Interview with Chip Smith on Revisionism
My interview with Chip Smith of Nine-Banded Books continues with a discussion on historical revisionism, particularly Holocaust revisionism, and the works of three of his authors, Bradley Smith, L. A. Rollins, and Samuel Crowell.
What is your take on revisionism?
In an important sense, I think revisionism simply refers to the ongoing process of investigating and interpreting history. It’s like when we were kids and we learned that Pluto was the ninth planet from the sun. Now it’s just a rock, or a proto-planet, or whatever. Only I just read where they’ve discovered that Pluto has moons. Does that mean it will be promoted to planet status again? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
Notwithstanding a few matters of seismically politicized controversy, where science is concerned most of us live with a tacit understanding that correction, or even upheaval, is part of the process, that new discoveries can supplement or overturn a given theoretical framework that’s been rehearsed in textbooks for decades or more. Once in a while this will manifest in a full-on paradigm shift, and most of us layfolk are yet resigned to adjust our understanding perforce, even if it takes a while. I still have fun arguing with people who believe that peptic ulcers are caused by stress.
When it comes to history, however, people feel a kind of personal investment in the fixed narrative. This fealty can be intensely partisan, and it often comes with deep cultural and emotional moorings, as was evidenced by the recent row over the discovery of the skeletal remains of King Richard III. Such sentiments may be understandable, but they are often at odds with the scholarly enterprise of history, which, like a proper scientific discipline, favors continual revision.
Of course, when most people think of historical revisionism, they have in mind something different. Rather than being rooted in disinterested investigation and interpretation, the kind of revisionism that typically arouses suspicion or hostility has a dissident character that tends—or seeks—not to merely supplement a standing historical narrative but to uproot and replace it with a radically different historical counter-narrative.
This has always been the sticking point with Zinn’s labor-centric alternative history of the United States, to cite one well-known and acceptably controversial example. There are countless other examples of “dissident” revisionism that we could mention without being kicked off the reservation: Windschuttle’s study of the Tasmanian genocide, Michelle Malkin’s defense of Japanese internment during the Second World War, David Graeber’s contrarian study of the roots of money and debt, as well in their general drift as works by Tom Woods, Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and the granddaddy of American revisionism, Harry Elmer Barnes.
I think there’s also a meta-revisionist cast to the neoreactionary cultural critique that Mencius Moldbug keeps annotating, and I would say the same regarding Errol Morris’s investigative studies of iconic photojournalism.
In a similar sense, I would say that a nascent strain of dissident revisionism can be detected in a spate of recent books that question aspects of the “Good War” and the corresponding mythos of the “Greatest Generation.” Here I would mention Mary Louise Roberts’ What Soldiers Do, Charles Glass’s The Deserters, and, tracking back a bit further, Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke (which I reviewed for Inconvenient History).
Properly understood, Holocaust revisionism—which I suspect is really what you’re asking about—draws on elements of positivist (or disinterested) historical revisionism along with more motivated (or dissident) currents. I find the subject fascinating not least because of the unique aura of taboo—and the very real threat of prosecution (and persecution)—that surrounds it, but also because it is one of very few areas I can think of where the intellectual substance of a body of scholarship exists at such stark remove from public understanding. I’m loath to even discuss the controversy on interpersonal terms because there are vast swaths of misapprehension and bad faith to be overcome before you even get to the point of rational disagreement. And there’s a very real possibility that you’ll lose friends in the process.
So, with that much as backmatter, I guess I might offer my take on Holocaust revisionism in the following way.
First, I think it is well to note that the subject comes with a long pedigree; that is, for as long as the “court narrative” of Nazi atrocity has been codified, there have been scholars who have professed skepticism about certain elements of the orthodox account.
