Holocaust Denial Debates: The Symbolic Significance of Irving V. Penguin & Lipstadt

By Hasian, Marouf, Jr. | Communication Studies, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Holocaust Denial Debates: The Symbolic Significance of Irving V. Penguin & Lipstadt


Hasian, Marouf, Jr., Communication Studies


In the last several decades, the Holocaust has become one of the defining moments in many domestic and international histories. For some, this new found respect for the Judeocide (Mayer, 1988) has been cathartic for both individuals in communities, in that it provides evidence that audiences around the world are rethinking the significance of the World War II narratives of bystanders, perpetrators, and victims. The growing popularity of films (Lanzmann's Shoah, 2000; Spielberg's Schindler's List, 1993), books (Keneally, 1993), monuments and memorials (Cole, 1999; Zelizer, 1998), and video collections attest to the fact that entire cultures are dedicated to the preservation of what Douglas (1998) has called "responsible memory" (p. 68).

These discussions obviously influence the ways that a host of international communities will talk about the scope and limits of freedom of expression in national and international contexts. Even those who do not doubt the facticity of the Holocaust deliberate over the question of who should be designated the responsible witnesses for remembering the Final Solution (Conan & Rousso, 1998; Douglas, 1998). The revival of interest in Holocaust remembrances spawned a parallel growth in "revisionism" or "denial," asking societies to reassess the way that they think about Hitler's role in the "Final Solution," the facticity of the evidence collected at Nuremberg, and the existence of gas chambers at places like Auschwitz (Lipstadt, 1994). (1) Stern (1993) noted that although most of this denial is "widely ridiculed," it nevertheless has "appeared in many institutions" (p. 10). Yonover represented the views of some academic and lay observers outside of the United States when he argued in 1996 that "Holocaust denial" and "anti-Semitic language" are forms of hate speech that need to be proscribed by the state (pp. 93-94). Several years earlier, Jones (1994) argued that free speech absolutists simply did not understand that denial is "as potent a weapon" as charges of "witchcraft in times past" (p. 180). (2) Are these claims warranted?

Decision makers interested in preserving Holocaust memories are therefore faced with the question of how best to respond to such commentaries. Should we follow the lead of nations like Canada, Germany, and Israel and restrict this type of hate speech? Do these Holocaust denials constitute "false facts," examples of "intentional infliction of emotional distress" that deserve to be outside the pale of First Amendment protection? (Douglas, 1998, p. 69). Should we avoid debating such revisionists for fear of providing them with the very forums that they seek? Should the Internet be regulated for content in order to halt the spread of "Holocaust denial?" (3)

These are not idle speculations because of the pragmatic consequences. Given the complexities of these issues, scholars interested in studying Holocaust memory work make choices about the questions that they focus on, the artifacts that they select for analysis, and the perspectives that they want to take. In this particular essay, I provide a rhetorical analysis of the famous Irving v. Penguin & Lipstadt trial (2000) as a way of looking into the question of what role court proceedings play in the creation of Holocaust collective memories. Obviously, as a matter of both descriptive and normative realities, court participants are only some of the players involved in the complex symbolism of public memory work, but researchers need to be cognizant of the disproportionate power that influential judicial commentaries have in our marketplace of ideas. As Douglas (2001) explains, there is a "crucial difference between using the law to clarify or elucidate the historical record," and "relying upon the law to police a history that has already been adequately clarified" (p. 256).

The jurists, lawyers, and other scholars who evaluate the veracity of competing Holocaust memories may know about the problematics of "law-office" histories--histories that are based on "the selection of data favorable to the position being advanced without regard to or concern for contradictory data or proper evaluation of the data proffered" (Schneider, 2001, p. …

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