When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran described the Holocaust as a "myth" and hosted a Holocaust revisionist conference in Tehran in December 2006, he was warmly cheered in the Third World and severely castigated in the United States and Europe. Yet most Western pundits largely failed to grasp the significance of the assault. They limited themselves to outrage and righteous indignation. Ahmadinejad's fulminations were, on the one hand, jeered as "paranoid" and, on the other, described as on par with his other threats to destroy Israel — pardon, "the Zionist entity." In other words, Western commentators dismissed the Iranian President as a vile, if dangerous troglodyte.
But Iran's leader is much more sophisticated than that. Ahmadinejad apparently applied Western logic to score a major propaganda victory. First, he argued that the failure to hold the Holocaust to legitimate "scholarly" scrutiny is an intellectual and moral flaw. Next, the Iranian President depicted himself as a defender of the freedom of inquiry. He trumpeted that only the irrational and the corrupt would refuse to allow academic freedom. Therefore, last but not least, he roundly condemned anyone who took offense at Holocaust revisionism as a lackey of "the Jews." After all the Shoah is just a "Jewish myth." And Western opponents of Holocaust revisionism are simply mercenary hypocrites, according to him.
Ahmadinejad selected the Holocaust not so much because of its special significance to the Jewish people, but because it appears to be the only unassailable truth in Western intellectual discourse. His is a dangerous assault on the West itself.
In the United States and among our allies, Holocaust revisionism is practically the only revisionism beyond the pale of academic inquiry. Whereas Western universities are full of Communist apologists, there are scarcely any Nazi sympathizers. American and European fans of Adolf Hitler rear their ugly heads mostly on the Internet. The mainstream public hears about them only occasionally.
The average news consumer could probably name but one Holocaust revisionist: David Irving.The British researcher is arguably the most notorious because he is also the most sophisticated of the revisionists. In essence, Irving denies that there was a phenomenon of planned mass murder at all that could be conceptualized as the Holocaust. Instead, borrowing a cue straight from Sovietological revisionism, he argues that the local Nazis overzealously interpreted their orders to transfer the Jewish population "to the East." There was some killing.But Hitler did not know any of this, of course. True, he argues, there were also disassociated massacres of Jews, mostly not as Jews but as Communist sympathizers, by Stalin's erstwhile Eastern European victims. Irving also questions whether gas chambers existed at all. Most Jews died of hunger and diseases, he claims. There was never any systematic murder campaign against them and certainly no general order from Der Führer, according to Irving.
Other revisionists argue along similar lines, as "Hitler's Apologists: The Anti-Semitic Propaganda of Holocaust Revisionism" (New York: ADL, 1993) shows. Many are associated with the Institute for Historical Review, and its flagship quarterly Journal of Historical Review (JHR). Frenchman Robert Faurisson, for example, specializes in exposing the "fraud" of the gas chamber and so does American Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. JHR's long time editor, Canadian Mark Weber, even claims that "the Holocaust hoax is a religion. Its underpinnings in the realm of historical fact are non-existent — no Hitler order, no plan, no budget, no gas chambers, no autopsies of gassed victims, no bones, no ashes, no skulls, no nothing."
A separate school of revisionism treats the Holocaust as a non-event. For instance, the editor in chief of the periodical Siegrunnen, Richard Landwehr and his associates, whose mission is to glorify the SS, resort to mendacious euphemisms as when referring to the Nazi extermination units as having had "destroyed numerous communist terror bands" in the East (Richard Landwehr, "V. SS Mountain Corps and 32nd SS Panzer Grenadier Division '30 Januar' on the Oder Front," 1945 (Brookings, OR: Siegrunen, 1991), p. 61).
Holocaust revisionists have long looked with hope to mainstream academia. They have applauded particularly the tendency to shift the blame for the extermination of the Jews from German Nazis to their non-German helpers, real and alleged. Accordingly, Richard Widmann of the Adelaide Institute Newsletter and "Samuel Crowell" of the JHR embraced warmly the claims of Princeton's Jan Tomasz Gross, whose recent deeply flawed case study blames Polish Christians rather than German Nazis for massacring Jews. A similarly unsound case study, likewise blaming Polish Christians for Nazi German crimes, by Brooklyn College's Yaffa Eliach, caused an outraged scholar to brand it as outright "Holocaust denial" in the Journal of Genocide Research.
