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Michael Smerconish

Michael Smerconish

Posted: January 10, 2007 07:38 PM

On Dealing With Denial

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"If we really want to know the truth about history we need to allow freedom of speech."

So I was told by David Duke in an interview three weeks ago via a scratchy transatlantic connection from Tehran. Duke was then in Iran as a participant in Mahmoud Admadinejad's conference concerning the Holocaust.

David Duke does not speak for me. I have followed his career and find his repeated condemnation of Israel and her supporters to be abhorrent. Nevertheless, I knew that my acceptance of an invitation to interview the former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard would itself cause a stir. It did. But I was willing to speak to him because I was then on the verge of traveling to the most deadly of all Nazi extermination camps and I wanted to hear what a self-described revisionist had to say.

The fringes represented by Duke argue that laws in Europe which prohibit Holocaust denial inhibit an analysis that could otherwise reveal the Holocaust to be historical exaggeration which exists to justify the legitimacy of Israel. No Holocaust or exaggerated description? Then there's no justification for the creation of the state of Israel in the minds of these few.

I've now just returned from a visit to Auschwitz, and I find that I agree with David Duke that Europeans should be free to debate the Holocaust, but not for reasons with which he would concur. Having seen the haunting, ghastly evidence which I have just examined, my view is that it's far easier to defeat the deniers with fact and logic rather than risk fostering skepticism which comes from making those views illegal to espouse. It is through the clash of truth vs. falsity that the merits of veracity about the Holocaust are most readily seen.

My trip had been planned for nearly a year. I'm one of a half-dozen Philadelphia friends, three of whom are Jewish, who for the last several years have traveled together in the first week of January to historical sites. We've been to Theodore Roosevelt's "Sagamore Hill", in Oyster Bay, New York; the Reagan library in Simi Valley; and Winston Churchill's underground bunker where he withstood the Battle of Britain. We read. We drink. We investigate.

This year we were very serious in purpose.

We began in Berlin at the Wannsee Villa where on January 20, 1942, fifteen representatives of the Third Reich plotted the "final solution". In their actual meeting room, we read the protocol written by Adolf Eichmann which set forth the plan to murder European Jews. Then we saw where it was implemented.

We visited "Track 17" in the fashionable Grunewalt section of Berlin. This is a former rail station that was the point of departure for Jews from the area being sent to the camps. Memorialized today adjacent to the tracks are the dates, number of passengers, and destination of the rail cars.

Our next stop was the other end of those tracks, in Poland.

On a raw, dark, rain swept day we spent four hours walking the grounds of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

We saw it all. At Auschwitz I, we walked through the infamous gate ("Work Brings Freedom"). We toured the surviving crematorium. We saw the ghastly displays of real human hair, personal effects, suitcases, and even shoe polish, all confiscated from the prisoners who'd packed in haste under the ruse of a "re-settlement". Present for inspection were also empty canisters which once held Zyclon B in pellet form, the agent used to exterminate human life in the crematoriums.

At Auschwitz II-Birkenau we stood on the platform where Jews were divided between those who were to be immediately gassed and those who would live for at least a while longer. This was where Elie Wiesel, in his chilling memoir Night, recounts having survived this selection process as a teenager at the hand of Dr. Josef Mengele. We also surveyed up close the ruins of crematorium II, the most prolific of the Nazi's death machines, which was largely destroyed by the Nazis in an unsuccessful effort to hide their crimes against humanity.

It was there that I pondered the critical question: If the Holocaust, fully in evidence by that which then existed in front of me, is not subject to reasonable debate, should all argument to the contrary be unlawful? Close to twenty nations say yes, and ban Holocaust denial. Austria is one such nation, and only recently released imprisoned historian David Irving.

Our tour guide is one of many who believe those laws to be justified. She thinks them necessary as a safeguard for properly educating future generations about what occurred.

I agree with her that our goal must be to ensure the understanding of future generations. But I don't see those laws as a means to that end. It occurs to me that the European ban of debate on the Holocaust would be akin to America disallowing argument on the whacky 9/11 conspiracy theories that exist on the Internet.

There are many, credible-looking websites that have become clearing houses for rumor and innuendo about the attack on the Pentagon. A missile some argue, not a passenger airplane. (Overlooking, of course, the issue of what then happened to American Airlines Flight 77 and its passengers?) The most effective way of dealing with such propaganda is to discredit it point by point, not to make unlawful its utterance, which runs the risk of fueling skepticism. With regard to 9/11, Popular Mechanics did so exquisitely in both magazine, and then book form.

