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Holocaust revisionism and freedom of speech

by Diane Vera

Copyright © 2006 Diane Vera. All rights reserved.

Although I oppose neo-Nazism, I also oppose limiting the freedom of speech of either neo-Nazis themselves or Holocaust revisionists (not all of whom are neo-Nazis or even anti-Jew bigots, although most apparently are).

In many Western countries, advocating Holocaust revisionism is illegal. In my opinion, outlawing Holocaust revisionism has done nothing to stop the neo-Nazi movement. On the contrary, outlawing Holocaust revisionism has helped neo-Nazism by giving it some of the best propagandistic ammunition it could possibly have hoped for. When discussion of any particular topic is forbidden, a lot of people will naturally suspect a coverup. When people are allowed to say almost anything they want about almost any historical event except for the Holocaust, this just makes it seem all the more likely, to many people, that the Western world really is controlled by an evil conspiracy of Jews who are using government power to force a pack of lies down everyone's throat. I myself certainly do not believe in such a conspiracy (see the sections on conspiracy theories and Alleged Jewish control of the U.S. government in my Critique of anti-Jew racist ideology). My point here is simply that outlawing advocacy of Holocaust revisionism (in those countries where it's illegal) was an extremely stupid and counterproductive move.

I think it's no coincidence that neo-Nazism and other anti-Jew racist forms of nationalism constitute a much bigger movement in those Western countries where Holocaust revisionism is illegal than in U.S.A., where Holocaust revisionism and even neo-Nazism itself are entirely legal. Note:  my point here is not to deny that the U.S.A. still has a serious problem with racism. (See Racism, White Liberals and the Limits of Tolerance by Tim Wise, and see my page on The myth of "black crime".) But we do seem to have less of a problem with neo-Nazis, in particular, than do a lot of other Western countries. And, according to a Jewish acquaintance of mine who has visited various parts of Europe, the U.S.A. has far less anti-Jew bigotry too. And I suspect that our relative lack of official legal censorship may have something to do with this.

Furthermore, there's nothing stopping people in most other Western countries from looking at American Holocaust revisionist websites, which now have the appeal of the forbidden fruit  -  whereas, if Holocaust revisionism were not forbidden anywhere, then Holocaust revisionists probably wouldn't be seen by very many people as courageous truth-tellers, but, more likely, would just be seen as crackpots.

What exactly is Holocaust revisionism, sometimes referred to as "Holocaust denial"?

No one denies that an awful lot of people were killed in World War II, including an awful lot of Jewish civilians. Also, no one denies that Jews were severely persecuted in Hitler's Germany. (For example, even today's National Socialist Movement does admit, approvingly, that Kristallnacht happened.) But what the Holocaust revisionists do raise questions about are these issues: (1) How many Jews were killed? Six million, or some smaller number? (2) How were they killed? In particular, did Auschwitz have gas chambers, or was Auschwitz just an overcrowded and unsanitary labor camp where a lot of people died of starvation and contagious disease? And was Zyklon B used for killing people or just for killing lice?

Some time around the year 2000 or so, I spent most of my free time for several months studying the neo-Nazi movement. Among other things I spent quite a bit of time looking at Holocaust revisionist websites and also looking at the Nizkor site, devoted to refuting Holocaust revisionism. Frankly, a lot of the arguments on both sides went way over my head, involving such highly technical matters as the chemical properties of Zyklon B and the number of bodies that could be burned per day in a particular crematorium at Auschwitz.

I concluded that I'm in no position to judge most of these issues for sure. However, I personally am inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the mainstream historians. As a general rule, I'm inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the professional experts in any given field unless I personally happen to see a good reason not to.

One valid objection to trusting historians, in particular, is that "history is written by the victors." Thus, to this day, we still hear a lot more about Nazi atrocities than we hear about Allied atrocities, of which there were plenty also.

