It is one thing, I am told, to defend the free speech rights of Holocaust deniers; but to engage and defend the content of their views, however cautiously — well, that's another matter. Smoky's over the line, says the one consumed with electric suspicion. And questions must follow. What are your motives? Do you hate Jews? Do you still beat your wife?
Of course, the abstract argument is fine as far as it goes. It's just that it doesn't go very far. If we are serious, the next question must, at some point, intrude. Put another way, if people are being sent to jail for expressing ideas and writing words — and they are – it is only natural and fair to ask: what are those ideas? What are those words? When does a thought expressed become a crime? When it is incitement? When it is a lie? Could it be more complicated? Or less?
My position is simple. I believe that you absolutely have to get your fucking hands dirty. I am convinced this is ultimately a matter of decency, and I mean this without irony.
I may run long, but my aim is simple. I want to introduce you to the work of a man — a scholar — whose arguments assume special urgency in a political environment where the public expression of doubt about what others believe, in one unique context, is increasingly met with real censorship and real persecution.
When I asked Samuel Crowell about the question of intellectual engagement — about how it relates to the core issue of free speech — it was clear that he had given the matter some thought.
Let his response serve as an introduction:
Defending the free speech rights of Holocaust revisionists could be achieved in a few ways. One would be to attempt to articulate the manner in which any suppression of freedom of speech is an affront to individual dignity: In short, one could attempt to re-write John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. There are at least three problems with that approach. In the first place, it runs the risk of becoming extremely abstract, and therefore unpersuasive. It is one thing, for example, to argue for the prohibition of torture in the abstract, but it is another thing to argue from such a general premise to the particular case of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11. This is not to say that such an argument cannot, or should not, be made; it simply makes it that much harder, since the emotions of the audience are immediately engaged.
Another defect is related to the first. If one attempts to argue in the abstract for a human right, one must, inevitably, deal with particulars. But any attempt to argue for freedom of speech in general that ends up defending something already perceived as odious is bound to appear insincere, and therefore will again have a higher threshold to reach to be persuasive. In addition, arguments from general to particular are easily rebutted, although not refuted, by recourse to the most outlandish examples: You say you want freedom of speech, but what about child pornography? Threats of violence? Shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater? And so forth.
This leads to the third problem with attempting to defend Holocaust Revisionism abstractly: such a defense does nothing to weaken the perception that Holocaust Revisionism is intrinsically wicked, harmful, revanchist, anti-Semitic, or just in general a threat to public order. And yet it is precisely these latter characteristics that drive the legal prohibitions, the fines, and the prison terms.
So in other words to defend Holocaust Revisionism one needs to not only to defend the field's freedom of expression abstractly, but also to show that it is not harmful, not hateful, not dangerous, and not a threat. It is, after all, nothing but a species of historical investigation, and the accurate appraisal of the past cannot be a threat, unless and except to those who wish to ground their moral and ethical absolutes in the shifting sands of human affairs, rather than in the eternal abstractions of religion and philosophy. Therefore the best way to defend the free speech rights of Holocaust Revisionists is simply to recapitulate their main points, refine them as necessary, add to them as appears appropriate, and to avoid, as neither side tends to avoid, the temptation to shed heat rather than light.
Decades ago, when the works of Henry Miller and William Burroughs and Hubert Selby and Jean Genet and other "literary outlaws" were at issue, expert witnesses lined up to testify as to the redeeming merit of every presumed obscenity. Sometimes the good guys won, and sometimes they lost. But such recourse is largely denied to today's class of thought criminal. When Ernst Zundel's lawyer attempted to defend the credibility of her client's presumptively criminal views, they locked her up. Thus a game is rigged. Grove Press isn't going to step up this time. It's easier to sign the petition and shrug. If the lying fuckers should've known better, if they're as bad as CP traders, if they only stoke the embers of a special hate — then a problem may filed away with an asterisk, that might as well be a swastika.
A subject has become inseparable from the stigma that latches. In lieu of discourse, one finds crass signage and deflective satire. A genuine controversy is held hostage by the nuanced strictures of dinner-party form, by the huff and heat of the latest never forget editorial. Yet the noise can only mask a familiar authoritarian gesture. The greatest taboo of our age is sustained in the synchronized cultural choreography of finger-wagging, sometimes from the professoriate, sometimes from the judge's bench. You are being admonished. You are being told not to consider that there could be a second possibility. You are being told, in so many ways, not to look. And it's only too easy to abide. All you have to do is read from the script you've been handed. Tell yourself it's of a class with snuff porn or whatever agreed-to boundary. Console yourself with anti-hate sugarplums and bubbles and Frankfurt-schooled excuses. Play it safe. You will have their blessing.
Yet something is wrong. Because people are in prison for writing and selling books.
Once again, the public library etagerie is arranged for your edification. Construction paper letters stapled to the tackboard. Mark Twain and D.H Lawrence chain-locked in the display case. Harry Potter facing off against familiar cartoon christian enemies. Newsclips about southern school-board busybodies wringing hands over Heather's two mommies. Banned Books Week as nostalgia, as distraction. As crude extortion, really — once you know what's missing. And you don't even feel the chill.
People are in prison for writing and selling books.
Who the Fuck is Samuel Crowell?
In his unfortunately titled 2002 book, The Case for Auschwitz, esteemed denier-debunker Robert Jan van Pelt wrote that Samuel Crowell's The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes "raised negationist discourse to a new level." As compliments go, van Pelt's accidental blurb was surely of the left-handed variety; but a compliment it was, and coming from a key expert in the much ballyhooed Irving-Lipstadt trial, one might have expected a few attentive historians to take note and perhaps look up the work of an elusive, pseudononymous revisionist, who by all reliable accounts, is on a different track.
Yet Crowell's work remains obscure. Even in the sub rosa online worlds were revisionist discourse percolates in acrimonious fits and furies, Crowell's core theses — he has two — are scarcely discussed or debated. A search of the Nizkor site currently yields a single inconsequential reference to "Samuel Crowell," and a survey of Muehlenkamp et al's obsessive playground turns up only a few passing references, all pitched with requisite contempt. In private correspondence, Michael Shermer assured me that he had never heard of the guy. Do you think it might be a pseudonym? I have every good reason to suspect that America's Skeptic-laureate was being coy, but no matter. In the rogues gallery of Big H skeptics, Crowell remains a nobody. He doesn't even merit a mention on the ADL blacklist.
I am not surprised by Crowell's relative obscurity. There are a number of reasons, none of which signals a conspiracy of silence or anything nefarious. For one thing, there is the matter of infighting. Subcultures have their own orthodoxies and boundaries, and to the extent that Crowell's work challenges the guarded conclusions of some few prominent revisionist researchers, he has been less than warmly received. Another factor is temperament. Unlike many gadflies wedded to the subject, Crowell is ill-disposed toward conflict and contretemps. He simply does his homework, spells it out, and keeps a low profile. He is a quiet man whose interests lie beyond the hue and cry, if not beyond the subject itself.
But perhaps most importantly, it should be kept in mind that Crowell's most widely read work, The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes, presently exists only as an online text, and as such it remains, by the author's own account, a "work in progress." Books matter still, and despite the radical novelty of its central thesis, Crowell's has yet to be published. Of course, this much is about to change.