However, for the most part, the Holocaust has been spared the revisionist treatment applied to all other topics. Only a few mainstream academics indulge in egregious interpretation of the Shoah. For example, feminist scholar Joan Rigelheim "exposes" the victimization of Jewish women and children by the alleged patriarchalist nexus between "Nazi sexism" and "Jewish sexism." Sociologist R. Ruth Linden bewails the environmental destruction of "the lakes and rivers" by dumping human ashes around Auschwitz. Linden also calls on scholars to "decenter" themselves from the "anthropocentric" approach to the Holocaust. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Gabriele Schonefeld has acerbically referred to this sort of "scholarship" as "The 'cutting edge' of Holocaust Studies." One wonders whether all this is just trivializing of the Shoah or full-fledged revisionism. Perhaps it should be dubbed as "revisionism by default."
Despite that, as mentioned, the Holocaust remains relatively immune from the politically correct commissars of deconstruction and post-modernism. The truth about the extermination of the European Jewry has its fierce defenders and serves as the litmus test for all that is decent in the contemporary West. Everything else has been pretty much fair game: faith, family, property, philosophy, and history."Cutting edge" intellectual antics routinely target the very core of our civilization, reflecting a profound crisis of the West.
The West in Crisis
Post-modernism and other sexy trends in Western academia have undermined the traditional Aristotelian "logocentric" approach and discarded the need for empirical research. After the cultural revolution of the 1960s, a slew of politically correct doctrines accomplished "the closing of the American mind," according to Alan Bloom. In particular, the ideology of moral relativism triumphs. Its main purveyors are Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty, and others. Threats emanating from their teachings are not immediately apparent to most, including those who are otherwise quite vigilant as far as Holocaust denial.
Yet, the nexus between deconstruction and Holocaust revisionism should be obvious. According to Christina Hoff Sommers, the deconstructionists deny the existence of the "objective truth." As a result, at Williams College for example, since "all knowledge is a social construct," a student wondered whether the Holocaust had taken place at all. "Perhaps it was a perfectly rational conceptual hallucination."
Admittedly, for now, the post-modernists still dare not attack the Shoah openly. Full-fledged Holocaust denial is not welcome in Western academia. However, it has insinuated itself into the temple of knowledge indirectly through the back door of deconstruction. One cannot deny with impunity the existence of truth in the abstract and expect historical facts to remain unchallenged.
It is precisely into this intellectual morass that Iran's President sallied confidently. According to Victor Davis Hanson, "he knows how Western relativism works. Who is to say what are facts or what is true, given the tendency of the powerful to 'construct' their own narratives and call the result 'history'?" ("Nuclear Iran?" Imprimis: The National Speech Digest of Hillsdale College, vol. 36, no. 4 (April 2007)). Hanson posits that this is a dialectical propaganda bid to prepare the world for Iran's nuclear weapons: "Their uncanny diagnosis of Western malaise has now convinced them that they can carefully fabricate a Holocaust-free reality in which Muslims are the victims and Jews the aggressors," and, hence, the former need the A-bomb to defend themselves from the latter.
From the short-term political perspective, Hanson is right. But he fails to draw cultural conclusions about Ahmadinejad's effusions. Holocaust denial Tehran-style is not just a propaganda rouse to justify Iran's quest for nuclear arms. Its aim is much more insidious.
The terrible, if unstated, implications of the anti-Jewish logic of the Islamists are clear. For them, the Holocaust is the secular religion of the West. The United States is the dominant Western power. It is controlled by "the Jews" who purvey the "myth" of the Holocaust. If Ahmadinejad and his cronies destroy the "myth," they will destroy the West.
After all, they see that the Holocaust is virtually the only topic apparently treated with reverence. The Shoah is the only historical phenomenon in the West that is, at least to a large extent, outside of the post-modernist, deconstructionist "school" of thought. Everything that used to be sacred for the West has been challenged and discredited by the dominant liberal elite. That includes all religions (in particular Christianity), America's Founding, and Western Civilization.
The Holocaust is perhaps the last vestige of the Truth that Westerners generally agree on among themselves. It is the only general exception in the sea of the West's nihilism and moral relativism. If the "myth" of the Holocaust "falls," the West is gone. As Hansen put it "there are millions of highly educated but cynical Westerners who see nothing exceptional about their own culture." And our culture is based upon the millennia old premise that the truth exists and is demonstrable.Deny that and Western civilization crumbles. Thus, the true objective of the Holocaust revisionist policies of the Islamic radicals is to destroy the last vestige of truth as encapsulated in the historical fact of the Jewish extermination by the Third Reich. Once that is gone, the center will no longer hold.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Academic Dean and Professor of History at The Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of national security and international affairs in Washington, D.C. He was formerly assistant professor of history of the Kosciuszko Chair in Polish Studies at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. He has authored numerous works in both Polish and English.