Thesis Statement Examples For The Holocaust Is A Lie

The history of the Holocaust is not one of only perpetrators and victims. Historian Raul Hilberg argues that most of the people who had an impact on the Holocaust (and were impacted by the Holocaust) “were neither perpetrators nor victims.” He explains:

Many people...saw or heard something of the event. Those of them who lived in Adolf Hitler’s Europe would have described themselves, with few exceptions, as bystanders. They were not “involved,” not willing to hurt the victims and not wishing to be hurt by the perpetrators....The Dutch were worried about their bicycles, the French about shortages, the Ukrainians about food, the Germans about air raids. All of these people thought of themselves as victims, be it of war, or oppression, or "fate." 1

Professor Ervin Staub would agree. Himself a survivor of the Holocaust, he believes that bystanders play a far more critical role in society than people realize: “Bystanders, people who witness but are not directly affected by the actions of perpetrators, help shape society by their reactions....Bystanders can exert powerful influences. They can define the meaning of events and move others toward empathy or indifference. They can promote values and norms of caring, or by their passivity of participation in the system, they can affirm the perpetrators.”2 There are different degrees of bystander behavior. For example, historian Paul Bookbinder distinguishes between collaborators and bystanders. Collaborators are those that were not directly involved in the round-up and murder of Holocaust victims, but who may have assisted the Nazis by providing them with information or supplies. On the other hand, he points out that bystanders neither directly cooperated with the Nazis or helped the Jews, and should therefore be judged differently than collaborators.

Many bystanders to the Holocaust claim that they were not aware of the horrible atrocities being committed by the Nazis. When asked about this, Holocaust survivor Primo Levi has replied with a question of his own. “How is it possible that the extermination of millions of human beings could have been carried out in the heart of Europe without anyone’s knowledge?”3 In The Destruction of European Jews, Raul Hilberg proved that many had the opportunity to know about the killings:

Organizing the transportation of victims from all over Europe to the concentration camps involved a countless number of railroad employees and clerical workers who had to work the trains and maintain the records. National Railroad tickets were marked for a one-way trip. Currency exchange at the borders had to be handled. Finance ministers of Germany moved to seize the pensions of victims from banks, yet the banks requested proof of death. Many building contracts and patents for ovens and gas chambers were required. . . . The railroads were an independent corporation which was fully aware of the consequences of its decisions. The civilian railroad workers involved in operating rails to Auschwitz were simply performing their daily tasks. These were individual people making individual decisions. They were not ordered or even assigned. Orders from the SS to the railroads were not even stamped “secret” because that would admit guilt of something abnormal in the bureaucracy. The many clerical workers who handled these orders were fully aware of the purpose of Auschwitz.4

Testimonies of soldiers and townspeople support Hilberg’s claim. Herbert Mochalski, a German soldier, shares, “It’s nonsense when a German soldier says that he never saw anything, that the soldiers didn’t know anything. It’s all simply not true.”5 And villagers who lived near concentration camps recall the horrible stench of burning flesh in the air and seeing ashes, tufts of hair, and bone fragments falling onto their streets.6 Additionally, news reports of the atrocities made headlines in international newspapers. As early as summer of 1941, the Chicago Tribune covered a story about hundreds of Jews being deported from Berlin on obviously trumped-up charges.7 By the fall of 1942, the New York Times published this headline: Slain Polish Jews Put at a Million.8

Thus, ample evidence points to the conclusion that people around the world had access to information about the deportations, concentration camps, and death camps. Yet, Primo Levi presents another obstacle to action—the idea that some people may not have wanted to acknowledge the horrible crimes that were being committed. He writes:

In spite of the varied possibilities for information, most Germans didn’t know because they didn’t want to know. Because, indeed, they wanted not to know....In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers. In this way the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance, which seemed to him sufficient justification of his adherence to Nazism. Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.9

The Germans were not the only people who avoided facing the truth around them. During the war, Jan Karski, a courier for the Polish Resistance, tried to alert people to the mass murder of European Jews. He later recalled:

The extermination of the Jews was without precedent in the history of mankind. No one was prepared to grasp what was going on. It is not true, as sometimes has been written, that I was the first one to present to the West the whole truth of the fate of the Jews in occupied Poland. There were others....The tragedy was that these testimonies were not believed. Not because of ill will, but simply because the facts were beyond human imagination. I experienced this myself. When I was in the United States and told [Supreme Court] Justice Felix Frankfurter the story of the Polish Jews, he said, at the end of our conversation, “I cannot believe you.” We were with the Polish ambassador to the U.S., Jan Ciechanowski. Hearing the justice’s comments, he was indignant. “Lieutenant Karski is on an official mission. My government’s authority stands behind him. You cannot say to his face that he is lying.” Frankfurter’s answer was, “I am not saying that he is lying. I only said that I cannot believe him, and there is a difference.”10

This story of Justice Frankfurter, himself a non-practicing Jew, exemplifies how even some American Jews found it difficult to acknowledge the horrors that were occurring in Europe.

By the end of 1942, it was impossible for the international community to deny the fact that millions of innocent Jews and other victims were being murdered by the Nazis. The governments of the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union even made a joint statement acknowledging the mass murders for the first time. Yet, they continued to do nothing to stop or prevent more innocent deaths. Why was this the case? President Roosevelt worried that because of antisemitic sentiment in the United States, he would not be able to get public and congressional support to help European Jews escape the Nazis.11 Jewish organizations asked U.S. officials if the military could bomb the train tracks leading to Auschwitz in order to prevent the arrival of more victims to this extermination camp. Officials responded that all air power was needed to fight the war against Germany, that bombing the tracks “might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans,” and that “the most effective relief which can be given victims of enemy persecution is to ensure speedy defeat of the Axis.”12 Still, Americans dropped bombs near Auschwitz on ten different occasions. And, the British refused to allow more European Jews to emigrate to British-controlled Palestine. Golda Meir, who later became prime minister of Israel, describes how the British were worried about angering Arab leaders in Palestine and, therefore, “remained adamant” in their decision to keep Jews out of Palestine, even if it meant they would die in gas chambers in Europe.13 Thus, when faced with what they saw as difficult choices, Allied nations typically chose not to actively help Jews escape Nazi persecution.

