Gnawing at History: The Rhetoric of Holocaust Denial

James Najarian. The Midwest Quarterly. Volume 39, Issue 1. Autumn 1997.

In the late nineteen-eighties considerable popular attention began to be focused on a small group of anti-Semites who denied that the Holocaust ever existed. These writers called themselves “Revisionist” historians. Deborah Lipstadt, in her comprehensive study of these writers, takes issue with the very title “Revisionist,” and prefers, rightly, to call these people Holocaust deniers: all scholars “revise” history as new documents come to light, new modes of interpretation are put into play, and new historians are born (Lipstadt, 4).

Those who label themselves “Revisionists” have a specific project in mind. “Revisionist historians” are a group of right-wing ideologues who operate out of the “Institute for Historical Review” in Torrance, California. Although few of them are actually trained in history, they put out sham scholarly articles in their mock-academic publication, the Journal of Historical Review, which looks, from the outside at least, like a typical historical journal. “Revisionists” deny that the Holocaust ever occurred-that the destruction of European Jewry was planned, that any Jews were gassed, and that gas chambers even existed. To them, the notion of the Holocaust is a lie of Zionist origin, created solely to gain sympathy for the state of Israel. Holocaust deniers stage annual “Revisionist History” conferences, and publish their own work in the Journal. From a historian’s point of view, the “articles” in the Journal are pretty flimsy stuff. The articles proclaim all relevant documents forgeries and all eyewitness testimony false. The Journal has also published apologies for Japanese behavior in World War II and laudatory histories of Slavic SS units. As Lipstadt notes, the historiographical genesis of the term “revisionist” can be found in early histories of the First World War that attempted, not necessarily inaccurately, to deflect blame for the conflict from Germany. The first (and only scholarly) revisionist work on World War II was A.J.P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War. Taylor argued that Hitler had not planned a general war, but had blundered into the conflict. Taylor did not deny Nazi atrocities. In the nineteen-sixties, anti-Semites used his book as a springboard from which to write pro-Nazi history. Harry Barnes, a revisionist hero who died in 1968, first claimed that the numbers of murdered Jews had been “exaggerated.” He concluded that the Holocaust was a hoax in “Revisionism, the Key to Peace,” written in 1966. Well-known contemporary Holocaust deniers include Robert Faurisson, formerly a professor of literature at the University of Lyon-2, and Arthur Butz, an associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Northwestern University.

But the object of this essay is neither to condemn the crackpots of Torrance, California, or examine “evidence” put forward by them. The historical project of refuting Holocaust denial may not even be useful; one has to beware that one does not authenticate denial by treating it as if it were a serious scholarly approach. The demolition of denial has already been accomplished by Lipstadt’s cultural history of denial, Yisrael Gutman’s examination of the deniers’ use of evidence, and Gill Seidel’s study of the connections between Holocaust deniers and far-right anti-Semitic groups. My own approach is rhetorical rather than historical. It looks at the linguistic strategies with which Holocaust deniers try to persuade and unearths a rhetoric of denial. Pierre Vidal-Nacquet has noted the historiographical methods of Holocaust denial. I will look primarily at denial’s rhetorical assumptions. If we examine the ways in which the Holocaust is being denied we will see just how memory can be pushed down the hole.

Surprisingly, Holocaust deniers seldom rely on the emotional excesses of Nazi rhetoric; they do not pile up epithets as Hitler did. Nor do they imitate the combination of sentimentality and brute force evident in Himmler’s speeches or in Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will. Holocaust deniers efface history by using some of the same linguistic channels that late twentieth-century intellectuals commonly use. Holocaust deniers appeal to platitudes in everyone’s heads: to our objectivity, our sense of fair play, and our distrust of figurative language. The twentieth century distrusts any language that is aware of its audience and that relies on figurative language rather than on content in order to convince. Rhetoric has fallen out of favor in this century. Part of our distrust is rhetoric’s own fault. Bloated patriotism and hyperbole bear some of the responsibility for the First World War. Hitler came to power through oratory, and the Bolsheviks pioneered the slogan. We now use the term “rhetoric” conversationally to denote irresponsible public speaking. George Bush’s flagwaving campaign speeches were “so much rhetoric.”