It should be the same with regard to Holocaust revisionists. The way to combat their mindset is with total openness and a climate of candor about all aspects of WWII. That includes providing full access to even those locations that run the risk of cultivating morbid curiosity.

In Berlin, our group stayed in the world famous Hotel Adlon at the foot of the Bradenburg Gate. The concierge was happy to provide me with a map suggesting a walking tour of the neighborhood. Included on the map were both the Reichstag, home of the German Parliament, and the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. Missing, however, was any reference to what's beneath a non-descript, surface parking lot adjacent to an apartment complex, just 100 yards behind the hotel. That was the location Hitler's "Fuehrerbunker".

Not until the World Cup came to Germany last year was any placard installed to note the significance of the location where Hitler killed himself as Russian troops stormed the Reichstag. That too is the incorrect response to a hideous chapter of German history. Not only should the location of the Fuehrerbunker be noted, it should arguably be unearthed and opened to the public.

Such were my views upon arriving back home. But my reflection was not over. I then had the chance to question one of the world's foremost historians, Sir Martin Gilbert, official biographer of Winston Churchill and author of Auschwitz and the Allies as well as The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War, amongst close to eighty other books. This week, I asked him whether he thinks Holocaust denial should be against the law.

"This is a very difficult question. I attended almost everyday of the Irving/Libstadt trial and I heard from the mouth of the Holocaust denier the most terrifying racism and anti-Semitism. I thought to myself, if this person is allowed to spread his word to ignorant audiences or audiences who want to be prejudiced that's a bad thing. So when the Austrian government (of all governments as Austria was so complicit in the Nazi destruction) imprisoned him for his denial, I thought, 'Well he knew the law, he broke the law and the Austrians have a right to feel that this is something inflammatory and wrong.'

"I've been much criticized by fellow historians who say, 'How can you put a historian in jail?' But I think every country has the right to its own laws. And I'm impressed if you say that your tour guide at Auschwitz said that because although one might disagree - and as you say free speech is tremendously important in our society and debate and argument and I'm all for that - I'm all for every Holocaust denier being able to speak in a forum where there's someone who is going to challenge him or her. At the same time countries like Poland know that Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, racism take on a life of their own."

I told Sir Martin Gilbert that I believe we give credibility and credence to the minuscule number of deniers by not permitting that kind of dialogue. I worry that there will be a level of skepticism in future generations who'll question why are we able to debate everything but that.

"You're absolutely right and I think the key word is dialogue," said Gilbert. "I'm totally in favor of every Holocaust denier being able to speak provided he or she allows there to be a dialogue. I'm willing to travel the world or get up at the crack of dawn in order to be present at such a debate. And many other historians, Jews and non-Jews, will do the same. So that's fine. And the other thing I feel, and I think I'm right, is that Holocaust denial is really quite a minor thing. I mean it has its fling on the Internet; it has its few adherents who travel everywhere, as they did to Ahmadinejad's Anti Holocaust conference - they made a pathetic showing actually there. I think that what is important is the amount of material about the Holocaust, much of that you'd have seen in the Auschwitz bookshop published by Auschwitz itself - records, diary, the enormous number of superb memoir from Elie Wiesel's Night on. These things are available they're taught in school. American schools have a very good record mandating Holocaust teaching."

I then told Gilbert about my Berlin experience and suggested that the Fuehrerbunker be unearthed and opened to the public. He agreed.

"It's extraordinary that you say that because when I traveled around Europe with my students about 10 years ago - and I wrote a book about that called Holocaust Journey - Traveling in Search of the Past and I have maps of each town - Berlin, Krakow, Warsaw and so forth - and what to see - I was myself astonished and I mentioned in the book that there wasn't a plaque there. I'm glad to hear there is albeit only a small one. And I agree totally with you there should be complete openness. There should be complete transparency and the Bunker should be open for the world to see. Particularly if Germany is now making films about the Fuehrer - and I think the latest one is a humorous one. So let the Bunker be open, let it become a place of pilgrimage if you like and a place of learning as so many Holocaust sit es are today."

Finally, I shared all of this with a close friend who lost family in the Holocaust. We discussed whether free speech should exist on the issue of Holocaust denial. He was unsure. But he acknowledged that laws banning Holocaust denial are probably an insufficient blanket to put out that fire.

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