As news of Nazi atrocities spread, people throughout Europe confronted difficult choices. They were asked to hide Jews or to take in Jewish children as their own; they were asked to forge documents or to shuttle Jews to safety in neutral countries such as Switzerland or Sweden. Often, these requests were denied. People had their own survival and their own families to worry about. Stories of bystanders included in this lesson, like the residents of Mauthausen or Christabel Beilenberg, indicate that individuals did not act to prevent violence against Jews and others out of fear for their own safety or the safety of their family. Some individuals who acknowledged the violence and persecution against Jews did not know what to do when confronted with this information. Father John S. was a Jesuit seminarian in Hungarian-occupied Czechoslovakia at the time Jews were being deported to Auschwitz. He recalls looking through a hole in a fence and seeing a Nazi guard brutally attack a Jew. “I just didn’t know what to do. At that time I was immobilized....It was beyond my experience—I was totally unprepared,” he shared, reflecting a response shared by others during the Holocaust.14 Thus, there are many reasons to explain why so few people in Nazi-occupied Europe were involved in resistance movements, protest marches, or plots to assassinate Hitler. Denial, self-preservation, lack of preparation, antisemitism, opportunism, and fear all played a role in shaping decisions to act, or not to act, when faced with knowledge of Nazi atrocities.

Decisions to help Jews were also influenced  by political context and geography. In Denmark, nearly the entire nation took part in rescuing Jews and very few Danes were punished for their efforts. In Germany, however, the government imprisoned anyone caught sheltering a Jew, and in Poland the penalty was death. Also, rescuers faced greater challenges in areas with histories of fervent antisemitism, such as parts of Poland, because they not only had to worry about being found out by the Nazis, but they had to fear being reported by one of their neighbors. In Italy and France the civilian population was more sympathetic to the Jews (and more resentful of the Nazis). Thus, rescuers in some areas, such as France or Italy, were more likely to confront benign indifference, or even assistance, than their counterparts in other regions, such as Poland, Ukraine, and Austria.

Even under the most challenging conditions and in regions with long histories of antisemitism, individuals took extreme personal risks to rescue Jews. About two percent of the Polish Christian population chose to hide Jews. In Lithuania, Senpo Sugihara, the Japanese consul, provided visas to 3,500 Jews. Those visas not only protected Jews from deportation but also allowed them to emigrate to Shanghai, China—then under Japanese rule. Le Chambon, a small French community, sheltered thousands of Jews, and nearly all of Denmark’s Jews were saved because of the efforts of an entire population. According to historian Johannes Tuchel, head of the German Resistance Memorial Center, between 20,000 and 30,000 non-Jewish Germans played a role in helping 1,700 of Berlin’s Jews escape Nazi persecution. There are hundreds of stories of individuals such as Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg, and Marion Pritchard who sacrificed wealth and risked their lives to save Jews and other victims.

Facing History uses the term “upstander” to describe individuals, groups, or nations who, when bearing witness to injustice, decide to do something to stop or prevent these acts from continuing. Ervin Staub is alive today because of upstanders. As a six-year-old in Budapest, Hungary, he was hidden from the Nazis, and then he and other family members survived with the protective passes created by Raoul Wallenberg (and then some other embassies in Budapest). Later, in his writings as a psychologist he wrote:

Goodness, like evil, often begins in small steps. Heroes evolve; they aren’t born. Very often the rescuers make only a small commitment at the start—to hide someone for a day or two. But once they had taken that step, they began to see themselves differently, as someone who helps. What starts as mere willingness becomes intense involvement.15

Nechama Tec and Ervin Staub discussed the sociology and motivations of rescuers at the Second Annual Facing History Conference. Both agreed that the decision to rescue Jews had little to do with the rescuer’s religion, nationality, schooling, class, or ethnic heritage. Most rescuers were independent individuals who refused to follow the crowd. They also had a history of performing good deeds and did not perceive rescue work as anything out of the ordinary. Guido Calabresi, former dean of the Yale School of Law, believes that many Italians chose to hide Jews and others fleeing persecution because of a sense of shared humanity. He explains:

An awful lot of people didn’t worry about law, didn’t worry about politics, didn’t worry about rules which told them to turn people in, but just looked at the individual in need, the mothers’ and fathers’ sons and daughters before them, and this led them to hide and protect that person at the risk of their own lives.16

While every upstander had their own reasons for risking their own well-being to rescue children, women, and men fleeing persecution by the Nazis, one trait shared by most of these individuals and communities is a feeling of responsibility or caring for others, even for strangers. A study of the Holocaust would be incomplete without learning about the acts of rescue and resistance because these stories provide evidence of the capacity to act with courage and compassion out of respect for human dignity. In the preface to the film The Courage to Care, which documents the efforts of rescuers in France, the Netherlands, and Poland, Holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel remarked:

Let us not forget, after all, that there is always a moment when the moral choice is made. Often because of one story or one book or one person, we are able to make a different choice, a choice for humanity, for life. And so we must know these good people who helped Jews during the Holocaust. We must learn from them, and in gratitude and hope, we must remember them.17

At the same time, we must be careful not to simplify our understanding of human behavior to one of good versus evil, or upstanders versus bystanders and perpetrators. Through his experience writing the book The Courage to Care about rescuers during the Holocaust, Phillip Hallie shares, “I learned that ethics is not simply a matter of good and evil, true north and true south. It is a matter of mixtures, like most of the other points on the compass, and like the lives of most of us. We are not all called upon to be perfect, but we can make a little, real difference in a mainly cold and indifferent world.”18 The response of the United States to the Holocaust exemplifies Hallie’s sentiment. In January 1944, after years of ignoring the plight of the Jews, President Roosevelt set up the War Refugee Board. It saved about two hundred thousand Jews through diplomacy, bribery, and trickery. John Pehle, Jr., the man who headed the group, later remarked that “what we did was little enough. It was late. Late and little, I would say.”19 Thus, the actions of the United States during the Holocaust are neither all good nor all evil, but “a matter of mixtures,” as Hallie points out.20 Likewise, how does one judge the decision made by Marion Pritchard to kill a Dutch policeman in order to protect the Jews who were hiding in her home? In reflecting on her decision and the choices others made during the war, Pritchard is troubled by a “tendency to divide the general population during the war into the few ‘good guys’ and the large majority of ‘bad guys.’ That seems to me to be a dangerous oversimplification.” She explains:

The point I want to make is that there were indeed some people who behaved criminally by betraying their Jewish neighbors and thereby sentenced them to death. There were some people who dedicated themselves to actively rescuing as many people as possible. Somewhere in between was the majority, whose actions varied from the minimum decency of at least keeping quiet if they knew where Jews were hidden to finding a way to help them when they were asked.21