Second, I think it is important to note that over this long haul, the outline of the revisionist critique has, somewhat remarkably, hovered around three obdurate themes: 1) that there is no credible documentary evidence of an official order or administrative chain of command decreeing the extermination of European Jewry; 2) that there is no credible evidence that homicidal gas chambers were used for the purpose of mass killing or could have operated in the manner posited; and 3) that the purported number of Jewish people who were killed or who died under the yoke of Nazism has been profoundly exaggerated.
When someone is accused of being a “Holocaust denier,” it is generally because he has said or written something that tends to support one or more of these claims. Yet with reference to each of these three points of critique, the scholarship that has followed in the wake of modern Holocaust revisionists like Robert Faurisson and Arthur Butz can, I think, be fairly characterized as hyper-empirical, drawing as it does on cliometric, forensic, demographic and other broadly non-speculative and replicable methods of historical investigation.
Finally, I would emphasize that it is instructive and important to distinguish credible Holocaust revisionist scholarship from various species of “conspiracy theory” with which it is commonly associated and rhetorically conflated. Because of my open interest in proscribed areas of inquiry, people are sometimes surprised to learn that I am skeptical of most conspiracy claims and that I am generally dismissive of that more nebulous goblin, “conspiracy theory.” But there’s no real inconsistency in this, and the reasons matter.
If you think about something like “9/11 Truth” (or “critical 9/11 studies,” to avoid pejorative implications), for example, you find a kind of argument that, however it proceeds at the technical level, ultimately rests on the implicit assumption that acts of profound magnitude, complexity, and enormity can be carried out from behind a credulity-defying veil of impenetrable secrecy. This is always the tell with CT—the psychologically seductive notion that strings are being pulled from on high by eternally shadowy figures, leaving nary a trace of clear-cut evidence behind.
Now, it may be possible, in the strictest metaphysical sense, that such nefarious plots are being hatched and directed from behind a wizard’s curtain, just as it’s possible that Satanists constructed an elaborate network of tunnels underneath the McMartin preschool where they ritually tortured kids during lunch breaks.
The problem is that such notions simply do not comport with any useful account of reality, to say nothing of how State actors—or human beings—actually operate. And without real evidence, we’re left with these endless spirals of dragon-chasing, dot-connecting, spider-sensey speculation. “Just asking questions,” as the conspiracy theorist will insist. Only when answers are provided, the questions shift and widen to re-anoint the sinister mystery in perpetuum.
Now, when we turn to Holocaust scholarship, do we find a narrative centered on covert machinations and some vastly interwoven skein of surreptitiously issued directives? Indeed we do. Only instead of being evident in the outline of the revisionist critique, as Michael Shermer would have us believe, such features actually constitute the salient core of the dominant extermination-by-killing-machine narrative that we find in movies and textbooks.
When hard evidence of gas chambers collapses under scrutiny, we’re next assured that those preternaturally resourceful Nazis covered their tracks at all turns—that the archived blueprints for showers and shelters were gas chamber plans in subterfuge, that extermination orders were concealed under an elaborate euphemistic code, that budgetary allocations are slyly nested under the copious camouflage of quotidian expense reports, work orders, and so on. It’s all right there in Walter’s Laqueur’s The Terrible Secret, or in just about any standard history you care to pick up in the Holocaust studies section of your local Barnes & Noble—all the hallmarks of conspiracy theory surreally accorded the stature of a master narrative.
Of course, some people will counter that such ostensibly preposterous claims are more than outweighed by the sweeping absurdity of the revisionist position. Yet what strikes me about the revisionist line is that once you mine past some generally plausible accounts of the (very real) role black propaganda in the war effort and such internecine affairs on the part of the Allies as have been either demonstrated or suspected, the counter-story basically proceeds after a prima facie reading of the evidence.
You had these vast population transports—never a good idea—and there were typhus outbreaks that followed and that had to be controlled. It is no longer a point of controversy that the vast majority of the insecticide Zyklon B was used for its label-intended purpose, nor is it a genuine point of controversy that large scale cremation (which would have been profoundly offensive to Jewish religious tradition) was utilized for hygienic purposes.
