AT the dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington last April, the history of the Holocaust was more than a memory - it was a palpable presence. Yet that same week, a Roper survey reported that 22 percent of the adults it polled allowed for the possibility that the Holocaust had never happened. An additional 12 percent doubted that Hitler's Nazi regime systematically slaughtered more than 6 million Jews and other minority groups.
In her important new book, "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory," Deborah Lipstadt elucidates that paradox. She contends that an ignorance of history, misguided interpretations of the First Amendment, and the growing visibility of Holocaust revisionists have created the "other side" of an argument that is not debatable. Nevertheless, Holocaust revisionism has been insinuating itself into mainstream thinking.
Lipstadt traces Holocaust revisionism in America back to Harry Elmer Barnes, a history professor who argued that the World War II Allies were more brutal than the Germans and rationalized the latter's virulent anti-Semitism. Barnes's successors currently include Robert Faurisson of France, David Irving of Great Britain, the German-born Ernst Zundel of Canada, and Fred Leuchter, a self-described "execution-hardware expert" based outside of Boston. In particular, they promote Barnes's contention that gas c hambers were "postwar inventions" fabricated to perpetuate the "evil image of the Nazi empire."
By the 1970s, anti-Semites had repackaged Holocaust denial as historical revisionism. In 1979 Willis Carto, founder of the anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby, became a primary supporter of the California-based Institute for Historical Review. As implied by its name, IHR attempted to win scholarly acceptance for deniers. But its transparent agenda, Lipstadt writes, was simply "the equivalent of David Duke without his robes."
Holocaust revisionism has been more entrenched in German academia. Lipstadt observes that President Reagan's visit to a German military cemetery in Bitburg was a "political manifestation of this historical tendency to try and normalize the German past...." Expanding upon those "gray areas" of interpretation, conservative German historians have also formulated what Lipstadt calls an "immoral equivalency" by equating the Holocaust with other 20th-century atrocities.
But Lipstadt writes: "This is not a matter of comparative pain or competitive suffering. It is misguided to attempt to gauge which group endured more.... To attempt to say that all are the same is to engage in historical distortion."
Holocaust deniers, who once were more blatant in their bigotry and thus discredited themselves, have subtly blurred the line between fiction and reality. "Denying the Holocaust" skillfully distinguishes between the two, but in the process Lipstadt is, in her words, "forced to prove" established facts.