Ultimately, an awareness of the range of responses to the Holocaust reveals the significant consequences of choosing to act, or not to act, in the face of injustice. Through large and small acts of kindness, thousands of Jews and other victims were saved. At the same time, the inaction of the majority allowed millions of children, women, and men to suffer horrible deaths. Albert Einstein, the Nobel Prize–winning scientist who emigrated from Germany because of his Jewish heritage, declared, “The world is too dangerous to live in—not because of the people who do evil, but because of the people who sit and let it happen.” As members of an increasingly global community, it is within all of our interests to gain a deeper understanding of the conditions that encourage individuals, groups, and nations to intervene in the face of injustice. In a commencement address to law students, Calabresi remarked on how the range of responses during the Holocaust provides a hope and a warning to all of us. He said:

We should remember that the capacity to do good...unexpectedly to do something which is profoundly right, even if profoundly dangerous, is always there. But more important, some good people made catastrophically bad decisions....All of us, I and you, are as subject to being careless, uncaring. We will all thoughtlessly applaud at times we shouldn’t. Or even dramatically at times...mislead ourselves into following what seem like good reasons...to a dreadful decision....I would like to leave with you the ease, the simplicity, of making mistakes. Not to dishearten you—far from it—but in the hope that it will both make you more careful, more full of care of others in need, and more understanding of those who do wrong because they can be, they are, you and me.... I emphasize this to remind you that the choices which reoccur, do make a difference. If not always or even often to the world, they will make a difference to the children of some mothers and fathers around us as we all struggle to live.22

The stories of upstanders highlight the “capacity to do good” that “is always there,” while the stories of bystanders, and perpetrators, suggest how easy it is for good people to make bad decisions. Calabresi’s words can be helpful in answering students who ask why they are learning about the Holocaust: “In the hope that it will make you more careful, more full of care of others in need, and more understanding of those who do wrong because they can be, they are, you and me.”23

Related readings in Holocaust and Human Behavior

Suggestion for how to divide this lesson over two class periods: During the first day, students can interpret one story together as a class and then receive their assigned text. Before the end of class, groups might have a few minutes to begin reading the text together. For homework, students can finish reading and interpreting their assigned bystander or upstander story. Day two can begin with students meeting in groups to review their reading before they present this story to the class.

Opener

To prepare students to look at these stories of upstanders and bystanders, students can respond to the following prompt in their journals:

  • Identify a time when you went out of your way to help somebody else—a friend, a family member, a neighbor, or a complete stranger. What were the consequences of your actions for you and for others?
  • Identify a situation when you knew something was wrong or unfair, but you did not intervene to improve the situation. What were the consequences of your actions for you and for others?
  • Compare these two situations. What led you to act in one situation but not to intervene in the other?

The purpose of having students respond to this prompt is not to make them feel badly about themselves that they acted as bystanders. Rather, the purpose is for students to begin to develop a deeper understanding of their own decision-making process. Because these stories might be embarrassing or private, before students begin writing you might want to inform them that they will not be required to publicly share what they write. You can also reassure students that many people choose to act as bystanders, and that there are sometimes very good reasons for choosing not to intervene in a particular situation. Another way to help students feel more comfortable writing honestly is to share your own answer to this journal prompt.

Focus a discussion of this prompt on the third question—the reasons why students acted in some situations, but not in others. You can record their reasons on a two-column chart, where one column is labeled “reasons for bystander behavior” and the other column is labeled “reasons for upstander behavior."

Main Activities

Lesson 14 focused on the experiences of perpetrators and victims during the Holocaust. Explain to students that not everyone involved in this event fell into one of these two categories. Indeed, most of the individuals in Europe and around the world acted as bystanders—people who are aware of injustice but choose to “stand by” while it occurs. And, a small group of individuals acted as upstanders—people who act in ways to prevent or stop injustice. 

Divide the class into small groups of 3–4 students. Give each group one reading from Chapter 8 of Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior, “Bystanders and Rescuers.” Handout 1 includes excerpts of ten of these readings. You can use the readings directly from the resource book or select from these excerpts. Students will present the main ideas in their readings to the rest of the class, including answers to questions such as:

  • Identify the significant choices made in this story.
  • How do you think this individual, group, or nation would explain their decisions?
  • What might have been the consequences of their actions given their specific context?
  • To whom did he/she/they feel responsible?

Connecting images to ideas helps many students retain information. Therefore, we suggest that each group designs a symbol that represents the choices made in this story. For example, the image of a boat could represent how the Danes were able to rescue nearly all of their Jewish citizens by shuttling them on fishing boats to Sweden. Students can display this symbol on a poster that can accompany their presentation. The poster might include the name of the reading, the symbol that represents the choices made in this story, and one thought-provoking quotation selected from the reading. You might also
ask students to point out where the story took place on a world map. This will help illustrate how individuals, groups, and nations from all over the world were in the position to act as bystanders or upstanders during the Holocaust. Identifying the location of these stories will also help students consider how the context, especially where the situation took place, might have influenced the choices that were made and the consequences of these choices. Handout 2 is a graphic organizer students can use to prepare for their presentations.

Before students are assigned texts and begin their group work, we suggest you model the process of interpreting these readings by going over reading 1, “The Courage of Le Chambon,” as a whole class. Here is a process you can use to review this text (this process can be posted on the board as a reminder when students are working in small groups):

  1. Have a student volunteer (or volunteers) read the passage aloud.
  2. Read the questions on handout 2 aloud.
  3. While one member of the group reads the passage aloud, the rest of the group marks specific text that helps answer the questions.
  4. Identify any confusing parts of the story. As a class, try to answer any questions you have about the reading.
  5. Once everyone understands the story, begin answering the questions.
  6. Prepare for your presentation. You might assign roles such as presenter, symbol drawer, and quotation finder.

Handout 3 provides one example of how a student might answer questions about “The Courage of Le Chambon.” Other questions raised by this story include:

  • Why do you think all of the members of Le Chambon made the same choice to protect the Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution?
  • What does this story reveal about community, conformity, and peer pressure?
  • What did the phrase “It was the human thing to do” mean to the people of Le Chambon? What might this phrase have meant to perpetrators during the Holocaust, such as head officers at Auschwitz? What does this phrase mean to you?

These questions could be prompts for journal writing and for large or small group discussion.

Once students are familiar with the process of interpreting stories of bystanders and upstanders, they can repeat this process in small groups with their assigned reading. This lesson is designed to run over two class periods. An appropriate time to end the first part of the lesson would be during the group work time. Any work that was not finished during class time can be completed for homework. Day two of this lesson can begin with group members preparing for their presentations of their upstander or bystander story.

