Grappling with Holocaust Deniers

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by Conor Friedersdorf

In 2007, I studied under Mark Oppenheimer, whose writing on religion and other topics is worth your while, or so I've thought ever since I encountered his New York Times Magazine piece on an evangelical college hosting its first ever student dance. The course I took included units on snake handling Pentecostals, Mormons, Scientologists, and many others. A semester long journalism school course is obviously too short to convey all the information needed to write knowledgeably even about a single denomination. What it afforded, among other things, were lessons on the attitude one must assume to write well about any religion -- a mix of open-mindedness and skepticism, appreciation and critical distance, empathy and rational judgment, generosity and commitment to writing the truth.

Mark's work possesses all these qualities, due in large part to the intense curiosity he has about whoever he is writing about. A religion writer must, by the nature of his beat, dilligently grapple with truth claims that are unverifiable at best, and certainly wrong most of the time, if only because he covers sundry religions making contradictory claims. So it excited me to learn that my old professor recently published a series on two prominent American Holocaust deniers. How would a Jewish writer with Mark's particular skill set navigate a subject as fraught and absurd as that one?

The short answer is "like a pro." Less talented hands have often enough written polemics against subjects like Bradley R. Smith and Mark Weber, prominent Holocaust deniers who've made their careers in one of humanity's most abhorrent subcultures. Oppenheimer exerts the time and effort to understand what motivates these complex characters, and reaches conclusions I've never before seen (though I haven't read deeply on this subject).

Though four pages long, the article is a fascinating read, and isn't a bit hard to get through, especially given the conflict inherent in a piece about two feuding Holocaust deniers being interviewed by a Jewish writer about their public falling out.

An excerpt from earlier in the piece to whet your appetite:

Bradley Smith is much closer to the common perception of a classic Holocaust denier, singularly obsessed with disproving the existence of the Nazi machinery of death. But the elderly Smith was kindly enough to endure the traffic jam at the Mexican-American border and meet me at the Starbucks in San Clemente, California, the beach town where Richard Nixon began his exile. Smith had left a message on my mobile phone saying that he would wait for me in the parking lot, and that’s where I found him, snoozing behind the wheel of his pickup truck. I rapped on the window, and the aging radical opened his eyes with a start, remembered where he was, smiled at me, popped open his door, and lumbered out, smiling warmly. In his worn flannel shirt and jeans, a scraggly white beard dressing up his weather-beaten face, Smith looked like an old, sagacious cowhand, the kind of guy whose favorite story is about how he forgave the beloved bull who once got startled and kicked him in the head.

Once we were both seated at the coffee shop, I tried to ask Smith about possible flaws in the works of great Holocaust historians.

“You’ve read all the standard accounts,” I asked, “like Lucy Dawidowicz and Raul Hilberg?”

“Yeah,” Smith said, “that’s what I started with, I read Hilberg. I didn’t read them very closely. Because I’m not really interested in the history of the period.”

I was a little shocked. “I mean, you read Lucy Dawidowicz’s book on the period? You read David Wyman?”

“Not thoroughly,” Smith said. “Wyman, I didn’t read. He came a bit too late.”

I was astounded. “But that’s kind of amazing, right? Because here are these classic works of Holocaust literature that purport to show it all and you say you haven’t read them closely. So you have read Arthur Butz, who’s a nobody in the field, closely, but you haven’t read the great titans in the field closely?”  “You know what? I’m not interested in the story,” he replied. “Revisionists have written very detailed documents about the holes”

“So what are you interested in?”

“In a free exchange of ideas.”

“But you aren’t interested in trying to find out which ideas are right?”

“Not particularly. You know what I’m really interested in? Every generation has its taboo, and I happen to be here with this taboo. I happen to be here with this one. And I can see how it’s exploited, and who benefits from the exploitation.”

If you make it through to the end, you'll better understand what motivates both men, including a scoop in the piece: the fact that both have at various times in their lives deeply loved Jewish women. Start here. The link to the other parts follow in the footer.

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