Yet, along with van Pelt, I believe Crowell is important. More emphatically, I think that his theoretical and empirical contributions to Holocaust revisionism tend to defy and diffuse much of the misapprehension surrounding the whole awful subject, and I suppose that could be part of the problem as well. Such as it is, Crowell's oeuvre stands apart. It doesn't fit the narrative, as the journalists say. If there is an agenda encoded in his skepticism, or in his central counter-thesis, it is driven by scholarly curiosity and a stalwart commitment to the ideal of free inquiry. Not by animus. Not by some stunted conspiratorial fixation on political machinations or cui bono heeby-jeebies. In a demimonde where monomania roots at all turns and where the devil's haircut holds fashion, Crowell's work is notable for its sobriety, for its broadly clarifying perspective, for its accessible engagement with difficult problems, and for its civility. Crowell works in a tradition of literary analysis that is largely unknown — or unexplored — by those who would carry the banner of dissident history, whatever their motives. And in contradistinction to the many quarrelsome shitbaiting deniers who clamor and thump at the noisy edge of a discourse that isn't, Crowell seems to understand something about human beings.
If you have some familiarity with serious revisionist scholarship, this will make more sense. Holocaust revisionists such as Butz, Rudolf, Mattogno, Faurisson and more than a few others have for decades presented technically informed and rigorously empirical studies of core elements of the standard Holocaust story, specifically with reference to the widely accepted claim that millions (or perhaps hundreds of thousands) of Jews were sent to death in gas chambers under an explicit Nazi program of extermination. The skeptical approach toward conventional historiography favored by revisionists may be broadly understood as positivist, as evidenced by the overwhelming emphasis given to forensic analysis, source criticism, and the critical reading of documentary evidence, including eyewitness testimony. But while revisionists have, in my view, been largely successful in presenting an empirically credible critique of what is almost universally believed about the fate of European Jews during the Second World War, they have been notably less impressive when it comes to explaining how and why so many people could have come to believe that such monumental events took place if they are not based in factual reality.
Faced with the challenge of providing an alternative account, revisionists typically emphasize the role of wartime propaganda and postwar mischief, notably at Nuremberg. Consequently, they rest their inquiry on the suggestion or assertion that the gassing/extermination legend is best understood as the product of a hoax. While I have read Butz closely enough to know that his conception of a "hoax" in this context is more nuanced and less counter-conspiratorial than is commonly understood, his seminal work reveals something of the interpretive incuriosity that leaves many readers cold toward revisionist theory. Put simply, he comes off as insensitive, or bored. And this is where Crowell comes in. By leaving the empirical critique to the background (largely in the form of richly annotated footnotes), The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes departs from positivist form to present a novel and frankly fascinating deconstructive account of how a grand myth may have arisen and evolved through processes widely accepted and understood in less incendiary contexts. In this sense, his inquiry begins precisely where others lose interest. Jan van Pelt picked the right horse.
"It is not enough," Crowell writes in Sherlock, "to say that this or that affidavit contains several errors and is therefore suspect, nor, for that matter, is it enough to carry out forensic studies and show the extreme unlikelihood of specific gassing claims . . . to show with a fair degree of probability that the mass gassings were impossible is not the same thing as explaining why everyone believes they took place." To address the hanging question of belief, Crowell advances a chronologically situated literary and cultural analysis of gassing claims, beginning with the first appearance of such claims in the form of vague media-facilitated rumors, tracing backward to antecedent texts and events that prefigure the central narrative, and ending with the "canonical Holocaust" as it was essentially ordained in the scheme of postwar tribunals. At all turns, Crowell's approach is informed by an understanding of social forces seldom considered either by revisionists or by traditional Holocaust historians. He argues, I think persuasively, that the gas chamber stories are a product of cultural construction.
Early on, Crowell draws an important distinction between two kinds of reality:
Fact is a reflection of empirical reality; but rumor expresses a reality all its own, however difficult it is to define, since the world that rumor describes is itself the expression an inner world of unspoken assumptions, associations, and projections that characterize a human culture at a specific historical moment. Attempts to describe the parameters and nature of these unspoken worlds of human existence, which in some ways are more real than the empirical world, at least in terms of determining our perception and our judgment, have been a main project among intellectual historians and literary critics at least since the early 1960's.
Having summoned the ghost of Foucault, the task of Sherlock is framed modestly as an effort to "vindicate revisionist doubt," which Crowell clearly shares, without explicitly endorsing the radical thesis promoted by many revisionists. "[C]ategorical denials of mass gassing are not possible," he writes,
One can, however, try to explain how the gassing claim could have arisen quite naturally given the characteristics and concerns of early twentieth century social and cultural life. It will be shown that the gassing claim, as a form of the more general extermination claim, comprises elements of specific concern
to East European Jews since the early nineteenth century. It will also be shown that the traditional extermination scenario, featuring a shower-gas-burning sequence, is rooted in profound European and American concerns over disease and disease prevention, the use of poison gas and other mysterious weapons of mass destruction, and finally anxiety and fear over the recent reappearance of
cremation as a means of disposal of the dead.
Before wading into this tall task, it is well to consider how cultural interpretation may be plied to illuminate another dark story — specifically, the one that got me thinking.
The McMartin preschool case began in the summer of 1983 with a single uncorroborated accusation and a form letter circulated among parents. Once those germs were introduced, a story emerged and evolved with strange and terrible momentum. The claim then widely believed was that there existed a network of secret rooms under the preschool where children were taken, by way of dark tunnels, to be molested and raped. The story goes that the children were threatened not to tell by preschool workers, such as Raymond Buckey and his dear mother, Peggy, who dressed as devils and ghosts to make the point. After being counseled by state-appointed therapists, children claimed to have been forced to watch animals being tortured and slaughtered. Soon the story would assume the conspiratorial proportions, involving a vast secret network of well-healed satanists, bent on evil for evil's sake.
When a therapist asked the children, "If they find the secret room, what do you think they will find?" the answers, duly sifted, suggested and reported, would gravitate toward the unspeakable:
Child One: The secret room was above ground, accessed by the office. "The room was totally dark but could be lit with red lights (similar to a photographer's dark room)." The room was 7'x9' (no height given). Contained table and chairs and a 35 mm camera on a stand. Didn't remember pictures on wall. "Everyone, students and teachers alike, went into this room."
Child Two: ". . . didn't like Ray's secret room because it was dirty." Camera and male cameraman (white adult, dark hair and beard). ". . . no good things happened there." No location given.
Child Three: Secret room located underground. Entrance under Ray's desk. "You stepped down into a wooden tunnel which was shaped in an arc. There was a wooden door on the room. There weren't any windows, but it did have lights. There was no talk of the devil in this room. Child Three told his therapist that there was a separate room where the devil lived. The devil hurt kids and threatened to kill their mothers if they told. The furniture was a table and chair. There were glossy pictures of molested children. Child Three saw a Polaroid camera in the secret room."
Today, most reasonable people, if they are prompted to think about it, will agree that the stories of satanic ritual abuse in daycare centers were, in factual essence, false. But the cultural reality was very different at the time. People believed it. Smart people believed it. Therapists and investigators and DAs and teachers and parents believed every lurid particular. The McMartin trial lasted for seven years and wasted more than 15 million dollars before being dismissed for lack of evidence. And of course, McMartin wasn't an isolated case. Soon there would be dozens of similar panics across the United States and even in Europe. Details would differ from case to case, but the claims always hovered around core elements and tropes. Animal sacrifice. Ritual abuse of children. Buried memories of babies slaughtered at altar. Black robes and bad theater. On talk shows, "survivors" were paraded before credulous and outraged audiences. Seemingly from the shadows, they came forward with firsthand accounts, with secret knowledge mined from memories long repressed. It was a new version of an old fear — of the "other," perhaps — dressed in backbrain-rehearsed invocations of a redundant narrative, encoded to see evil lurking in our midst. Overzealous prosecutors fanned the flames, to be sure; and justice was miscarried in case after case. Yet accounts of legal corruption are mere incident to the form of the panic that had been generated. Nothing happens in a vacuum. You can't control a good story. Or a bad one. It would be a full decade before this fog of belief — this moral panic — would give way to more rational analysis. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that people grew bored with the recitation of so much silly blackmass childrape bullshit.