During the presentations, students can record notes about the factors that encouraged bystander behavior and upstander behavior (see handout 4). This activity provides the opportunity to help students understand the concept of the universal and the particular—that some themes, such as self-preservation, resonate for people all over the world throughout history, but that these themes look different when played out in their unique situation. For example, obedience for a German transportation officer who arranges for millions of Jews to be shipped to concentration camps carried much more significant consequences than obedience for an American teenager in California during the Third Wave experiment. Encourage students not to draw direct parallels between their own decisions to act (and not to act) and those of bystanders and upstanders during the Holocaust. Help them understand how the specific historical context for individuals, groups, and nations during World War II meant that, especially after 1939, almost every choice carried life and death consequences. At the same time, the readings reveal that different contexts presented distinct opportunities and consequences for action. By referring to where events took place on a map, students can see how the particular geography of a place (i.e., Denmark’s location on the water across from Sweden) helped them to pursue acts of rescue. And, while it is true that many Europeans could have faced imprisonment in concentration camps and possible death if they were caught rescuing Jews, American officials who tried to help Jews escape Europe, or who took action to prevent people from being transported to Auschwitz, would not have faced these same consequences.

Also, when discussing the choices of bystanders and upstanders during the Holocaust, invite students to draw from material they explored earlier in this unit. For example, in the reading “Do You Take the Oath?” (from Lesson 9) a German worker in a defense plant chooses to take the oath because if he doesn’t, he will lose his job and it would be difficult to find another. Likewise, in the reading “No Time to Think” (from Lesson 14), a university professor mentions  his fear of being ostracized by his peers for refusing to go along with Nazi beliefs. From the material in Lesson 12 about the lives of German youth during the 1930s, students can imagine how teenagers would have faced ridicule from peers and teachers, as well as poor grades in school, for any signs of resistance to Nazi ideology. Additionally, given the context of widespread antisemitic and pro-Nazi propaganda, it is possible that many bystanders did not act to stop or prevent the persecution of Jews and others because they believed the lies they had been taught in school or read in the newspapers; in other words, some bystanders may have actually thought it was acceptable to mistreat Jews because Jews were believed to be dangerous and less than human.

Follow Through (in class or at home)

The purpose of this lesson, and of this unit as a whole, is to help students think about the ethical consequences of decisions. As 8th graders and beyond, they will likely have to confront some tough choices. We all do. Facing History has found that studying the rise of the Nazis and the steps leading up to the Holocaust helps students confront questions and define concepts that can be applied to their own role as individuals living in a community. Given these goals, as a follow-through activity, we suggest ending the lesson with an activity that requires students to reflect on the range of choices in their own lives.

One way you might accomplish this goal is to have students re-interpret the Ostracism Case Study they read during Lesson 2. Handout 5 includes a paragraph description of this event from a middle school classroom. A student can read this story aloud and then students can answer questions such as: Why do you think this event turned out this way? How can you explain the actions of the girls and boys in this situation? Do you agree with the choices made by the students in this classroom? Why or why not? After this discussion, you might ask students to reflect on how their interpretation of this event has changed since the beginning of the unit. (Note: To answer this question, students might need to review what they wrote during Lesson 2.)

As a final class activity or homework assignment, you can ask students to write a letter to themselves reflecting on their own ideas about decision-making. Prompts that might help students write these letters include the following:

  • Whom do you feel you have a responsibility to care for and protect? How can your answer to this question help you make decisions about how to act and how to treat others?
  • What have you learned from this unit that could help you make decisions in the future?
  • Under what circumstances do you think it is appropriate to stand by while conflict or injustice occurs?
  • Under what circumstances do you think it is especially important to stand up to injustice?
  • What is your responsibility as an individual who lives and works in larger communities—in a school, a family, a neighborhood, a nation, a world?
  • What advice can you give to friends and/or family about their role as individuals living in a larger community?

Assessment

Students’ presentations, as well as responses on handout 2, will provide evidence about students’ ability to identify factors that influenced the choices made by individuals, groups, and nations during the Holocaust. In their journal writing and their participation in class discussions, should students be able to synthesize ideas from several of the readings in order to draw some conclusions about the conditions that encourage upstander and bystander behavior. Students’ interpretation of the Ostracism Case Study can reveal the extent to which they are able to apply what they learned about human behavior and choice-making through a study of the history of the Holocaust to an event closer to their own lives. Their interpretations might include references to conformity, consequences, responsibility, fear, peer pressure, inclusion, exclusion, membership, and belonging.

Extensions

Another resource that helps students explore the concept of bystander behavior is Maurice Ogden’s poem “The Hangman." The poem tells the story of a community in which the people are hanged, one by one, by a mysterious stranger who erects a gallows in the center of the town. For each hanging the remaining townspeople find a rationale, until the hangman comes for the last survivor, who finds no one left to speak up for him as the final stanza describes:

Beneath the beam that blocked the sky
None had stood as alone as I–
And the Hangman strapped me, and no voice there
Cried “Stay!” for me in the empty square.24

Students could demonstrate what they have learned in this lesson by analyzing how the ideas in this poem relate to events in Nazi Germany.

The video The Hangman is available from the Facing History library and on our website. Teachers who have used the film indicated a need to show it several times to allow their students the opportunity to identify and analyze the many symbols. After viewing the film, students might discuss the filmmaker’s artistic decisions, such as why he turned the animated people into paper dolls.

Instead of using the reading “The Courage of Le Chambon,” you might want to show an excerpt from Weapons of the Spirit, a documentary about Le Chambon. The film was written, produced, and directed by Pierre Sauvage, one of the many children rescued by the residents of this special town. You could also use the film The Courage to Care and the book that accompanies it. This film features the work of five rescuers in France, the Netherlands, and Poland. Among those profiled are Marion Pritchard and the Trocmes, whose stories are included in this lesson. The accompanying book includes many more rescuers from both Eastern and Western Europe.

Many teachers also use this famous quotation by Martin Niemoeller to help students understand the impact of bystander behavior:

First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.25

Niemoeller was a Protestant pastor in Germany who spent seven years in a concentration camp for speaking against Hitler during his sermons.

