The Death of a 'Holocaust Skeptic'

The death of Joseph Sobran,  far-right columnist more-or-less associated with The National Review, even though the late William F. Buckley found his anti-Semitism semi-intolerable, was marked by an obituary in the Times by William Grimes, who wrote the following strange sentences about his subject:

Mr. Sobran's isolationist views on American foreign policy and Israel became increasingly extreme. He took a skeptical line on the Holocaust and said the Sept. 11 terror attacks were a result of American foreign policy in the Middle East, which he believed that a Jewish lobby directed. Not surprisingly, he spent much of his time defending himself against charges of anti-Semitism.

"Nobody has ever accused me of the slightest personal indecency to a Jew," he said in a speech delivered at a 2002 conference of the Institute for Historical Review. "My chief offense, it appears, has been to insist that the state of Israel has been a costly and treacherous 'ally' to the United States. As of last Sept. 11, I should think that is undeniable. But I have yet to receive a single apology for having been correct." 

Friend-of-Goldblog David Greenberg, the historian, wrote to the public editor of the Times, asking, just exactly, what it means to take "a skeptical line" on the Holocaust? And why would the Times mention the "Institute for Historical Review" without mentioning that it is the country's premier Holocaust denial outfit? Here is the response he received, complete with his name misspelled:

Mr. Greenburg:

Thank you for writing us.

I reached out to Bill McDonald, editor of the obituary pages, reached out to William Grimes, the writer on the piece.  His response is provided below:

"I cannot see how describing someone as taking a skeptical line on the Holocaust can be interpreted as anything other than indefensible. He was not a Holocaust denier, precisely, but what he called a Holocaust agnostic. At any rate, both of the reader's suppositions are correct. First,  he did wonder if Hitler had pursued  a policy of genocide. Supposition two also applies, he did not deny that many Jews died, but suspected that the number was exaggerated. Space--the guy had about 300 words' worth of survivors--did not really permit me to go into the details, but the Sobran quote surely gives the flavor."

I hope this helps clarify things for you.  It seems that The Times would have liked the opportunity to say more about this, but unfortunately space constraints made it difficult for them to include the whole thing in detail.

Once again, I appreciate you writing and bringing this to our attention.  It is greatly appreciated.

Joseph Burgess
Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times

A fairly fatuous reply. Imagine an obituary of a public figure who had denied that World War I had taken place. Or that fifty percent of the Civil War battles we know to have occurred did not, in fact, occur, and that there had been no slavery in the antebellum South. Would the Times describe this person as a  "Civil War skeptic"? Or would it have described him as delusional?

A much better response to this obituary came from Jeet Heer:

The fact is, Sobran did more than "take a skeptical line of the Holocaust." Sobran, to be blunt, became a Nazi fellow-traveler. Most readers of the Times won't know what the Institute for Historical Review is. The name is certainly benign enough. It is in fact an organization devoted to Holocaust denial and other forms of Nazi apologetics. (At a recent talk Mark Weber, director of the Institute, argued that had England made peace with Nazi Germany the result would have been "an Axis-dominated Pax Europa ... [which] would have been prosperous, socially progressive, politically stable, and technologically advanced, with an extensive, continent-wide transportation and communications network, conscientious environmental policies, and a comprehensive healthcare system. At the same time, the continent would have remained ethnically and culturally European. Large scall immigration of non-Europeans would have been unthinkable.")

Leaving aside the issue of Holocaust denial, anyone who takes the time to read Sobran's writing will immediately notice that he shared many of the ideas of the European far right from the early 20th century, in particular the belief that Jews are an alien, nearly monolithic and subversive force whose main goal is to destroy Western Civilization. I usually avoid emotive language but there really was a Nazi thread in Sobran's thinking (combined of course with many other arguably related threads like his defense of the Confederacy, his anti-feminism, and his belief in all sorts of conspiracy theories).