In the wake of such an episode, questions remain. Did the claims of widespread satanic ritual abuse reflect "an inner world of unspoken assumptions, associations, and projections"? What was happening? What marked the "specific historical moment" when our fortressed rationalism would again and so rapidly collapse under the weight of a new yet familiar horror?
It is not possible to know with certainty, but removed from the unreality that prevailed, we may entertain ideas. A Freud-infused brand of academic feminism had been trickling down for some time. The popular bestseller, Michelle Remembers, had primed a generation of therapists to believe very silly things about recovered memories and the prevalence of buried trauma, and it is true that therapists played a crucial role in the McMartin panic. They came to their task with preconceptions, with ideas that were cultivated and circulated at professional conferences; ideas that were confirmed through subtle and unconscious bias, and through storytelling.
But if therapeutic feminism was one tributary, a cultural reaction to feminism may also be implicated without tempting irony. Parental — which is to say, maternal — guilt and anxiety surely dressed the stage. Times were changing. The divorce culture had reached critical mass and the increasing popularity of daycare and preschool fostered concern among parents — i.e., newly single mothers — who worried about entrusting their traditional caretaking role to strangers. This would partly explain why so many women stood accused at the height of the panic. Women as victims, women as perpetrators. We've seen this before.
And there is the possibility that the ritual abuse episode could have been partly assembled from the still smoldering ashes of a related panic over child abduction, which, in turn, reflected another set of cultural fears. There had been social upheaval, and crime was on the rise. In an atmosphere of uncertainty, one seeks solace in nostalgia, or one roots for scapegoats. Under the worst scenario, anomie begets paranoia. And paranoia feeds the beast from which the darkest stories arise.
Turning to popular culture, we may note that initial claims of ritual abuse run parallel with the popularity of heavy metal music. I remember well how family-focused Christian groups and concerned parents would pore over album cover art and find evidence of dark conspiracy in what now seems like so much cheesy pop-satanic iconography. More salient traces may be noted in the unprecedented popularity of certain books and films, the most notable on both accounts being The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby. Sacreligious motifs in William Freidkin's hugely popular film — which, if memory serves, first aired on network television in the early 80s — would be recycled in the confessional testimonies of many ritual abuse "survivors." And Roman Polanski's film — along with Ira Levin's novel — provided a modern context for time-worn yarns in which seemingly benign segments of society collude in profound secrecy to perpetrate unspeakable crimes in the name of whichever dark lord. It may not be insignificant that Rosemary's Baby is at essence a story about maternal anxiety. It may not be insignificant that The Exorcist is at essence a story about the modern crisis of faith. It may not be insignificant that those who persist in believing in the reality of satanic ritual abuse often liken their critics to Holocaust deniers.
In short, you find the elements of a gathering storm, that no one could have predicted. History is full of similar episodes, where reason is occluded by the force of a fear-borne sociogenic narrative, with terrifying consequences. But whether one examines the Boxer Rebellion or witchcraft mania or the Great Fear that followed the French Revolution, the explanations never collapse to a fixed point. Culture is more complex than any conspiracy theory. This is how religions get started.
I think it is important to note that there really were dark tunnels at the McMartin preschool. See for yourself:
This image is taken from the excellent IPT Journal monograph, The Dark Truth About 'The Dark Tunnels of McMartin', by John Earl, a work that eerily parallels many features of the Holocaust controversy, down to the archeological disputation.
The caption reads:
The real McMartin "tunnels," hand made by Charles Buckey for the school's tots to play in, above ground. The so-called tunnels, shown here at the original McMartin school, were later transported to the new school at 931 Manhattan Beach Boulevard. There were no other tunnels at the preschool, either above or below ground. (Photo courtesy of Peggy Buckey)
And I think it is important to note that there really were gas chambers at the camps. No one denies that structures were designed, built and used to rid lice from clothing, linens and mattresses due to frequent and devastating outbreaks of typhus. No one denies that lice were exterminated with hydrocyanic gas, or that chemical disinfection procedures were routinely employed to clean camp barracks and other facilities. We know this. There are detailed and unambiguous records. There are blueprints and work orders and manuals and cliometric data that make this much clear. Many of the original delousing structures exist today, at Auschwitz for example. There were also shower installations. And there were bomb shelters with peepholes and gas-tight doors, many of them converted from other structures in response to the threat of aerial bombardment and chemical warfare. There were crematoria and morgues. And before any of this, there was a very real euthanasia program, instituted under secret orders.
Track back further and you discover that during the First World War, German authorities, along with international relief organizations, appointed squads with the task of curbing outbreaks of disease. For this purpose, mobile vans were employed.
From The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes:
A severe typhus epidemic in Serbia in the winter of 1914 led to international intervention, including an American Relief Expedition that did much to control the disease in its early stages. In 1916, as Bulgaria entered the war on the side of the Central Powers, she was given large chunks of Serbian territory and this in turn required heightened vigilance on the part of the disinfection squads. In this context a story appeared in the London Daily Telegraph in March 1916, that alleged that 700,000 Serbians had been asphyxiated.
Surely it is no coincidence that the first claim of mass exterminations in 1942 . . . also featured gassings, the Daily Telegraph, and 700,000 victims. The story also reminds us that a mobile steam disinfection truck could easily be converted in a frightened and ignorant mind into a traveling gas chamber.
From the nebulous beginning, rumors circulated. Did they evolve? Did they converge on a sequential narrative?
Turn now to a once widely read account cited by Crowell in The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes:
In a great and lonely field, opposite a solitary house within a large yard, our train pulled up at last, and the conductor commanded the passengers to make haste and get out. […] [The conductor] hurried us into the one large room that made up the house, and then into the yard. Here a great many men and women, dressed in white, received us, the women attending the women and girls of the passengers, and the men the others. This was another scene of bewildering confusion, parents losing their children, and little ones crying; baggage being thrown together in one corner of the yard, heedless of contents, which suffered in consequence; those whiteclad Germans shouting commands, always accompanied with "Quick! Quick!" the confused passengers obeying all orders like meek children, only questioning now and then what was to be done with them. And no wonder if in some minds stories arose of people being captured by robbers, murderers, and the like. Here we had been taken to a lonely place where only that house was to be seen; our things were taken away, our friends separated from us; a man came to inspect us, as if to ascertain our full value; strange looking people driving us about like dumb animals, helpless and unresisting; children we could not see crying in a way that suggested terrible things; ourselves driven into a little room where a great kettle was boiling on a little stove; our clothes taken off, our bodies rubbed with a slippery substance that could be any bad thing; a shower of warm water let down on us without warning; again driven together to another little room where we sit, wrapped in woolen blankets till large, coarse bags are brought in, their contents turned out, and we see only a cloud of steam, and hear a woman's voice to dress ourselves," Quick! Quick!" or else we'll miss something we cannot hear. We are forced to pick out our clothes from among the others, with the steam blinding us; we choke, cough, entreat the women to give us time; they persist, "Quick! Quick! or you'll miss the train!" Oh, so we really won't be murdered! They are only making us ready for the continuing of our journey, cleaning us of all suspicions of dangerous illness. Thank God!
