealthy nobles who bought up all the land also bought slaves to work their growing estates. The demand for free labor plummeted just as poor Roman families were being pushed off their land.” (pg. 20) My first assumption was that the slaves were intended to be compared to illegal-immigrants taking American jobs, but upon further inspection this was more likely intended to be a comparison to factory workers being replaced by machines, which is a narrative much of the media has implanted into the voter base of President Trump. However, the concern over illegal immigrants is present in the book, but it’s a conflict of Ancient Rome your average person isn’t aware of.
The core of the late Roman Empire had been the Italian Peninsula, and we today generally think of Italy as a whole when we think of the Roman Empire, but that wasn’t always the case. The Roman Empire started as the city state of Rome, but overtime the city of Rome expanded its area of control across the peninsula, but it wasn’t all annexed directly. What usually happened was the Rome would defeat a neighboring Italian City state and force its government into an alliance with Rome, in which the citizens of these other city states would provide manpower for the Roman legions. Yet despite serving in the Roman legions, these Italians were not citizens of Rome, and therefore did not have the same rights as Romans. This is where the comparison with illegal immigrants comes into play . You have a class of people, living under Roman hegemony, but not having equal rights or citizenship. This topic is brought up time and again throughout the book, and when I read those passages it became clear. In the current U.S. there is a debate over the fate of over a million illegal immigrants, with a particular emphasis on DACA children. Most elected officials of the Democratic Party, and a surprising number of elected Republicans, support either giving full citizenship or some kind of legal status to DACA recipients and their families. In Ancient Rome this became a big issue to several politicians such as the Gracchi brothers, and Gaius Marius, just as there are politicians who make this their sole issue today. The Italians aren’t just a stand in for illegal immigrants, but in different parts of the book they are stand ins for African Americans, or poor people in general.
There’s a lot more about modern America that you can read into in The Storm Before the Storm, but I recommend you read the book for yourself to get the full impact. Despite my personal political inclinations I whole heartedly recommend The Storm Before the Storm to anyone interested in Ancient Rome, or Modern Politics.
If you found this review helpful in your decision to purchase the book, I have an Amazon Affiliate link here where you can purchase it, and if you do it financially supports Casual Historian, allowing us to make more content.
And if you’re interested in another modern take on Ancient Rome, I suggest reading a previous article from this website, HBO’s Rome: The Grittier Side of the Late Republic.