Trial and Error
Studying the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial provided a reminder that it's always crucial to confront Holocaust denialism, whether among Nazis in the immediate postwar years or from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today
Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
A few months ago, as I was finishing my book on the Eichmann trial, a friend asked me, "What do you know now that you did not know before you began your work?" I launched into a discourse on the various details of this fascinating trial. Before I could get too far, he stopped me. "No, I'll read the book to get the story. Instead tell me what you now know in your gut that you did not know before." He paused for a second and then added, possibly aware that it was a strange question to ask a scholar about a topic to which she has devoted an extended period of time and effort: "What's the bottom line?"
Feeling a bit flummoxed at the request that I pare a couple of years of research and a complex legal proceeding down to something akin to a sound bite, I found myself momentarily and uncharacteristically at a loss for words. Did my interlocutor think that everything—including scholarship—could be reduced to an answer that would fit in a Twitter post?
As I tried to formulate a short but nonetheless nuanced answer, my friend popped up with another question: "And how does the Eichmann trial relate to all those years you have spent studying and fighting Holocaust denial?"
Fifty years ago, Adolf Eichmann was tried for war crimes. In a new book from Nextbook Press, historian Deborah E. Lipstadt examines the proceedings that changed the way we think about genocide.
When he asked his second question, I knew the answer to the first.
First, some background. When I began my research on the Eichmann trial I told my colleagues and friends that I felt relieved to be dealing with something other than Holocaust denial. First of all, it was nice—if one can use that term in relation to anything associated with the Holocaust—to move on to another topic. When I first wrote Denying the Holocaust, published in 1993, I never imagined that I would become enmeshed in the topic in not just a scholarly way but also in a legal and personal context.
But having a new topic to investigate was not the only reason for my relief. Writing about the Holocaust is always a difficult proposition. One must analyze horrific events and information while maintaining a requisite scholarly distance. Allowing emotions to intrude only distorts one's scholarship. It is neither easy nor pleasant. Yet when writing about Holocaust denial I was presented with an added discomforting element: I was not just studying a terrifying historical event. My subject was a movement that was alive, kicking, and working vigorously to distort history and inculcate anti-Semitism. There was immediacy to this issue that was not present when I dealt with events that happened seven decades earlier.
I encountered yet one additional challenge in my study of Holocaust denial. Many people consider deniers "nutters," as the British would say. They dismiss them as the historical equivalents of flat earthers. These same people told me that I was making a mistake in taking deniers seriously. As I began my work many of my colleagues in the field of Holocaust studies told me that this topic was not worth my time. They said quite bluntly: "You are writing about crackpots, Deborah. Why bother?" In response I explained, generally to no avail, that, while I did not think deniers a clear and present danger, I did think that they were a potential future danger and that therefore it was important that we understand their modus operandi. Furthermore, I thought it crucial that the world recognize the inherent anti-Semitism girding their entire enterprise. Some of them may be nutters, but they are Jew-hating ones. As survivors die and the option of hearing about the Final Solution in the first person singular fades, deniers, I feared, would only find it easier to spread their pseudo-intellectual wares. It was important to expose them, their lies, and their tactics.
I encountered the same skepticism a number of years later when I was sued for libel by David Irving. Many people, among them leading scholars, counseled me to ignore the matter. "You should not take his threat seriously," I was repeatedly told. I chose to ignore their advice. If I did not fight he would have won by default because British libel law puts the burden of proof on the defendant. Once again my explanations were to no avail. "So what if he wins by default?" I was told. "No one takes him seriously, anyway." (With no sense of irony, some of the same people subsequently congratulated me on my "great victory" against this man and told me that what I did was very important.)
We convinced the court that the "proof" Irving claimed to have to validate his assertions regarding the Holocaust did not prove his claims at all. His arguments were, we demonstrated, a tissue of lies. What then does all this have to do with my work on the Eichmann trial?
Thinking about the anti-Semitism, which is the foundation stone of denial and the refusal—denial?—of so many people to take the topic seriously, made the "bottom line" of the Eichmann trial and, by extension, the Holocaust patently clear. It is quite simple and straightforward. Had the world taken Nazi anti-Semitism more seriously from the outset of the rise of the Third Reich the subsequent tragedy might have been quite different.
In the 1930s and 1940s, of course, observers—and the potential victims—could not fathom where Hitler and his cohort's anti-Semitism might lead. They could, in retrospect, legitimately claim ignorance. Today we do not have that luxury. When anti-Semites speak of their hatred of Jews and their desire to do them harm, we should accept their threats at face value. That does not mean we should panic or declare that the sky is falling at every expression of anti-Semitism. It does not mean that every anti-Semite poses the same potential danger. It does mean that we should not reflexively dismiss anti-Semites as crackpots or the equivalent of flat earthers.