Yet our century has thrown the proverbial baby out with its bath water. Rhetoric is not good or evil, but merely a tool that can be turned to good or evil uses. The classical solution to this problem was Cicero’s vir bonum dicendi partibus, the good man skilled in speaking. The good man would use his rhetorical talents for ethical ends. The dominant form of communication in our century is self-consciously anti-rhetorical. Donald McCloskey and others have christened this style and the assumptions behind it rhetorical “modernism”:

It is the attitude that the only real knowledge is, in common parlance, “scientific,” that is, knowledge tested by certain lands of rigorous skepticism. Philosophically speaking, modernism is the program of Descartes, regnant in Philosophy since the seventeenth century, to build knowledge on a foundation of radical doubt. (McCloskey, 5)

The social science industry legislates “modernist” assumptions, but the style has invaded most academic writing. It tries to impart objectivity by imitating scientific prose with a flat tone, chains of prepositional phrases, absence of the first person, and passive voice. It self-consciously wants to make itself disappear, so facts, formulae, and numbers will seem to convince the reader, and not the prose itself. The ideal prose would seem to be a neutral conveyor of fact.

But this style, though anti-rhetorical, is still a rhetoric. It is a decorum, in which certain techniques of style and argument enumerated in classical rhetoric are thought convincing and others are not. The apomnemonysis, or quotation of authority, and the digestion, or enumeration of orderly points, are crucial to the decorum of the scientific article. Other rhetorical techniques, ones that suppose an audience with emotions or one composed of real persons, are discouraged.

Classical rhetoric attempted to convince by self-consciously manipulating language. McCloskey’s academic decorum, on the other hand, convinces through an appearance of objectivity. This decorum not only affects the ways we write, but the ways we think. In McCloskey’s view, we assume objectivity equals authority.

Its full tide shows in the way we talk. One hears on the street: `That’s just your opinion,’ `My biases are such and such;’ ‘I came to this conclusion on the basis of facts;’ `You’re not being objective …’ Sophomores talk like this. In more literate form their professors talk like this too: only falsifiable hypotheses are meaningful; the evidence is consistent with the hypothesis; de gustibus non est disputandum, of tastes we ought not of course, to quarrel.

What McCloskey calls a “modernist” decorum, however, may be more easily abused than the rhetorical decorum. A rhetorical of linguistic transparency lacks Cicero’s safeguard. In the contemporary decorum the good man is irrelevant; “good” is a subjective judgment. A critical paper does not address an audience of good or bad men or women, but a crowd of educated, morally neutral readers. It is easier to adopt the objective pose and to imitate the rhythmless scientific style than to convince rhetorically. Hitler cloaked his cruelest notions in the objective garb of racial “science.” The Holocaust deniers are simply anti-Semites who have learned the value of rhetorical modernism, and use the strategies of academic prose in order to deny the Holocaust.

The Journal of Historical Review attempts to buy its way into truth by assuming its own version of historical style. (The Institute also puts out a newsletter that is considerably more polemical.) The Journal apes the standard academic publication, down to its type, paper, shape, references, and glossy card cover. It lists the members of its editorial board with their positions on its first page. Few members actually hold university posts, and fewer still are historians; most have written for the Journal in the past. The Journal’s fabricated decorum makes even the unwilling writer of this essay rhetorically complicit, as my references to the Journal are in an academic form. The Journal publishes three to four “articles” in each issue, as well as book reviews and notices for the annual Revisionist “conferences.”

The style of its articles parodies the style and methodology of an anti-rhetorical prose. The pro-Nazi history is a favorite genre. In it, an author re-interprets an historical event in order to exonerate the Nazis. Ingrid Weckert’s” `Crystal Night’ 1938: The Great Anti-German Spectacle” encapsulates the deniers’ project. Normative history holds that Goebbels planned Kristallnacht and the SS and S.A. carried it out. The Nazi hierarchy ordered S.A. groups to wreck and loot Jewishowned shops, and told police and firemen to ignore Jewish cries for assistance. The Nazis arrested over 20,000 Jewish men, and killed 100. Weckert, on the other hand, argues that Hitler and Goebbels “were shocked” by the events of Kristallnacht. The actual cause of the riots were, in her opinion, not S.A. men but unidentified provocateurs. She intimates, but does not say outright, that these were Jews.

