Is the Holocaust best understood through fiction? That was the theme of a recent revue of Ruth Franklin’s novel, Higher Truth appearing on the Jewish internet journal Tablet. The revue provided a setting for an unlikely week-long exchange between Holocaust denier Michael Santomauro and me. I contacted Michael before submitting this article and he agreed to allow his name to appear but asked, “please reference me as a Holocaust Revisionist -and an amateur one at that.” A degree of humility that likely allowed for our extended discussion.
Michael falls within what I described in my earlier article, Should Holocaust Denial be illegal?, as “scholastic,” a person who considers himself a serious student in approaching his subject. Of course the Holocaust is not a topic that inspires dispassionate scholarship, and simple curiosity is unlikely to motivate its study. For Jews Denial not only represents an assault on the memory of our six million, but on the two thousand years of persecution that preceded and inspired the Holocaust. For Christians Holocaust Denial serves, among other things, to deflect responsibility from perpetrator to victim, from Christian to Jew. At bottom Denial is always antisemitism.
I have two goals for this article: to describe the process of argument used by Holocaust Denial, at least as practiced by one proponent; and to question the generally accepted approach by most historians regarding the origins of the Holocaust which, I suggest, provides deniers opportunity to question its reality.
Holocaust Denial, Challenge and Response
Michael: “At the end of the Second World War, the Allies confiscated a tremendous quantity of German documents dealing with Germany’s wartime Jewish policy, which was sometimes referred to as the ‘final solution.’ But not a single German document has ever been found that orders or even refers to an extermination program.” No order, no Holocaust.
Michael uses Jewish authors to make his point, a tactic that appeared often throughout our exchange. He refers to survivors Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel who, overwhelmed at the enormity of the event, seem to agree with Ruth Franklin that the Holocaust can only be understood through fiction (so, by Michael’s reasoning, the Holocaust is fiction). He takes particular aim at the historian Raul Hilberg who, in a speech reportedly made in 1983 is quoted as saying, “[W]hat began in 1941 was a process of destruction not planned in advance [my italics], not organized centrally by any agency. There was no blueprint … Thus came about not so much a plan being carried out, but an incredible meeting of minds, a consensus — mind reading by a far-flung bureaucracy.”
“I refuse to believe,” writes, Michael, “that which is not believable. I refuse to believe in the incredible. I refuse to believe in what Hilberg himself calls ‘an incredible meeting of minds.'”
While I have not been able to locate the original, the Hilberg quote represents the generally accepted position among historians that, in lieu of documentary evidence for a plan or blueprint ordering the Holocaust, the beginning of the Holocaust designated as 1941 with the onset of the mass murder campaign. The problem with this is that it feeds the appearance that what preceded the actual murder campaign was a series of non-lethal efforts that only when frustrated resulted in the Holocaust. I won’t enter into a discussion of motivation behind the “1941” designation except to suggest that it is wrong, and that it does harm to the historical record. The Final Solution was always the regime’s intention, from 1933 and the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws, to 1941 and the (non-existent) order dispatching the einsatsgruppen into Eastern Europe.
Hitler made no secret of his murderous intentions. He discussed it openly in Mein Kampf, over dinner with party dignitaries (as collected in Table Talk); he proclaimed it often at public rallies and before the Reichstag. In his 1938 speech before the Reichstag, for example, he quotes his oft-repeated, “I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord’s work.” What precisely he meant by, “the Lord’s work” he explained in his 1922 Munich jail cell interview with Josef Heller: “Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews.” Since in 1922 such efficient twentieth century machinery of murder and disposal as gas chambers and crematoria were still a thing of the future, Hitler describes a more primitive process of mass murder: “I will have gallows built in rows…the Jews will be hanged… until the last Jew in Munich has been exterminated. Other cities will follow suit.”
If not qualifying as a “detailed” blueprint, these statements certainly constitute a policy outline for the regime, direction to the party of which he was the uncontested “Fuehrer”. How is it that this is not sufficient to satisfy our historians?