Most of all, the actions of not just Adolf Eichmann but all those who played a role in the Final Solution remind us that we should pay particular heed to threats that emanate from those who have the ability to do real harm. During the past five years we have heard a stream of Holocaust denial, overt anti-Semitism, and threats against Israel emanate from the mouth of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Many people have dismissed him as a deranged person whose crazy comments are best ignored. Some scholars have gone to great efforts to explain away his threats against Israel. That is to engage in a form of self-delusion, if not denial. Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial is linked directly to his animus toward Israel. In 2009, after questioning the existence of the Holocaust, he declared it a ploy used by the Jews to get the West to accede to the creation of Israel. This, of course, comes on top of his infamous Holocaust denial conference in 2006. The Iranian Foreign Ministry, which was an official host of the gathering, made common ground with some of the world's most infamous deniers and anti-Semites. It offered them a chance to express their animus toward both Israel and the Jews. The conference constituted a virtual Who's Who of Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites, including Robert Faurisson, one of the leading "theorists" of the movement who lives in Vichy France; Australian Fred Tobin, whose Adelaide Institute is a bastion of denial activities; former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke; and Bradley Smith, founder of the Committee on Open Debate on the Holocaust, which was responsible for placing a series of ads in college and university newspapers denying the Holocaust. The conference itself followed the Iranian contest on Holocaust-denial cartoons, which had the official imprimatur of Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad did not, of course, introduce Holocaust denial to the Middle East and the Arab/Muslim world. Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser spoke of the "lie of the 6 million Jews." Mahmoud Abbas, as a young student, wrote a dissertation that was pure denial, though he subsequently repudiated this view, and while I fully believe his repudiation, the fact that as a young man he could have been seduced by this falsehood is telling. Spokesmen for Hamas have also engaged in Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial themes can be found in newspapers in many parts of the Arab world, including in Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon.
In virtually every other part of the world where Holocaust denial can be found it is relegated to the extreme political fringe. Only in the Middle East can it be found in more legitimate circles. There is no counternarrative to challenge these claims. Young people are growing up convinced that the Holocaust is a myth produced to justify the existence of their enemy, Israel. In Iran, Ahmadinejad's denial and hatred of Israel are particularly frightening because Iran is close, we are told, to having nuclear weapons. It would be a form of denial—that is, willful blindness—not to recognize the nexus of Iranian leaders' overt Holocaust denial, threats to destroy Israel, unquestionable anti-Semitism, and possession of nuclear weapons. They are not separate and unrelated phenomena.
Seventy years ago people had an acceptable reason to say, "We could never fathom that Hitler meant what he said." Today we no longer have that luxury. At the very least it behooves us to take Ahmadinejad and those among his fellow Muslim leaders and opinion-makers seriously. Their Holocaust denial is part of their contemporary political agenda.
Among many other things, that is one of the lessons that both The State of Israel v. Adolf Eichmann and David Irving v. Penguin UK and Deborah Lipstadt taught me. It is what I now know in my gut that I may not have really known before.
Deborah E. Lipstadt, author of Nextbook Press' The Eichmann Trial, is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University.
28 Responses to "Trial and Error"
1. Judith Margolis says:
Good for you Deborah! I am rooting for you and am proud of your accomplishments.
Judith Margolis, Israel
2. Joachim Martillo says:
Deborah Lipstadt is worse than any Holocaust denier. The Holocaust of Zionist myth has few points of contact with the historical reality and is naturally subject to question and doubt.
In contrast Lipstadt commits a vast sin of omission by never discussing the context of ethnic Ashkenazi violence, sabotage, assassination, mass murder, ethnic cleansing, white slaving, economic exploitation, financial crime, and revolutionary subversion (without limitation) to which non-Jews (and also sometimes Karaite Jews) throughout Europe and the Soviet Union were reacting:
3. asherZ says:
Excellent piece. I would ask Deborah what practical steps Israel should take against Ahmadinejad. Most Jews do take him seriously and he must be verbally repudiated at every instance of his Holocaust denial. But that would not be enough. Hitler could have been stopped in 1935-1938 with minimal military means. Does Deborah believe that Israel should now destroy Iran's nuclear facilities? Should Israel strike now at Iran's allies, Hezbollah and Chamas with severe blows? Or something else. Appealing to the United Nations or a P.R. campaign is IMO a waste of time. How does taking him seriously translate into action?
4. asherZ says:
Joachim Goebbels Martillo, just above, is the kind of crackpot that Lipstadt is talking about.