History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial
Basic Books

Read the Review


History on Trial

I

What is historical objectivity? How do we know when a historian is telling the truth? Aren't all historians, in the end, only giving their own opinions about the past? Don't they just select whatever facts they need to support their own interpretations and leave the rest in the archives? Aren't the archives full of preselected material anyway? Can we really say that anything historians present to us about the past is true? Aren't there, rather, many different truths, according to your political beliefs and personal perspectives? Questions such as these have been preoccupying historians for a long time. In recent years, they have become, if anything, more urgent and more perplexing than ever. Debate about them has repeatedly gravitated toward the Nazi extermination of the Jews during the Second World War. If we could not know for sure about anything that happened in the past, then how could we know about this most painful of all topics in modern history?

    Just such a question has been posed, and answered in the negative, by a group of individuals, based mainly in the United States, who are certainly far removed in intellectual terms from postmodernist hyper-relativism, but who have asserted in a variety of publications that indeed there is no real evidence to support the conventional picture of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. There is a thin but seemingly continuous line of writing since the Second World War that has sought to deny the existence of the gas chambers at Auschwitz and other extermination camps, to minimize the number of Jews killed by the Nazis until it becomes equivalent to that of the Germans killed by the Allies, to explain away the killings as incidental by-products of a vicious war rather than the result of central planning in Berlin, and to claim that the evidence for the extermination, the gas chambers, and all the rest of it had mostly been concocted after the war.

    A number of scholars have devoted some attention to this strange and disturbing stream of thought. The most important of their works is Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, by the American historian Deborah Lipstadt. Published in 1993, this book gave an extended factual account of the deniers' publications and activities since the Second World War and identified them as closely connected with neo-fascist, far-right, and antisemitic political extremists in Europe and the United States. Whether or not Lipstadt was correct to claim that these people posed a serious threat to historical knowledge and memory was debatable. But the evidence she presented for the existence of the phenomenon and for its far-right connections seemed convincing enough. Lipstadt argued that denial of the Holocaust was in most cases antisemitic and tied to an anti-Jewish political agenda in the present. The denial of history was the product of political bias and political extremism, which had no place in the world of serious historical scholarship.

    Yet how unbiased was Lipstadt herself? There was no doubt about her commitment to Jewish causes. Born in 1947 in New York of a German-Jewish immigrant father who was descended from a prominent family of rabbis, she had been brought up in what she described as a "traditional Jewish home," she had studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for two years, and been present in Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. She had studied modern Jewish history, the Third Reich, and the Holocaust at university, and taught courses on the history of the Holocaust at a variety of institutions, including the University of Washington and the University of California at Los Angeles, before joining the staff of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1993, where she held an endowed chair and was setting up a new Institute for Jewish Studies. She was also a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council—a presidential appointment—and had acted as a consultant to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum while it was being built.

    Aside from these academic credentials and activities, Lipstadt was also a member of the United States Department of State Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad. In 1972 she had visited the Soviet Union and inspected sites of major Nazi killings of Jews such as Babi Yar. This was a period when controversy was being aroused by the Soviet authorities' refusal to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel, and there was a good deal of subtle and sometimes not so subtle antisemitism on the part of the authorities. Lending her Jewish prayerbook to an elderly Jewish woman in a synagogue in Czernowitz, Lipstadt was denounced to the authorities and arrested by the KGB for distributing religious items, strip-searched, held in prison for a day, questioned, and deported. After this, she had continued for some years to work hard for Soviet Jews while they were being persecuted.

    Combined with her many discussions with camp survivors in Israel, she reported, this experience had led her to study the history of antisemitism and, in particular, the Holocaust. Remembering the Holocaust was crucial in the perpetuation of Jewish tradition, but also in teaching lessons about the need to fight prejudice and persecution of many kinds in the world today. However, Lipstadt insisted, whatever her political and religious beliefs, she was convinced that the history of the Holocaust had to be researched to the highest possible scholarly standards and taught in a straightforwardly factual manner. She denied any wish to impose her views about the lessons of the Holocaust on her students. After the publication of her book, Lipstadt left no doubt that her work on Holocaust denial had led some of the deniers to engage in "a highly personal and, at times, almost vile campaign against me." She had been vilified on the Internet, accused of fascist behavior, and phoned up by deniers and depicted by them in "an ugly and sometimes demeaning fashion." They had also left notes in her home mailbox. This had not stopped her from working in the field. Her book Denying the Holocaust was an academic project, but it had also taken on a broader significance.

    Lipstadt's book, when taken together with her previous work, made it clear that her main interest was in reactions to the extermination of Europe's Jews by the Nazis rather than in the extermination itself. After completing her work on Holocaust denial, she planned a book called America Remembers the Holocaust: From the Newsreels to Schindler's List. She had never written about German history and had never been in a German archive. Indeed, as far as I could tell, she did not even read German. She was really a specialist in the history of the United States since the Second World War. Yet it was easy enough for her to include in Denying the Holocaust refutations of some of the principal arguments of the deniers on the basis of well-known secondary literature about the extermination. Given the main focus of her work, which was on denial as a political and intellectual phenomenon, that was surely all that was required.

    Nevertheless, her book did not pull its punches when it came to convicting deniers of massive falsification of historical evidence, manipulation of facts, and denial of the truth. One of those whom she discussed in this context was the British writer David Irving, who certainly did read German, had spent years in the archives researching the German side in the Second World War, and was the author of some thirty books on historical subjects. Some of them had gone through many reprints and a number of different editions. The great majority of them were about the Second World War, and in particular about Nazi Germany and its leaders. Before he was thirty, he had already begun researching and writing on twentieth-century history, publishing his first book, The Destruction of Dresden, in 1963, when he was only twenty-five.

    Irving had also written The Mare's Nest, a study of German secret weapons in the Second World War, published in 1964, and a book about the German atomic bomb, The Virus House, published in 1967. In the same year, Irving published two more books, The Destruction of Convoy PQ17, and Accident—The Death of General Sikorski. Despite their somewhat specialized titles, these books in many cases aroused widespread controversy and made Irving into a well-known figure. The Destruction of Dresden created a storm by alleging that the bombing of Dresden by Allied airplanes early in 1945 caused many more deaths than had previously been thought. The Destruction of Convoy PQ 17 aroused serious objections on the part of a British naval officer criticized by Irving in his book. Accident generated considerable outrage by its suggestion that the Polish exile leader in the Second World War, General Sikorski, had been assassinated on the orders of Winston Churchill. By the end of the 1960s, Irving had already made a name for himself as an extremely controversial writer about the Second World War.

