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Letters

  • Holocaust on Trial
  • More on Diffusionists
  • Inside Microsoft

    Holocaust on Trial

    I have read D. D. Guttenplan's article "The Holocaust on Trial" (February Atlantic) with great interest and admiration. However, one supreme irony leaps out at me, and it is this: in the United States pedophiles and porn addicts can use computer monitors in public libraries to access Internet pornography sites while sitting beside children and teenagers who are researching school projects. Their ability to do so is protected by precious First Amendment freedoms. Meanwhile, Holocaust experts and intellectuals like Deborah Lipstadt purposely avoid open debate with Holocaust deniers for fear of "legitimizing ... 'the other side'" of the argument. What's wrong with this picture?

    Freedom of expression -- whether of speech, of the press, or of open intellectual debate on a university campus -- exists to protect what Guttenplan calls "the sanctity of facts" in our elusive pursuit of Truth. This freedom is meant not to protect pedophiles but to foster open dialogue between intelligent people on controversial issues that matter, and to protect us from propaganda -- whatever its source. Wherever the historical truth lies, and whatever Irving's personal motivations, Irving's lawsuit against Lipstadt is forcing an open intellectual confrontation that otherwise would not have occurred.

    Ellen Autenzio
    Spartanburg, S.C.

    At the very end of his article D. D. Guttenplan writes, "The sanctity of facts. It isn't much. It may not be enough. But it is all we have." What a curious word "sanctity" is in relation to David Irving's calculated claim that the Holocaust is "an ill-fitting legend" and to his denial that any Jews were killed in gas chambers.

    Guttenplan cites a source who is troubled that "only" 5.1 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, not six million. He points to another discrepancy: Dr. Mengele is often said to have been at Auschwitz at a time when in fact he was not. Does it really matter whether it was Mengele alone or a series of physicians who carried out the heinous deeds? Are we worried about besmirching Mengele's name by attributing more suffering and deaths to him than those for which he was actually responsible?

    In his doctoral thesis on T. S. Eliot's anti-Semitism, Anthony Julius wrote, "Anti-Semites are not all the same. Some break Jewish bones, others wound Jewish sensibilities." It is the ones who wound sensibilities who enable the others to break bones.

    No matter how scrupulous a historian Irving is reputed to be, he "habitually refers to Jewish groups as 'traditional enemies of the truth.'" One can only hope that the outcome of the trial will prove that the real enemy of the truth is David Irving.

    Emmy Rothschild
    Deerfield, Ill.

    D. D. Guttenplan says, "Although the grisly tale of human beings rendered into soap figured in some of the earliest accounts of events inside Nazi-occupied Europe, it is now universally rejected by historians as a fabrication."

    In the late 1940s I was a patient in a TB sanatorium that received as patients two young Polish men who had been repatriated from a slave-labor camp in Germany. Thaddeus and Roman Kucinski were very ill and eventually died. But for a short time they were ambulatory patients, and I got to know them and to talk to them about their experiences.

    One day after lunch, while we were casually talking about the Nazi period, Thaddeus Kucinski took a small bar of coarse gray soap from the pocket of his robe. He held it up for me to see, and on the side, in letters I will never forget, was the word Judenfett. He put it into my hand, and for a time I held it. I will never forget that moment, for in the final analysis, history is made up of such poignant human events. To deny or forget this is the real crime against humanity.

    Veronica Szelepecz Lange
    Williamsburg, Va.

    D. D. Guttenplan's coverage reveals a disturbing sympathy for those who deny the systematic destruction of European Jewry by Hitler and his henchmen. David Irving, the English writer who denies the materiality of the Nazi focus on a Jewish "problem," is presented in an almost flattering light. Guttenplan is moved by Irving's pain and sorrow and finds it difficult to see traces of anti-Semitism in his work. This is amazing given that Irving believes in a "worldwide Jewish conspiracy" and sees Jewish groups as "traditional enemies of the truth." Guttenplan's portrayal of Deborah Lipstadt as a provincial Jewish scholar who lacks the bona fides to challenge Irving, primarily because she has confined her political engagements to Jewish causes, is equally striking.

    Aside from these questionable characterizations, two troubling points stand out. First, Guttenplan hitches Irving's case to respectable scholars whose views on Irving's arguments are not presented. This allows for Irving the revisionist to be placed in the company of Raul Hilberg and Arno Mayer without their directly commenting on his work. Second, and perhaps more damning, is Guttenplan's avoidance of the legal anomalies that beset this case. In England a Tory libel law places the burden of proof on the person charged with making the libelous statements. What would easily pass under freedom-of-the-press laws in the United States is obstructed in England by a body of libel law that derives from a legal system that has historically chafed at criticism of the state and of state officers. This has a deeply chilling effect on free speech and the expression of critical sentiment. Surely this angle of the case deserved serious attention, given that the central question at issue is the latitude available to scholars and critics to raise unpopular positions in the search for greater truth.

    Jeffrey S. Kahana
    Brandeis University
    Waltham, Mass.

