History Thread: Or, The Perils of Condoning Pseudohistory

In the fall of 1979, 600 academics from across the world signed a petition protesting the dismissal of Robert Faurisson, a French professor of literature at the University of Lyon. The text of the petition read:

Dr. Robert Faurisson has served as a respected professor of twentieth-century French literature and document criticism for over four years at the University of Lyon-2 in France. Since 1974 he has been conducting extensive historical research into the “Holocaust” question.

Since he began making his findings public, Professor Faurisson has been subject to a vicious campaign of harassment, intimidation, slander and physical violence in a crude attempt to silence him. Fearful officials have even tried to stop him from further research by denying him access to public libraries and archives.

We strongly protest these efforts to deprive Professor Faurisson of his freedom of speech and expression, and we condemn the shameful campaign to silence him.

We strongly support Professor Faurisson’s just right of academic freedom and we demand that university and government officials do everything possible to ensure his safety and the free exercise of his legal rights.

Amidst high minded comments about free speech and academic freedom, one spots a few telling phrases. Note, in particular, that the word Holocaust (referencing, of course, Nazi Germany’s attempted destruction of European Jews during the Second World War) is bracketed in scare quotes, as if the 20th Century’s most famous genocide were merely theoretical. The message is plain: the aggrieved Professor Faurisson was a Holocaust denier. And, for some reason, hundreds of public figures (some admittedly cranks like Arthur Butz, an American electrical engineer-turned-professional anti-Semite, but others reputable scholars and writers) decided his was a cause worth defending.

Robert Faurisson

Since 1974, Faurisson made debunking the Holocaust a central mission. His lack of historical credentials didn’t stop him from proclaiming that all testimony about gas chambers at Auschwitz was fabricated or coerced; that the Diary of Anne Frank was a forgery; that Germans forced Jews to wear yellow stars as a reasonable defense against Jewish saboteurs; that “Hitler never ordered nor permitted that anyone be killed by reason of his race or religion.” He regularly contributed to the Journal of Historical Review, the leading “revisionist” publication, while writing open letters to French papers and granting television interviews about his hobbyhorse (one of which resulted in his firing). Later in life, he received an award from Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for showing “courage, resistance and fighting spirit” in his advocacy. There’s no mistaking who Faurisson was; the question is, who defended him and why?

This essay takes it as an article of faith that the Holocaust occurred, and will not concern itself with debunking the claims of deniers (or “revisionists”) at any length. (See the Nizkor Project for that.) Nor will it address the history of Holocaust denial or assess legitimate debates in Holocaust historiography (like the notorious functionalist-vs.-intentionalist controversy). It will, however, attempt to chart the strange tendency of certain writers, in the name of free speech, to defend the words and actions of such figures, inadvertently granting them cover and legitimacy for their toxic ideology.

Perhaps the most prominent signer of the Faurisson petition was Noam Chomsky, the famed MIT linguist already known as a pugnacious civil libertarian and critic of American foreign policy. Chomsky was Jewish and, to be clear, no Holocaust denier (indeed, his work frequently excoriates American policymakers for collaborating with ex-Nazis during the Cold War). So he framed the signatories’ position in noble-sounding terms: “It is elementary that freedom of expression (including academic freedom) is not to be restricted to views of which one approves, and that it is precisely in the case of views that are almost universally despised and condemned that this right must be most vigorously defended.”

Noam Chomsky

The flaw in Chomsky’s position, principled as it appears, becomes evident upon examination. It’s true that Faurisson received not only professional loss but legal censure for his comments (even less defensibly, he suffered a physical assault in the late ’80s). European laws outlawing hate speech and Holocaust denial remain a legitimate subject for debate; whatever their merits such laws are, indeed, censorship. The problem is that Chomsky, like many self-proclaimed “defenders of free speech,” does not distinguish between actual censorship and criticism or censure. Or that there might, indeed, be a difference between a reasonable “difference of opinion” (say, whether 5.5 or 6 million Jews died at Hitler’s hands) and an outright lie (that few, if any, Jews perished). And that one does not deserve equal weight or consideration from the other.

