Editors Note: In April, 2011, Nine-Banded Books will release The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes: And Other Writings on the Holocaust, Revisionism, and Historical Understanding, by Samuel Crowell. Interested readers are encouraged to take advantage of free postage and a promotional offer by placing an advance order through the 9BB website. The book will also be available through Amazon and select independent bookstores.
What follows is an in-depth interview with the book’s author, Samuel Crowell.
THE HOOVER HOG: I guess I’ll start by asking about your background. Maybe the short version?
SAMUEL CROWELL: Well, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, attended public schools, went into the service, got out and went to my hometown school, Berkeley, on the GI Bill. Then I got fellowship to go east, and I went to Columbia for several years. I studied mostly history and languages as an undergraduate, with concentrations in Russian history and African American history and wrote my senior thesis on German-Jewish history with an emphasis on philosophy. At Columbia, I studied Russian and East European history and the history of ideas and got two masters degrees. Then I started raising a family. I did not finish my dissertation that focused on themes in late 19th Century Russian history of philosophy.
HH : Can you describe how you first encountered Holocaust revisionism? What were your first impressions? Most academics seem predisposed to reject this type of material without delving very far; what kept your attention?
SC : I first encountered revisionism via a news article in the Oakland Tribune in I believe the summer of 1977: it was a 500 word treatment on Arthur Butz' book, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century. At the time, I thought it was amusing, since I assumed that this Butz character did not know as much about the Holocaust as I did.
However, I did not hear much about it subsequently. Moreover, since I had read quite a bit about Nazi Germany and its atrocities back in the 1960s, I did not want to go back there and get bogged down in those things. So at this point in my life I was deliberately ignoring 20th Century history, at least as regards Europe.
Some years later I was tasked with reading a stack of books on Nazi Germany. Simultaneously, I was obliged, as part of my graduate training, to study the Soviet Union. In those days – early 80s – it was customary to dismiss the atrocities attributed to the Soviet Union, as promoted by the likes of Solzhenitsyn and Robert Conquest, and to claim that these atrocities had been exaggerated and were quite possibly not true, since the only evidence that was being offered was testimonial and anecdotal. (I should stress that this is a valid criticism, even if it is sometimes carried to extremes.) So then I started reading these books on Nazi Germany and I realized that I did not know this field at all; so I started following footnotes and consulting the sources so that I could evaluate these books intelligently, and the first thing that surprised me was that most of the evidence offered for Nazi atrocities – particularly as it concerned the camps – was also testimonial and anecdotal.
At this point, I felt that I must be missing something so I started asking around for sources, no one really had a handle on these things other than to recommend Hilberg or Reitlinger, so then I looked at them and found the same problem, and so then I started consulting the primary sources and after that started going through the stacks at the library looking for whatever it was that I was missing. Eventually, I found some books by Rassinier and a few months later I found Butz' book as well, and rather than finding the fire-breathing German nationalism or anti-Semitism that I had expected, I found them focusing on exactly the problems or gaps in the record that I had found myself.
By this time the summer was over, so I evaluated my texts, and left the matter. However, I have to say that I was somewhat surprised and rather depressed to find that the history of Nazi atrocity on which I was raised was clearly inaccurate and required revision. I left my studies of Nazi atrocity – which includes the Holocaust – and just assumed that someone else would do it. I knew I didn't want to do it. Several years later, when I browsed Arno Mayer's Why did the Heavens not Darken? in a bookstore, I was satisfied that Holocaust revisionism had come of age and that it would only continue. You can imagine my shock when I found out some years later that a movement was developing to make Holocaust revisionism illegal in the United States of America.
HH : Your book is subtitled, "And Other Writings on the Holocaust, Revisionism, and Historical Understanding." As you know, most journalists and public intellectuals refer to self-described Holocaust revisionists as "Holocaust deniers," and it's interesting that so many other forms of "denial" seem to have emerged in recent years, notably in contentious scientific contexts, such as in the debate over anthropogenic global warming. What are your views on the concept of "denial" in the sphere of Holocaust studies and otherwise? Is it meaningful to assert that some people "deny" that the Holocaust happened? And I would be remiss not to ask: Do you "deny" the Holocaust?
SC : Well, in general I think words like “denier” and “denialist” are just sophisticated epithets. They contain no information other than, “You disagree with me, therefore you are bad.” I think it is poor form to use such epithets, and I think it is destructive of reasoned discourse and reconciliation. That’s really all I can say about that.
