Thursday, March 23, 2006

Intention and Explanation

This is where we begin.

To choose the title of a twenty-five-year-old essay by Tim Mason to headline the first post of this blog might at first glance seem obscure. But although Mason was writing a quarter of a century ago, his exposition of the debate been the rival intentionalist and structuralist or functionalist schools of interpretation of the Third Reich retains a power and impact which has rarely been bettered since. Moreover, this essay, to be found in the collection Nazism, Fascism and the Working Class, Cambridge, 1996, was one of the few occasions in which the leading historian of Nazi Germany of his era tackled the subject of the mass murder of European Jewry, the Holocaust. Like many historians of the 1960s generation that began to study the Third Reich intensively, Mason concentrated his efforts on the period leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. He openly admitted that he was psychologically incapable of confronting the horrors of Nazism at war; a psychic block which some of his friends believe may have contributed to his tragic decision to take his own life in 1990.

Holocaust deniers would only snort at this tragedy. How could anyone be so affected by atrocities that never happened? To the doyens of 'historical revisionism', Mason's personal tragedy would become transmogrified into a far-right morality tale: look, see, the psychic damage that is being done because of this incessant propaganda about the Holocaust!

Yet they have reckoned without two things. The first is that the study of the Third Reich consists of much more than the forensics of the gas chambers at Auschwitz. I would almost wager that few leading 'revisionists' other than David Irving would even be aware of Mason's existence, let alone his writings. Holocaust denial fails not only as an account of the Holocaust, but of the Hitler era as a whole; it is a curious, stunted, impoverished freak-show of a history that has nothing to do with the rich historiography of Nazi Germany.

The second omission that 'historical revisionists' have made is to abstract their obsessions with the gas-chambers from the surrounding context of Nazi persecution and mass-murder of European Jews. They proffer interpretations of the death-camps and, more rarely, of Nazi Judenpolitik, that bear no resemblance to the reality of wie es eigentlich gewesen war, how it really happened. Time and time again one hears a litany from Holocaust deniers - it is alleged that six million Jews died in the gas chambers. Wrong. They confuse the 'Hollycaust' of media myth with the grubby reality of genocide; a reality that encompassed deliberately-induced starvation, epidemic diseases incubated inside ghettos and concentration camps; mass executions by rifles, machine-guns and the Genickschuss.

As a practising historian of the Third Reich and Stalinist Russia at war, I hope to dedicate some of my postings to this collective blog to discussing the genuine revisionist controversies that make my chosen profession and field so exciting. All historiography barring the first draft of history - the newspapers of the day - is by its very nature revisionist, challenging our previous interpretations of the past, and in the process hopefully forcing us to think through the events afresh. Since long before I began researching in this field, the study of the Third Reich and the Holocaust has proven especially controversial. Perhaps beginning with Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem in the 1960s, these controversies have come thicker and faster. From the intentionalist-functionalist debate of the late 1970s, the field moved on to disputing the tasks of the Einsatzgruppen five years later, and soon after to the Historikersteit of 1987. Before the end of the Cold War, German historians were tearing into Götz Aly and Susanne Heim for daring to highlight 'The Economics of the Final Solution'. They did so again after unification when Aly and Heim published Vordenker der Vernichtung in 1991, since translated into English as Architects of Annihilation. Five years later came the turn of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and Hitler's Willing Executioners. This in turn generated a follow-on controversy over Norman Finkelstein's critique and subsequent publication of The Holocaust Industry. Finkelstein himself then intervened into the latest controversy, over Jan Tomas Gross's Neighbours and the pogrom of Jedwabne in eastern Poland scant weeks after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

Holocaust Controversies was set up in part to discuss these debates between historians as well as news related to them. Since both myself and some of my fellow contributors have interests in similar controversies over the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union, we will from time to time also discuss these debates, which offer so many remarkable parallels and sharp contrasts with the historiography of Nazi Germany.

But this blog has an additional, perhaps more important purpose, namely to confront the arguments of Holocaust Revisionism and 'historical revisionism' in general. It may come as no surprise to learn that professional, mainstream historians have paid relatively little attention to what they regard as the ramblings of cranks. I can testify to meeting expert witnesses for the defense in the David Irving libel trial, world-famous professors, who have never heard of the leading Italian Holocaust denier Carlo Mattogno.