    With the publication of his massive study of Hitler's War in 1977, Irving stirred up fresh debate. In this book, he argued that far from ordering it himself, Hitler had not known about the extermination of the Jews until late in 1943, and both before and after that had done his best to mitigate the worst antisemitic excesses of his subordinates. Irving heightened the controversy by publicly offering a financial reward to anyone who could come up with a document proving him wrong. The furor completely overshadowed his publication of a biography of the German general Erwin Rommel in the same year, under the title The Trail of the Fox. The following year, Irving brought out a `prequel' to his book on Hitler and the Second World War, entitled The War Path. In 1981 he published two more books—The War Between the Generals, devoted to exposing differences of opinion among the commanders of Hitler's army during the Second World War; and Uprising!, arguing, to quote Irving himself, "that the Uprising of 1956 in Hungary was primarily an anti-Jewish uprising," because the communist regime was run by Jews.

    The stream of books continued with Churchill's War in 1987, Rudolf Hess: The Missing Years published in the same year, a biography of Hermann Göring (1989), and most recently a book on Goebbels: Mastermind of the `Third Reich' (1996). And while he was producing new work, he also published revised and amended editions of some of his earlier books, most notably, in 1991, Hitler's War, which also incorporated a new version of The War Path, and in 1996 Nuremberg: The Last Battle, an updated version of a previously published book, reissued to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.

    Despite all this, Irving had never held a post in a university history department or any other academic institution. He did not even have a degree. He had started a science degree at London University but never finished it. "I am an untrained historian," he had confessed in 1986. "History was the only subject I flunked when I was at school." Several decades on from his self-confessedly disastrous schoolboy encounter with the subject, however, Irving clearly laid great stress on the fact that the catalogue of his work demonstrated that he had now become a `reputable historian':

As an independent historian, I am proud that I cannot be threatened with the loss of my job, or my pension, or my future. Other historians around the world sneer and write letters to the newspapers about `David Irving, the so-called historian', and they demand, "Why does he call himself a Historian anyway? Where did he study History? Where did he get his Degree? What, No Degree in History, then why does he call himself a Historian?" My answer to them, Was Pliny a historian or not? Was Tacitus? Did he get a degree in some university? Thucydides? Did he get a degree? And yet we unashamedly call them historians—we call them historians because they wrote history which has done (recte: gone) down the ages as accepted true history.

This was true. Irving could not be dismissed just because he lacked formal qualifications.

    Irving was clearly incensed by a reference to him on page 180 of Lipstadt's book as "discredited." Lipstadt also alleged in her book that Irving was "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial. Familiar with historical evidence," she wrote, "he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda." According to Lipstadt, Irving had "neofascist" and "denial connections," for example, with the so-called Institute for Historical Review in California. More important, Lipstadt charged that Holocaust deniers like Irving "misstate, misquote, falsify statistics, and falsely attribute conclusions to reliable sources. They rely on books that directly contradict their arguments, quoting in a manner that completely distorts the authors' objectives." Irving himself, she claimed, was "an ardent admirer of the Nazi leader," who "declared that Hitler repeatedly reached out to help the Jews" (p. 161). Scholars had "accused him of distorting evidence and manipulating documents to serve his own purposes ... of skewing documents and misrepresenting data in order to reach historically untenable conclusions, particularly those that exonerate Hitler." "On some level," Lipstadt concluded, "Irving seems to conceive himself as carrying on Hitler's legacy."

    These were serious charges. Historians do not usually answer such criticisms by firing off writs. Instead, they normally rebut them in print. Irving, however, was no stranger to the courts. He wrote to Lipstadt's English publisher Penguin Books in November 1995 demanding the withdrawal of Lipstadt's book from circulation, alleging defamation and threatening to sue. Lipstadt responded, pointing out that her book mentioned Irving only on six out of more than three hundred pages. The publisher refused to withdraw; and Irving issued his defamation writ in September 1996. By December 1997, the legal process of mounting a defense against the writ was well under way, and a date for the proceedings to be held before the High Court in London was due to be fixed.

II

It was at this point that I became involved in the case on the initiative of Anthony Julius, of the London firm of solicitors Mishcon de Reya. I had never met him in person, but of course I knew of him through his high media profile as the solicitor who had won a record settlement for Princess Diana in her divorce from the Prince of Wales. Julius was not just a fashionable and successful lawyer. He was also well known as a writer and intellectual, although in the field of English literature rather than history. He was the author of a scholarly if controversial study of T. S. Eliot and antisemitism, and he wrote frequent book reviews for the Sunday papers. Julius was representing Deborah Lipstadt. When he phoned me toward the end of 1997, it was to ask if I would be willing to act as an expert witness for the defense.

    Later, in his cramped and book-lined Holborn office, Julius explained to me in more detail what would be involved. The first duty of an expert witness, he said, was to the court. That is, the evidence had to be as truthful and objective as possible. Expert witnesses were not there to plead a case. They were there to help the court in technical and specialized matters. They had to give their own opinion, irrespective of which side had engaged them. They had to swear a solemn oath to tell the truth and could be prosecuted for perjury if they did not. On the other hand, they were usually commissioned by one side or the other in the belief that what they said would support the case being put rather than undermine it. At the end of the day, it was up to the lawyers whether or not they used the reports they had commissioned. I would be paid by the hour, not by results. So the money would have no influence on what I wrote or said. If I did agree to write an expert report, however, and it was accepted by the lawyers, then I could expect it to be presented to the court and I would have to attend the trial to be cross-examined on it by the plaintiff.

    Why me? I asked. There were a number of reasons, Julius said. First, I was a specialist in modern German history. A copy of my most recent book in this field, Rituals of Retribution, was on his bookshelf. It was a large-scale study of capital punishment in Germany from the seventeenth century to the abolition of the death penalty in East Germany in 1987. Like much of my other work, it rested on unpublished manuscript documents in a range of German archives. So it was clear that I had a good command of the German language. I could read the obsolete German script in which many documents were written until the end of the Second World War. And I was familiar with the documentary basis on which a lot of modern German history was written. I had also for many years taught a document-based undergraduate course on Nazi Germany for the history degree at Birkbeck College in London University and before that in my previous post at the University of East Anglia. Clearly, the trial was going to turn to a considerable extent on the interpretation of Nazi documents, so expertise of this kind was crucial; and it was expertise that the court itself could not be expected to possess. Second, a couple of months earlier, I had published a short book entitled In Defense of History, which had dealt with such vexed questions as objectivity and bias in historical writing, the nature of historical research, the difference between truth and fiction, and the possibility of obtaining accurate knowledge about the past. These in a way, Anthony Julius explained, were the central issues in the case that Irving was bringing against Lipstadt.