    D. D. Guttenplan speaks in his opening lines about Pastor Martin Niemöller's "unsparing account of his own complicity in the escalating brutality of life in Nazi Germany." Niemöller was a member of the Confessing Church in Germany, and he opposed Hitler publicly. For this he spent seven years in concentration camps, including Dachau. He always asked himself if he had done all that he could have. His famous lines were a challenge to Christians to speak up, because each person oppressed or imprisoned diminishes all of us.

    We think Guttenplan does a disservice to Niemöller and to the other Christian leaders who fought against the Nazis when he depicts them as indifferent to or complicit with the Nazi regime. Niemöller survived his seven-year imprisonment, but many others, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, paid for their courage with their lives.

    Jane Bailey
    J. Martin Bailey

    West Orange, N.J.

    I read and greatly appreciated what D. D. Guttenplan had to say about my work. I would like, however, to correct the following details: Both my parents died in Auschwitz, not only my mother, as Guttenplan implies. The origin of his error is probably my dedication of Assassins of Memory to my mother. My father was killed as a Jew, but he was a patriot and a member of a resistance movement from 1940 onward. I considered his death to be the death of a soldier. My mother was simply a civilian victim of anti-Semitism.

    P. Vidal-Naquet
    Paris, France

    D. D. Guttenplan replies:

    In what is admittedly a very long essay, some readers may have missed the following information (though it appears a number of times): Deborah Lipstadt is the defendant in this action. No careful reader could be in any doubt about my views regarding either the absurdity of British libel laws or the unfair burden they place on defendants. To argue, as Ellen Autenzio does, that Irving's lawsuit is "forcing an open intellectual confrontation" is to misread not only my words but the facts as well. The "intellectual confrontation" ended when Irving dragged Lipstadt into court. The would-be suppressor of free speech here is David Irving.

    Careful readers will also know that, contra Emmy Rothschild, I never cited anyone "troubled that 'only' 5.1 million Jews were killed." As for Jeffrey Kahana, let me reiterate that it is the Anti-Defamation League that -- shamefully, in my view -- seeks to link Arno Mayer and other scholars with Holocaust denial, not I. Nor did I ever describe Deborah Lipstadt as "provincial" or as lacking the "bona fides" to challenge Irving. I do compare her, perhaps unfairly, with Pierre Vidal-Naquet and observe that her record of commitment to human rights falls far short of his -- but then, that's true for most of us.

    I'm afraid that Veronica Lange and I will simply have to disagree. I would argue that whereas memory may well be made up "of such poignant human events," history, although perhaps seeking to understand such events, is made up of something else: facts and interpretations. Whether her memory of "Jewish soap" is accurate is another matter.

    Finally, though I am not a Christian, I have enormous admiration for those who, like Bonhoeffer, spoke up against the Nazis. If the Baileys have an argument, it is with Niemöller's self-flagellating rhetoric, not with me.

    More on Diffusionists

    As the moderator of a recent museum symposium on diffusionism, I took particular interest in Marc K. Stengel's article "The Diffusionists Have Landed" (January Atlantic). The symposium, held at the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum, in Coshocton, Ohio, focused on the Newark Holy Stones, a collection of stone tablets bearing Hebrew inscriptions which were found in Ohio in 1860. The symposium featured professional and avocational speakers on both sides of the issue, including J. Huston McCulloch, who was mentioned in Stengel's article.

    Many diffusionist scholars continue to allege that their evidence simply does not get a fair hearing from archaeologists in the academic mainstream. Some even allege a conspiracy on the part of the academic mainstream to maintain the status quo (the motives for this, though, remain unclear). It is true that in some fields certain individuals and institutions have held undue influence that has served to stifle new interpretations and paradigms. On the other hand, I know of no practicing archaeologist who would not love to uncover convincing evidence of pre-Columbian Old World contact in a firm archaeological context. This is the major difference between many avocational diffusionists and mainstream scholars: the use of scientific methods and archaeological context. Most diffusionists have run roughshod over scientific method in making their claims. The accusation that mainstream scholars are hidebound by narrow-minded world views is in itself narrow-minded. Many diffusionists are themselves guilty of failing to consider alternative explanations. An old sword with a short Welsh inscription found in a Kentucky cave without controlled excavation or archaeological context is insufficient evidence from which to conclude that King Arthur and his court emigrated to North America.

    A few other comments on points raised in the article:

    George Carter's statement that no trace can be found of the passage of Hernando de Soto and his army through what is now the southeastern United States is simply not true. The archaeologists Ken Feder and Charles Hudson, among others, have listed and reviewed sixteenth-century artifacts of European origin found in secure contexts all along De Soto's proposed route. Even if there were no historical records or descriptions of De Soto's expedition, the archaeological record of that area would support sixteenth-century contact with, if not intrusion by, Europeans.

    Vine Deloria embraces a number of the diffusionist claims and castigates mainstream scholars for not paying more attention to the oral traditions of Native Americans. He seems to be ignorant of the mutability of oral tradition over time. Furthermore, in a number of cases Native American traditions have been at sharp odds with diffusionist interpretations. The Peterborough petroglyphs, for example, which the diffusionist scholars Barry Fell and David Kelley say contain proto-Tifinagh, are also claimed by the Native American Ojibway people of Ontario, who believe their ancestors to be the stones' creators.

