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The Strange Case of David Irving

THE HOLOCAUST ON TRIAL By D.D. Guttenplan; W.W. Norton: 328 pp., $24.95

LYING ABOUT HITLER History, Holocaust and the David Irving Trial By Richard J. Evans; Basic/Perseus: 336 pp., $27

May 20, 2001|CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS | Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation and the author most recently of "The Trial of Henry Kissinger."

When the first news of the Nazi camps was published in 1945, there were those who thought the facts might be exaggerated either by Allied war propaganda or by the human tendency to relish "atrocity stories." In his column in the London magazine Tribune, George Orwell wrote that though this might be so, the speculation was not exactly occurring in a vacuum. If you remember what the Nazis did to the Jews before the war, he said, it isn't that difficult to imagine what they might do to them during one.

In one sense, the argument over "Holocaust denial" ends right there. The National Socialist Party seized power in 1933, proclaiming as its theoretical and organizing principle the proposition that the Jews were responsible for all the world's ills, from capitalist profiteering to subversive Bolshevism. By means of oppressive legislation, they began to make all of Germany Judenrein, or "Jew-free." Jewish businesses were first boycotted and then confiscated. Jewish places of worship were first vandalized and then closed. Wherever Nazi power could be extended--to the Rhineland, to Austria and to Sudeten Czechoslovakia--this pattern of cruelty and bigotry was repeated. (And, noticed by few, the state killing of the mentally and physically "unfit," whether Jewish or "Aryan," was tentatively inaugurated.) After the war broke out, Hitler was able to install puppet governments or occupation regimes in numerous countries, each of which was compelled to pass its own version of the anti-Semitic "Nuremberg Laws." Most ominous of all--and this in plain sight and on camera, and in full view of the neighbors--Jewish populations as distant as Salonika were rounded up and put on trains, to be deported to the eastern provinces of conquered Poland.

None of this is, even in the remotest sense of the word, "deniable." Nor is the fact that, once the war was over, surviving Jews found that they had very few family members left. The argument only begins here, and it takes two forms. First, what exactly happened to the missing ones? Second, why did it occur? The first argument is chiefly forensic and concerns numbers and methods: the physical engineering of shooting, gassing, burial and cremation. The second argument is a debate among historians and is known as the "intentionalist versus functionalist" dispute. The "intentionalists" say that Hitler and his gang were determined from the start to extirpate all Jews and that everything from 1933 to 1945 is a vindication of certain passages in "Mein Kampf." The "functionalists" point out (correctly) that the Nazis actually killed almost no Jews until after 1941 and that the \o7 Endlosung, \f7 or "Final Solution," was a semi-secret plan evolved after Germany began to lose the war on the Eastern front. On this continuum, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, with his view that Germans had a cultural gene of anti-Semitism, is an extreme "intentionalist"; Yehudah Bauer, of the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem, is a moderate "functionalist."

Differences of opinion between these two schools, and discrepancies in the evidence, have recently permitted the emergence of something that is more of a phenomenon than a "school," by which I mean the movement of "Holocaust denial" or (because it consists of two contrasting tendencies) "Holocaust revisionism." This movement contains some Nazi revivalists in Germany and elsewhere, some crackpots and conspiracy theorists and one practicing historian, an Englishman named David Irving. Among revisionist forces there is even more confusion; they either argue that nothing much happened at all and that the whole thing is a fabrication or they maintain that the unforgettable piles of corpses were the result of epidemics, to be blamed on the disruption of food and medical supplies by Allied bombing. (It will be seen at once that this latter faction has no good explanation for why the Jews of Europe were packed into remote camps in the first place.)

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