    What Anthony Julius wanted me to do was to advise the court on whether Lipstadt's charges were justified. I was in a good position to do so not only because of my previous writings, but also because I had no personal connection with either of the two main protagonists in the case. Indeed, I had never actually seen either of them in the flesh. Irving was a famously combative figure, but he had never had occasion to cross swords with me. As I left Anthony Julius's office, I tried to put together what was known about Irving's reputation. Irving insisted that his works on the Second World War had a high standing and claimed in his libel suit that Lipstadt's allegations had caused "damage to his reputation" in his "calling as an historian." Yet as I began to plow through the reviews of Irving's books written by a wide range of historians and journalists over the years, the case he made for his high reputation among academic reviewers began to crumble. Academic historians with a general knowledge of modern history had indeed mostly been quite generous to Irving, even where they had found reason to criticize him or disagree with his views. Paul Addison, for example, an expert on British history in the Second World War, had concluded that while Irving was "usually a Colossus of research, he is often a schoolboy in judgment." Reviewing The War Path in 1978, R. Hinton Thomas, professor of German at Birmingham University, whose knowledge of the social and political context of twentieth-century German literature was both deep and broad, dismissed the book as "unoriginal" and its "claims to novelty" as "ill-based." "Much of Irving's argument," wrote Sir Martin Gilbert, official biographer of Churchill, about Hitler's War in 1977, "is based on speculation." But he also praised the book as "a scholarly work, the fruit of a decade of wide researches." The military historian Sir Michael Howard, subsequently Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, praised on the other hand the "very considerable merits" of The War Path, and declared that Irving was "at his best as a professional historian demanding documentary proof for popularly-held beliefs."

    In similar fashion, the eminent American specialist on modern Germany, Gordon A. Craig, reviewing Irving's Goebbels in the New York Review of Books in 1996, seemed at first glance full of praise for Irving's work:

Silencing Mr Irving would be a high price to pay for freedom from the annoyance that he causes us. The fact is that he knows more about National Socialism than most professional scholars in his field, and students of the years 1933-1945 owe more than they are always willing to admit to his energy as a researcher.... Hitler's War ... remains the best study we have of the German side of the Second World War, and, as such, indispensable for all students of that conflict .... It is always difficult for the non-historian to remember that there is nothing absolute about historical truth. What we consider as such is only an estimation, based upon what the best available evidence tells us. It must constantly be tested against new information and new interpretations that appear, however implausible they may be, or it will lose its vitality and degenerate into dogma or shibboleth. Such people as David Irving, then, have a indispensable part in the historical enterprise, and we dare not disregard their views.

    Yet even reviewers who had praised "the depth of Irving's research and his intelligence" found "too many avoidable mistakes ... passages quoted without attribution and important statements not tagged to the listed sources." John Charmley, a right-wing historian at the University of East Anglia, wrote that he "admires Mr. Irving's assiduity, energy, and courage." He continued: "Mr. Irving's sources, unlike the conclusions which he draws from them, are usually sound." But he also noted: "Mr. Irving is cited only when his sources have been checked and found reliable."

    Historians with firsthand research experience and expertise in Irving's field were more critical still. An early, prominent instance of criticism from such a quarter came with Hugh Trevor-Roper's review of Hitler's War in 1977. Trevor-Roper had worked in British Intelligence during the war and had been charged with heading an official mission to find out the true facts about the death of Hitler. The result of his researches, published in 1947 as The Last Days of Hitler, immediately established him as a leading authority on Nazi Germany and especially on Irving's home territory of Hitler and his immediate personal entourage. Reviewing Hitler's War, Trevor-Roper paid the by now customary tribute to Irving's ingenuity and persistence as a researcher. "No praise," he wrote, "can be too high for his indefatigable scholarly industry." But this was immediately followed by devastating criticism of Irving's method. Trevor-Roper continued:

When a historian relies mainly on primary sources, which we cannot easily cheek, he challenges our confidence and forces us to ask critical questions. How reliable is his historical method? How sound is his judgment? We ask these questions particularly of any man who, like Mr. Irving, makes a virtue—almost a profession—of using arcane sources to affront established opinions.

Trevor-Roper made it clear he found Irving's method and judgment defective: "He may read his manuscript diaries correctly. But we can never be quite sure, and when he is most original, we are likely to be least sure." Irving's work, he concluded, had a "consistent bias."

    The same view was taken by Martin Broszat, director of the Institut für Zeitgeschichte (Institute for Contemporary History) in Munich when Irving published Hitler's War. One of the world's leading historians of Nazi Germany, Broszat began his critique of Hitler's War by casting scorn on Irving's much-vaunted list of archival discoveries. The evidence Irving had gathered from the reminiscences of Hitler's entourage might provide more exact detail of what went on at Hitler's wartime headquarters, he wrote, and it might convey something of the atmosphere of the place, but it did little to enlarge our knowledge of the important military and political decisions that Hitler took, and so did not live up to the claims Irving made for it. Broszat went much further, however, and included the allegation, backed up by detailed examples, that Irving had manipulated and misinterpreted original documents in order to prove his arguments. Equally critical was the American Charles W. Sydnor Jr., who at the time of writing his review had just completed a lengthy study, Soldiers of Destruction: The SS Death's Head Division, 1933-1945, published by Princeton University Press. Sydnor's thirty-page demolition of Irving's book was one of the few reviews of any of Irving's books for which the reviewer had manifestly undertaken a substantial amount of original research. Sydnor considered Irving's boast to have outdone all other Hitler scholars in the depth and thoroughness of his research to be "pretentious twaddle." He accused Irving of innumerable inaccuracies, distortions, manipulations, and mistranslations in his treatment of the documents.

    Peter Hoffmann, the world's leading authority on the conservative resistance to Hitler and the individuals and groups behind the bomb plot of 20 July 1944, and a profound student of the German archival record of the wartime years, was equally critical of Irving's biography of Hermann Göring, published in 1988:

Mr. Irving's constant references to archives, diaries and letters, and the overwhelming amount of detail in his work, suggest objectivity. In fact they put up a screen behind which a very different agenda is transacted.... Mr Irving is a great obfuscator.... Distortions affect every important aspect of this book to the point of obfuscation.... It is unfortunate that Mr. Irving wastes his extraordinary talents as a researcher and writer on trivializing the greatest crimes in German history, on manipulating historical sources and on highlighting the theatrics of the Nazi era.

Hoffmann commented that while the 1977 edition of Hitler's War had "usefully provoked historians by raising the question of the smoking gun" (whether an order could be found from Hitler to perpetrate a holocaust against the Jews), twenty-two years on, so much research had been carried out in this area by historians that although he repeated it in Göring, "it is no longer possible to regard Mr. Irving's thesis as a useful provocation."

