About the Series Learning Resources
auschwitz: inside the nazi state
Understanding Auschwitz Today Introduction Lessons of the HolocaustThe Origins of Genocide How the World FailedThe Task of JusticeHow the Holocaust InformsWhy It's Crucial to Understand

Task of Justice & Danger of Holocaust Deniers

The Panelists


"The Allies won a great victory by defeating the Nazis. But they realized that that victory would be incomplete if the crimes of the Nazis weren't fully prosecuted. Unfortunately that effort fell dramatically short."

David Marwell

David Marwell

David Marwell is the Director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, New York, NY, and has an extensive background in historical research and investigation. He served as the director of the Berlin Document Center, a repository for over 25 million Nazi-era personnel files. As chief of investigative research at the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Special Investigations, he was a key investigator in the hunt for Nazi war criminals Klaus Barbie and Josef Mengele.


"One of the most important things in thinking about how trials help deal with subsequent genocides [is] you need to grasp that painful fact that the perpetrators are ordinary human beings and that's who carried out these crimes."

Doris Bergen

Doris Bergen

Doris Bergen is associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame where she studies twentieth-century German and Central European history, the Holocaust, and European women's history. She is the author of War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust and Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich. Professor Bergen serves on the Academic Advisory Board of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.


"The time to help these people is before it becomes a genocide."

Deborah Lipstadt

Deborah Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies and director of The Rabbi Donald A. Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University. She is the author of two books about the Holocaust. Her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory led to the 2000 court case in which she defeated and discredited Holocaust denier David Irving. Professor Lipstadt's previous work, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933-1945 examines the failure of the press in the United States to adequately report the German deportations and mass murders at the time they were occurring.


The Discussion

What was it like when the camps were liberated?

BERGEN: After the liberation the hardships continue, especially through the absolute loss that people experience—think about losing not only one's own health, the members of one's family, but one's community—everything that you were tied to.

LIPSTADT: On top of that was the inability of people to really believe what happened and an added overlay would be that you were told not to talk about it. People didn't really want to hear. It was the press saying, "Don't tell the stories. Get on with it. In America, it's time to move on, and build a new life."

MARWELL: You can imagine having lost everything and facing a future that was completely unknown. We now know that Holocaust survivors, many of them, were able to go on and lead successful lives. But in 1945, everything was gone. How do you start over again?

LIPSTADT: It took a long time for the Jewish organizations—for the survivors themselves—to convince the powers that be, including our government, that returning home to Poland was not an option. Some people did return home to places in Poland, where they were met by people saying to them, "You're still alive? Oh, I now live in your house."

MARWELL: One of the components of the crime was the theft of property, of homes, of businesses. So you can imagine [what it was like] for the local populations when, unexpectedly, the original owner of your home or business returned. It was a complicated issue.

BERGEN: And that problem was compounded by the existence of Stalinism and the Soviet Union. I know a man who survived Nazi camps, was returned to the Soviet Union, and died in a gulag. People returned home to be met with hostility, violence, and suspicion on the part of their own governments, their own neighbors.

LIPSTADT: They weren't even called survivors. If they came to this country after the war, they were thought of as refugees.

BERGEN: … as displaced persons.

LIPSTADT: It took until 1967, ironically, after the six-day war in Israel, when Israel wins this tremendous victory [that] sort of psychically marked the end of that silence of Holocaust survivors. Jewish people were not going to allow themselves to be destroyed again. By the late sixties, early seventies, suddenly people are talking.

Were the war crimes trials effective?

LIPSTADT: The truth is that after the first wave of prosecutions, the Cold War is beginning to emerge. We need Germany as an ally. So you have the first wave of prosecutions. And after that, most people get off scot-free.

MARWELL: I think it is important, though, to establish the context. The fact that the effort to prosecute Nazi war criminals lost its impetus was not because people wanted to benefit Nazi war criminals. It was a change in focus. A new enemy emerges on the scene.