As to whether I “deny” the Holocaust, I don't think so. I mean, to me, coming from the 60s, the Holocaust concerns those Nazi atrocities directed against the Jewish people, and the calamitous destruction the Jewish people suffered as a result. I have never changed my mind on that level. I think some of these atrocities are self-evidently true, and I think others are debatable. That, to me, is what “Holocaust revisionism” is about.
However in fairness most revisionists are not just questioning specific atrocities, they are also focusing on the number of victims – which I consider an uninteresting argument – and furthermore are focused on diminishing the stature, both moral and political, of the Nazi destruction of the Jews. For myself, I am not interested in diminishing the stature of the Holocaust, but I should also stress that that is not even a historical question. I do think that our understanding of the Holocaust should be open to alternative interpretations, I also think that the Jewish catastrophe has to be looked at in context, and finally I think that someone who questions the facts or significance of the Holocaust should not be imprisoned or summarily ejected from polite society.
In this respect I have to note with a certain irony that, back in the 60s, I was mystified as to why historians did not discuss the anti-Jewish atrocities of Nazi Germany more often and in more detail. As such discussion became more common in the 70s, I recall feeling a certain satisfaction that the Holocaust, as such, had been mainstreamed. However, looking back, I think the concept over-extended itself over the next two decades. It was inevitable, therefore, that there would be a reaction, and in retrospect Holocaust revisionism constituted that reaction.
HH : It is commonly assumed that there is something inherently anti-Semitic about Holocaust revisionism. It seems clear enough from your writings that you are not motivated by such animus, but suspicion will persist. How do you address this perception?
SC : Charges of anti-Semitism are usually directed against revisionists because of the old argument that whatever happened to the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis has been exploited for political or economic gain. However, this idea was openly discussed in detail by Peter Novick and Norman Finkelstein at the end of the 1990s, so that aspect is no longer relevant. Further charges of anti-Semitism arise because many revisionists argue that some Jews deliberately exaggerated their suffering, or that Zionists deliberately exaggerated some aspects of Jewish suffering for political purposes, and so on. Finally, and most clearly, many revisionists yoke their criticism of aspects of the Holocaust with what they perceive as the threat of "Jewish power." I am not interested in any of these other aspects of revisionism, because I don't think they have any relevance to the facts of the case, which simply turns on what did or did not happen in Eastern Europe in the Second World War.
Now you have to try to look at this from the Jewish point of view. The Jewish people – and this means primarily east European or Ashkenazi Jewry – has been threatened with violence and various assimilationist pressures for hundreds of years. This has not been a process of continual violence, but it has been a process of the erosion of Jewish identity, particularly in Eastern Europe. The Jewish people – like anyone else – have a history that emphasizes and encourages their unique identity. The Holocaust is part of that history. When someone comes along, from outside that community, and raises questions about the accuracy of that history, the response is predictable: it will be said that this person wishes harm on the Jewish community. Thus the accusation of anti-Semitism. The accusation is strengthened when the critic of Jewish history follows through with accusations of mendacity and raising the specter of “Jewish power” or associated concepts. It is not hard to see why Jewish people would look askance at Holocaust revisionism, of any kind.
From my point of view, Ashkenazi Jews – who form the bulk of European as well as American Jewry directly or by descent – are a national group like any other European group. However, they, like the Roma, or Gypsies, are among the very few European national groups without a homeland in Europe. This automatically makes the theme of national survival an issue. And I have no desire to diminish the national identity of any group, or threaten the national survival of any group. However, it is not in the Jewish interest to support the criminalization of historical interpretations that appear, at first glance, to be inimical to Jewish identity. So I have to encourage my Jewish brethren to be more tolerant of Holocaust revisionism, absent any explicit malicious accusations. I also feel a need to nudge Jewish history with regards to the Holocaust in a different direction: focusing on the "extermination camp" narrative and what is supposed to have happened at such camps, is not, in my view, the right direction.
My personal experiences in talking about the Holocaust with Jews over the years is that they are just as perplexed as everyone else about what did or did not happen. At the same time, however, they bridle when someone from outside the community seeks to revise that history, especially with a lack of respect or outright malice. Taking a very long view, I am trying to direct the discussion into more pacific and reasonable paths.