The passage above will be eerily familiar to those acquainted with Holocaust literature. The central themes are present. Foremost, there is the description of terror-stricken compliance; lambs led to slaughter. Some readers may even recognize the elemental structure from a memorable scene in Schindler's List. But this is not a Holocaust narrative at all. It is taken from Mary Antin's memoir, The Promised Land, published in 1912. Antin's "scene of bewildering confusion" recounts the experience of many Jewish-Russian emigrants who fled to Germany in the late 19th century to escape pogroms. Due to recent outbreaks of cholera, such emigrants were subject to novel hygienic procedures which, as Antin's account makes clear, were preceded by dark rumors even then.
It is inarguably true, as Crowell emphasizes, that earliest coherent accounts of Nazi gassings are shrouded in rumor. The Daily Telegraph story referenced above is one of the earliest iterations of the gassing-atrocity claim that would become central to Holocaust historiography. But the Telegraph article was based, rather loosely, on another document, usually referred to as the Bund report, which probably originated from the Jewish resistance in Warsaw. The Bund report, in turn, appears to have been informed by two documents — one being an underground communication alleging that "in a number of villages Jews were put to death by gas poisoning . . . in hermetically sealed trucks transformed into gas chambers"; the other being an article from Der Verker, in which vague reference is made to Chelmo as the site of homicidal gassings. The Bund report is in no way corroborated by first-hand evidence for the claimed atrocities, and it makes no reference to the 700,000 victims that would be reported in the Daily Telegraph article. If you think this is par for the course, you've never seen the German report on Katyn. Amtes Material zum Massenmord von Katyn, Crowell notes,
is approximately 350 pages in length, including 60 pages of photos, about 80 pages detailing the 4,000 corpses exhumed, extensive autopsy reports, other analyses (e.g., dendrochronological analyses) along with all relevant documents, reports, and a chronology. It cannot be compared to anything prepared by the allies either during or after the war, it can only be compared to an archaeological study.
On June 24, 1942, the Bund Report was summarized on the BBC. The following day, the Daily Telegraph ran a major story on the Report, with two headlines of note: "Germans murder 700,000 in Poland," and "Traveling Gas Chambers". The following day, Zygielbojm delivered a broadcast over the BBC, summarizing the Bund Report, in Yiddish, and hence obviously directed to the Jewish population in Poland. Within a week, the BBC had made an arrangement with the Polish National Council giving the BBC priority in the reporting of all future atrocity stories.
In July of 1942, the Polish Fortnightly Review would publish a summary of the Bund report which incorporated the first known reference to Auschwitz as a site where gassing atrocities had occured. Specifically, it was claimed that Soviet and Polish POWs had been gassed there in September of 1941. The same article would also make reference to the elusive camp, Paradisical — possibly a confused reference to Birkenau — where experiments with poison gas were said to have been conducted. Other reports — including the first witness accounts — followed in rapid succession. Polish intelligence communications, including the testimony of Jan Karski, described ghastly scenes at Belzec, where it was claimed that Jews "were told to strip, as if for a shower, were led into a room, and then electrocuted via a metal plate on the floor." Also heard around this time were Thomas Mann's famous BBC broadcasts in which the exiled German scribe repeated gassing rumors with a new twist, claiming that tens of thousands of Jews had been gassed in hermetically sealed trains. Soon, the human soap rumors would resurface from the World War I propaganda mill. And by the spring of 1943, the the emergent extermination narrative would be outlined in an obscure British memorandum attributed a member of the Polish underground. In addition to the gassing element that survived, the memo described electrocution chambers at Auschwitz along with a rather terrifying Rube-Goldberg-esque contraption called the "Hammerluft system," which involved "special chambers where the hammer fell from the ceiling and by means of a special installation victims found death under air pressure." Something like that. Revisionist archivist Carlos Porter calls that one the "pedal-driven brainbashing machine," which isn't too far off.
Clearly, a story was developing. It still needed some editing.
It is possible, of course, that the story, in nascent form, notwithstanding whichever suspect elements, reflected some literal reality — that the rumors traced to real events for which material evidence was, and is, simply lacking. This view, embraced to varying degrees by most historians today, is not strictly denied by Crowell, Q.E.D. Rather, he posits a different, and arguably more parsimonious interpretation; specifically, that a "feedback loop," facilitated through popular channels of print and broadcast media, lent an aura of increasing credibility to disparate and obscure atrocity claims that, upon examination, vanish into ether, much like the once-current yarns about ritual abuse. Through popular recitation and embellishment, such claims would, under this view, eventually be reified and codified through official reports that would in turn be "confirmed" through testimony that was, in circular form, influenced by an already embedded cultural narrative or "script." The Soviet Special Commission Reports on Auschwitz and other camps can thus be seen to have provided a template for the spectacular confessions of SS witnesses that were obtained, often under duress or through torture. Through what may fairly be considered an evolutionary process, then, soon-familiar story elements would have come to predominate the narrative, while others would be quietly cast aside like apocrypha. It is indeed interesting to note that many specific early claims, from electrified floors to pneumatic hammers to vacuum chambers to "death rays" to soap and lamphades and shrunken heads no longer receive much attention in serious Holocaust literature, though Crowell's approach allows us to see how such imaginative story elements can be understood to represent more generalized anxieties centering on German industrialization and war technology.Of course, this poses a problem because the same culturally fixed preoccupations are just as easily detected in the claims that are now seldom held to doubt, namely in the "shower-gas-burning sequence" that would come to define the technique and operation of the most infamous killing centers.
Regardless. In short order, we would be left with the form of the gassing-extermination story that most people accept today, albeit with increasing and possibly telling caveats. From such a point, postwar atrocity literature combined with the visceral impact of widely viewed newsreel footage — gray corpses at Belsen — to seal to the horror as something beyond metaphysical doubt. That is, as a terrible and sacred truth.
By anchoring his analysis to a fixed chronology, beginning with the earliest accounts of Holocaust-branded mass gassing provided in the Bund report, in Jan Karski's testimony, in Thomas Mann's BBC broadcasts and other germinal communications, Crowell shows how dominant motifs, themes, and narratives trace to antecedent — and nearly contemporaneous — currents. Through this lens, one sees the intertextual relevance not only of discredited First World War atrocity claims (which, again, is where we first encounter the now familiar if largely abandoned claims about human soap manufacture), but also and importantly of the Nazi euthanasia campaign.
Crowell's treatment of the latter subject is subtle, but especially revealing. While there was indeed a secret euthanasia program (known as Aktion T-4) in place prior to claims of mass gassing at the camps, documentary evidence supports the conclusion that killings of handicapped and mentally impaired people authorized under this program — which must be distinguished from later accounts of ethnic extermination — were primarily carried out through lethal injections (and possibly CO gas) at designated hospitals. Crowell shows how the more sensational T-4 related claims (about people being gassed in chambers and vans, or about people being blown up) were derived from postwar testimonies that were in effect "retrofitted" to synchronize with subsequent atrocity narratives, which, again in circuitous turn, appear to have been influenced by the covert reality of the euthanasia program. Consequently, Crowell deconstructs postwar accounts of the euthasia efforts, arguing that they were conspicuously and incoherently grafted to the "shower-gas-burning sequence," which came later.
A lengthy excerpt, centering on one of Konrad Morgen's notorious affidavits will give you a sense of how such retrofitting could have occured:
Beginning with the affidavits of Konrad Morgen in July of 1946, which were intended to absolve the SS of responsibility for the mass extermination gassings, we have an attempt to link the latter procedures to the prior rumors of euthanasia gassings. The proof offered then, and which has been considered sufficient since, consisted not of direct material or physical evidence, but rather postwar testimonies.
