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The ‘People’s War’ is an enduring account, but an ideological one, nonetheless. The persistence of the idea of the People’s War is due to the persistence of the institutions that the war itself created. National goverments that participated in the Allied cause have an interest in holding onto the idea that the war was a just war and a popular one. Their prestige is closely tied to their status as victors in the war. The five permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council are still held by the five who fought on the allied side: The United States, Russia (in lieu of the Soviet Union), Britain, France (in lieu of the ‘Free French’) and China. For half a century the ill-named ‘People’s Democracies’ of Eastern Europe claimed descent from the opposition to Nazi Germany to shore up their own limited legitimacy. Even the governments ruling in the territories of the defeated powers, like Germany and Japan derive their authority from their reconstruction under the sponsoring powers, and so have reinforced the idea that the Allies liberated these countries from their own bad leadership. Not just governments, but political parties, and other civil organisations, draw authority from their argued contribution to the ‘People’s War’. The socialist and communist parties in Europe all derive their authority from their wartime role as supporters of the Grand Alliance.
The official version of the Allied War effort is so profoundly ideological that it violently misrepresents almost all aspects of the war. The official version is twisted and stretched to give the most extraordinary explanations of events that are would be quite easy to account for without it. To believe the official version, one must believe that the Atomic bomb saves lives; that the aerial bombardment of Germany was aimed at military targets; that the Nazis killed the Polish officers at Katyn though it was under Soviet rule at the time; that the Allies fought the war to save the Jews; that the Allied invasions of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Vietnam, Korea and Indonesia were ‘liberations’. The truth creaks and strains under the constraints of the official version of the Second World War, and will keep breaking out, as evidence that there is more than is accounted for in the set texts.
Historians who want to make an impact are drawn to highlight different episodes and events that do not fit the mainstream account. Historians have discovered the truth about aerial bombardment (Jorg Friedrich, and before him, to everyone’s dismany, David Irving), about nuclear diplomacy (Gar Alperovitz), about ELAS and the struggle for freedom in Greece (Mark Mazower, and before him Dominque Eudes), about the Indian National Army (Joyce Lebra), about the deportation of Russian prisoners back to the Soviet Union (Nikolai Tolstoy) about the racial prejudices of the war leaders (Andrew Roberts) about the detentions of Japanese in California (Allan Bosworth), and of anti-Nazi Germans on the Isle of Wight (Peter and Leni Gillman). In all of these cases, the public impact of the revelations is heightened because they are unexpected, provoking angry responses from officials, participants and mainstream historians, whose reputations rest on the official version.
Though historians engaged in different revisionist accounts have many and varied motives, it should be understood that one thing that drives this constant revision of the historical record is the mismatch between the official version and the truth.
The other main driver of historical revision is the collapse of the post-war settlement that underscored the official version. In one respect, the post-war settlement was immediately rewritten, and that is that the western Allies and the Soviet Union fell out. America’s policy of rehabilitating the Federal Republic of Germany and Japan as allies in the Cold War led to conflict with the the USSR. So it was that in the 1950s that Soviet commentators and historians emphasized Germany’s and Japan’s culpability for the war, while mainstream American opinion began to minimise it. From the 1970s, with the rise of Germany and Japan as economic powers, and then again in the 1990s, as the Cold War came to an end and Germany was reunited, attitudes in Washington and London changed. Greater distrust of Germany and Japan made a more receptive audience for histories that emphasized their culpability for the war, the ‘collective guilt’ of the German and Japanese people, and a greater interest in specific atrocities for which Germany and Japan were responsible.
The end of the Cold War, then, at first brought out a more strident reassertion of the official version of the history of the Second World War. But precisely because it was more strident, and more obviously propagandistic, this re-emphasis only tended to raise more questions. The post-cold war history became a battle of the books, with outraged participants appalled that what they thought of as the established facts opened up for questioning.
Revisionists of the Far Right and ‘Holocaust Denial’
The most reported revisionists of the official historical record are those who are motivated by a Far Right political outlook – Neo-Nazis and apologists of the Fascist regimes. Among them, the British historian David Irving is the best known. Drawn to the British Union of Fascists when he was a student in the 1950s, Irving left England to research the Allied bombing campaign, which he wrote up as The Destruction of Dresden in 1963, a book that did well critically and in sales, and though it did inflate the numbers killed in the German city it was the first book, post-war to tell the story. It was Irving’s knowledge of Nazi source material that persuaded him that the ‘Hitler Diaries’ were a forgery, which he pointed out to the great embarrassment of historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who had authenticated them for the Times newspaper. Though a talented military historian, Irving’s understanding of political events is clouded by anti-Semitism and ostentatious consipiracy theories. Later works, such as Hitler’s War (in which Hitler is painted as ignorant of the Jewish extermination policy), the Trail of the Fox (a biography of Rommel) and Churchill’s War were more obviously written with the purpose of making the case for the German war effort, against Britain’s.