Nor, of course, is there any question that Jewish people at the camps and throughout Eastern Europe were treated cruelly under Hitler’s regime. People were uprooted and looted and imprisoned, and people were lined up and shot. There are logs, without code words, that attest to all of this. Just as there are, rather curiously, medically authorized death reports from Auschwitz that attest to vast infirmity and mortality. Reams of them. None of this is denied in the broad scheme of Holocaust revisionism, the skeptical gravamen of which has remained narrowly focused on the instrumental administration of Nazi extermination policy.
I’ve gone on at too much length already, but realize this subject is a problem for many readers and I want to note that my general impression of Holocaust revisionism—that it has demonstrable scholarly value and shouldn’t be subject to censorship or criminalization in any case—goes some way toward explaining why I chose to publish Samuel Crowell’s book The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes and Other Writings on the Holocaust, Revisionism, and Historical Understanding, which, I am convinced, is a truly important book.
But there’s another reason that tracks back to what I was saying earlier about my interest in mass psychology and moral panics. The annoying thing about much—not all—revisionist literature, to my mind, isn’t that it codes an anti-Semitic or Germanophilic agenda (though you can certainly find instances of both overlapping tendencies) but that so much of it tends to proceed in the Aspergery absence of any nuanced understanding of how people—State actors and common people—behave in a state of crisis.
Butz sort of nicks the surface in his discussion of the witch trial parallels and in his remarks on the Wilkomirski affair, but Crowell’s work stands apart because it isn’t, to borrow van Pelt’s term, “negationist,” but genuinely and humanely illuminating (it’s not for nothing that the subtitle of his book makes explicit reference to “Historical Understanding”). He’s the only guy in the room who seems to appreciate the powerful role of rumor, media feedback, and sociogenic belief formation that, to whatever extent, clouded and molded contemporaneous accounts of mechanized atrocity, potentially fueling a kind of mass delusion rooted in the fog of culture-bound fear.
I don’t doubt that there are bases for good faith disagreement with Crowell’s theses, but I defy anyone who actually reads the 9BB edition of The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes to locate a trace of anti-Semitism or Nazi apology, and I defy anyone who comes to Crowell’s empathic framing of Mary Antin’s memoir not to be hooked. The book is a scrupulously sourced page-turner.
My only real regret as Crowell’s publisher is that I haven’t been able to do more to get his work into the minds of people who, quite understandably, view Holocaust revisionism with suspicion. I sent examination and review copies to so many scholars and professors. With the exception of a couple of supportive emails from sources I am obligated not to divulge, there has been no response. Crowell doesn’t worry about it. Alas, I have a more restive temperament.
One final point. I know that after all of this, certain readers will be convinced that I am avoiding the pregnant question: Do you deny the Holocaust? The problem with this question, I think, is the precept that “the Holocaust” can be reduced to a falsifiable—or deniable—set of claims. This kind of toggle-switch mentality unfortunately gets a lot of mileage on both “sides” of the revisionist controversy. It’s obtuse.
Along with most intellectually mature people, my understanding of the Holocaust is that it is, in a very crucial sense, an extra-historical narrative—Crowell calls it a signifier, and he’s not wrong—that encompasses and memorializes the trajectory of a multitude of calamitous events that European Jews experienced under the reign of a virulently anti-Jewish German State. It refers in broad outline to the scheme of events that saw innocent people dragooned and pillaged and executed and transferred to camps where the ravages of war and pestilence and starvation wrought catastrophic consequences, effectively destroying deeply rooted communities and branding a particular narrative of suffering and persecution and destruction that has at turns been garbled and mythologized and seeped into legend.
Some revisionists like to minimize the central ordeal of Jewish suffering—just as some antebellum revisionists like to minimize the injustice of slavery—but not one, if you read carefully, denies that a lot of terrible shit went down. Nor, obviously I hope, do I. I am inclined to doubt that millions of people were murdered in Nazi gas chambers for essentially the same reason that I take a skeptical view of Gulf War syndrome or Satanic ritual abuse allegations—because such cases exemplify the kind of extraordinary claims (all believed by millions of people, it should be noted) that, lacking hard evidence, can be more parsimoniously apprehended as evanescent episodes of media-facilitated epidemic hysteria. Presented with compelling evidence, I would change my tune in an instant.