The numbers arriving varied between 40 and 150. First, they were taken to the undressing room. There they men and women in different sections had to undress or they were undressed. Their clothes and luggage were put in a pile, labeled, registered, and numbered. The people who had undressed then went along a passage into the socalled reception room. [….] Then the people were led [….] through a second exit back into the reception room and from there through a steel door into the gas chamber. The gas chamber had a very bare interior. It had a wooden floor and there were wooden benches in the chamber. Later, the floor was concreted and finally it and the walls were tiled. The ceiling and other parts of the walls were painted with oil. The whole room was designed to give the impression that it was a bathroom. Three showers were fixed in the ceiling. The room was aired by ventilators. A window in the gas chamber was covered with a grill. A second steel door led into the room where the gassing apparatus was installed. [….] The steel doors were shut and the doctor on duty fed the gas into the gas chamber. After a short time the people in the gas chamber were dead. After around an hour and a half, the gas chamber was ventilated. At this point, we burners had to start work. Before I deal with that I would like to make a few more statements about the feeding of the gas into the gas chamber. Next to the gas chamber was a small room in which there were a number of steel canisters. I cannot say what kind of gas was in these canisters or where it came from. The contents of these canisters was fed through a rubber pipe into a steel pipe. On the canisters there was a pressure gauge. When the gas chamber was full, the doctor went to the canisters, opened the tap, and the gas poured through a 15-20 mm pipe into the gas chamber. As I have stated previously, between the gas chamber and the gas canister room there was a steel door. A third door led from the gas chamber into the yard. These doors had a brick surround and there was a peephole into the gas chamber. Through this peephole one could see what went on in the gas chamber.
The remarkable thing about this testimony, generated in 1946 or thereafter, is that it so closely parallels the kind of procedure said to have taken place according to the Canonical Holocaust. Hence, we have the arrival of a bus or train of people. They are separated by sex. They are led to undressing rooms where their belongings are sorted and registered. Then they are led into a shower, where they are gassed. Finally, they are burned. The other remarkable thing about this testimony is that its physical description strongly suggests the disinfection chamber arrangement at Majdanek: the steel doors with peepholes, the small pipe that leads to nowhere, but which is here explained as connected by rubber tubing to carbon monoxide in tanks,371 the two steel doors with peepholes to the gas chamber, one of which leads to the outside, but for no apparent reason, and the brick facing on the concreted structure.
There are two fundamental problems with such testimony: one is that it simply repeats the by then universally known shower-gas-burning sequence. Second, the concept behind the extermination procedure makes no logical sense.
Let's just assume for the moment that the shower-gas-burning sequence had actually been developed for the extermination of people being deported to the East. There would be some logic to the procedure, but only to this extent: some means would have been needed to deceive the victims so that they could be concentrated into a small enclosed space, and the regulation delousing procedure might theoretically provide cover for this deception. But such a procedure would have been purposeless for the euthanasia victims, since many were incapable of any rational thinking and would hardly require such subterfuge, let alone the fact that many could probably not even stand, to say nothing of standing in a camouflaged shower room waiting to be gassed.
There is a confusion of deceptions here: the deception to get people into the gas chambers is not the same as the deception whereby people are gassed with carbon monoxide so that they die painlessly and without remonition. The trappings of a shower would be irrelevant to bring about the deceptive death by CO to a euthanasia victim. Moreover, there has never been any testimony that the extermination gassing victims did not know that they were being killed.
Crowell's analysis of the "shower-gas-burning" sequence is important in broader context. Each element is pregnant with meaning.
The emphasis on "showering" probably reflected the disorienting and humiliating experience first of emigrants and later of deportees who were routinely subjected to brisk hygienic procedures upon arriving at transit stations and camps. As Mary Antin's pre-war account strongly suggests, such measures would likely have long been preceded by rumors of dark ulterior motives, which may help to explain the persistence of the belief that gas chambers were often disguised as benign shower installations. Yet for much the same reason, the emphasis on showering presents a problem of difficulty for traditional Holocaust historiography. For example, survivor testimonies from Sobibor attest to routine (i.e., non-subterfuge) showering procedures, but this is not easily reconciled with the received view that Sobibor was exclusively a death camp. If arrivals are marked for extermination, why waste resources to clean them up? One may fashion an explanation, but the revisionist view has the benefit of parsimony. Stated simply, revisionists contend that that Sobibor, like other purported killing centers in the Reinhardt system, was in fact a transit camp, just as extant German documents would have it. Hence the showers.
The resonance of the showering element may owe further to cultural disconnect. There is no question that modern methods of disease control clashed with traditional religious views. For Orthodox Jews in particular, the process of shaving and public bathing was perceived as an affront to religious independence and dignity. But the significance of traditional religious precepts becomes more evident with reference to cremation — the ultimate "burning" element of the sequence. In a fascinating discussion of the early cultural response to cremation, Crowell suggests that the rapid development of this technologically advanced method of body disposal was a source of acute social anxiety fueling morbid speculation:
Advocacy of the process increased throughout the late 19th and early twentieth century, especially in Germany, where it was associated with rationality, modernity, and public health. By the beginning of the 1920's, less than 2 percent of the deceased in Germany were cremated, but by 1930 that number had increased to over 7 percent. The National Socialist government gave its support to the process by the law of 1934, placing cremation on the same level as more traditional burial practices. Many have commented subsequently on the rapid development of the practice, and have noted that it represents the "full mechanization" of modern life, and, as such a strong rupture with traditional life. What needs to be appreciated, however, is that rapid changes in how people live also affects how they perceive the life they are living: no doubt many of the fearful perceptions of cremation were related to that rapid cultural change which shook traditional faiths "The modern world is an anti-Christian world," so wrote the leader of German Social Democracy, August Bebel, in 1884, who, in accordance with his Will, was cremated in 1913.
Probably as a result of these anxieties about cremation, the procedure became the focus of a number of strange ideas. One of these was that cremation was suspicious, because, by burning a body a post mortem on the cause of death would be next to impossible to carry out. Under such conditions, all manner of murder, poisoning, and other activities could be carried out secretly. It was this element that clearly excited the German people, especially after the National Socialist government not only endorsed cremation for an overcrowded Germany but also made it mandatory in all concentration camps.
Crowell further argues that public reaction to the National Socialist advocacy of cremation signalled a broader cultural obsession with fabled German technological — and technocratic — prowess. In this sense, anxieties over novel methods of corpse disposal may be interpreted in kind with a raft of sinister and fanciful rumors centered on German medical experiments and secret high-tech weapons programs. For those who believed popular accounts of "sun rays" and "foo fighters" and disembodied brains kept alive in Nazi labs, the idea that German engineers could have developed impossibly efficient methods of corpse incineration was scarcely a leap. No one questions that bodies were burned. It was a matter of policy. But physics-defying claims about Nazi ovens and their prodigious per diem grilling capacity are more likely the stuff of fantasy, generated in a specific social context to serve the prevailing narrative.
And then there is the gas. The gas, the gas, the gas. It is no exaggeration to say that a general fear of chemical weaponry had assumed the form of a cultural obsession by the time the first gas chamber stories entered public consciousness. There was, of course, a rational basis for heightened concern; poison gasses had been deployed during the Great War with devastating if not entirely lethal consequences. It is also known that Germany had been stockpiling nerve-gas weaponry during the Second World War. Along with the Allies, Germans conducted covert field research on the physical effects of various poison gas compounds, and it is documented that concentration camp prisoners were used as test subjects. In anticipation of Allied aerial gas attacks, Germany invested over a hundred million dollars in the construction of air raid defense shelters, many of which were fashioned with peepholes and gastight doors, all amply documented in Crowell's other major text, Bomb Shelters at Birkenau. So ubiquitous was the fear.