At this point I think I should add something about the moral condemnation of the persecution and massacre of the Jews. I can understand why revisionists rarely condemn it in the strongest moral terms. The main reason is that all of the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe, including the German people, have grievances about the unjust seizure of wealth and property, cruel deportations, forced labor, shifting national borders, mass killings, mistreatment, and personal crimes such as rapes and so on. The attitude of some of these people is, why should we talk about the unique moral outrage against the Jewish people, when what happened to us is not only denied, it is not even discussed?
On the other hand, from the Jewish point of view, any attempt to put the persecutions and massacres in a wider context is going to come across as something less than a forthright denunciation, a reservation, as it were, about that destruction. I understand that point of view too, and certainly the Jewish people had to endure an agony of insecurity in Eastern Europe for a century until the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe were swallowed up either by Nazi persecution and massacre or by communist ideology.
Therefore, while it really has nothing to do with historical analysis as such, it should be said that what Jewish people experienced and suffered during this time can be explained, but it cannot be justified, and if someone takes a critical posture with regards to some aspects of that ordeal, or seeks to put it into context with the suffering and unjust treatment of other peoples, that should not be construed as an attempt to sneak a justification in through the back door.
HH : You describe yourself as a "moderate revisionist." What does this mean? Or, to pose the question in a different way, where do you find revisionist arguments most compelling, and where do you find them unpersuasive?
SC : Well, as I indicated in my previous answer, revisionism tends to involve a whole set of ideas, involving not only Jews, but also Germans, and Nazis, and so on. It also tends to involve intense rhetoric about Israel, and the Middle East – that is why Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, supports revisionism – and then it descends further, into a paranoid fantasy about the last days of the White Race and so on and so forth. I am not interested in any of those things.
Another aspect of revisionism is that it tends to be extreme in its rejection of Nazi atrocities. I don't share this view. I think the history of mass gas extermination by the Nazis – directed either against Jews or against anyone, as in the euthanasia campaign – is, at least at this point, eminently arguable. I also think that the notion that the Nazis were out to kill all of the Jews of Europe is untrue, and, as I point out in "The Holocaust in Retrospect" that has been more or less conceded by standard historiography in recent years. Those two points, and free speech, are really the only issues that concern me.
HH : Over half of the content of The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes – including the title monograph – is closely adapted from work that you did in the late 1990s. What was it like to revisit this material a decade later? Were you concerned that subsequent research might reveal serious flaws in your previous work?
SC : Well, it was strange to go back and read what I had written back then, especially since I wrote a lot of it so quickly. My instincts are conciliatory, so I tried to write in a manner that would address both sides with respect. I tried to be accurate and fair in my evaluation of evidence, and I think I did that fairly well.
It did not, and does not, concern me if subsequent research reveals serious flaws. I wrote this material because I felt an obligation to do so. In the process, I learned a lot of things I did not know. I was also able to answer my own questions for myself. I fulfilled my social obligation. I have no regrets.
If someone had found, or at some future time, finds, the cache of evidence that proves that millions of people were killed by gas both at the camps or at the euthanasia centers, that's fine with me. I would be interested in seeing such evidence. At the same time, I don't think that invalidates my argument concerning the folkloric background to the mass gassing claim. Whether that has any real significance to the history of this time period is not a question I can really answer.
HH : On a related note, it's my understanding that until you began working on this book you hadn't really written about the Holocaust controversy since the early 2000s. Is there anything to account for your decade-long silence on the subject?
SC : Well, I had intended to stop writing on the subject when I wrote "Bomb Shelters in Birkenau" in May, 2000, and I only wrote that article because I felt an obligation to defend the bomb shelter thesis one last time since it had been raised in the Irving-Lipstadt trial and I had finally obtained some primary documents about Auschwitz bomb shelters. However, it's hard to just walk away so I fulfilled some other requests over the next year or so.
The main reason why I got out of the subject is that I felt my main point about freedom of speech had been gained. I recall that there were several comments defending freedom of speech in Britain during the trial. I took that to heart. Another reason I got out of the discussion is because, at that point, the only further direction to go would be to unravel the knot of Jewish labor exploitation in Eastern Europe, and while I have a good idea about how to go about doing that, I really do not want to devote my life to studying or writing about the Holocaust.
Looking back, one thing that disinclined me to continue is that I had answered my own questions to my own satisfaction. Once you get to that point, when you are studying something, the subject becomes a lot less interesting. I am not one of those people who thinks that it is important to win an argument, or to be recognized for having won an argument. Furthermore, I have a lot of other intellectual interests that are much less contentious than this subject. So it was not hard to move on.
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