A few years ago I somehow heard about a ferocious online dispute involving a left-leaning journalist named Mark Ames and the editors of Reason magazine, the glossy flagship publication of America’s burgeoning libertarian movement. Although I was deep in my difficult programming work, curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to take a look.
During the Immigration Wars of the 1990s, I’d become quite friendly with the Reason people, frequently visiting their offices, especially during my “English” campaign of 1998, when I’d located my own political headquarters in the same small Westside LA office building they used. As my content-archiving software project began absorbing more and more of my time during the early 2000s, I’d gradually lost touch with them, but even so, the 40-odd years of their magazine archives had become the first publication I’d incorporated into my system, and I was now pleased to discover that both sides in the ongoing feud had put my system to good use in exploring those old Reason issues.
Apparently, the libertarians grouped around Reason had successfully been making political inroads into Silicon Valley’s enormously wealthy technology industry, and had now organized a major conference in San Francisco to gather together their supporters. Their left-leaning rivals decided to nip that project in the bud by highlighting some of the more unsavory ideological positions that mainstream libertarian leaders had once regularly espoused. Perhaps Ron Paul and other libertarians might oppose overseas wars and drug laws, and support cutting taxes and regulations, but they and their Republican Party allies were unspeakably vile on all sorts of other issues, and all “good thinkers” should therefore stay very far away.
The debate began in rather mundane fashion with an article by Ames entitled “Homophobia, Racism, and the Kochs” denouncing Reason for sharing a platform with a high-ranking Republican Congresswoman of Christian conservative views, as well as the magazine’s reliance upon Koch funding and its alleged support for Apartheid South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s. The response by the Reason editor seemed quite persuasive, and he rightfully dismissed the guilt-by-association attacks. He also outlined the gross errors and omissions in the charges regarding South Africa, and ridiculed Ames as a notoriously error-prone “conspiracy theorist.” Surely few outsiders would have paid any attention to such a typical exchange of mudslinging between rival ideological camps.
But then things took a very different turn, and a week later Ames returned with a 5,000 word article bearing a title sure to grab attention: “Holocaust Denial.” He claimed that in 1976 Reason had published an entire special issue devoted to that explosive topic.
Surely everyone on the Internet has encountered numerous instances of Holocaust Denial over the years, but for a respectable magazine to have allotted a full issue to promoting that doctrine was something else entirely. For decades, Hollywood has sanctified the Holocaust, and in our deeply secular society accusations of Holocaust Denial are a bit like shouting “Witch!” in Old Salem or leveling accusations of Trotskyism in the Court of the Red Czar. Progressive Sam Seder’s Majority Report radio show devoted a full half-hour segment to the charges against Reason, and Googling “Reason Magazine”+”Holocaust Denial” today yields thousands of hits. This substantial explosion of Internet controversy was what caught my own attention at the time.
My initial reaction was one of puzzlement. Reason had been the first periodical I had digitized in my system a dozen years earlier, and surely I would have noticed an entire issue promoting Holocaust Denial. However, I soon discovered that February 1976 had been excluded from the supposedly complete set the magazine had shipped me for processing, an omission that itself raises serious suspicions. But Ames had somehow located a copy in a research library and produced a full PDF, which he conveniently placed on the Internet to support his accusations.
Carefully reading his article and then glancing through the contents, I decided that his accusation was technically false but substantially true. Apparently the actual theme of the issue was “Historical Revisionism” and except for a couple of paragraphs buried here and there among the 76 pages, Holocaust Denial never came up, so characterizing it as a Holocaust Denial issue was obviously a grotesque exaggeration. But on the other hand, although few of the authors were familiar to me, it seemed undeniably true that they were numbered among America’s more prominent Holocaust Deniers, and most of them were deeply associated with organizations situated in that same camp. Furthermore, there were strong indications that their positions on that topic must certainly have been known to the Reason editors who commissioned their pieces.
The clearest case comes when Ames quoted the explicit statements of Dr. Gary North, a prominent libertarian thinker who had served as one of Ron Paul’s earliest Congressional aides and later became his longtime partner in politics and business:
Probably the most far-out materials on World War II revisionism have been the seemingly endless scholarly studies of the supposed execution of 6 million Jews by Hitler. The anonymous author [Hoggan] of ‘The Myth of the Six Million’ has presented a solid case against the Establishment’s favorite horror story—the supposed moral justification for our entry into the war…The untranslated books by the former Buchenwald inmate Prof. Paul Rassinier, have seriously challenged the story…A recent and very inexpensive book in magazine form, Did Six Million Really Die?, appeared in 1973, written by Richard Harwood.