Until the final sentence of her first paragraph, Weckert’s article does not seem much different from any other assessment.

`Crystal night’ is the name that’s been given to the night of 9-10 November 1938. In almost all large German cities and some smaller ones that night, store windows of Jewish shops were broken, Jewish homes and apartments were destroyed, and synagogues were demolished and set on fire. Many Jews were arrested, some were beaten, and some were even killed. The `Reich Crystal Night’ [Reichkrstallnacht] was one of the most shameful events of National Socialist Germany. Although the Jews suffered initially, the greatest harm was ultimately done to Germany and the German people.

This appears to be a straightforward concessio. Weckert does grant that shocking things happened on November 9, 1938. But she adopts “modernist” methods to gain support, even before she gets to that “Although.” The passive voice obliterates who precisely broke, destroyed, demolished, set on fire, arrested, beat, and killed Jews. The “even” before killed makes the reader think the Jewish deaths should be surprising. The most concessionary statement—”The Reich Crystal Night was one of the most shameful events of National Socialist Germany”—is ambiguous (shameful to whom?). The neutral “National Socialist Germany” evades the emotionally laden “Nazi Germany,” and the English “Crystal Night” lacks the aural harshness (to American ears) of the German Kristallnacht.

After conceding the general events of Kristallnacht, Weckert minimizes its horror. She claims her version is unbiased:

How strange it is then that despite the passage of more than forty years no one has established the true extent of the damage done to the Jews during the Crystal Night. All one can learn from history writers is that ‘all’ synagogues were demolished and that ‘all’ shop windows were destroyed. Aside from this vague description, one is given almost no details … in 1938 there were approximately 1,400 synagogues in Germany, of which only about 180 were destroyed or damaged. Furthermore, Jews owned approximately 100,000 shops and department stores in Germany in 1938. Of this number, only about 7,500 had their windows broken. These figures show just how much the so-called `historical truth’ is different from what actually happened. The damage and destruction that did actually occur was, of course, a terrible shame, but the exaggerations, especially by German historians who used them against their own people, are also a shame.

Weckert fights a nonexistent opponent in order to claim a victory. No historian says “all” shops and synagogues were destroyed. Lucy Dawidowicz estimates that rioters wrecked over 7,000 Jewish shops (Dawidowicz, 101-2). Nora Levin says Reynard Heydrich estimated 76 synagogues destroyed and 191 set on fire, though according to Heydrich himself, “these figures given must have been exceeded considerably” (Levin, 80). Weckert’s claims that the number of synagogues destroyed was a small proportion of existing ones are more specious rhetorically than historically. 180 synagogues are still quite a lot to be destroyed in one night; the precise number hardly matters.

As Gutman has noted, the numbers game-paring down estimates of death and destruction-is a crucial element in Holocaust denial. It becomes more crucial when Revisionists calculate how many Jews died in the Holocaust. Deniers take the discrepancy in estimates of Holocaust victims as evidence of inconsistency. Yet Kelvin’s dictum—”when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind”—does not apply to estimates of Jewish victims. If five million rather than six million Jews were killed the horror does not shrink in proportion.

The structure of denial is remarkably consistent. Denying articles are bound to be predictable because Holocaust deniers read the same three or four books. But Revisionist argument is also predictable. In any Revisionist article on a Nazi horror, the author introduces the article as “the other side of the story” or “the real truth,” possibly after a token concession to received opinion, then mitigates the horror of theHolocaust by playing with numbers and by demolishing arguments the “opposite side” does not claim. Not only are the Nazis exonerated, but by the end the Jews are blamed for the notion of the event, and the Nazis become their victims. Weckert follows the above scheme almost to the letter. She exonerates the Nazis and puts the Jews in their place. She then claims the Germans as the real victims of Jewish lies. “Ultimately,” she writes of Kristallnacht, “it was not the Jews but the Germans who suffered most as a result of this event.” An article on Buchenwald begins: “the camp deserves another, more objective look.” Its author admits the conditions in the camps were inhumane but blames them on the “terrible overcrowding and severe lack of food and medical supplies due to a general collapse of order in Germany during the tumultuous final days of the war” (Weber, 411). The real culprits, to this author, were not Nazi commandants, but Jewish Communist inmates who “actually” ran the camp.