From the mid-1980s David Irving gave speeches and wrote articles that sought to minimise or deny altogether the extermination of Jews by Germany in the Second World War. Irving, who was already biased in favour of the NSDAP by his political views, abandoned any pretension to historical accuracy and peddled overwrought conspiracy theories to justify his case. He was joining a small band of ‘Holocaust Deniers’ who had been writing small-print run books for their own select audience of far right readers. Apart from Irving, none of the holocaust deniers ever had much of a reputation as historians.
Computer scientist Arthur Butz published The Hoax of the Twentieth Century in 1976.
Others were drawn to holocaust denial for perverse reasons. Harry Elmer Barnes already had a reputation as an historian and was opposed to the Second World War, but became more aggressively pro-Hitler as he was more isolated, and argued that the holocaust was made up in his self-published 1953 book Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace. Paul Rassinier had been sent to a concentration camp, where, as a socialist, he clashed with communists, and in bitterness at the experience dismissed the evidence of the ‘Final Solution’ as communist propaganda in The Lie of Ulysses (1951). Roger Garaudy was disillusioned with the Parti Communiste Français after the invasion of Czechoslovakia and converted to Islam, which he gave a pointedly political slant. Garaudy’s The Founding Myths of Modern Israel (1996) claims that the evidence of the Holocaust was fabricated.
The revisionist ‘historians’ of the Far Right are a God-send to the defenders of the official version of the history of the Second World War. These right-wing Holocaust deniers are mostly eccentrics with unattractive opinions, motivated by anti-Semitism, with laughable conspiracy theories to account for the unavoidable evidence of the ‘Final Solution’. As long as historical revisionism can be characterised as Far Right Holocaust denial, then the official version is safe. Targeting the Holocaust Deniers, the custodians of the official version of the Second World War paint all attempts at new historical research as a moral outrage, and a threat to the supposedly precarious, postwar civilisation. According Holocaust denial much greater influence than it has, both Germany and France have laws forbidding it.
Seemingly unmoved by, or simply ignorant of, the problems of making laws against ‘thoughtcrimes’ the French courts fined Garaudy and the Austrian authorities even went so far as to imprison David Irving in 2005, giving his claims a much greater impact than he could have achieved any other way. In 1996 Deborah Lipstadt accused Irving of Denying the Holocaust in her book of that name, and he sued, on the grounds that there was nothing to deny.
Having asked the courts to adjudicate on the matter, Irving is responsible for the uncomfortable position of historical fact being decided by judges. All the same, those historians and lawyers who prepared the briefs against Irving were only too pleased to see the question of the Holocaust removed from historical investigation and made a matter of law. The ostentatious campaign to suppress Holocaust Denial is needlessly defensive. The historical record is safe. The weight of evidence is in no danger of being overturned. The people are quite capable of making their own judgements. The fear that Holocaust Denial will gain any credence is not based on its appeal, but rather on the fears of the defenders of the official version that the great mass of people will embrace Fascism and anti-Semitism at the first opportunity. Most of all, though, the petty persecution of this small band of eccentrics serves as a warning against counter-intuitive research questions, criminalising the reexamination of historical evidence as ‘revisionism’, or ‘denial’. Those who raise awkward questions, as Norman Davies did about Poland, or Norman Finkelstein did about the Israeli use of the history of the Holocaust, risk being accused of ‘revisionism’, and tarred with the same brush as Irving and Co.
The Meaning of the Holocaust
One reason that eccentrics and conspiracy theorists have been tempted to try to deny that there was a policy of exterminating Jews is that the Holocaust has come to play a defining role in mainstream ideology. Certainly the Holocaust as a motif in political and moral debate has come to play a much greater role. Understandably the Holocaust is important to Israeli leaders and teachers, though in fact Jewish groups tended to play down the Holocaust in the first twenty years after the war.
One anniversary that was not on the official programme for many decades was that of the liberation of the camps. On 17 April 1955, five hundred Jews gathered to remember the anniversary of their liberation from Belsen concentration camp.45 On the twentieth anniversary, 5000 Germans heard President Heinrich Lubke say that Germans ‘must cleanse themselves of the past’, while Jews held a separate commemoration, afterwards.46 Two thousand and five hundred American Jews also held services in New York to honour victims of the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto.47 It was only after the 1967 ‘Six Day war’ between Israel and her neighbouring Arab states that the need to redeem the suffering of the Holocaust became a defining theme in Israel’s international appeals. Before 1967 the Holocaust was memorialised mostly by leftwing activists and communists. Jewish groups in America had advised that it was unwise to make an issue out of the six million, because that would smack of mixed loyalties, but after 1967 that changed.
In 1975, the New York commemoration had swelled to 5000.48 Almost 100 million Americans watched NBC’s 1978 four-part, 9 ½ hour miniseries Holocaust, ‘its answer to ABC’s enormously successful Roots’. The Anti-Defamation League distributed ten million copies of its sixteen page tabloid The Record to promote the drama. Jewish organisations worked with the National Council of Churches to promote the drama. The day the series began was designated ‘Holocaust Sunday’. The National Conference of Christians and Jews distributed yellow stars to be worn on that day.49 In May 1998 the American, British and Swedish governments established the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research.