A later issue carried a thousand word letter by Prof. Adam Reed of Rockefeller University, a past Reason contributor, strongly affirming the mainstream Holocaust narrative by quoting from standard works, and taking Dr. North to task for his citation of Holocaust Denial works of doubtful quality. But North firmly stood his ground:
“The second point, that about 6 million Jews really did die in the concentration camps, is one that will be open until the records of the period become fully available. I am not convinced yet, one way or the other. I am happy to have Dr. Reed’s interpretation of the data, but until the publishing companies and academic guild encourage the re-examination of the data, I shall continue to recommend that those interested in revisionist questions read The Myth of the Six Million and Did Six Million Really Die? as reasonable (though not necessarily irrefutable) pieces of historical revisionism. If a person can’t make up his mind, he should do more reading.”
Dr. James J. Martin was the lead contributor to the February Revisionism issue, and the preceding January issue had featured an extended Q&A by the editors, with one of the queries directly addressing the controversial topic:
REASON: Dr. Martin, do you believe (1) that the specific charge against the Nazis of having a mass extermination program of several million Jews is true, and (2) that the Allied atrocities were as great or greater than those of the Germans, from your study of the question?
MARTIN: Well, I never made a head count of all who lost their lives in the War-we’ve seen a wide variety of statistical materials, some of which have been pulled out of thin air. As a consequence, it’s hard to make any kind of estimate of this sort, whether ten more were killed on the one side or the other is not a particularly entrancing subject as far as I’m concerned. Whether allegations can be proven it remains to be seen. I don’t believe that the evidence of a planned extermination of the entire Jewish population of Europe is holding up. I have been influenced over the years by the works of Paul Rassinier, and he still has to be reckoned with. His works have been ignored for a long time, and sooner or later somebody’s going to have to do a decent job of coping with what he has presented. I think Rassinier’s general case is sound at the moment and I haven’t seen any strong evidence to upset his allegations or his assertions that there was no planned program for the extermination of European Jews. His other main case is that there were no gas chamber extermination programs. The fact that a great many people lost their lives is incontrovertible—that the German concentration camps weren’t health centers is well known-but they appear to have been far smaller and much less lethal than the Russian ones.
Another major contributor to the issue was Dr. Austin J. App, and just three years earlier he had published a short book bearing the lurid title The Six Million Swindle: Blackmailing the German People for Hard Marks with Fabricated Corpses.
In a follow-up column by Ames’ own editor, the stunned reactions of various journalists are listed, with one of them Tweeting out “I had no idea that Reason Magazine was once a haven for Holocaust Revisionism. Holy Moly.” Despite the angry obfuscations of present-day Reason staffers, this description seems quite correct.
Indeed, there seems considerable circumstantial evidence that around that time “Holocaust Skepticism” extended rather broadly within the entire nascent libertarian movement. Aside from the sharp critique of the aforementioned Prof. Reed, the overwhelming majority of the reader responses seemed totally favorable, with Samuel Konkin III, editor of New Libertarian Weekly and various similar publications, suggesting that the February issue was one of the best they had ever published. David Nolan, founder of America’s Libertarian Party, also praised the issue as “outstanding.”
The two editors of the issue in question even today remain quite prominent figures at Reason and within American libertarianism, while the masthead then carried names such as David Brudnoy and Alan Reynolds, who both later became influential figures in conservative and libertarian politics. There seems no evidence of any resignations or angry recriminations following the issue’s publication, which seems to have been digested with total equanimity, apparently arousing less rancor than might have been generated by a dispute over monetary policy.
I’d never paid much attention to Holocaust discussions over the years, but the name of Murray Rothbard on the 1976 Reason masthead prompted a memory. Rothbard is widely regarded as the founder of modern libertarianism, and I recalled in the 1990s reading somewhere that he had often ridiculed the Holocaust as being total nonsense, which had stuck in my mind as a typical example of libertarian eccentricity. A quick Google search seemed to confirm my recollection that Rothbard was an avowed Holocaust Denier.
Although the whole controversy regarding Reason’s editorial line of the mid-1970s soon died down, it remained a nagging puzzle in the back of my mind. I’d always been quite skeptical of libertarian ideology, but my Reason friends from the 1990s had certainly seemed like smart and rational people to me, hardly raving lunatics of any sort, and two of the ones I’d known best had been the co-editors of the controversial issue in question.