5. rlgordonma says:
Joachim Martillo is an anti-Jewish bigot and troll on Jewish-themed websites who seems to take pleasure in spreading defamatory literature for the sole purpose of inflicting pain. He has posted under many aliases in the past. Recognize the language in his posts, they have a distinct signature, that of an unrepentant bigot who thrusts the charge on the targets of his hatred.
In the meantime, Deborah Lipstadt is a hero for withstanding the libel charges against her 11 years ago – it should be recalled that she was the Defendant and not the Plaintiff as so many assume. She continues to do yeoman's work in keeping the memories alive – not because they have prevented other genocides (they won't), but because not even the murder of 1/3 of the world's Jews has been able to convince people of the evils of anti-Semitism.
6. Ed Greene says:
I congratulate Jochim on including so much of anti-Jewish hate into one sentence without bothering to include substance. You did leave out the Khazar foolishness but I'm sure you're not through.
Deborah, thank you for your steadfastness and willingness to face such hate.
7. fw says:
Actually, it's pretty neat, to have an article on Holocaust deniers and then to produce a bona fide specimen to support her arguments, one displaying all their bestial traits in spades, no less.
Roll over, Joachim. Now, stay. Give us a paw. Good!
8. Susan says:
Thank you, Deborah, for the clarity of your insight.
9. Ian Thal says:
Joachim Martillo is a well known anti-Semitic activist in the Boston area and is spreading his usual anti-Semitic conspiracy theories: in this case blaming Soviet era atrocities on "the Ashkenazim" — little wonder that he attacks a historian like Professor Lipstadt, as he deals in ideologically motivated pseudo-history just like the Holocaust deniers. Furthermore, in his other writings, Martillo makes the rather odious claim that concern to stop the atrocities committed in Darfur and give relief to the victims only serve a "Zionist" and "Neocon" agenda.
And yes, I know Martillo will say that people who call him "anti-Semitic" in order to shut him up, but quite frankly: I've never known an anti-Semite to shut up after being identified as one.
10. Joachim Martillo says:
It is amazing how ignorant modern racist Jewish Zionists are.
One does not have to look at Khazars to realize that the vast majority of Jews have no ancestral connection to the Greco-Roman Kingdom of Judea. The Book of Esther, which belongs to the second temple period mentions massive conversion in Mesopotamia to Judaic religion.
The Hasmonean-specific content of Purim seems to have consisted of attempt to elevate a native Palestinian priesthood over the Zadokite Priests of Mesopotamian origin by depicting the Persians as villains and by challenging the lineage of Mesopotamians practicing Second Temple Judaism. At the same time the Book of Esther explains why there were so many more so-called Judeans in Mesopotamia than in Judea:
And in every province, and in every city, wherever the king's commandment and his decree came, the Judeans had joy and gladness, a feast and a good day. And many of the people of the land became Judeans; for the fear of the Judeans fell on them. (Esther 8:17).
κατὰ πόλιν καὶ χώραν οὗ ἂν ἐξετέθη τὸ πρόσταγμα οὗ ἂν ἐξετέθη τὸ ἔκθεμα χαρὰ καὶ εὐφροσύνη τοῖς ιουδαίοις κώθων καὶ εὐφροσύνη καὶ πολλοὶ τῶν ἐθνῶν περιετέμοντο καὶ ιουδάιζον διὰ τὸν φόβον τῶν ιουδαίων
וּבְכָל־מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה וּבְכָל־עִיר וָעִיר מְקֹום אֲשֶׁר דְּבַר־הַמֶּלֶךְ וְדָתֹו מַגִּיעַ שִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשֹׂון לַיְּהוּדִים מִשְׁתֶּה וְיֹום טֹוב וְרַבִּים מֵעַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ מִתְיַהֲדִים כִּי־נָפַל פַּחַד־הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם׃
The Hasmoneans may have used this text as implicit justification for the compulsory Judaization policy that they applied to pagan populations under their rule.
[In the 2nd century CE Dio Cassius notes the non-Judean/non-Palestinian origin of the vast majority of the people practicing Judaic religion.]
11. fw says:
Joachim presents us with an excellent example of the paranoid's fetish for extravagant amounts of arcane documentation, to buttress outlandish conspiracy theories and the outright denial of plain historical fact, however amply documented it may be. I believe Hofstadter's famous essay addressed this.
I think we can also look forward seeing some of the more perverse tendencies endemic to other's of his ilk, and it might prove worthwhile to speculate on their psychological origin, and the paradoxical need Joachim has to be accepted among those he denigrates as ignorant. He's not totally dissimilar to Philip Weiss, with that ravenous hunger for attention, even if he draws his disciples from the sociopathic fringe.