LIPSTADT: But I think at the same time, you can't ignore the fact that this wouldn't have happened if the German populace hadn't gone along with it. They had hundreds of thousands of people taking part in this effort—whether it was a bureaucrat sitting in an office someplace in Germany figuring out a train schedule or figuring how much Zyklon B, the gas that was used to kill the Jews in the gas chambers, was needed to be shipped to Auschwitz…. This person never physically killed anyone, but did it with a pen and a pencil.

MARWELL: I would say one of the major successes of the Nuremburg Trials was perhaps not its primary goal, the collection and preservation of the major records relating to the Nazi crimes.

You think about what a trial does. It takes evidence and subjects it to an adversarial procedure. Tests are done so that someday when someone says, "Well, how do we know that this document was real? Maybe someone made it up."

In trials that I was involved in, we got the handwriting and ink experts. We went to the archives and got samples of ink from 1944 in Poland.

Documents were tested. Document examiners testified. And we have now in the records of these trials evidence that has gone through a very complicated and well-honed process to determine what the truth is.

Why did the United States help Nazi war criminals?

MARWELL: I think the most famous case is one that we investigated in 1983: Klaus Barbie, a [German] officer who operated in France and was involved in, among other things, the deportation of Jews.

Barbie, at the end of the war as an experienced intelligence officer, was recruited by American intelligence to help spy on the Soviets.

He was a valuable commodity for U.S. army intelligence. When the French requested his extradition in 1947, the American authorities, rather than turning him over to France, helped him get out of the country through the so-called ratline—to Italy and then to South America.

LIPSTADT: It's pretty cold blooded.

MARWELL: Again, context is important. The people who recruited him were given the new task of not fighting or prosecuting Nazi war criminals but combating a new enemy—the Soviets. And they used whatever means were available to them. From their point of view, this was a pretty effective thing to do.

Have there always been deniers of the Holocaust?

LIPSTADT: I studied the American press from 1933 to 1945. We have reporters in Germany who got stuck there and weren't released until the spring of [19]42.

They were sending back stories many of which were [received] with: "This can't quite be true." "You're exaggerating." "Why are you writing this?" Or, the editors here took it and put the news in back pages in little articles.

I am thinking of an article in June of 1942 in the Chicago Tribune about a report that a million Jews had been murdered. It's on page six—13 lines at the bottom of a page next to an ad for Lava soap.

The Warsaw ghetto uprising [was] reported a few days after it begins. It is on the front page of The New York Times above the fold. The irony is The New York Times had three or four subsequent stories on the uprising [but] deeper and deeper and deeper into the paper.

The New York Times bent over backwards not to be thought of as a Jewish newspaper. So if it was news about Jews, it got buried.

BERGEN: Hitler very early on was quite aware of the importance of international public opinion. You think about the refusal of the world to take Jewish refugees even before the war began. [This] was something that Hitler knew—they don't want our Jewish problem, either.

LIPSTADT: He knows that the world doesn't really care. And the irony of the whole story is that the time to have rescued the people who were eventually murdered in the Holocaust was in the 1930s, before the Holocaust.

But I think with the killings, there's a difference between knowing and believing. It's still beyond belief.

That is one of the reasons why I think at the end of the war, one of the first groups General [Dwight David] Eisenhower invites to see the camps as they were in the days right after the war are editors and publishers. "Come," he says. "If ever this should be denied, you will have seen with your own eyes."

BERGEN: I want to add one thing about the importance of the Internet in this whole issue of Holocaust denial.

It's very shocking with my students how much access they have to denier literature through the Internet. And there, too, you have the problem of a lie that's repeated, repeated, and repeated, until it starts to seem legitimate.

LIPSTADT: In my book, I spent a few pages at most mentioning a man named David Irving, citing him as the world's leading Holocaust denier. He has a reputation as a right-wing conservative historian, but nonetheless, historian of World War II.

He sued me for libel in England where the laws favor him. I had to prove the truth. He didn't have to prove I lied. We were four years in preparation for the trial. The trial itself was twelve weeks long.

We won, slam dunk. He was decimated. The judge called him a denier, an antisemite, a racist, a liar, a manipulator, a falsifier. And then he appealed three times and lost on every appeal. But it took six years and a great effort to reach that point.