The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: is randomly decrepid and is neo-bankrupt: is so analogue it's anal.
This Tuesday, 9th June at 7:30pm, Nicholas Kollerstrom will be talking in the Albion Beatnik. Nicholas was an honorary research fellow in the history and philosophy of science at University College London. He lost his academic post when his fellowship was withdrawn in 2008 after he published on the web a synthesis of the four chemical samples that had been conducted at Auschwitz (one sample had been instigated by the camp’s museum curators). The culmination was a book published last year, Breaking the Spell: The Holocaust. Nicholas will talk about the hostile reception his writing has received, and he will discuss also his book.
The Holocaust is a historical event protected by law, for any deviation from the narrative derived from the Nuremberg trials is deemed a crime in fourteen European countries; these countries, in various degrees, uphold freedom of speech as a cornerstone of their society. Although the United Kingdom has rejected proposed Holocaust denial law on two occasions (the last time it was proffered by Tony Blair), and though it is true that common law allows a British citizen the right to express an opinion, it is true also that to even mention the words ‘Holocaust denial’ will send a shudder down most spines, what John Stuart Mill may have referred to as the “deep slumber of a decided opinion.” Mill argued also for the discussion of any matter, however morally corrupt it may be held. For Mill the open exchange of an idea benefits twofold: it allows false opinion to be corrected and importantly prevents belief collapsing in to dogma. The Holocaust is a symbol of overwhelming suffering and pain, a cultural and emotional reference point, but if it is a narrative enshrined in law it has become dogma.
Any historical fact is only as long as a piece of string and as precarious (and dangerous) as a one legged drunk on a wonky bicycle, and has to be questioned. And the historian is as dubious as a monk in a nunnery: the bearded Sister Josephine, the eponymous (and male) hero of Jake Thackray’s ditty, habitually left the toilet seat up in his nunnery, and Holocaust revisionists can certainly claim to do this.
The suffix branding of ‘denial’ is much disputed, by David Irving specifically in 1996 when he filed suit against American historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books (and lost handsomely): Holocaust revisionist is their favoured term. Holocaust denial, however cranky and misguided it is held to be, is the questioning of a narrative that is held to be historical surety, so is indeed revisionist, and the Holocaust is never denied as a historical event. If one were to cast doubt on Eric Hobsbawm’s claim that Methodism saved us from revolution, or to question Lawrence Stone’s attempt to prove that there was an aristocratic economic crisis in the sixteenth century, this would be acceptable. The Holocaust it seems is different and no questioning at any point is permitted.
As defined by Wikipedia, Holocaust denial has three distinguishing features; they concern the intentions of National Socialism, the use of labour camps, and the number of Jews (and non-Jews) killed by the Nazi machinery. The Holocaust is a multi-faceted narrative, and revisionists work usually within a locked room scenario such as the bog lands of Auschwitz rather than the Eastern Front with its many problems of research. There is still a chasm of difference between mainstream and revisionist thought with no opportunity for debate. The chasm of difference however does not consist of statistics.
Thomas Paine polarized revelation and reason long before Deborah Lipstadt baited David Irving. Revelation is revealed “to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.” Paine attacked also religious institutions who worshipped power and wealth, and who opposed scientific investigation: “the Christian theory is little else than the idolatry of the ancient Mythologists, accommodated to the purposes of power and revenue.” That revelation can suppress reason might explain why Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry – a book endorsed by many fellow Jewish historians and commentators and which charts how post-1967 recognition of the Holocaust has been exploited – and whose parents and family lived through the Holocaust, has been offensively labeled a denier by the Anti-Defamation League and has been prevented from entering Israel for ten years on spurious charges related to terrorism; it would explain why the Yad Vashem museum refused even Raul Hilberg, the eminence grise of mainstream Holocaust historians, whose argument was kaleidoscopic and too subtle for their sensibility, to search its archives; it would explain why many associated with Holocaust denial are attacked physically and persecuted beyond belief, a striking biography being that of Germar Rudolf who as a young student of crystallography undertook a commission to examine the chemical residues found in the walls of Auschwitz in 1991. His study attracted media attention, and after a staged dispute it was agreed that Rudolf should leave his academic placement; he was denied later his PhD on the grounds that he had used his credentials to commit a crime, that of Holocaust denial. What followed was serial victimisation: dismissal from employment, eviction from his apartment, expulsion from his Catholic fraternity, and eventual prosecution. He fled Germany in 1995 and settled finally in the United States where successive applications for asylum were denied on the grounds first of frivolity and then of having no merit; he was deported to Germany, where Rudolf was imprisoned for 44 months; his life since has been subjected to harassment.
The communal impulse is strange, be it Pentecostal gathering, in a football stadium, or the breast-beating woe after Princess Diana’s tragic death. If the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo taught us something, it was that we ought to uphold free speech and define its parameters, perhaps on the hoof rather than through legislation. However we discuss it and however we choose to set its limitations, the Holocaust should remain an historical event and should be subject to scrutiny, and be defended; it is not a quasi-religious artefact and should be accessible to open debate.
Nobody summed up free speech and its necessity more eloquently than Christopher Hitchens, and he would defend often the contrarian historian David Irving, slated often for his research (although those with academic posts will read his work under the bedclothes with a torch at night). Hitchens was vehement also in his defence of the right to research the Holocaust, either a history that dare not speak its name or a religion that consists of a cloud of unknowing.