In October 1980 Chomsky penned an essay, titled “Some Elementary Comments on The Rights of Freedom of Expression,” which was later published as the preface to Faurisson’s book Memoire en defense (a fact Chomsky proudly announces on his website). Chomsky insists that “I am concerned here solely with a narrow and specific topic, namely, the right of free expression of ideas, conclusions and beliefs,” then contradicts himself by speaking about quite more than that. This sordid essay is a low point in Chomsky’s career, leveraging his reputation on behalf of someone deeply undeserving.

It isn’t long into the essay that Chomsky abandons his “narrow and specific topic.” The very idea that historians in France, which experienced firsthand the ordeal of fascist occupation and collaboration, might object to a Holocaust denier in their midst seems to offend Chomsky. He blames criticism of Faurisson on “the bizarre and dadaistic character of certain streams of intellectual life in postwar France which makes rational discourse appear to be such an odd and unintelligible pastime.” In contrast, eminently rational American scholars like Chomsky possess “a live civil libertarian tradition,” unlike the totalitarian Frenchmen.

french stereotypes
The French, per Noam Chomsky

Perhaps Chomsky’s words, however chauvinistic, could be seen as a well-intentioned defense of free speech. Except that he also defends Faurisson against charges of fascist sympathy. Admitting that “I do not know his work very well,” Chomsky nonetheless arrogates himself the right to render a verdict. “From what I have read — largely as a result of the nature of the attacks on him — I find no evidence to support either conclusion,” the linguist insists. “Nor do I find credible evidence in the material that I have read concerning him, either in the public record or in private correspondence. As far as I can determine, he is a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort.”

Describing a man who, in the early ’60s, was arrested for connections to the OAS (the terrorist group who carried out savage massacres of Arabs and liberal Europeans during the waning days of the Algerian War, before turning their ire to Charles de Gaulle), who spent six years prior to Chomsky’s essay writing articles and granting interviews denying the Holocaust, espousing the perfidy of the Jews and associating with hate groups, as “an apolitical liberal” is either ignorant or outright dishonest. As if this weren’t enough, Chomsky wonders: “Is it antisemitic to speak of Zionist lies?” Perhaps not, but in Faurisson’s case, one wonders whether “lies” or “Zionist” is the operative word.

vidal naquet
Pierre Vidal-Naquet

Chomsky’s essay was roundly excoriated, particularly in France. Most vehement was Pierre Vidal-Naquet, a renowned scholar of Ancient Greece and Jewish history, who attacked Chomsky for defending what he termed “the assassins of memory.” Conceding that Faurisson suffered legal consequences for his behavior, he nonetheless argues that the historian had a responsibility to assess arguments on a factual basis. He brilliantly skewers those who demand “free speech” for extremists but not, say, those who object to the former receiving exposure and public respectability – and those who think the loss of a public platform is equivalent to censorship.

Would [Chomsky] like a law passed by the republic requiring that Faurisson’s works be read in public schools? Is he asking for all history books to be rewritten in accord with his discoveries –I mean, conclusions? Is he requesting at the very least that they be advertised and sold at the entrance to synagogues? Is every French intellectual required to assume in turn the roles of his exegete, like Serge Thion, his psychiatrist, like Pierre Guillaume [fellow signers of the petition], or his buffoon?

Nor does the distinguished historian let Chomsky off the hook for his deceitful characterization of Faurisson’s record:

The simple truth, Noam Chomsky, is that you were unable to abide by the ethical maxim you had imposed. You had the right to say: my worst enemy has the right to be free, on condition that he not ask for my death or that of my brothers. You did not have the right to say: my worst enemy is a comrade, or a “relatively apolitical sort of liberal.” You did not have the right to take a falsifier of history and to recast him in the colors of truth.