12. Frank Messmann says:
Tablet readers may not know that Mr Martillo and his wife are Jewish. If you look at his website, I believe you will find him to be extremely well informed on Jewish history. The ad hominem attacks on him are disgraceful.
13. asherZ says:
Mr. Messman, some of the worst anti-semites were born jewish. As for ad Hominem attacks, are you referring to martillo's statement,"Deborah Lipstadt is worse than any Holocaust denier. " This against a respected scholar and defender of our people.
14. Gene says:
Frank Messmann, have you heard of a person by the name Torquemada? (If you read history books you should know about him). Guess what? He was also Jewish (from his mother's side).
15. Joachim Martillo says:
I guess the Book of Esther is an arcane source when it happens to conflict with Zionist propaganda.
16. Ian Thal says:
If Mr. Martillo were "well informed on Jewish history" (as Frank Messmann puts it) then he wouldn't be using the canard "that the vast majority of Jews have no ancestral connection to the Greco-Roman Kingdom of Judea" as DNA sampling of Jewish populations throughout the world has generally shown a distinct shared ancestry, as well as the shared religious and cultural traditions.
Yes, Mr. Martillo may be widely read, but he is also selectively read, and spreading unsubstantiated conspiracy theories designed to arouse hatred and hostility.
Furthermore, you'll notice that he has the usual modus operandi of the anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist: he attacks Professor Lipstadt's professionalism without actually calling into question any aspect of her scholarship and then switching the topic to blaming Soviet-era atrocities on the "Ashkenazi" and then switching to the claim that modern day Jews have no ancestral ties to the land of Israel. I.e.: He is incapable of making a sustained argument or engaging the thoughts of others.
17. MonkFish says:
This Martillo guy is clearly suffering from the "anti-Zionist" type of acute brain fever. Some symptoms are easily identified:
1. Spends and inordinate amount of time on Facebook, message boards, IRC and other fora. Each visit he marks with a fresh smear of verbal excreta (is particularly fond of long lists of harsh epithets such as "genocidal, homicidal, conspiratorial, greedy, baby-killing child-molesting X). Finds little to time to tend to basic needs other than the constant vilification of Jews (a group with which he purports not be obsessed). Dabbles in Palestinian nationalism from time to time, especially in its substantive debates about Palestinian identity such as Jewish conspiracies, Israeli genocide, and Jewish genetics (would probably not detect any irony here).
2. Has a vastly over-inflated opinion of himself. Eager to emphasize his scholarly credentials by cutting and pasting liberally from various Biblical, historical and Talmudic sources. Probably goes by the appellation "Independent Scholar" – no doubt a regressive identification with the other much maligned, misunderstood and persecuted "scholar", Norm Finkelstein. Considers his range of political, historical and sociological insight to encompass First and Second Temple Judaism, the early Rabbinic Period, Al Andalus, Persian Judaism from 597 CE to the present, Yemenite Judaism, the Kazars (in which he is a leading expert, naturally) the Haskala, 19th century Ashkenazi Jewry, Zionism etc. etc. Expert in Hebrew (got past chapter 1 of First Hebrew primer).
3. Has amassed a vast collection of internet pseudonyms, many of them Hebrew sounding (again, not to be construed as an unhealthy fixation on Jews or the expression of a bizarre jealously of the Jews/desire to be a Jew).
Diagnosis: Emotionally fragile. Six months without internet (digital shabbos?), a hearty diet of Matzah Ball soup and Brisket, Ahava stress relief treatment. Allow one anti-Semitic outburst per day as might die if ignored.
18. Alan H Zwiebel says:
I thought your book was brilliant and I'm proud to have known you and your wonderful family
back in the "good old days" in Far Rockaway.
I wish you continued success in your teaching, writing and speaking about our people in history.
19. fw says:
Bravo, MonkFish. This will be an entertaining, scholarly vivisection of a crank.
20. Fredrick Toben says:
1. Professor Lipstadt and I met in Melbourne in 1994 where she stated and signed her book with 'Let truth prevail', something I have fearlessly embraced in this quest of mine to find out the real facts of the Holocaust-Shoah.
2. At the December 2006 Teheran Holocaust Conference I titled my presentation: 'The Holocaust has no reality in space and time, only in memory', which dealt with the nonsense Treblinka narrative.
3. Since then I have spent time in various prisons because I refuse blindly to believe in the Holocaust-Shoah narrative. My latest book is called: 'Arbeit Macht Frei: Impertinent Incarceration' wherein I detail how physical work for me on a prison farm caused me to lose 13 Kilo, among other things.