At the risk of overkill, I can and will add unequivocally, even if I won’t be believed, that I am not afflicted with what John Derbyshire calls “the Jew thing.” To be clearer, I think anti-Semitism is an intellectual rut. I have no use for it.
Do you know Bradley Smith, L. A. Rollins, or Samuel Crowell personally?
I know all of these guys through ongoing correspondence and occasional phone conversations. I had the pleasure of meeting Bradley in person a few years ago when my wife and I were in San Diego. The three of us went out for dinner and had a great time. He said—I remember this—that I was “much prettier in person” and he encouraged me to switch up the dated mugshot that sits at the top of the Hoover Hog website. He’s a great guy—a natural raconteur and just a really decent, easy-going centered person with a relaxed old-school California manner and a trove of stories. He gave me an autographed copy of the original playbill for The Man Who Stopped Paying (the production title for The Man Who Saw His Own Liver). When I think of Bradley, I have to remind myself of his notoriety. To me, he’s just a writer—a great writer—in the thrall of a subject. I look forward to publishing A Personal History of Moral Decay.
For the past few years, Lou Rollins has been drip-feeding me (by post) these hand-written installments for the next edition of Lucifer’s Lexicon. I should really get off my ass and publish the thing. He’s a trenchant humorist who can claim some marginal renown in the history of the American libertarian movement (I think, but I might be wrong, that his old journal Invictus is mentioned in a footnote in Brian Daugherty’s Radicals for Capitalism—and of course, he memorably defined “Libertarian movement” as “a herd of individualists stampeding toward freedom”).
Lou is also a bit on the eccentric side of the spectrum, and it’s probably accurate to describe him as a hermit. I don’t think he’s logged onto a computer in years. He speaks in a low monotone and his vocal register puts me in the mind of late night AM radio.
Publishing The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays was a big deal for me because the titular essay had a big impact on my thinking when I was young. I guess it broke the Rothbardian spell I was under, though I still have warm regard for the crotchety old fart (referring to Rothbard, not Rollins; The Ethics of Liberty is such a fun book to argue with).
I think it’s odd that Lou gets bunched in with the Holocaust revisionist crowd just because he once wrote a few articles and book reviews for the IHR. The longest—previously unpublished—revisionist-themed essay that I included in the “Other Essays” portion of his book is actually a relentless evisceration of the many “falsehoods” that can be documented in the relevant revisionist literature. He’s a skeptic in the best and truest sense of the word. He doesn’t play for any team.
Crowell, I’ve already mentioned in substance. I can add that he’s one of the most intelligent and insightful people I’ve come to know through my publishing venture, and that’s saying a lot. He’s a (mostly classical) music aficionado, a serious collector of original vinyl and wax recordings, an animal lover, a polyglot and polymath, and a formally trained scholar. It was Crowell who introduced me to Ricardian historiography (a movement that has curious parallels with Holocaust revisionism), and it was Crowell who inspired me to adopt and internalize a kind of soft hermeneutical strategy in my reading of everything from Foucault to Family Guy. He’s like that one great professor who stands apart from the rest of the faculty.
“Samuel Crowell” is, of course, a pen-name, and it still amuses me to admit that I once suspected that he might have been Elaine Showalter in drag (but never the other way around). I wish he enjoyed a wider readership and I’m confident that he will in time. One thing I can mention here is that 9BB will be publishing at least one more book by Samuel Crowell. It’s called William Fortyhands: Disintegration and Reinvention of the Shakespeare Canon, and, as the title suggests, it offers a novel perspective on the “authorship” controversy that has shadowed Shakespeare studies since forever.