    On the basis of probability alone, one could conclude that a number of pre-Columbian contacts had to have occurred over the millennia owing to navigational errors, shipwrecks, and other such events. Those contacts would most likely have been small-scale, perhaps archaeologically invisible and generally of limited significance, although some cultural transfer would not be out of the question. Much would depend on the number of people involved, the materials they brought with them, and the skills and knowledge they possessed.

    Stengel's article neglected to mention recent genetic studies that fail to show any evidence of a genetic trail left by pre-Columbian visitors. There is some tantalizing evidence of a small degree of pre-Columbian European admixture with Native Americans, although indicators place it as occurring 15,000 years or longer ago. Perhaps the strongest evidence against the wide-scale presence of Old World peoples in pre-Columbian America is also biological: the diseases introduced by Europeans and their animals that decimated Native American populations. The vulnerability of New World peoples to Old World diseases strongly indicates their relative isolation.

    Robert R. Fox
    Sterling Heights, Mich.

    My book, Fantastic Archaeology, published almost a decade ago, was reviewed in a number of major publications, including Science, Scientific Monthly, and Nature. All the reviews were favorable, and none suggested that I had treated any of the people discussed therein with sarcasm. Marc Stengel may disagree with my assessment of these people's scholarship; nevertheless, I taught archaeology for a decade at Harvard, to many hundreds of students, and although I sometimes disagreed with my students' findings, I did not degrade them personally.

    Stengel never dealt adequately with the essential question of fraudulent artifacts. As my book documents carefully, many of the basic artifacts, such as the Kensington Stone, are shabby fakes. I wonder if Stengel actually read my book, especially the fully documented discussions in the annotated bibliography.

    Stephen Williams,
    Santa Fe, N.M.

    Marc K. Stengel replies:

    Robert Fox is right to chasten parties on both sides of the diffusionist controversy for occasionally indulging in hidebound stubbornness. It is an interesting sign of the times that he will concede the probability of "pre-Columbian contacts ... owing to navigational errors, shipwrecks, and other such events," inasmuch as only a few decades ago this suggestion would have sparked charges of heresy. Slowly but surely new currents seem to be infiltrating the mainstream and encouraging scholars on both sides of the debate to devise new methods for evaluating provocative data. As for the issue of disease transmission and its value as evidence, the case is far more complicated than Fox allows. At least two essays in the Smithsonian Institution's Disease and Demography in the Americas (1992) contradict the view of pre-Columbian North America as a disease-free paradise; and in the forthcoming book Ancient Ocean Crossings, Stephen Jett disputes the absence of Old World diseases in pre-Columbian America as an indication of the absence of foreign contact.

    Each reader must set his or her own threshold of tolerance for sarcasm, but when Stephen Williams, in Fantastic Archaeology (1991), lumps a number of his intellectual opponents together under the term "Rogue Professor, as in 'rogue' elephant," and then proceeds to declare that "rogue elephants look like other elephants, but they do not act like other elephants," perhaps something akin to sarcasm is at work. A more fundamental point is Williams's breezy dismissal of troubling archaeological artifacts as "shabby fakes." Williams may persist in questioning the authenticity of the Kensington Stone, but he does so in the face of painstaking analysis to the contrary, as detailed by Richard Nielsen in the January, 2000, issue of Journal of the West. Let it be said that Williams's book is indeed an informative resource for any student of the diffusionist controversy, and its annotated and general bibliographies are rich indeed. All the more telling, then, that neither one mentions Sorenson and Raish's master bibliography, Pre-Columbian Contact With the Americas Across the Oceans, whose first edition appeared in 1990.

    Inside Microsoft

    James Fallows's coy discussion of his nondisclosure agreement and work arrangements with Microsoft ("Inside the Leviathan," February Atlantic) may have satisfied Microsoft, but it did his readers a disservice.

    Fallows agreed not to publish an "inside Microsoft" piece without the company's oversight. So ... did Microsoft approve the Atlantic piece or not? Was Fallows paid for his consulting work for the company, or was he working as a journalist there? Does he have a financial interest in the new word-processing program?

    Was Fallows's laudatory piece about the company one long advertorial for a product the author helped to design or not? It certainly read like one.

    Dan Whipple
    Broomfield, Colo.

    James Fallows replies:

    No one at Microsoft read or commented on the article before it was published. Several company officials knew that I was going to write it, and that it would be based on a speech I'd given (which itself was subject to no prior review or approval by Microsoft) on campus at the end of my time there.

    In the six months I worked at the company, I was paid a salary to try to design an improved word-processing system. I have no ongoing financial involvement of any sort with Microsoft -- apart from whatever may be lodged in retirement-account mutual funds, I don't even own its stock. My motive in trying to improve Microsoft Word, which I switched to reluctantly only after it had become the de facto monopoly standard for word processing, was to make it better as a tool for writers to use. To be more precise, I wanted something better that I could use.


    Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; Letters - 00.05; Volume 285, No. 5; page 8-14.