4. Anyone who prevents my questioning any aspect of this Holocaust-Shoah narrative is set on switching off my thinking processes, and so unless I wish to become their slave, I must resist them because only the quest for truth will set me free.
5. Is it not time for Professor Lipstadt to admit that we should have an open debate on this topic without the subject matter itself being lost in the debate?
6. The latest Holocaust-Shoah questioner is Anthony Lawson who – NOT YET – cannot be tagged with the usual 'offensive' labels: hater, Holocaust denier, antisemite, racist, Nazi! – at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gycNMf0xAc
21. Ian Thal says:
How ironic that Doctor Töben (one of the eminences of Holocaust denial) calls for "open debate" has but can't seem to actually present an argument to counter anything stated by Professor Lipstadt.
I should also point out that as much as Töben (I find it odd that he doesn't know that his surname is written with an umlaut over the "o") is trying to link Professor Lipstadt's work with his imprisonment, I would note that Professor Lipstadt has in the past stated opposition to the criminalization of speech.
22. Deborah Lipstadt says:
Thank you to all the commentators who made thoughtful comments. [Those who engage in vituperative rants I simply ignore.] I am not a military analyst so I do not know what Israel or any other country can or should do to halt Iran's weapon development.
For a range of reviews of the book, interviews, and podcasts etc. see http://on.fb.me/g6lMZ9
Alan: I remember you well. Glad you enjoyed the book.
23. fw says:
Hey, Toben, you moron, if the Holocaust never occurred, why would you be offended by the term 'Nazi'?
24. Amy Aremia says:
As I see it, there are two reliable facts that disprove that a Holocaust as presented did exist…
Frist: Hitler had less than 3 million Jews under his command…England and France had declared war on Germany which made it impossible for Germany to wage a war and at the same time be able to gas 6 million…
For more than 2000 years they have been seeking revenge because their God, in his final reprimand for their disobediance and evil ways, took back his promised land of milk and honey and told them that they, and their generations to follow will wander the world without a land… Yet, in spite of this, they still claim to be god's chose ones regardless of the fact that they were responsible for the death of Christ. If they were not responsible for His death,then who was? Pontius Pilate? That would be too fraudulent an answer because the mobs had a choice between a convicted killer and the innocent Jesus. It was this mob that cried, "Crucify him, crucify him!"
25. jzsnake says:
Deborah, I know if my parents who were holocaust survivors were still alive would be so proud of you. I know I am. You are a real warrior and a mensch to boot.
26. mrsjzoo says:
Bless you Deborah. I recently had a similar argument with a fellow historian about the re- writing of WWII istory. Many of your words are my own. Thank you for speaking out in defense of what is right.
Marie – MA WWII History
27. R.E. Prindle says:
'An unrepentent bigot'? Hmm. How universal is that?
28. Fredrick Toben says:
Mar 24, 2011 at 6:57 PM
Hey, Toben, you moron, if the Holocaust never occurred, why would you be offended by the term 'Nazi'?
fw, my Reply to you:
1. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me – has been a maxim that I impart to students – but Holocaust/Shoah believers are 'offended' when I ask questions, and especially when I point out blatant lies told about the belief that Germans systematically exterminated European Jewry mainly in homicidal gas chambers.
2. Such an allegation is justifiably hurtful to many Germans who want to know whether their parents were such murderers but then are not allowed to ask question, nor openly investigate the matter because it has been criminalised and is thus legally protected, thus making the Holocaust-Shoah an ideology/religion.
3. Remember the Iranian president, Dr Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stated: 'Is the Holocaust not an historical event? – yes! Then like any other historical event why not investigate it openly without fear of legal/social sanction?' – hater, Holocaust denier, antisemite, racist, Nazi = end of discussion!
4. Truth has been my defence but it did not save me from spending reflective time like a monk in a cell, and write another book.
5. Of interest is the fact that Prof Lipstadt has attacked American media personality Glenn Beck because he dared to write about financier George Soros – http://www.newsmax.com/InsideCover/glenn-beck-david-carr/2011/03/24/id/390653?s=al&promo_code=BEFB-1
6. Perhaps Prof Lipstadt can get an international commission going where specifics are addressed – not just verbally but also physically investigated. It will be traumatic for individuals who have believed in the Holocaust/Shoah for a life-time, then to be confronted with truth. Notice how the Iraq WMDs issue is still played out in the media, not to mention the lies of 9/11.
7. If anyone can get a Truth-Commission going on the Holocaust-Shoah, then it would be Professor Lipstadt-in shā' Allāh