The most open expression of the regime’s murderous and long-held intention that I am aware of was delivered in Poznan, Poland in 1943 by Hitler’s principal lieutenant, Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler. With the Holocaust already underway Himmler addressed SS officers tasked with executing the murder campaign: “[W]e have never conversed about it amongst ourselves, never spoken about it… I am talking about the ‘Jewish evacuation,’ the extermination of the Jewish people. It is one of those things that is easily said. ‘The Jewish people is being exterminated,’ every Party member will tell you, ‘perfectly clear, it’s part of our plans, we’re eliminating the Jews, exterminating them, ha, a small matter!'”
One instrument of Denial is obfuscation, and one form is to challenge the accepted translations of texts used by researchers. Michael insisted that the Himmler quote I made use of was a mistranslation and taken out of context. He insisted that the German word “Ausrottung” does not translate as “exterminating” (it actually translates as, “wiping out” in the German — English Collins Dictionary). And perhaps this or that word or phrase does have multiple equivalents, nuances lost in translation. But taking the speech in context of a murder campaign already underway, before officers tasked with murdering the Jews, Himmler’s meaning is unmistakable.
The designation of 1941 as the onset of the Holocaust suggests that what preceded that date, Germany’s willingness to allow emigration and, when the allies predictably refused refuge, the suggestion of a Jewish “reservation” in Madagascar or Siberia, lends credibility to their denier-suggested reluctance to resort to murder. According to deniers Germany was humane, that they and not the Jews are the true victims of a rewrite of history. But if the earlier date, 1933, is used then a wholly different explanation presents itself: The Reich’s willingness to allow, under coercion, the emigration of German Jewry now becomes no more than a diplomatic ploy: Hitler always understood that antisemitism was as widespread and intense in the United States as in Germany, that the U.S. was no more anxious to receive Jews than Germany was to keep them. By forcing the allies to publicly turn their backs on the plight of the Jews Germany deprived them of the moral high ground, denied them a forum to criticize; Hitler involved them as complicit, passive participants to the crime-to-come. As for the suggestion of “Jewish reservations” as an alternative to annihilation, in the end they would have functioned as giant ghettos, a convenient holding area en-route to the death camps.
1941 hangs out in space, a point at which Reich policy, with no documentary pre-history, appears almost inexplicably to turn lethal (historians often explain the transformation due to German successes in conquering territories with large Jewish populations: the sheer numbers of Jews overwhelmed German resources and manpower and so precipitated the annihilative “final solution”). And so Denial responds, as does Michael above, that the “final solution” is just as Hilberg characterizes it, an improvisation resulting from “an incredible meeting of minds.”
Two final examples of techniques used in denial: “Contrary to the popular propaganda image,” Michael writes, “the wartime German authorities were concerned about the high death rate in the concentration camps due to disease, and took measures to prevent deaths among the inmates.” While factually true that a few officers did express concern for the survival of inmates, their concern was not for the inmates as people, but as labor.
And finally I return to Michael’s use of Jewish sources to provide a gloss of credibility to his Denial assertions. “At one time, it was seriously claimed that the Germans exterminated Jews with electricity and steam, and that they manufactured soap from Jewish corpses. In April 1990, Israeli historians conceded that the Germans did not manufacture bars of soap from the bodies of murdered Jews — contrary to what had been alleged for years in countless periodicals and supposedly authoritative history texts. If this story is not true …”
While rumors, such as soap from corpses, are easily explained by news reports of gas chambers and crematoria appearing in the western press, atrocity rumors are common in wartime. As to the “soap” rumor, this was not an invention of the Second World War but of the First, and not of “the Jews” but of the British. The British newspaper, The Times, reported in 1917, “that the Germans were rendering down the bodies of [British] dead soldiers for fat to make soap and other products.” But raising such an implication that the Jews created and maintained the rumor, only to be late discredited by “Israeli historians,” serves Denial by casting doubt not only on the Holocaust as a Jewish invention, but on the reality of “annihilative antisemitism,” and on the Diaspora history of persecution culminating in this most recent effort to solve the Jewish Problem, the Shoah.
Webmaster note: Yep, this is what passes for scholarship among anti-revisionists.