This argumentative structure relies on common notions of objectivity to create a second “version” of history. Willingness to hear a specious argument becomes a necessary concession to contemporary ideals of free speech and reasonable inquiry. The two-sided arrangement is essential to academic methodology. It has roots in the British legal tradition, where truth was found by an accommodation between extremes. Terrence Des Pres has located its use during the Enlightenment. He writes: “the two-sided argument worked to discount the constrictive authority of Church and monarchy … At the onset of the modern age, therefore, insisting upon the existence of two sides to every issue helped limit established power and allowed for the nurturing of liberties, among them liberty of thought.” Des Pres has examined how the two-sided arrangement has dehistoricized the Armenian genocide. The well-documented slaughter of the Armenians was a model for Hitler’s slaughter of the Jews (though it was not, as Lipstadt points out, equivalent). The organized aspect of the massacres was well-publicized at the time. Yet the present Turkish government refuses to acknowledge any genocide occurred. For Des Pres, Turkish amnesia has, in a way, taught the deniers how to lie. It has constructed a second, more “objective” side. The Turkish government whittles down the million and a half casualties to 500,000 missing Armenians, and then writes these off to emigration and numerical mysteries. (Holocaust deniers often write that the “missing” Jews will be found in Central Asia.) After enough carving and paring, the massacres are forgotten.

Des Pres believes the two-sided model is necessary and valid, but that it has degenerated in the case of the Armenians: “Two sides, the revision begins-and then we are told no genocide took place but only a vague unfortunate mishap determined by imponderables like time and change, the hazards of war, uncertain demographics.” According to Des Pres, the two versions of truth-finding, the original two-sided method and the perverted, are “Governing Narratives.” For Des Pres, the function of the two-sided arrangement has changed because the world view has shifted:

There are still, of course, different sides to the issues we confront, but increasingly the side that counts is the one with power’s voice … What has happened is that the two-sided argument has degenerated into mere relativism on the one hand, and on the other into the mechanical belief that there must always be “another” point of view.

If only the rhetorical difficulty were this simple! Des Pres is silently building a Foucauldian subtext to his argument. Lipstadt and Heather MacDonald have remarked how postmodern theory’s emphasis on discourse constructing events may bear some of the responsibility for Holocaust denial. But power, if it is on anybody’s side, is thankfully with us, the people who know the Holocaust occurred. As we will see, the Holocaust deniers exploit their powerlessness to “prove” their objectivity. The problem is not power. The problem springs from the nature of the two-sided system. Simply put, there are not two sides to every story. Des Pres wants to say this, but backs off: “there are still of course, two sides to the issues we confront … ” Presumably, he does not want to compromise his democratic credentials. Yet a true democrat need not be a relativist. Over some questions, such as the existence of the Holocaust, one must be biased to be truthful. To consider another side is to consider a fiction.

The pervasiveness of the opinion that the Holocaust did occur only convinces Holocaust deniers that they must be right. Strangely enough, Holocaust deniers, like Des Pres, believe that power has determined truth. Only they place power in the hands of “Zionists” who support the “holocaust hoax.” One author compares received opinion on the Holocaust to the power of the Inquisition, and the Holocaust deniers to persecuted nature sects (Hoffman, 474). The denier Paul Grubach argues because that “Jewish influence” is so strong, “legitimate” criticism of Jews and their culture is not anti-Semitism. Disliking anti-Semitism, rather than anti-Semitism itself, becomes the pervasive, irrational taboo: “Carefully nurtured by the public media, the taboo on criticizing Jewry is deeply lodged in the consciousness of the great majority of Americans, directly influencing their acceptance or rejection of criticism of Jewish attitudes and behavior, irrespective of the truth or falsity of such claims” (186). To support this claim that “Jewry” has a maleficent influence on American affairs, Grubach plays with numbers once more; he musters strings of statistics: “Jews are 21/2 to 3 times more likely to be found in Congress than are non-Jews.” “Fifty percent of the major publishing houses are Jewish-owned” (189). Even if these numbers were accurate (and how could they be calculated? Can we calculate a baby’s likelihood to get into Congress at some point in his or her life?) they do not prove their point-that Jews use whatever power this gives them as a group, and use it banefully.