In the United States gas chambers had been used for executions since 1924 and had largely replaced the gallows as a fixture of sensational crime reporting. State-designed gas chamber executions ultimately proved to be dangerous and none-too-efficient, but that's not the point at present (though it is very important). The present point is that the technical reality of gas chamber execution added a new dimension to the culture-bound poison-gas-fixated imagination. Execution architecture is sort of creepy in any case, and here the creepiness was wedded to a pre-existing fear. You couldn't miss the headlines, even in Europe.
Tracing further back, you find that a fear of poison gas is veritably enscripted in the modernist zeitgeist. In the 19th century, noxious and volatile fumes were associated with mining disasters. When unstable coal gases were first harnessed as a novel fuel source, the benefits to urban infrastructure were attended by the grim specter gas-related suicide, death and injury. It is thus no surprise that references to deadly gases are thematically resonant in myriad literary sources of the period, which broadly reflected the hopes and fears of industrialism. An early vision of gas extermination is famously depicted in H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, but the general form of miasmic mythology runs through a host of early 20th century popular and modernist novels, from the expressionist works of Georg Kaiser, to to M.P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud, to Sax Rohmer pulps and sundry pop-ephemera. As Crowell slyly reminds us, the works Arthur Conan Doyle contain "a veritable fount of references to poison gases." Something was in the air, so to speak. I won't spoil it for you.
Turning from popular culture to popular delusion, one finds numerous accounts of gassing panics in Europe and America, both as conflict drew near and as total war descended. Most notoriously one thinks of Orson Welles' 1938 Halloween radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, which caused some since-exaggerated waves of panic across the United States, with many listeners, convinced that a real Martian — or German — invasion was under way, making frantic reports of gas attacks to emergency dispatchers. During the intra-war period, a spate of "mad gasser" panics were documented in the American heartland. The most studied episode occured in Mattoon, Illinois, during the fall of 1944, when reports of a "phantom anesthetist" prowling through suburban neighborhoods received national press coverage, fomenting hysteria.
Cultural anthropologists commonly interpret such episodes as projected expressions of collective anxiety over rumors of immanent German gas attacks. In their book, Outbreak: The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior, Robert Bartholomew and Hilary Evans speculate that such gassing scares arose out of widespread public fear that German commanders, facing defeat, "might resort to gas warfare." In noting the testimony of one delusional "witness" who claimed that the elusive gasser wore a "skullcap," Bartholomew and Evans interject a curious footnote:
The skullcap implies that he was Jewish, possibly reflecting rural mid-western anti-semitism of the time where Judaism was often associated with the "evils" of secularism of big city life. Ironically, during this same period, millions of Jews were gassed to death in Europe.
Crowell notes that gassing panics played a role on the battlefield as well — at Omaha Beach for example, where entrenched American soldiers mistook a brush fire for "a cloud of poison." The soldiers' fear was surely justified, but it was also symptomatic of the general atmosphere of gas-fixated paranoia that prevailed, leaving a culture "primed for accusations of poison gas usage." It is not difficult to see how the gassing extermination claims could have arisen in such an atmosphere. Once you permit the possibility, the salience of a gas motif can be read as a tell. "[P]oison gases," as Crowell observes, "are well suited to paranoid and hysterical reactions, because by definition the substances tend towards the impalpable." Those who study sociogenic contagion, or mass hysteria, are wise to the common etiology. Whether in schools or workplaces or in the theater of war, a story surfaces imputing sickness or death to some invisible airborne agent. Some episodes are easily contained, perhaps with a bit of ceremonial vodoo, but when the initial claim is repeated and recycled through media, things can get out of hand in a hurry. The initial story proliferates and evolves in the petri dish of culture until skepticism is met with accusations of conspiracy and cover-up. Once the lawyers get involved, all rules are off. Witness Gulf War Syndrome.
McMartin began with a single uncorroborated accusation and a form letter circulated among parents. In The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes, Samuel Crowell invites us to consider how a few germs of nebulous provenance, propagated through media, could have informed the emergent structure of a culturally potent narrative that in time would graduate from inchoate rumor to the annals of history. Yet Crowell's theory departs from most revisionist accounts in that it doesn't require or imagine any significant order of mischief or mendacity for the early gassing claims to have been generated without having been literally true:
In reviewing these gassing claims we find that virtually all of them came from anonymous sources in Poland, and that all of them were publicized and propagated by Jewish agencies in Switzerland, London, and America. The conclusion that many revisionists have drawn is that these gassing claims were therefore developed by Jewish groups as part of a hoax. We would dissent from this interpretation: it is too great a leap to suggest that these Jewish agencies, in publicizing these claims, knew them to be false, or were publicizing them to some nefarious purpose. On the contrary, all of the internal evidence letters,
diaries, stray conversations indicates that the Western Jews most responsible for the spread of these claims actually believed them. Whether these stories were then used to pursue political ends, and specifically Zionist ends, does not by itself discount the apparent sincerity of what these Jewish leaders were writing and saying at the time. To put the matter simply, they were in no position to know what was really going on: all they knew, or thought they knew, was that their coreligionists were undergoing a terrific ordeal of persecution, and needed help.
When the ritual abuse hysteria was percolating, professional therapists interviewed children. With the best possible intentions, they asked leading questions, unconsciously rewarding the ones who told the awful stories demanded by a particular time and culture. When professional counselors sought to help troubled clients mine through the depths of memory, morbid confabulations surfaced. And were believed. No one was lying. No one needed to lie. Not in the beginning. Later on, there would be lies, or willful misrepresentations — attributed to prosecutors who had by then invested too much in a corrupt story. The realpolitik of adversarial jurisprudence guaranteed as much. Like the prosecutors at Nuremberg, many DAs coveted victory over justice. But in both worlds, there were also those who sought to rectify the damage done.
At Nuremberg, there were quiet voices of dissent. In his treatment of the postwar trials, Crowell brings such voices to the surface:
The Soviet presentation, covering most of February, 1946, was considered excessive by some: after presenting an affidavit that a German commandant had taken Jewish children, thrown them in the air, and then shot them for the entertainment of his small daughter, Justice Parker of the United States would be heard to privately comment: "They have gone too far!" When Mesdames Vaillant Couturier and Shmaglevskaya presented fantastic testimonies of the mass gassings at Auschwitz, Justice Biddle of the United States would note privately "I doubt this" and Justice Birkett of the United Kingdom would express private misgivings. But it points to the hysterical atmosphere of the time that neither they, nor anyone else, had the courage to publicly dissent and inject some rationality into the proceedings.
Crowell's thesis proceeds after the obdurate fact that "No documents, then or now, have ever been advanced that point to the planning, budgeting, or ordering of a gas extermination program." In the absence of unambiguous physical or documentary evidence for crimes of unprecedented scale and calculation, we are left instead with a seemingly formidable testimentary literature. But upon scrutiny, much of this turns out to be removed hearsay. Turning then to the relatively small number of eyewitness accounts and confessions that remain, the empirical backdrop would seem to obligate that any serious scholar should scrutinize their content carefully, just as they would in the course of evaluating any other type of extraordinary eyewitness testimony. And this is all that Crowell is doing. To critics who remain suspicious, Crowell points out that his approach comes with a pedigree. In particular, he cites Elaine Showalter's masterful deconstruction of "Hysterical Episodes and Modern Media":
Returning to the objection that the many witnesses and confessors could not be wrong, such an objection sounds eerily similar to claims made by those who assert the reality of alien abductions: "All the major accounts of abduction in the book share common characteristics and thus provide a confirmation of one another," wrote David Jacobs, "Even the smallest details of the events were confirmed many times over. There was a chronology, structure, logic — the events made sense …. and displayed an extraordinary internal consistency." Yet Elaine Showalter, in her book Hystories has a ready response for those who see in such narrative similarity something more than spectral evidence:
Literary critics, however, realize that similarities between two stories do not mean that they mirror a common reality or even that the writers have read each other's texts. Like all narratives, hystories [Showalter's term for hysterical narratives SC] have their own conventions, stereotypes, and structures. Writers inherit common themes, structures, characters, and images; critics call these common elements intertextuality.
