“I don’t talk to Jew journalists,” Ernst Zundel shouted into the phone before slamming the receiver down on its cradle. Mere text does little to capture the moment. You have to imagine the rage in the voice of Canada’s most notorious Holocaust denier, spoken in the strangely apropos accent of a Second World War movie villain. Approaching Zundel in 1997, he seemed a strange kind of clown, marching around Toronto in his hard hart, armed with copies of Richard Verrall’s pamphlet Did Six Million Really Die? The Truth At Last printed in his Cabbagetown basement.
There was something so risible about Zundel that it was easy to forget that he was at the forefront of a rising tide of Holocaust-denial hate literature produced in vast quantities by a superficially more polished class of neo-Nazis like Britain’s David Irving, the American Greg Raven, and Canada’s farm-belt Aryan propagandist Jim Keegstra. They were merely seeking the truth, they said – the truth that Adolph his was a misunderstood humanitarian who was slandered by the vile international Jewish conspiracy.
Looking back, it can be easy to take complacent satisfaction that the Holocaust deniers of a generation ago have faded into obscurity. Zundel, who died in 2017, got his comeuppance when he was deported to Germany and convicted on hate crimes charges in 2007. Yet that satisfaction is short-lived when I reflect that the Holocaust deniers’ big lie never went away. In our contemporary toxic politics, it has become almost normalized to the extent that Elizabeth Shultz, a school board official in Fairfax County, VA, can blithely suggest that students should study “both sides” of the history of the Holocaust in the schools she helps to run.
As a journalist for the Montreal Gazette and Wired News more than two decades ago, I reported on the first manifestations of online hate that have metastasized into the festering horror we suffer today. It was the subject of a chapter of my first book, Fuzzy Logic: Dispatches from the Information Revolution.
This is the second part of a series republishing that chapter. Rereading those words today, it all seems to familiar. The Nazis are back; they never really went away.
The Big Lie
If neo-Nazis possessed a sense of irony, they might get a chuckle out of their unanimous insistence that the Holocaust, in which six million Jews, and millions of Roma, homosexuals, Slavs and political prisoners were murdered by Nazi Germany, is a hoax. While they venerate Adolf Hitler for the “Final Solution” – they celebrate the dictator’s birthday every year and Kleim once called his ascent to power the most important event in modern history – they deny that the Holocaust ever occurred. While it isn’t an explicitly antisemitic discourse, and many self-styled “revisionists” insist that they have nothing against Jews, Holocaust denial is, in fact, the respectable face of the ultra-right. It is neo-Nazism in professorial tweeds, hate propaganda in the raiment of scholarly inquiry… and on the Internet, it’s astonishingly common.
It’s hard to say how much of the general population doubts the historical veracity of the Holocaust. A survey by the Roper organization for the American Jewish Committee found in 1992 that 22 per cent of American adults believed that it is “possible that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened.” The Roper survey has since been conclusively shown to be inaccurate – many experts have doubts about both its methodology and the question’s wording – but the grey area it represents is an indication of the ambivalence that many non-Jews feel about the Holocaust. Many who accept that the event occurred are nonetheless doubtful of the historically accepted figures for how many people actually perished in the death camps. Indeed, for some people the vast horror of the Nazi crime is almost incomprehensible. For the ultra-right, such doubts are an opportunity to cultivate hate and fear, fertile ground for the seeds of neo-Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda.
“I’m not a racist, but that should be beside the point,” Greg Raven says, more than a little disingenuously. The president of the Institute for Historical Review, a pseudo-academic organization dedicated to re-writing history to suit its ideological tastes. Despite its impressive name – doubtless intended to sound like the legitimate Institute for Historical Research – it has no credentials, no affiliations with academic institutions, no legitimacy. It is a sham. Raven insists that the IHR is not solely interested in denying the Holocaust, though the vast majority of articles in the Journal of Historical Review, the IHR’s principal organ, seek to deny it. Those few articles that are not specifically related to Holocaust denial are usually general anti-Semitic tracts like “Zionism’s Violent Legacy” and “The ‘Jewish Question’ in 15th and 16th Century Spain.
“Objectively, [the Holocaust] is one of the most important issues facing us today,” Raven argues. “An endless parade of World War Two and holocaust-based issues is washed across average people. It’s used in foreign-policy decisions and policy in Israel. We’re constantly being urged to learn the lessons of the Holocaust, but we have to know the truth of it. If the Holocaust was given what [the IHR] feel has its proper emphasis as a subset of World War Two, then it can’t be used for political gain… let’s find out what really happened.”