Holocaust denial uses the two-sided assumption to justify its mere existence. The movement absorbs legitimacy simply because it is an alternative to a received opinion. The deniers’ term for those who believe that the Holocaust did occur is “exterminationist.” By organizing their diatribe around two terms, the Holocaust deniers have constructed a linguistic ground where none existed before. They reduce an historical event to a petty conflict between opposing sides. For this reason, Holocaust deniers are hostile not only to the Holocaust as history, but even to the mention of the word. An article by Michael Hoffman labels the word ‘Holocaust’ “newspeak”:

How did it (Holocaust) enter popular usage? Why ‘Holocaust’ with its nebulous reference to reality (anti-Semitic-persecution) as well as disputed claims (extermination)? Why wasn’t the word “Exterminationist” chosen for official, dictionary definition recognition? The latter term accurately denotes a specific allegation, that the Jewish people were “exterminated” during World War Two. Such a word does not depend upon ambiguous connotations or confusing allusions to disparate events for its utility and validity.

The present-day use of the term “Holocaust” has a distinct and traceable history, which Hoffman ignores. Elie Wiesel first applied the term for the burnt offering to the destruction of European Jewry in a review of The Terezin Requiem that was published in The New York Times Book Review of November 27, 1963. The review has been reprinted (Wiesel II: 269-70). Wiesel has since said in an interview with Ellen Fine that he regrets his use of the term (I: 185).

Hoffman does not want the term to have a history-he wants to claim that is merely an emotional word without scientific credibility. Hoffman uses a seemingly academic methodology and style to pick apart the Holocaust. Chains of prepositional phrases give his prose a social-scientific sheen. He paraphrases Holocaust scholars’ opinions in passive voice to soften their findings. Holocaust historians do not claim that “the Jewish people were exterminated during the Second World War.” They say: “Germans (and others) killed Jews.” The word ‘Holocaust’ denies that there is a pro and con to Jewish persecution, and this reality incenses him. His terms-“Exterminationist” and “Revisionist”—withdraw the Holocaust from the realm of accepted history to conjecture.

Flat-earthers believe that the earth is flat and the United States space program is a hoax. This does not make the rest of us round-earthers; we don’t need a name for ourselves. The oxymoronic “Creation Science” is perhaps a more effective analogue-Creationism isn’t science, but needs the terms of science to appeal to our sense of objectivity, our sense that there should be two sides to the story. TheHolocaust, however, is not a matter of taste. To break the Holocaust down into opposing camps is already to deny its reality, even before one starts making excuses for the gas chambers.

Moreover, the word Holocaust encapsulates the persecution in the double figure of the crematoria and the burnt offering. Hoffman hates the word because it is a metaphor.

Like all metaphors it is a “nebulous reference to reality,” and depends on “ambiguous connotations or confusing allusions to disparate events.” Hoffman’s real dispute is with figurative language, and he leads us to another aspect to the rhetoric of denial. The dispute with figurative language is at the heart of denial. Holocaust deniers do not know how to deal with rhetoric, or any system of figuration. They adore forensic evidence because it appears scientific to them. But Holocaust deniers cannot, at some level, read; they cannot understand a history of persons, only one of statistics.

Articles in the Journal of Historical Review cite Arthur Butz’s The Hoax of the Twentieth Century like scripture. Deniers laud Butz as “distinguished” and his book as “a masterpiece.” It is certainly not a masterpiece of history; it may, however, be a masterpiece of parody. The Hoax of the Twentieth Century is more than a source book for the Revisionist. It is a paradigm. For pages Butz links quotations from the foreign press with the scantiest commentary. The documents serve as mathematical formulae do in a scientific paper, needing little or no comment. Forensics takes the place of interpretation; if a document does not support Butz’s conclusion, it must be faked.