I could easily understand how zealous libertarian ideologues might be swept past the point of rationality on certain matters—perhaps arguing that the police and the army should be abolished as statist institutions—but the factual question of what had or had not happened to the Jews of Europe during World War II hardly fell into that sort of category. Furthermore, libertarianism had always attracted a very large Jewish contingent, especially in its upper ranks, and one of the issue editors came from that background, as did Rothbard and numerous others featured on the masthead. While deranged anti-Semitism is not impossible among Jews, I would think that it is somewhat less likely. Clearly something very odd must have been going on.
I was then too busy with my work to focus on the matter, but some months later I had more time, and began a detailed investigation. My first step was to carefully read the Reason articles produced by those controversial writers previously unknown to me. Although those pieces were not Holocaust-related, I thought they might give me a sense of their thinking.
To my surprise, the historiography seemed outstandingly good, and almost certainly accurate based on what I had picked up over the years from perfectly mainstream sources. Dr. Martin’s long article on the notorious framing of “Tokyo Rose” was probably the best and most comprehensive treatment I had ever encountered on that topic, and Dr. App’s analysis of the tragedy of the Sudeten-Germans was equally strong, raising several points I had previously not known. Percy Greaves effectively summarized many of the very suspicious aspects of the Pearl Harbor attack, and although his case for the prosecution against FDR was certainly not airtight, it accorded with the views presented by numerous scholars in other books on the subject. Moreover, his position was seconded by a young Bruce Bartlett, later a prominent Reagan and Bush official, and still later a strong Republican opponent of George W. Bush, routinely feted by the New York Times. Most of the other writings also seemed of very high quality, including Dr. North’s summary of World War II Revisionism. In general, the academic scholarship of those articles greatly surpassed anything found in opinion magazines of more recent decades, Reason itself included. Those so interested can click on the above links, read the articles in question, and decide for themselves.
Back then, Reason was a young and struggling magazine, with a shoestring staff and budget. Publishing articles of such obvious quality was surely a remarkable achievement for which the editors could feel justifiably proud, and the overwhelmingly positive letters they received seemed absolutely warranted. Meanwhile, the nasty attacks by Ames appeared to be those of a mere political hack who may not have even bothered actually reading the articles whose authors he vilified.
As a further sign of Ames’ dishonesty, he flung the epithet “Nazi” some two dozen times in his hack-job, along with numerous uses of “anti-Semitic” as well, and Greaves was certainly the subject of many of those slurs. But although Greaves and Bartlett wrote back-to-back articles on exactly the same Pearl Harbor topic, and according to Wikipedia, the former was the academic advisor to the latter on that subject, Bartlett’s name appears nowhere in Ames’s hit-piece, presumably because denouncing a prominent policy expert much beloved by the New York Times as an “anti-Semitic Neo-Nazi” might prove self-defeating. Even leaving that aside, accusing the Jewish libertarians running Reason of being Nazi propagandists must surely be the sort of charge that would strain the credulity of even the most gullible.
With Ames’ credibility totally shredded, I decided to carefully reread his article again, looking for what clues I could find to the whole bizarre situation. Academic scholars who publish very good history on certain subjects might still have totally irrational views on others, but normally one would assume otherwise.
It appeared that much of Ames’ understanding of the issue had come from a certain Deborah Lipstadt, whom he characterized as a great Holocaust expert. Her name was very vaguely familiar to me as some sort of academic activist, who years before had won a major legal victory over a rightwing British historian named David Irving, and Irving himself received further denunciations in the Ames article.
However, one name did stick out. Apparently based on Lipstadt’s information, Ames described Harry Elmer Barnes as “the godfather of American Holocaust denial literature” and Martin’s “Holocaust denial guru.”
A dozen years earlier, the name “Barnes” would have meant almost nothing to me. But as I produced my content-archiving system and digitized so many of America’s most influential publications of the last 150 years, I had soon discovered that many of our most illustrious public intellectuals—Left, Right, and Center—had been suddenly purged and “disappeared” around 1940 because of their stalwart opposition to FDR’s extremely aggressive foreign policy, and Barnes, an eminent historian and sociologist, had been among the most prominent of those. He had been one of the earliest editors at Foreign Affairs and for many years afterward his important articles had graced the pages of The New Republic and The Nation, while even after his fall, he had edited Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, an important 1953 collection of essays by himself and other once-prominent figures. But to have a figure of such intellectual stature accused of being a Holocaust Denier, let alone the “godfather” of the entire movement, seemed rather bizarre to me.