    John Lukács, an American historian who had written extensively on the Second World War, declared in a review of one of Irving's books in 1981 that "Mr Irving's factual errors are beyond belief." He renewed his criticisms of Irving years later in a general survey of historical writings on Hitler." "Few reviewers and critics of Irving's books," Lukács complained, not without some justification, "have bothered to examine them carefully enough." Hitler's War contained "many errors in names and dates; more important, unverifiable and unconvincing assertions abound." There were references to archives "without dates, places, or file or page numbers." "Many of the archival references in Irving's footnotes ... were inaccurate and did not prove or even refer to the pertinent statements in Irving's text." Lukács found many instances of Irving's "manipulations, attributing at least false meanings to some documents or, in other instances, printing references to irrelevant ones." Often "a single document, or fragment of a document, was enough for Irving to build a very questionable thesis on its contents or on the lack of such." "While some of Irving's `finds' cannot be disregarded," Lukács went on, "their interpretation ... is, more often than not, compromised and even badly flawed." He convicted Irving of "frequent `twisting' of documentary sources" and urged "considerable caution" in their use by other historians.

    Similar conclusions were reached by Professor David Cannadine, currently director of the Institute of Historical Research at London University, when he came to consider the first volume of Irving's biography of Sir Winston Churchill. Cannadine noted that the publishers to whom the book had originally been contracted (Michael Joseph in London and Doubleday in New York) had turned the manuscript down and it had been published by an unknown Australian company. "It has received almost no attention from historians or reviewers," and, Cannadine added, "It is easy to see why." Irving's method was full of "excesses, inconsistencies and omissions." Irving, he charged, "seems completely unaware of recent work done on the subject." "It is not merely," he observed, "that the arguments in this book are so perversely tendentious and irresponsibly sensationalist. It is also that it is written in a tone which is at best casually journalistic and at worst quite exceptionally offensive. The text is littered with errors from beginning to end." In Cannadine's judgment, too, therefore, Irving's work was deeply flawed.

    "Perversely tendentious,'" "`twisting' of documentary sources," "manipulating historical sources," "pretentious twaddle": these were unusually harsh criticisms emerging from the wider chorus of praise for Irving's energy and persistence as a researcher. Clearly, Lipstadt was far from being the first critic of Irving's work to accuse him of bending the documentary record to suit his arguments. For many years, professional historians had seemed to regard him as an assiduous collector of original documentation, although there was some dispute over quite how important all of it was. But when it came to Irving's interpretation of the documents, several eminent specialists were harsh, even savage, in their criticisms. Nor was this all. Irving's writings had repeatedly landed him in trouble with the law. He had been sued for libel by a retired naval officer who considered Irving's charge of cowardice against him in The Destruction of Convoy PQ 17 to be defamatory, and had been forced with his publishers to pay damages of £40,000, later confirmed by the House of Lords. The award, made in 1970, was very large for the time, and included £25,000 in exemplary damages, which can only be awarded when it has been shown that the defendant is guilty of a deliberate `tort' or wrong committed with the object of making money. His allegation in the introduction to the German edition of Hitler's War that the Diary of Anne Frank was a forgery had led to his publisher being forced to pay damages. In 1968 he had been sued for libel by Jillian Page, author of a newspaper article about him, as a result of his allegation that the article had been the result of her "fertile brain." Irving had apologized in the High Court and paid costs on condition that Page agreed to withdraw the action. Similarly he had also been obliged to pay costs in an unsuccessful libel action against Colin Smythe, publisher of a book (The Assassination of Winston Churchill) attacking Irving's views on the death of General Sikorski.

    During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Irving's books had been published by a variety of mainstream publishing houses, including Penguin Books, who had brought out a paperback edition of the early version of Hitler's War and its companion volume on the years 1933-39, The War Path; Macmillan, under whose imprint later editions of Hitler's War had appeared up to about 1992; Hodder and Stoughton, who had published the original hardback; HarperCollins, whose paperback imprint Grafton Books had published an edition of Irving's Göring biography in 1991; and Corgi paperbacks, who had produced more than one of the various editions of The Destruction of Dresden. Since the late 1980s, however, Irving had ceased to be published by major houses, but instead had brought out all his books under his own imprint, Focal Point. "If I write a bad book," he said, perhaps rather surprisingly, in 1986, "or if I write two or three bad books, with boobs in it which the newspapers pick out, which I'm ashamed to admit are probably right, then of course the time comes when publishers turn their back on me."

    Moreover, while he had run into the law at various points in his career, most notably in his arrest and deportation from Austria in 1983, his difficulties in this respect had increased noticeably during the 1990s, with his conviction for insulting the memory of the dead in Germany in 1991 and his banning from entry into that country, into Canada, and into Australia, all in 1992-93. One would not have expected a reputable historian to have run into such trouble, and indeed it was impossible to think of any historian of any standing at all who had been subjected to so many adverse legal judgments, or who had initiated so many libel actions himself. Irving's reputation as a historian, never entirely secure, seemed to have plummeted during the 1990s. In an interview with the American journalist Ron Rosenbaum in the mid-1990s, Irving himself had admitted as much, confessing that his reputation among historians was "down to its uppers," though adding that it "hasn't yet worn through to the street."

    Yet, because of his early reputation as a formidable historian, and because of his "articulate, plausible demeanor," as the journalist Sarah Lyall pointed out, "Mr. Irving has confounded efforts to write him off as a harmless crackpot." Jenny Booth, indeed, writing in The Scotsman, thought that Irving "was still seen as a substantial scholar in England and the US." The right-wing historian Andrew Roberts noted that "several distinguished historians, all of whom asked not to be named, told me how much they admired Irving's tenacity in uncovering new material from Nazi sources."

    Yet such admiration was almost always highly qualified. Wolfgang Benz, director of Berlin's Centre for the Study of Antisemitism, echoed the more dismissive tone of most German assessments of Irving's reputation: "Irving," he told an interviewer, "is overpraised as a writer for the general public. He has delivered details from the perspective of the keyhole—from conversations with courtiers and chauffeurs—and thereby mobilized the last knowledge that could be brought to light from Hitler's entourage. But nothing really new." The Irving of the early years had been an outsider who was to some extent to be taken seriously, Benz concluded, but he had subsequently radicalized his political views and could no longer be treated as a serious historian.

(Continues...)

(C) 2001 Richard J. Evans All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-465-02152-2

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