Yet one only needs type in a concentration camp-related Google search to be met with a barrage of hits to 'Revisionist' websites. In this sense, professional historians have left the internet wide open for colonisation by deniers. Valiant efforts have been made by many, starting with the 1990s Nizkor project and the flame wars on alt.revisionism, to battle deniers online. We have linked to many such organisations, not least the explicit anti-denier site The Holocaust History Project as well as the implicit rebuttal of many a denier argument, the Aktion Reinhard Camps website. Some of the contributors to Holocaust Controversies are members of both organisations, yet this blog is independent of them both, and remains the expression of our personal views, not those of any corporate body.

The contributors here met online at the RODOH forum, the only place on the internet where there is Real Open Debate On the Holocaust. Other internet forums have either censored denial, or censor its rebuttal, but RODOH has allowed deniers and anti-deniers to argue with each other freely and openly.

The decision to set up Holocaust Controversies was a simple one: a blog allows forms of expression which a forum cannot; by its very nature, it demands more from the writers than even the best php-ed bulletin board can ever do. We are not, then, fleeing a denier onslaught; we can still be found hanging out over at RODOH. Rather, we hope that the medium of a blog will allow us to hone, refine and develop our arguments, and to present material that falls in between the quickfire postings of a forum, and longer essays that might find homes elsewhere.

In engaging with denier arguments, some might charge that we pay them too much respect. Yet this reckons without the insidiousness of what are otherwise absurd debating-points. Like it or not, Holocaust Denial must be confronted. In spite of the work done by web projects and academics to demolish Holocaust Denier arguments, 'revisionist' literature is mushrooming yearly and by no means all arguments have been deconstructed and exposed. We therefore will from time to time post reviews, critiques and ongoing debates about the 'classics' of 'Revisionist' literature, which we hope readers may find instructive, even perhaps enlightening as to the inadequacies of 'Revisionist' argumentation.

Yet we also intend to have fun here. So much of what is posted on the internet as 'Revisionism' is so ludicrously absurd that we will also respond with laughter. In part, we were compelled to set up this blog in order to maintain a record of the illogicalities, inanities and insanities to be found on the heavily censored, hyper-moderated circle-jerk known as The Revisionist Forum over at the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust website. That we informally call this The Cesspit will persist so long as this forum remains censored and inaccessible for us. Most contributors here have either been banned from CODOH forum or have not even bothered trying to post there, knowing full well they would not survive much longer than.... well, you can probably guess.

'Revisionists' might charge that the playing-field is not level; that 'Revisionist' writers are hampered in their research efforts, persecuted, prosecuted and thrown into jail. Let it be stated from the outset that we do not endorse censorship of any kind; nor are we in favour of anti-Holocaust Denial laws being passed in Britain or the United States. We would prefer that continental countries such as Germany, Austria and France did not make martyrs out of Deniers. Yet it should not be forgotten that Holocaust Deniers are convicted and sentenced for hate-speech, not for 'revising history'. No functionalists can be found in jail, as much as some within my profession might like to lock up mavericks like Christian Gerlach or Götz Aly.

In Britain, the bar for incitement is set relatively high; as it should be. We will show no compunction or mercy towards revisionists who express what we feel are racist or antisemitic views; we will accuse and criticise them accordingly. It is however up to others to decide whether their racism has breached the laws of the land in question. As far as we are concerned, it is beyond proven that David Irving, for example, is a racist antisemite; yet he would not be convicted in a British court.

Therefore, we will state the following: we are paying Holocaust Denial the respect of engaging its arguments on a scientific, historiographical basis. No others. If we discuss history, comments from readers are welcome on the history, from all viewpoints. Should readers post tired old saws about how many 'revisionists' are jailed in their comments on history posts, their posts will be edited or deleted at the administrators' whim. This is editing and moderating, not censorship.

We will, however, also discuss the politics of Holocaust controversies and Holocaust Denial. Readers are welcome to comment on the proprieties of censorship, jail sentences and the International Conspiracy in response to those posts.

In similar fashion, we reserve the right to use the terms Holocaust Denial and 'Revisionism' interchangeably. This is our blog, after all.

With that, let the blogging begin.


  1. Finkelstein somehow acknowledges the good things the book caused, but then proceeds to stir up the compensation controversy. He paints Gross as some willing helper of the so-called "Holocaust industry" which wants to rob Poland out of its wealth. Let me speak for my country about this.