Vidal-Naquet stresses the cost of Chomsky defending such odious opinions. “To maintain that the genocide of the Jews is a “historical lie” and to be prefaced by an illustrious linguist, the son of a professor of Hebrew, a libertarian and the enemy of every imperialism is surely even better than being supported by [French leftist] Gabriel Cohn-Bendit.” If a Jewish writer associated with progressive causes asserted that a fascist wasn’t a fascist – that a Holocaust denier was an “apolitical liberal” who deserved a public platform – then who could reasonably question Faurisson?

Chomsky’s defense of Faurisson’s honor (which he’s never recanted) finds a mirror in Christopher Hitchens’ fixation on David Irving. Irving, a prolific British writer on World War II and Nazi Germany, evinced a “sneaking sympathy” towards fascism from his earliest works, including a book on the Dresden bombing which exaggerated the death toll by an order of magnitude. Though he gained some cache in the ’80s by helping to expose the Hitler Diaries forgery, Irving devoted most of his work to refurbishing the Third Reich’s reputation. He boldly announced as his mission to clean “years of grime and discoloration from the facade of a silent and forbidding monument” – that monument being Adolf Hitler.

David Irving

By the late ’80s, bolstered by Fred A. Leuchter’s bogus report on the Auschwitz gas chambers, Irving drifted from “sneaking sympathy” for fascism to open denial – a change reflected by his 1991 revision of Hitler’s War, expunging all of the original versions’s references to the Final Solution. Afterwards Irving regularly addressed neo-Nazi groups, making grotesque statements like “more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz” and asking a tattooed Auschwitz survivor how much money she’d made off their experience. He was arrested periodically in European countries which outlaw denial. To this day, Irving relishes provoking and insulting his critics; like many extremists, Irving also enjoys threatening them with legal action while insisting on his own right to speak.

While not a trained historian, Irving gave the impression of scholarly vigor: he speaks and reads German fluently, and uses primary sources in Germany and the UK to bolster his work. Books like Hitler’s War are massive doorstops, impressing lay readers with their length and girth, if not their rigor or readability. Nonetheless, historians find his work sloppy and factually challenged: one reviewer of his book on Winston Churchill called it “perversely tendentious and irresponsibly sensationalist” and remarked that “the text is littered with errors from beginning to end.” Historian Christopher Browning fittingly dubbed him “the self-appointed attorney of Hitler before the bar of history.”

Irving achieved his peak notoriety in the late ’90s. After the publication of Deborah Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust (1993), which briefly mentioned Irving among a claque of historical “revisionists,” Irving sued Lipstadt for libel in London. Under British law, Lipstadt had to prove that her claims were accurate; Irving could theoretically claim harm, as publication of his biography of Joseph Goebbels was revoked after Lipstadt’s book (and, considering that Lipstadt was both Jewish and a woman, she made an appealing target for a man who was not only antisemitic but wished to outlaw public employment of women). So Lipstadt enlisted several fellow historians, including Richard J. Evans (The Coming of the Third Reich) and Christopher Browning (Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland), to bolster her case.

richard j evans
Richard J. Evans

The resulting 2000 trial is well-known, inspiring several books and a feature film (2016’s Denial, featuring Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt and Timothy Spall as Irving). Evans, also a fluent German speaker, demonstrated that Irving had “consistently and repeatedly manipulated the historical evidence in order to give the impression that it supported his view that Hitler did not know about the extermination of the Jews, or, if he did, opposed it.” Most telling was Irving’s claim that a November 1941 order by Heinrich Himmler to Reinhard Heydrich to halt a single shipment of Jews from Berlin to Riga (Judentransport aus Berlin), resulting in “no liquidation” (keine Liquidierung), was in fact an order directly from Hitler not to liquidate any Jews, period. A transparent lie, except that the original documents were in German, and not accessible to most of Irving’s readers; Evans, fortunately, beat Irving at his own game.

Nonetheless, Irving (who enlivened the trial by addressing the Judge as “Mein Fuhrer” and insisting that he couldn’t be sexist because he employed “very attractive girls with very nice breasts”) painted himself as a martyr for free speech, even though he’d brought the libel case against Lipstadt. Some historians wondered, disingenuously, whether the verdict would have a chilling effect on their own work; John Keegan, one of the few mainstream historians to openly defend Irving, dismissed the verdict as “political correctness.” Others attacked Lipstadt herself: Brendan Glacken, writing for the Irish Times, criticized her “smugness, her dullness and her self-righteous political correctness” (!). Thus did Irving become, improbably, a victim of the nefarious Penguin and the vile Deborah Lipstadt.

