Explaining the Holocaust
Deborah Lipstadt,professor of Jewish and Holocaust studies and author of "History on Trial"
Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University, made international headlines in 2000 by winning a libel trial in London against British historian David Irving. Irving sued Lipstadt for libel after she briefly named him as one of the more dangerous spokespeople of the growing Holocaust-denial movement in her 1993 book, "Denying the Holocaust." Lipstadt, whose new book, "History on Trial," recounts the blow-by-blow of her six-year legal battle. I talked to her recently by telephone from her home in Atlanta.
Q: Why did you decide to fight it out with Irving in court? Didn't some people advise you to just ignore him?
A: I decided to fight him because the British legal system puts the burden of proof on the defendant, on the person who is being charged, to prove the truth of what they said and not on the plaintiff, or claimant, to prove the falsehood. So if I hadn't fought him, the case would have been decided in his favor. And his version of the Holocaust is there was no Nazi plan to kill the Jews: Some Jews may have been killed, but it was a result of rogue action here or there. There were no gas chambers; Hitler was the best friend the Jews had in Germany; and the survivors who say they were in concentration camps or death camps are all liars or psychopaths.
Q: If young people ask you what the Holocaust was, what do you tell them?
A: I tell them it's the attempt by Nazi Germany, by the government of Germany and all the parts of that government -- from the banks to the post office to the transportation system -- to murder all the Jews of Europe and some of the Jews on islands outside, like Rhodes or Corfu.
Q: If they ask you why the Holocaust happened, what do you say?
A: I give them more of a negative answer: Without centuries of anti-Semitism, without a German population that was willing to follow Hitler, despite his clear, clear anti-Semitism and hatred, without a world that was willing to stand idly by, without churches and governments that were willing to keep silent, there wouldn't have been a Holocaust.
Q: Historian Paul Johnson says in the current Commentary magazine that anti-Semitism is an intellectual disease, an irrational, pathological disease.
A: I think there's a lot to what he says. Anti-Semitism is a prejudice. Prejudice is an irrational thing -- pre-judge. I make up my mind before I have the facts. I see a blonde, I decide she is stupid. I see a black, I decide he's shiftless and lazy. I see an Italian, I decide he is Mafioso. I see a Jew, I decide they are evil, greedy, conniving, etc. It is an irrational thing that has been nurtured, not just by uneducated people but by highly educated intellectuals as well.
Q: Why do you believe, if you do, that anti-Semitism is on the rise in the U.S.A.?
A: I think it's on the rise slightly in the U.S.A. I think it is on the rise in Europe. What has happened in Europe is it has been mixed up in opposition to Israel and it's also gotten mixed up with an opposition to George Bush and his policies. So it becomes part of a greater whole.
Q: In a century where as many as 200 million people died at the hands of evil dictators and in the name of such hideous belief systems as Nazism and communism, what makes the Holocaust stand out?
A: It was a governmental attempt to kill all of a subset of people -- the Jews -- but not just the Jews within their country. Jews in any place they could find. Take the island of Corfu. A small, small Jewish population had lived there for hundreds and hundreds of years. On June 9, 1944, after the landing at Normandy, when the Germans are really on the defensive in both the East and West and fighting for their military survival, the Germans take boats and go out to that island and collect the Jews in order to transport them to Auschwitz. There was a single-mindedness about murdering the Jews anywhere they could find them.
Q: How do you distinguish between people who are anti-Semitic and people who are anti-Zionist or critical of the state of Israel's policies?
A: First of all, to be critical of the state of Israel's policies, all you have to do is read the Israeli press and you'll find some of the most criticism of Israel. So to be critical of Israel's policies, there is nothing wrong with that. To oppose the very existence of the state of Israel is much more disturbing, in that sense, because it has been in existence for 57 or 58 years. Generally, I would argue that the people who oppose the existence of the state of Israel, if you talk to them a little more and figure out their sentiments, they usually have a deep-seated anti-Semitism as well.
Q: Is there anything important about the Holocaust that the American public still does not know and needs to be constantly reminded about?
A: First of all, just the fact that it happened. We constantly have to be reminded of history, otherwise we might repeat it or let others repeat it. We have to keep remembering or otherwise we slip into a situation where we allow these things to happen in other places -- Sudan, Rwanda, it has happened. On some level, the fact that the United States intervened in Kosovo was because some people said, "Hey look. We're letting it happen again." It wasn't a holocaust, but still we were sitting idly by and allowing genocide to happen. History is to be studied for its own purpose, but it's also a tremendous guidance to people in how to behave and in governmental policies and in how to look at the world.
Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org. © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.
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