    We don't need your defence, Mr Finkelstein. The problem of Polish compensation to the Jews will be solved by Polish legislature and, if such need arises, Polish courts. They alone, and no mythical "Holocaust industry", will decide what compensation is just, to whom and to what extent, taking into account historical justice, the sanctity of private property and the resources of Polish state budget. Poland has absolute sovereignty over this matter and even 10,000 books claiming whatever Finkelstein think Gross's "Neighbourse" claim will not change this fact.

  2. Thank you for your comments on the Jedwabne debate. You summed up the issues in a way that I could obviously not in the introductory post; which was long enough as it is.

    Gross performed an invaluable service as a catalyst, but cannot be regarded as the last word on the subject. There is still much to be researched concerning the degree of anti-Semitism and the instances of pogroms across the whole arc of territories annexed by the Soviets in 1939-40; such pogroms happened in Lithuania, in the Bialystok area, in Lwow/Lviv/Lvov, and to some extent the Romanian behaviour in Bessarabia was not dissimilar.

    Gross's earlier work 'Revolution from Abroad' is still one of the few studies of the annexation of eastern Poland available in English, but it is now horribly out-dated because of recent research by both Polish and Russian historians. For example, claims of the numbers deported ran as high as over 1 million; yet newly released archival information suggests somewhere between 320-430,000.

    Having studied the Lomza country area to some small extent using German sources and from what I know of the memorial books, I agree that the massacre at Jedwabne was more of the order of 400 victims; but there were other pogroms in neighbouring towns.

    One of the features of Lomza county that was distinctive was that it was very much a nationalist stronghold in the 1930s; and the Catholic Church there adhered to this right-wing position. So it is completely untrue to say, as some in America have, that all Poles were guilty of this crime. There were quite specific local characteristics. An Israeli historian, Sarah Bender, whose family originates from Bialystok, is currently researching this entire subject and from a seminar paper I have heard, doing so very objectively.

  3. Not even all Poles in the Lomza region were hostile to Jews. After all, there were those who hid them, risking their lives. However, it is true that this region was and is more conservative, nationalistic and xenophobic than the rest of Poland. They are, simply speaking, rather backwards, not only in the matters of relations between various ethnic groups. Recently, an independent art group was having problems with the local authorities in Bialystok, because they were showing "controversial" stuff.

    Gross's book prompted the revelation of accounts of similar pogroms in other towns around Jedwabne. It also prompted, as a reaction, various accounts of how Jews colaborated with the Soviets. This is a complex and delicate issue, and both approaches which are often taken:
    a) that the Jews colaborated en masse with the Soviets,
    b) that there was no problem of Jewish colaboration with the Soviets,
    are wrong, IMHO. I don't think one can research the pogroms without dealing with this problem, too.

    One of the features of Lomza county that was distinctive was that it was very much a nationalist stronghold in the 1930s; and the Catholic Church there adhered to this right-wing position.

    The additional shame is that the local CC bishop in Lomza even NOW doesn't want to acknowledge what happened in Jedwabne during WW II (contrary to the position of the central CC hierarchs in Poland). One could expect bishops to be more enlightened and humble that that.

    AFAIR, the mayor of Jedwabne, who took part in 2001 celebrations of the massacre and took the right position on the subject, lost his office because of that and left the town, because of the hostility of the inhabitants. A large part of the town (with the notable exception of the young people, i.e. high school students) is in a state of self-denial since 1941. A nice case for sociologists (actually, there were some papers on that in the mainstream press).

  4. Roman, although the Polish investigation indeed put the number of victims at ca. 400, I have reasons to doubt their methodology. I wrote about this at H-Holocaust, and I may write about that briefly here some time.