To the extent that we can see traces of the gassing claim in the popular culture in the decades before the Second World War simply strengthens the notion that it arose out of such "intertextuality", or, less ornately, out of the common sense of the time.
That common sense may be ill-founded is not news. For as long as there have been social networks, people have been enculturated to believe weird things. Whitley Streiber may have been venal or sincere, but his popular accounts of alien contact are essentially mirrored in the personal stories of thousands of otherwise normal individuals. Some of your neighbors and co-workers will tell you that the Earth is 6000 years old. Others will tell you that the events of 9/11 were orchestrated by high-level government operatives, colluding in secrecy. And Raul Hilberg will tell you that tens of thousands of people were secretly sent to death in gas chambers at a single location on a given day, as dictated by the never-disclosed orders of high-level government operatives, colluding in secrecy.
In contravention of consensus, Crowell proffers a different explanation.
The combination of frightful epidemic scenes in the Western camps combined with a series of Soviet Special Commissions, including the Auschwitz report, set the seal on the story, providing the Canonical Holocaust, which, in its function was scarcely distinguishable from one of the manuals of interrogation from the days of the great witch hunts or the Inquisition. The evolution of the Canon continued at the postwar trials, where the presentation on the alleged mass gassings and exterminations was in the hands of a state which had already demonstrated its schizophrenic tendencies in its approach to handling various internal crises while following a path of rapid and forced industrialization and modernization in the previous two decades. The residue of such rapid change is furthermore well understood to be anomie, disorientation, and other social pathologies, and these also profoundly affected the Jews of Eastern Europe, who were themselves not only subject to almost continuous persecution during this time but also to the disorientation and social disintegration characteristic of grand socioeconomic transformations.
The claim of mass gas extermination arose and found its fulfillment in this context.
In pursuing the possibity that the gassing stories could have been generated through sociogenic processes widely recognized in less controversial contexts, Crowell has outlined a plausible account of social construction that most scholars, whatever their reasons, disdain to engage. Were it not for the stigma, I'm sure you would find it fascinating. Beginning with a chronology that follows early rumors through their permutations in prominent media recitations and official reports, he traces the intertexual relationship of known confessions and testimonies, to show how they can be seen to reflect the simmering anxieties of a specific time and culture. Nursed in the fog of war, cultivated through cross-cultural disorientation, through rumor and commonplace confusion and acute paranoia, the "shower-gas-burning" sequence that emerged can be seen as a projection of once dominant preoccupations and fears bound to a world in flux, a world marked by rapid technological change, novel disease containment measures, cultural dissolution, ethnic conflict, and profound uncertainty. At heart, his thesis detects a singularly horrific expression of the crisis of modernism:
From a sociological point of view, such imagery is above all a hypostasis and rejection of the industrialization and modernization process that at this moment in historic time was completely transforming Eastern Europe. It is a truism of sociology and the sociology of knowledge that such transformations destroy the "plausibility structures", or belief structures, of the previous craft-based or agricultural-based societies, and above all their legitimizing structures in religion. No doubt the emotion, verging on religious devotion, that for many imbues this topic and this claim can be linked back to such crises of faith and society.
Tell it to the judge.
Denial and Doubt
The ritual will be familiar to those of curious disposition. The first thing you encounter are the sweeping assurances, attributed to experts and blanketed by consensus. The Holocaust, you will be told, is far and away the most carefully documented event in modern history. Those who persist in questioning this received truth will be didactically analogized to those who "deny" that men walked on the moon, or to those who "deny" the science of carbon dating, or, with curious frequency, to the nonexistent contingent of miscreants who would "deny" the historical reality of slavery. (Curiously the case of "Jesus denial" is seldom cited by way of instruction.) These days, association will be drawn to Truthers and Birthers and whatever available crankish ephemera is aswirl, but this is in the manner of Mad-Lib dressing. It's the insistent stridency of the two-step that marks the territory: a categorical assertion, followed by the unseemly analogy. The implication isn't subtle. Nor is the fact that these other "deniers" aren't being sent to jail.
But you want to do your homework. So you read the big academic tomes where the standard history is recorded. Then you take a selective dip into the voluminous literature of the vilified other side. And, perhaps to your surprise, you discover that the "deniers," whatever their motives, aren't wrong about all of it. They are not wrong, for example, when they assert that no contemporaneous order has been produced to document a Nazi program of mass extermination. True to promise, the Wannsee conference minutes
to which you've been reliably referred fairly ooze with anti-Semitic venom. But once you shake off the spell and remove the decoder lenses and read the words on the page, you see that there is, in plain fact, no smoking gun. Allowing that the protocols are in every particular authentic (a matter of some dispute
), the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" is explicitly discussed as the "evacuation of the Jews to the East," which happened. There's no mention of gassing or extermination. For all its terrible gravity, the term contextually refers to deportation. You may believe that "East" is a code for something more sinister, but there is nothing in the content of the document that supports this interpretation. It's just one of those things. Repeated often enough, it begins to feel true.
So you turn to the gas chambers, the weapons of mass destruction that haunted you throughout your childhood. And it turns out that things are again more complicated than you might have expected. Or maybe they aren't. For decades, you learn, the deniers have been yammering about how there are no architectural documents to corroborate the witness-testified existence of these infamous "conveyor belt" killing apparati, and it looks as though, at the very least, they aren't exactly wrong. The headlines stay in rotation, yet they never seem to pan out. You learn about Dachau, where witness testimony exists for gassings that official historians deny. You learn about the "reconstruction" at Auschwitz, which tourists are — were? — shown as the genuine article. You learn about the problems of conflation and dual interpretation. How many people died of typhus or typhoid? Of starvation or malnutrition or dysentery? What caused these things to happen? To what extent was Zyklon-B be used as to kill lice? Delousing facilities were everywhere. People were herded and shaved and showered and there was so much sickness and death. Could there have been confusion? A clusterfuck of confusion? Did rumor and delusions incubate in such an atmosphere?
Something is wrong with the stories of burning pyres of babies, of infants being snatched from bawling mothers and smashed against gas chamber walls. And something is wrong with the stories of shit-grinning whip wielding SS men laughing and drinking as they tend the queue to slaughter. The sadism is too perfect. It lacks verisimilitude. You look again and those Olère sketches and you can't help but see the ghoulish Tom of Finland kitsch. The hypnotic aura of malefic unreality, gives way to simple unreality. There is the reek of Sade, of Dante, of Salem. Of McMartin. When you revisit the high school reading list, it's just thuddingly obvious that Elie et al were spinning midrashic yarns. Beneath the solemn tone and lyrical feathering, you see the bizarre escape narratives and chance meetings and violins on cue as genre contrivances. There's just too much weirdness and pulp formula. Is the received account of what happened at Treblinka — where as many as 900,000 people are said to have been gassed and buried then dug up and burned in a matter of months — remotely possible? Were the Nuremberg trials just? Were key confessions derived through torture? Soon you find yourself wondering about the very questions that the others have been incarcerated for asking.