Since Ames was merely an ignorant political hack transmitting the opinions of others, I moved on Lipstadt, his key source. Anyone who has spent much time on the comment-threads of relatively unfiltered websites has certainly encountered the controversial topic of Holocaust Denial, but I now decided to try to investigate the issue in much more serious fashion. A few clicks on the Amazon.com website, and her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust arrived in my mailbox a couple of days later, providing me an entrance into the mysterious world.
Reading the book was certainly a tremendous revelation to me. Lipstadt is a professor of Holocaust Studies with an appointment in Emory University’s Department of Theology, and once I read the opening paragraph of her first chapter, I decided that her academic specialty might certainly be described as “Holocaust Theology.”
The producer was incredulous. She found it hard to believe that I was turning down an opportunity to appear on her nationally televised show. “But you are writing a book on this topic. It will be great publicity.” I explained repeatedly that I would not participate in a debate with a Holocaust denier. The existence of the Holocaust was not a matter of debate. I would analyze and illustrate who they were and what they tried to do, but I would not appear with them…Unwilling to accept my no as final, she vigorously condemned Holocaust denial and all it represented. Then, in one last attempt to get me to change my mind, she asked me a question: “I certainly don’t agree with them, but don’t you think our viewers should hear the other side?”
Lipstadt’s absolute horror at having someone actually dispute the tenets of her academic doctrine could not have been more blatant. Surely no zealous theologian of the European Dark Ages would have reacted any differently.
The second chapter of her book supported that impression. Since many of the individuals she castigates as Holocaust Deniers also supported the Revisionist perspective of the underlying causes of the First and Second World Wars, she harshly attacked those schools, but in rather strange fashion. In recent years, blogger Steve Sailer and others have ridiculed what they describe as the “point-and-sputter” style of debate, in which a “politically-incorrect” narrative is merely described and then automatically treated as self-evidently false without any accompanying need for actual refutation. This seemed to be the approach that Lipstadt took throughout her rather short book.
For example, she provided a very long list of leading academic scholars, prominent political figures, and influential journalists who had championed Revisionist history, noted that their views disagree with the more mainstream perspective she had presumably imbibed from her History 101 textbooks, and thereby regarded them as fully debunked. Certainly a Christian preacher attempting to refute the evolutionary theories of Harvard’s E.O. Wilson by quoting a passage of Bible verse might take much the same approach. But few evangelical activists would be so foolish as to provide a very long list of eminent scientists who all took the same Darwinist position and then attempt to sweep them aside by citing a single verse from Genesis. Lipstadt seems to approach history much like a Bible-thumper, but a particularly dim-witted one. Moreover, many of the authors she attacked had already become familiar to me after a decade of my content-archiving work, and I had found their numerous books quite scholarly and persuasive.
Barnes, in particular, figured quite prominently in Lipstadt’s chapter and throughout her book. The index listed his name on more than two dozen pages, and he is repeatedly described as the “godfather” of Holocaust Denial, and its seminal figure. Given such heavy coverage, I eagerly examined all those references and the accompanying footnotes to uncover the shocking statements he must have made during his very long scholarly career.
I was quite disappointed. There is not a single reference I could find to his supposed Holocaust Denial views until just the year before his death at age 79, and even that item is hardly what I had been led to believe. In a 9,300 word article on Revisionism for a libertarian publication, he ridicules a leading Holocaust source for claiming that Hitler had killed 25 million Jews, noting that total was nearly twice their entire worldwide population at the time. In addition, Barnes several times applied the word “allegedly” to the stories of the Nazi extermination scheme, an sacrilegious attitude that appears to have horrified a theologian such as Lipstadt. Finally, in a short, posthumously published review of a book by French scholar Paul Rassiner, Barnes found his estimate of just 1 million to 1.5 million Jewish deaths quite convincing, but his tone suggested that he had never previously investigated the matter himself.
So although that last item technically validated Lipstadt’s accusation that Barnes was a Holocaust Denier, her evidence-free claims that he was the founder and leader of the field hardly enhances her scholarly credibility. Meanwhile, all the many tens of thousands of words I have read by Barnes has suggested that he was a careful and dispassionate historian.