  5. Sergey, could you point me to a specific thread ?

  6. Thanks. Stola also writes, in the article linked to in your post:

    "Moreover, it [conservative estimate of the number of victims in Jedwabne massacre] finds support in Polish prewar and Soviet wartime statistics. [End Page 140] Prewar publications state that the town's population consisted of forty percent Jews and sixty percent Christians (the reverse of the figures cited in Neighbors), which means there were approximately 1,000 Jews. 7 Soviet data from September 1940 lists 1,400 Jews in the entire Jedwabne raion—the administrative unit that included the towns of Radzilów and Wizna. Another Soviet document from 1940 states 562 Jews in Jedwabne, approximately 500 in Radzilów, and 476 in Wizna, which totals 1,538. 8

    If the number of victims was approximately 500, what could have happened to 300-500 hundred Jedwabne Jews between the time of the Polish and Soviet statistics and July 1941? One possible explanation is intensive migration: in September 1939 the Germans sent many Jews into forced labor; during 1940-41 significant numbers of Jews were deported into the Soviet interior; some Jews from Soviet-occupied Poland migrated east in search of jobs; and after the German attack in June 1941 many Jews tried to escape eastward. On the other hand, in this period Jedwabne also witnessed the immigration of Jews from other localities, and the survivors' accounts do not mention a substantial population decline before the massacre. Thus the number of the victims cannot be definitively proven, although estimates ranging from 400-800 seem much more plausible than those above 1,000."

    Could you comment on that?

  7. BTW:

    Stola writes: "But because only a circumscribed archeological exploration of the site was conducted [...]"

    You (Sergey) write: "So nobody really counted the bodies, their number was estimated, likely from the sizes of the graves."

    The reason why the bodies weren't counted during the IPN investigation was that it would require an exhumation procedure. The IPN didn't want to carry it out since it would be against Jewish religious customs. It wasn't neglected because IPN did not want to know the true number.

  8. Hello, Roman. The fact that D. Stola has to guess about what had happened to the rest of the Jews ("what could have happened to 300-500 hundred Jedwabne Jews") means that some Jews have to be accounted for.

    Given that the number of the bodies was only estimated, one needs to know what methodology was used. I am not saying, of course, that the Polish investigators did not want to know the true number, I know about religious prohibition. Nevertheless, I cannot accept the figure of 300-500 victims until I see how exactly their number was estimated.

    I'm not saying that IPN is necessarily is wrong, but highet estimates are not necessarily wrong either. Perhaps, this argument can be solved not by forensics, but by demographics.

  9. Sergey, I doubt that demographics can give the answer. First, before the war population was not counted and registered as precisely as now. Second, people were moving throughout the war as well, without being registered or counted at all.

  10. I see nothing but nit-picking, evasion and intellectual dishonesty on this blog. And of course the silly doo-doo head accusations.

    So where is the direct and clear documentary and material evidence for the alleged execution gas chambers? Where is the decisive proof that 6 million Jews are missing and where is the direct material and documentary evidence that they were gassed or shot? (or that at least millions were killed the way alleged) And where are the orders and plans to kill European Jewry? If you don’t have anything – as you don’t – why do you insist on believing the official 6 million nonsense?

    And why do you believe the propaganda lies of Zyklon B and motor gassings, and why don’t you believe the propaganda lies of electrocutions, killings with steam and vacuum chambers? Why do you believe in gassings in Poland but not in 1937 German Reich area? (Dachau, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen) Why do you believe in propaganda lies of WW2, produced in Allied post war show trials with rumors, tortures, and other arbitrary means? (similar to medieval witch trials) And why don’t you believe in propaganda lies of WW1, not produced in medieval show trials? Why doesn’t anyone have to come up with a superior theory to what exactly happened to those poor innocent inoffensive Canadians, nurses and children? I mean, Arthur Ponsonby certainly did not present a superior theory, he just dismissed them as lies. Isn’t that just awful denial? And how on earth dare you deny the gassings in Dachau, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen – which too have the eyewitness evidence and convergence of evidence – without presenting a superior theory that explains in detail what happened to those poor innocent inoffensive gassing victims in these camps? Isn’t this just hypocritical and evil denial?

    And how are you motivated then if you are not Jews? And please don’t say “the truth” or something similar, even a monkey can see through you. Why do you defend the ridiculous multicultural world view (which is in part based on the Holocaust myth; the horrors of White racism and anti-semitism, used to teach ‘tolerance’ towards Jews and Non-Whites especially towards Non-White immigration policy) with the current destructive political correctness, ideologies and the policies that are destroying the Western Civilization and Europeans? If racist Europeans owned as much media as the Jews today in Western World, would you defend a racist world view and White racists if they were prevailing in media and academy?

  11. Thank you. Can you RSS this blog to facebook?


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