So when you flip back to the sleuths at Nizkor, you are at first pleased to discover that they have answers. Indeed, they seem to have fashioned an answer for nearly every purportedly problematic point in the deniers' arsenal. Yet something is amiss. The deck has shifted. What was originally presented as an event so extensively documented as to defy rational doubt, now assumes the form a position resolved in strange certitude, to be cornered and affirmed by any available convolution, however minimalist or precious. If there are no explicit blueprints, you'll be directed to traces. If nine of ten traces yield to some innocuous explanation, emphasis will be redrawn to the tenth. The prima facie case slowly collapses into the form what must fairly be understood as a conspiracy theory, where the systematic killing of millions is latched to a vast crypto-beauracracy, orchestrated with incredible secrecy through a skein of code words and euphemisms and elaborate track-covering so that only through determined effort can the pieces be made to fit.
Because of the broad currency of the gassing claim, it is sometimes said that to deny it is to accuse the Jewish people of a grand conspiracy to create it. But the truth would seem to be the other way around: given the lack of evidence, it is those who assert that mass gassings took place who are in the position of having to explain why the evidence does not exist. They are the ones who end up asserting the existence of a grand conspiracy.
One is reminded, for an instant, of Ptolemy's astronomy. Cast against rational critique, the traditional account feels more apologetical than descriptive. More like diluvial geology than science. More like conspiracy theory than history. I have to stifle a laugh every time revisionism is equated to creationism.
Someone's going to notice.
"These things take time," says Crowell in reply to one of the usual questions. "The important thing is to keep the door open. Censorship closes that door. Three themes that immediately come to mind, to me, based on my long term readings, include the Germ Theory of Disease, Continental Drift, and Witchcraft. In all three cases, the two (or more) interpretations co-existed for, on the average, 50-60 years before the case began to be decided in favor of the current notions. And so too here."
At the end of your descent, you may discover that the "denier" himself proves to be elusive. True enough, there are those on the dissident path who have come to embrace the epithet — much in the manner of blacks and homosexuals who "own" their terms of denigration. But a closer reading invariably reveals the more complex — or less simplistic — argument. Yes, says the self-avowed denier, innocent people were subject to unjust treatment under anti-Semitic policies, and many perished in the course of events. But there is no convincing evidence that people were systematically murdered in the manner assumed by historians and enshrined at Nuremberg. What happened was complicated. What did not, is not. Mens rea matters. Numbers matter. Context matters. Bad things happened to good people in Dresden, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the Gulag, in America. Children are molested in daycare centers.
If Holocaust denial really amounted to the wholesale rejection of the suffering of Jewish people under the yoke of Nazism — as people lazily assume — it would indeed be as absurd as its caricature. But the creature who "denies" the all of it, like the casuistically conceived imp who "denies slavery," simply fails to present himself for interrogation. No one, it seems, is so brazen as to deny that the bad guys viewed Jews as enemies of National Socialism, that they sent Jews to labor camps. Families and communities were torn apart. Deportation orders are a matter of undisputed record. And there were atrocities, on all sides. But history filled with examples of massive population transfers, usually undertaken with a profound toll on life during times of conflict and upheaval. If the gas chambers exist outside of history. If there was no plan, no budget, no order, and if there was no systematic program of mass execution by poison gas, the horror that remains becomes more comprehensible, but no less resonant. If denial is signaled by a failure of empathy, then it is a matter of conscience. If it is signaled by a failure of belief, then it as vacuous as faith.
To whatever extent, the question of what it means to "deny" something as complex as the Holocaust must inevitably devolve into a tangle of semantic knots. I'm sure of only this much: the term is loaded. It is is rhetorically calculated to deflect open engagement of revisionist theory. While people are in jail.
Samuel Crowell has been called a "denier." Robert Jan van Pelt calls him a "negationist." He describes himself as a "moderate revisionist." Perhaps you assume that's a dodge. Before reading your verdict, you should consider what the man has to say about the meaning of an historic catastrophe.
From The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes:
The rational traditions of Judaism make it doubtful that thinking men and women in the Jewish community will forever endorse claims that have been shown to be lacking empirical foundation. Therefore we should understand that the concept Holocaust, as usually discussed, can be construed and memorialized in different ways. We have noted the emphasis on "extermination" among Jewish historians before Hitler's Russian War: we take this to be above all a reference to the communal and social nature of the Jewish life. In other words, we should be sensitive to the idea that while extermination may not mean death, to the extent that it involves the destruction of a Jewish community it is almost the same thing as death. Therefore, whether the victims are numbered in millions or hundreds of thousands, whether they died from typhus, or bullets, or poison gas, in German ghettoes, Soviet camps, or gas chambers, and whether it was done by plan or occurred as plans unraveled, the Jewish people undoubtedly experienced a terrible bloodletting and a virtually complete loss of community in the Second World War. Whether we wish to call this "Holocaust", realizing that to do so brings one to the endorsement of a very particular vision of Jewish-Gentile relations and a very specific political ideology, namely, Zionism, lies outside of the province of historical analysis. But whether we call it Holocaust or Judeocide, the general outlines of the destruction are clear and inarguable. We should respect this first, just as we should insist on the humanity of the German people in this troubled period, and then the facts will take care of themselves.
"We should respect this first," says the would-be prisoner of conscience. And may I add, simply, that I agree? Stripped of the thick-layered Sadeian silt upon which our focus has been lured though habit and pedagogy, the praxis of a brute ideology triggers the same reflex, the same revulsion, as before. "[T]he general outlines of the destruction are clear and inarguable."
Give me a year, and I'll put another book in your hands. You can check the footnotes and tell me just how bad it gets.
Heresy at Stake
I've lost track of how many individuals are currently behind bars or facing time for Holocaust denial, however it's codified. Most people are dimly aware of David Irving's ordeal with the Austrian goaler. Fewer know about Germar Rudolf, a German-born chemist who was extradited from the United States — where he enjoyed legal residence with his wife and child — to stand trial in Germany. Rudolf ended up being imprisoned for almost four years for the "crime" of writing and publishing books. He now lives outside a cell under the condition of silence. There is the pamphleteer, Ernst Zundel, who years ago was transferred from a Canadian cage to a German cage, where he now grows old. As we've noted, Zundel's lawyer, Sylvia Stolz, is locked up in Germany. Frederick Toben is locked up in Australia. Gerd Honsik is locked up in Austria. Stephen Whittle and Simon Shepard are locked up in England. Robert Faurisson will soon stand, once again, before a French magistrate. There are others and there will be more. As I was composing this very paragraph, I received an email from a reader about a case in Holland: "Dutch prosecutors said Wednesday they will charge an Arab cultural group under hate speech laws for publishing a cartoon that suggests the death of 6 million Jews during World War II is a fabrication," goes the lede. I suppose I'll keep an eye on that one, too. The Dutch seem to have a real sore spot for cartoons.
It's easy to become jaded.
The problem, I insist, is more serious than you have yet considered. Under pain of prosecution, individuals in most of the Western world are prohibited from expressing doubt about written history. Those who suffer under this modern prohibition must, by any reasonable definition, be considered prisoners of conscience. Yet Amnesty International keeps mum, and traditional free speech advocates seem content to recite slogans without entering the fray. One effect of this situation has been to embolden anti-Semites, who see the Holocaust — quite wrongly — as a "Jewish lie," thus perpetuating the fear upon which every prosecution prefers to rest. As the criminalization and institutional suppression of dissident Holocaust history goes politely unchallenged by people who should care, rational arguments are chilled to silence, and the voices of unreason are left to proliferate, swarming to fill the void. The hate-noise soon becomes redundant and conveniently distracting. For those who would rather not be troubled, it makes it easier. For those who would shackle minds given sufficient gunpower, it makes it easier.
It won't last forever. It's happening now. This is the moment.