Through such intellectual contortions did Christopher Hitchens appoint himself Irving’s defender. Hitchens had earlier, and far more understandably, championed the cause of Salman Rushdie after the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa and the subsequent reluctance by publishers to carry his work. Like Chomsky, however, Hitchens couldn’t restrict himself to defending Irving’s write to speak or publish; he had to defend the man’s personal integrity, as well. “David Irving is not just a Fascist historian,” Hitchens proclaimed, finding merits in Irving’s work that few actual historians would claim. “He is also a great historian of Fascism.”

Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens wrote a long essay in 2001 detailing his relationship with Irving. “When I first became aware of Irving,” he asserts, “I did not feel it necessary to react like a virgin who is suddenly confronted by a man in a filthy raincoat.” To his marginal credit, Hitchens spends much of his essay demolishing the claims of Holocaust deniers. Yet towards Irving he remains remarkably mild, even laudatory, comparing him to such esteemed historians as A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper. Assessing Irving’s scurrilous Goebbels biography (which one reviewer labeled “twisted interpretations of the leader of the Third Reich and his crimes [that] do not deserve to be called history”), Hitchens admits to finding “some odd stuff about Hitler’s lack of responsibility for Kristallnacht but…I allowed for Irving’s obsessions” in service of a worthwhile book.

Irving, for his part, was impressed enough with Hitchens’ defense to invite him for drinks. Hitchens was unimpressed with Irving in person, particularly when he recited a racist doggerel to Hitchens’ daughter that he regularly sang for his own child. Only when Irving offended him, personally, did Hitchens decide that “anyone joining a Fair Play for Irving Committee was up against a man with some kind of death wish.” Nonetheless, Hitchens proudly proclaimed himself “a big boy [who] can bear the thought of being offended,” insisting that Irving’s books retain considerable merit and that those who disagree are, presumably, little girls.

Deborah Lipstadt

Hitchens, like Chomsky, confuses the issue of free speech – possessing a legal right to speak – and the right to a public platform, something else entirely. Perhaps this is inevitable; both Irving and Faurisson ran afoul of anti-hate speech laws, which could plausibly constitute encroachment on civil liberties. But while St. Martin’s Press refusing to public Irving’s book might be many things it is not, by definition, censorship, any more than, say, expelling Richard Spencer from Twitter. Certainly Deborah Lipstadt calling Irving a Holocaust denier is not “censorship”; equating all criticism or demands for accountability with suppression of free speech is simply wrong.

Lipstadt, who experienced firsthand the perils of calling fascists by their name, writes that “deniers have the absolute right to stand on any street corner and spread their calumnies. They have the right to publish their books and articles and hold their gatherings. But free speech does not guarantee them the right to be treated as the other side in a legitimate debate…More important, it does not call for people like Chomsky to stand by them and thereby commend their views to the public.” Since the libel trial, she has spoken out against laws criminalizing Holocaust denial (even criticizing Irving’s 2006 arrest in Austria), while retaining her view that it’s a pseudohistory worthy neither of respect, debate nor serious consideration.

In recent years, we’ve witnessed the consequences of granting extremists platforms, attention and respectability. And how easily defenses of free speech lapse into defenses, implicit or otherwise, of racism as a valid alternative to conventional thought. For some, like Chomsky, it’s an extreme extension of a worthy principle; for contrarians like Hitchens, such arguments might seem like an intellectual game, or their perpetrators easy to humor or ignore, but the consequences to Jews and other targeted groups are very real. Would that all historians, and thoughtful observers everywhere, take this into consideration.

jews people

Note: This piece was inspired by Richard J. Evans, Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust and the David Irving Trial (2001) and Deborah Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1993) and History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier (2005). I also relied heavily on the articles linked and excerpted throughout the article.