However, even mainstream professional historians do acknowledge Allied atrocities too, even if Allied atrocities aren't studied or talked about as much as Nazi atrocities. And, while professional historians are by no means 100% immune to political pressures, it is not true that mainstream professional historians are just echoing Allied anti-Nazi propaganda from World War II, as the Holocaust revisionists often claim. As the Nizkor site points out, mainstream historians themselves have debunked some of the more sensationalistic Allied propaganda about the Nazis, such as the "human soap and lamp shades" stories. So, although I do not by any means have 100% faith in the mainstream historians either, I am more inclined to trust the mainstream historians than to trust the revisionists, most (though not all) of whom seem to me to be crackpots with a paranoid political agenda.

As I said, there are a lot of things one can't really be absolutely sure of unless one is an expert in the relevant fields:

  1. To know for sure what did nor did not happen at Auschwitz, one would need to know the following:
    1. Eye-witness testimony. How many eye-witness testimonies have been recorded, and from whom? Under what circumstances were the testimonies obtained? Are the witnesses and their testimonies generally credible? The only people who could answer these questions for sure would be people who have actually read the testimonies and who know the context of each of the testimonies, or at least most of them.
    2. The workings of gas chambers and crematoria. This involves oodles of technical details such as the chemical properties of Zyklon B.
    3. The ways in which Auschwitz itself has been remodeled over the years. What's there now is not necessarily an accurate replica of what was there during World War II, and thus may mislead even experts on gas chambers and cremation.

  2. To know for sure how many Jews were killed by the Nazis, one would need to be a historian who has studied tons and tons of primary source material.

Why are these issues so important? Supposedly, if the Nazis killed fewer than six million Jews, and if there really weren't gas chambers at Auschwitz, then this is supposed to make the Nazis look nicer.

But, to me personally, starving people to death and crowding them into unsanitary labor camps is not a whole lot nicer than gassing them. If anything, quite the contrary. And, even if only one million Jewish civilians were killed, rather than six million, it would still qualify as a "Holocaust" in my opinion; it would still be enough Jews so that almost every Jew in the world could easily have had at least one relative who was killed by the Nazis.

It is also clear to me that the Nazi movement had genocidal intent, regardless of the details of how many Jews they actually succeeded in killing and how. (See this collection of Nazi quotes on the Holocaust History site.) It is even clearer that most of today's neo-Nazis have genocidal intent; their position on the Holocaust is, essentially, "it didn't happen, but it should have."

Does Holocaust revisionism advance the neo-Nazi agenda? Yes it does, but, in my opinion, not by making the Nazis look nicer. Instead, it advances the neo-Nazi agenda by getting Jews very upset. On a neo-Nazi website I found the following statement by George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the original American Nazi Party back in the 1950's:

... The blood-soaked Swastika has a supernatural effect on Jews.

It is after all only a few black lines but it drives Jews out of their usual sly and calculating frame of mind and makes them hysterical and foolish. ...

A calm, calculating Jew is the most dangerous beast on the face of the earth. By the exercise of his devilish, perverted but brilliant reason, the Jew has almost mastered all the rest of us. But a hysterical, screaming Jew, out of his mind with hate and fear of punishment for his crimes, is helpless putty in the hands of a calculating National Socialist.


The result is the lifeblood of a political movement: publicity!

The above statement is not about Holocaust revisionism in particular, but does indicate that a key neo-Nazi strategy, in general, is to get Jews and other anti-Nazis as pissed off as possible. I would strongly suspect that Holocaust revisionism is no exception.

In the specific case of Holocaust revisionism, by getting Jews and anti-Nazis royally pissed off, the neo-Nazis can not only gain publicity but can also use any less-than-completely-rational-sounding responses by Jews, or even by non-Jewish anti-Nazis, as an excuse to justify anti-Jew racism. For example, the Nizkor site quotes neo-Nazi leader Harold Covington as saying, "Part of the aberrant psychology displayed by Nizkor people in their controlled newsgroups can be explained by what amounts to religious fervor; people who question their dogmas are treated as less than human, heretics to be burned and destroyed lest they contaminate the pure faith." This isn't a logical reason for anti-Jew bigotry, of course; irrational dogmatists can be found in every ethnic group. Nevertheless it does seem that a key neo-Nazi strategy is to piss off their enemies so that the neo-Nazis can then make propagandistic use of their enemies' reactions. Thus, by being overly dogmatic about the details of the Holocaust, some anti-Nazis are playing right into the neo-Nazis' hands. All the more so, as I said earlier, outlawing Holocaust revisionism plays into the neo-Nazis' hands.

