During World War II, Nazi propaganda minister Heinrich Himmler, a major architect of the Shoa, said that the extermination of the Jews “is a glorious chapter but must be a secret chapter. No one must ever know about this.”
Though Himmler has been dead more than 70 years — he took his own life shortly after the war’s end — his scheme lives on, and Mark Weitzman, director of the Task Force Against Hate and Terrorism at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, based in Los Angeles, warned that the Jewish community needs to pay more attention to those who deny the Holocaust and twist its history.
Speaking Dec. 6 at a program sponsored by the Kean University Holocaust Resource Center in Union, Weitzman took a broad look at attempts to whitewash or erase evidence of the Nazi extermination of six million Jews. As part of the university’s Murray Pantirer Distinguished Lecture series, Weitzman used a series of PowerPoint images to illustrate this long and ugly history, from World War II to the current-day trend of anti-Semitism and white supremacy in the so-called “alt-right.”
“Holocaust denial and distortion have chipped away at the defenses against anti-Semitism and other forms of extremism and hatred and intolerance,” said Weitzman.
Following World War II, denial of the Holocaust became a practice among a portion of European and American academics, who attempted to conceal or minimize its horrors under a veneer of intellectual inquiry. Weitzman ticked off several examples:
In France in 1948, Maurice Bardeche wrote in Nuremberg or The Promised Land that the gas chambers of Auschwitz were used for disinfecting clothes, not for killing people.
Harry Elmer Barnes, a history professor at Columbia University, received financial aid from the Third Reich while “he created around himself a circle of like-minded intellectuals” who denied the Nazi genocide, according to Weitzman.
A literature professor named Robert Faurisson wrote in the 1970s that there had been no genocide of Jews during World War II. After Faurisson was fired from his post at the University of Lyon in France, his right to express his views was defended by American-Jewish linguist and anti-Zionist Noam Chomsky.
Under the banner of an academic-sounding name, the Institute for Historical Review and its publication, the Journal of Historical Review, changed the direction of the movement from outright denial of the Holocaust to a distortion of its reality. Mark Weber, an editor of the journal, wrote, “No one denies” that the political persecution of Jews was “a cruel thing.” But he insisted there was no evidence of the murder of millions in concentration camps.
Bradley Smith, who died last February, broke away from the institute to found the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust. Couching his denial as an issue of “intellectual freedom,” Smith specialized in placing full-page ads in college newspapers.
“He cast himself as a defender of free speech looking for an open debate,” Weitzman said.
In 2003, Arthur Butz, an engineering professor at Northwestern University, wrote a book called The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry. Despite denunciations from Northwestern’s president and many faculty members, Butz is still on the faculty, “because he has been careful to limit his on-campus activity to the field of electrical engineering.”
Fred Leuchter, self-styled engineer and expert on the death penalty (“a total fraud,” said Weitzman), argued in the 1980s that the gas chambers at Auschwitz and Birkenau could not have been used for mass executions.
While Holocaust denial may be associated with what Weitzman called “the gutter of history, the garbage bin of history,” he said its advocates use their academic credentials to “lend an air of credibility to the subject.”
Today, right-wing extremists in the United States have, Weitzman said, adjusted their methods. Rather than deny its existence altogether, modern white nationalists insist that “Jews use the Holocaust as a weapon against whites.”
Weitzman said the shift was motivated by a libel suit British writer David Irving brought against Holocaust expert Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in 2000. Lipstadt, who happens to be Jewish, had called Irving a Holocaust denier and an anti-Semite.
Irving lost the suit. The verdict against him “put Holocaust denial beyond the pale of any respectability in the West…but it did not affect the Muslim world,” Weitzman said.
Holocaust denial has been a consistent claim of the Iranian government since its strict Shiíte Muslim government seized power in 1979, said Weitzman, who noted that in 2005 former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had called the extermination of six million Jews a “myth.” A year later he played host to an international conference of Holocaust deniers, including former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
“There were terrible crimes against Jews during the Second World War that nobody denies,” Duke wrote on his website, adding that the former Iranian leader “correctly points out that 60 million people died in the war, mostly civilians, so why does the world hear more about Jewish suffering in the press than about all the other 60 million victims of the war combined!”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wrote in his 1982 PhD dissertation that the Zionist movement “led a broad campaign of incitement against the Jews living under Nazi rule, in order to arouse the government’s hatred of them, to fuel vengeance against them, and to expand the mass extermination.” Abbas has since recanted that position.
Turning to current times, Weitzman said in the United States some members of the alt-right movement are “unquestionably anti-Semitic and unquestionably Holocaust deniers.”
One such member of the alt-right, Richard Spencer, president of the Virginia-based National Policy Institute, drew widespread media attention in November when he hosted a Washington, DC, victory rally for President-elect Donald Trump and shouted “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!”
Weitzman is a member of the American delegation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which is trying to combat this most recent outbreak. Founded in 1998, the organization is comprised of 37 nations committed to “Holocaust education, remembrance, and research both nationally and internationally to help countries reclaim and find a way of dealing with the Holocaust.”
Weitzman said the organization aims to “encourage not just Jewish life but to maintain the reality of what happened in Europe 70 years ago is not just erased or distorted or manipulated but stays true to history and the message that survivors, among others, carry forth.”
Such work is crucial, he said, because rather than hiding in the shadows, Holocaust deniers have been emboldened in their efforts to affect the American political scene.
“They are making themselves more visible and trying to have more impact than they have had in generations.”