Butz claims the loss of six million European Jews can be attributed to emigration and deportation. To support this assertion he must read German documents on the most superficial level. When Butz does try to include Nazi documents he tends to read as if their prose is transparent, and merely factual, when it is actually horribly figurative. “Resettlement” and “deportation” are only two of a large number of euphemisms that Nazis used for the murder of Jews:

Primo Levi has written that the Nazis utilized these terms to hide the reality from foreigners and themselves. Most important, these euphemisms hid the reality from the victims. With the same motives, the Nazis planted lawns over the gas chambers of Auschwitz and flowers around the Birkenau crematoria. The term “resettlement” was especially useful. The final solution did, at first, employ deportation-to the overcrowded ghettos in Poland and Lithuania or the colony at Lublin. The Nazis eventually decanted the ghettos into death camps. When the Nazis emptied the Warsaw ghetto, they told their victims that they were being resettled “to the East” and in a disgusting way there were; the rails ran fifty miles east to Treblinka.

Butz’s argument rests on a literal reading of these euphemisms. He insists the Jews were merely resettled somewhere in the Ukraine, although he cannot mark precisely where. He refuses to interpret “resettlement” as death. Butz becomes the most ludicrous when he tries to find a literal meaning for “Special Handling.” He insists Nazi documents cannot use figurative language, even in their own dishonest and macabre way:

There is no point in discussing further these efforts to make these documents mean other than what they say. The German policy, the final solution, was to resettle Jews in the occupied territories in the East.

Butz is also immune to the effects of context on reading. This is not surprising; in modernist, as opposed to post-Heisenbergian science, an experiment works no matter where, when, or by whom the experiment is performed. But language does not work in the same way. Context changes meaning. Here is Butz reading Himmler:

The `gas chambers’ were wartime propaganda fantasies completely comparable to the garbage that was shoveled out by Lord Bryce and associates in World War One. The factual basis for these ridiculous charges was nailed with perfect accuracy by Heinrich Himmler, in an interview with a representative of the World Jewish Congress just a few weeks before the end of the war:

In order to put a stop to the epidemics we were forced to burn the bodies of incalculable numbers of people who had been destroyed by disease. We were therefore forced to build crematoria, and on this account they are knotting a noose for us.

Butz’s own notes show that he has taken his quotation of Himmler from Gerald Reitlinger, but he has ignored all of Reitingler’s surrounding commentary. Himmler had to sneak out of a dinner party with Hitler to his physical therapist’s house in order to meet Dr. Masur, the head of the World Jewish Congress. By this time (April 19, 1945) Himmler was not nailing down any point-he was trying to save his skin. Five days later, in the cellar of the Swedish consulate at Lubeck, he would attempt-without Hitler’s knowledge-to surrender the Reich.

“In an free and open debate,” writes the denier Michael Hoffman, “linguistic mystification would no longer shield partisan generalizations and falsehood. Charges and assertions would have to stand on scientific and forensic evidence alone.” Holocaust deniers access academic methodologies because they reduce history to a litany of numbers and dates. Eyewitness testimony is not worth much to them: witnesses are at best biased and at worst sentimental. Deniers have to reject eyewitnesses because eyewitness testimony proves them wrong.

“Revisionism,” writes Saul Friedlander, “purifies the past by trafficking in facts” (89). Friedlander doubts that historical narrative can contain the Holocaust, because narrative itself puts the reader in an objective position. For Friedlander, the reader of a narrative history that includes the Holocaust is suddenly placed “in a situation not unrelated to the detached position of an administrator of extermination … Interest is fixed on an administrative process, an activity of building and transportation, words used for record-keeping.” A bureaucratic prose only speeds the Holocaust out of memory. The current debate about the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust stems from Friedlander’s concerns. As Alan Rosenblum notes, comparison of the Holocaust with other genocides risks relativization or trivialization. You risk comparing numbers of dead-quantifying cruelty in a grim contest.

Methodologies that appeal only to the “rational” will fail to account for the Holocaust. A Marxist perspective cannot explain it; the Germans put both the well-to-do Jews of Germany and the poor Jews of Poland to death. The Nazis spent the crucial last years of the war exterminating an enormous labor pool. A modernist methodology fails to describe the Holocaust, which is not a rational event: it is by nature singular, unique, “incredible.” As Lawrence Langer writes, “the essential inhumanity of the event is the gadfly that vexes our perception.” The numbers of dead will never be settled; they can never be settled. To begin to argue numbers and sides is already to give in to denial. It is our own decorum, our fascination with the paraphernalia of objectivity, that makes denial possible.