To oppose neo-Nazism effectively, it is not necessary or helpful to try to outlaw Holocaust revisionism. On the contrary, it seems to me that it would be much wiser to stay as calm as possible and avoid the appearance of overreacting when people question the details of the Holocaust. Yes, I know that this can be very hard, and I know that it may seem very presumptuous of me to give such advice, given that I'm not Jewish. But it seems to me that Holocaust revisionism advances the neo-Nazi agenda precisely by getting anti-Nazi activists too upset to respond rationally. And, alas, too many anti-Nazi activists have fallen right into the trap.

More generally, it should be kept in mind that a key part of the agenda of many neo-Nazi activists is to create strife, with the eventual aim of provoking a full-blown race war. Those of us who don't want a race war should consider carefully whether our own responses to the neo-Nazis are likely to further that agenda.

My point here is not that anti-Nazis should refrain from displaying hatred for the neo-Nazis themselves, especially if one happens to be a member of one of the many groups whom the neo-Nazis want to kill or deprive of citizenship. It's only natural to hate those who hate you  -  or who at least want to ruin your life, even if they deny hating you. Nor would I even say that anti-Nazis should refrain totally from hysteria-mongering. In almost any political movement, a little hysteria-mongering is a necessity. As far as I am aware, every political organization, of whatever stripe, raises money by scaring its supporters about their evil Enemy, whoever and whatever that Enemy might be. As far as I am aware, every successful political movement uses propaganda similar to what Hitler talked about in Mein Kampf (and similar also to what Saul D. Alinsky talked about in Rules for Radicals).

But I do think that many anti-Nazi activists should consider more carefully how their own propaganda will make the anti-Nazis themselves look.

For example, the more truthful and easily verifiable your propaganda is, the better. If you want to scare people about the neo-Nazi movement, it is sufficient to focus on the clearly stated genocidal intent of both the original Nazi movement and nearly all of today's neo-Nazi leaders. It's not necessary or helpful for anti-Nazis to freeze the harder-to-verify details of the Holocaust into a religious dogma. Being dogmatic about things one can't verify is a great way to make oneself look dishonest, which is precisely how the neo-Nazis want their enemies to look.

An estimate of the total number of people killed, in any ethnic group, is definitely in the hard-to-verify category, requiring knowledge of vast amounts of primary source material. It is precisely the sort of thing that could, plausibly, be subject to legitimate revision amongst legitimate professional historians, as they continue to uncover more and more information. Note that I am not asserting here that the revisionists' claims are legitimate; I'm just saying that the debate about numbers should be left to professional historians. There is no reason for lawmakers to step into it, nor is there any reason for the rest of us to freeze the six million figure into a dogma, rather than remaining open to the possibility that the official estimate might go up or down. But the rest of us do have more than enough evidence that what the Nazis did to Germany's Jews  -  and to a whole lot of other people too  -  was pretty darned awful, no matter what the exact numbers. With a less dogmatic attitude about the numbers, it would be easier for anti-Nazis to frame the debate so that the revisionists, rather than their critics, come across as the irrationally dogmatic and dishonest ones. After all, the revisionists aren't professional historians either, as far as I am aware.

To whatever extent that the Holocaust revisionists are indeed distorting known historical facts, the relevant details should be addressed, in my opinion, but they should be addressed rationally, by people knowledgeable enough to do so. Hats off to the folks at the Nizkor and Holocaust History sites for at least having the patience to sit down and respond to the Holocaust revisionists point by point, rather than just going incoherently ballistic as all too many people do  -  although, not being a historian myself, I personally am in no position to judge the quality of their research.

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