A notorious incident that occurred soon after the Bolshevik Revolution came to my mind. Eminent philologist Timofei Florinsky, one of Russia’s most internationally renowned academic scholars, was hauled before a revolutionary tribunal for a public interrogation about his ideas, and one of the judges, a drunken Jewish former prostitute, found his answers so irritating that she drew her revolver and shot him dead right there and then. Given Lipstadt’s obvious emotional state, I have a strong suspicion that she might have wished she could deal in a similar fashion with Barnes and the numerous other scholars she denounced. Among other things, she noted with horror that more than two decades after his 1940 purge from public life, Barnes’ books were still required reading at both Harvard and Columbia.
All of us reasonably extrapolate what we already know or can easily check against what is more difficult to verify, and the remaining chapters of Lipstadt’s book left me very doubtful about the reliability of her work, all of which was written in a similar near-hysterical style. Since she had already been vaguely known to me from her well-publicized legal battle against historian David Irving more than a dozen years earlier, I was hardly surprised to discover that many pages were devoted to vilifying and insulting him in much the same manner as Barnes, so I decided to investigate that case.
I was only slightly surprised to discover that Irving had been one of the world’s most successful World War II historians, whose remarkable documentary findings had completely upended our knowledge of that conflict and its origins, with his books selling in the many millions. His entire approach to controversial historical issues was to rely as much as possible upon hard documentary evidence, and his total inability to locate any such documents relating to the Holocaust drove Lipstadt and her fellow ethnic-activists into a frenzy of outrage, so after many years of effort they finally managed to wreck his career. Out of curiosity, I read a couple of his shorter books, which seemed absolutely outstanding historiography, written in a very measured tone, quite different from that of Lipstadt, whose own 2005 account of her legal triumph over Irving, History on Trial, merely confirmed my opinion of her incompetence.
Lipstadt’s first book Beyond Belief, published in 1986, tells an interesting story as well, with her descriptive subtitle being “The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945.” Much of the volume consists of press clippings from the American print media of that era interspersed with her running rather hysterical commentary, but providing little analysis or judgment. Some of the journalists reported horrifying conditions for Jews in pre-war Germany while others claim that such stories were wildly exaggerated, and Lipstadt automatically praised the former and denounced the latter without providing any serious explanation.
Lenni Brenner’s remarkable book Zionism in the Age of the Dictators had been published three years earlier. Although I only discovered it very recently, surely any half-competent specialist in her own topic would have noticed it, yet Lipstadt provided no hint of its existence. Perhaps the reality of the important Nazi-Zionist economic partnership of the 1930s, with Nazi officials traveling to Palestine as honored Zionist guests and leading Nazi newspapers praising the Zionist enterprise might have complicated her simple story of fanatic German Jew-hatred under Hitler steadily rising towards an exterminationist pitch. Her faculty appointment in a Department of Theology seems very apt.
Lipstadt’s wartime coverage is just as bad, perhaps worse. She catalogs perhaps a couple of hundred print news reports, each describing the massacre of hundreds of thousands or even millions of Jews by the Nazis. But she expresses her outrage that so many of these reports were buried deep within the inside pages of newspapers, a placement suggesting that they were regarded as hysterical wartime atrocity propaganda and probably fictional, with the editors sometimes explicitly stating that opinion. Indeed, among these under-emphasized stories was the claim that the Germans had recently killed 1.5 million Jews by individually injecting each one of them in the heart with a lethal drug. And although I don’t see any mention of it, around that same time America’s top Jewish leader Rabbi Stephen Wise was peddling the absurd report that the Nazis had slaughtered millions of Jews, turning their skins into lampshades and rendering their bodies into soap. Obviously, separating truth from falsehood during a blizzard of wartime propaganda is not nearly as easy as Lipstadt seems to assume.
Ordinary Americans were apparently even more skeptical than newspaper editors. According to Lipstadt:
Writing in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, [Arthur] Koestler cited public opinion polls in the United States in which nine of ten average Americans dismissed the accusations against the Nazis as propaganda lies and flatly stated that they did not believe a word of them.
Lipstadt convincingly demonstrates that very few Americans seem to have believed in the reality of the Holocaust during the Second World War itself, despite considerable efforts by agitated Jewish activists to persuade them. Over the years, I have seen mention of numerous other books making this same basic point, and therefore harshly condemning the American political leaders of the time for having failed “to save the Jews.”