exercises in compound storytelling

Friday, October 10, 2008

Deborah Lipstadt: Denying the Holocaust

Book cover: Denying The Holocaust.Image via WikipediaI've been chewing on this book for two or three weeks now, and I finally finished it early this week, but I'm just now taking the time to post about it.

I've wanted to read a book called Reading the Holocaust for some time, but I haven't been able to find a copy, and even at four dollars I'm not eager to buy a copy and have it lie around the house half-read (half-read books are as welcome here as half-eaten sandwiches), so when I found this book (full title: Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory) via my local public library's website I snagged it.

I've been interested in the notion of Holocaust denial for some time, and I guess this book also falls somewhere near the perimeter of my Dave Emory fascination. This is the first book I've read about it, though. I was put off by the subtitle: the word "assault" is like the words "attack" and "crisis" a symptom that somebody's not above raising the emotional stakes to make a point. Not to mention the word "growing:" anyone who claim something is "growing" or part of a "trend" had better have some way to quantify the object of their interest. But I digress.

The book traces the history of Holocaust denial, but first tries to place it in a prewar context, suggesting that everyone involved in Holocaust denial is a fraud, a fascist, an anti-Semite, a Nazi/neo-Nazi, or some combination of the foregoing. The middle chapters deal with personalities involved in (European and/or American) Holocaust denial from the end of World War II to the 1990s, culminating in a chapter about a college newspaper controversy in roughly 1992. The last chapter is a speculative discussion of what will happen in the future, after the book's publication date (1993). The student newspaper controversy is really the center of the book, but the author sees it as part of a trend, and so doesn't explicitly set it as the centerpiece of the book.

The middle chapters of the book deal with personalities involved in Holocaust denial on both sides of the Atlantic; my shallow read of these chapters didn't show any links between most of them and the people involved in the newspaper controversy, except for the people involved in the Institute for Historical Review. They're a pretty miserable bunch, and I won't attempt to list them here. Their personal motivations aren't always clear: they move in and out of fascist groups, they're variously involved in sundry schemes, etc. Why they've got such a bug in their collective ear about the Holocaust is mostly unclear. Early on the author states what she believes are their motivations, but she doesn't really prove her point.

The reality of the Holocaust, unfortunately, lurks in the background of the book but only surfaces here and there; I'm tempted to compare it to the whale in Moby-Dick or the Entertainment in Infinite Jest, but that's just not appropriate. The author occasionally mentions the big artifacts of the Holocaust (e.g. Yad Vashem) or the apparent mania that surrounded the Final Solution, but the full horror of the Holocaust never really appears. I would have loved to have seen a chapter relatively early in the book (say between Chapter 2, about prewar anti-Semitism, and Chapter 3, about early Holocaust denial) that just laid out the facts, including mechanisms, death tolls, and subsequent scholarly revisions to the official numbers. This book is really about the dialog between history as it is written by qualified historians and revisions as they are suggested by Holocaust deniers, and without the former it's just not a very strong book. I have to believe that a good summary of what it means to revise history accurately would have put all this falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus nonsense to rest more readily than the book's approach.

This is, in short, a terrible book. The author overworks the words "obviously" and "cursory" when saying things she believes to be true. The author relies so heavily on quotes from primary sources consisting of one or two words that after a while I lost track of what was an actual quote and what was a scare quote. In many places the text reads as if it were written by someone writing in their second language, without a decent command of idiom. The whole book, slim at 235 pages, was just a slog from beginning to end.

I'm still looking for a good discussion of Holocaust denial generally. I came away from this book with as many questions as I started. Maybe I asked too much of it; maybe it's just too soon to expect a dispassionate treatment of the Holocaust itself, much less Holocaust denial. I'm not sure.

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