What really happened, according to Raven and other deniers, is that the Holocaust — one of the most completely documented events in human history — never occurred, that it is a myth cooked up by Zionists to win international sympathy for the world’s Jews. Deniers typically maintain that the evidence of extermination was faked and that the remains of gas chambers and crematoria are not what they seem. Some go so far as to argue that the death camps of Auschwitz, Sobibor and Belsen were really resorts and settlements where happy Jews frolicked in heated swimming pools and watched vintage movies while the rest of Europe was consumed by war. What the deniers fail to explain, of course, is just what happened to the eleven-million Holocaust victims who simply vanished from the face of the earth.
They don’t have to, since it is doubt and not knowledge that they seek to promote. Despite Raven’s protests, Holocaust denial is plainly and explicitly an element in the ultra-right’s anti-Semitic agenda. In order for the Holocaust to be a hoax, it must be perpetrated by a vast international conspiracy whose interests are served by such a mass deception — an international Jewish conspiracy. The mission of the IHR is to make denial, and thus antisemitism palatable. As Harold Covington, leader of the National Socialist White People’s Party (formerly the American Nazi Party) wrote, “the real purpose of Holocaust revisionism is to make National Socialism an acceptable political option again.” Holocaust revisionism is simply neo-Nazi propaganda without the violent rhetoric and crass slurs, it is the pleasant face of hate that, the ultra-right hopes, will somehow make racism and genocide “an acceptable political option.”
Raven’s insistence that the IHR is not motivated by racism is particularly absurd in light of the organization’s history. Founded in 1979 by Lewis Brandon, better known as British neo-fascist William David McCalden, the institute was long associated with Willis Carto, one of the American ultra-right’s most prominent leaders. In his quest for an appearance of legitimacy, Raven has sought to distance the IHR from Carto since the latter was ousted from a leadership position in the organization in 1994. Raven weakly insists that Carto “never had much to do with editing or the content of the journal, and he wasn’t really the founder.” However, IHR letterhead proudly named Carto as founder for several years. Despite Raven’s desire to rewrite his own history, the institute’s principal function on the Internet is to serve as a clearinghouse for the kind of ideas long promoted by Carto. Indeed, the IHR maintains a close association with the Noontide Press, which publishes such neo-Nazi classics as The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, Our Nordic Race and Hitler: The Unknown Artist. Carto’s wife Elisabeth served as the Press’ treasurer and business manager.
The Journal of Historical Review‘s editorial board and staff is a who’s who of the pseudo-intellectual ultra-right, and includes such dubious luminaries as the French former academic Robert Faurrison and Sweden’s Ditlieb Felderer, both convicted of hate-related offenses in their respective countries. Raven himself has often seemed quick to defend Hitler, whom he evidently believes to be a misunderstood genius, maligned and slandered by the international Jewish conspiracy.
There can be no doubt of either the IHR’s ideological agenda, or of the role played by the Internet. “Anyone who wants to get a important message out has to consider using the Internet,” Raven says. “We publish a small journal for a select audience, but thanks to the Internet we can reach a far bigger audience than we could in print.”
The Canadian Holocaust denier and anti-Semitic propagandist Ernst Zundel has certainly taken that observation to heart. After years of high-profile legal battles, including a subsequently overturned conviction under Canadian anti-hate laws in 1985, Zundel has turned to the Internet as the principal means of getting his message out. Like Raven, the portly, clownish Zundel is neither a writer nor a particularly deep thinker. He is simply a mouthpiece, a conduit for anti-Semitic propaganda. While most of Zundel’s legal problems have been the result of his publishing of hate propaganda that may violate Canadian law — notwithstanding a 1992 Canadian Supreme Court decision that set aside the law that making the publication of “false news” a crime — he has found that these can be easily circumvented on the Internet. The “Zundelsite,” a Web site devoted to the promotion of Zundel and his ideas, is actually hosted on a server in the United States, placing it conveniently outside the reach of Canadian law.
The Zundelsite provides links to denial and ultra-right-related sites around the world in both English and German. Indeed, the bilingual site represents the dichotomies that lie at the heart of the deniers’ discourse in particular, and the ultra-right in general. Zundel and his supporters insist that the denial movement is international in scope, but the site is almost overwhelmingly devoted to his continuing legal difficulties in Canada. Zundel is paranoid… paranoid of the courts, paranoid of the press, paranoid of Jews. He rejects the suggestion that he is an anti-Semite, preferring to portray himself as a guardian of truth, persecuted by a conspiracy of Jews, yet the Zundelsite logo — a black “Z” in a white circle on a black field — is clearly intended to resemble the Nazi swastika flag, and his paranoia takes the form of a firm belief in an international Jewish media conspiracy. When he refuses to talk to the press, Zundel makes a point of singling out those people he considers to be his enemies: “My policy now is that when a Jew calls for an interview, I say good-bye and hang up the phone.”