One point to which Mark Weber, one of the leading proponents of Holocaust revisionism in the country, often returned is that it’s impossible to know why people believe what they do. Weber seemed almost amused by his own choice of obsessions, as if he knew that his own path has been more random than not. I happen to agree. Maybe, I surmised, if he’d read Tolkien at a young age, he would have been a fantasy fan; maybe if he’d been born 10 years earlier, he would have got involved in the Goldwater campaign and ended up a mainstream conservative. Who knows?
It would be folly to suppose that any single person from one’s past has written the script for everything to come. But it would also be naive to think that being close to a Jew isn’t important in the life of someone who spends decades talking about the lies of Jews. Smith practically went straight from the arms of a Jewish lover to the arms of those who deny the existence of Nazi gas chambers. Weber didn’t gain a Jewish relative until years after he found the Holocaust-denial movement, but this relative has become a dirty rumor, one tossed around by his enemies, a scurrilous allegation that nobody has proved until now.
The Jewish woman Bradley Smith lived with for eight years during the 1970s is Susan Brown, a practicing psychologist in Los Angeles who works principally with autistic children. She has been happily married for 20 years to another man, and she has two grown children, three grown stepchildren, and seven granddaughters. After I had learned her name—from an acquaintance of an acquaintance of Smith’s—and found her phone number, I called her up. She had fond memories of the old Bradley, the one who didn’t think one way or another about gas chambers.
“We met through mutual friends,” Brown told me. “Bradley had been involved in this trial through his bookstore, so he got to know a lot of people through the Los Angeles Free Press, which I was involved with it—I had contributed some money. So that’s how I met him. We were all politically involved with that.”
I asked Brown if she was surprised when she heard about Smith’s new career, which didn’t begin until after their relationship had ended.
“Totally mystified” is how Brown described her reaction, “but I have some theories.
“Whatever else Bradley is, he is in addition a very bright guy, very well read, and he worked assiduously for many years in politics, with the bookstore on Fairfax [Avenue]. He was circulating with all the people I still circulate with. In the years I knew him there wasn’t ever any smidgen of a thought [about Holocaust denial]; I was getting my Ph.D. then, and there was a lot of talking, [but] not one iota of glimmer of this budding thought, nothing at all there.”
Smith was, Brown told me, reluctant to adopt party lines; he was never a West Coast liberal like so many of the Hollywood people—most of them Jews— he ran with. “He was not, not a mindless liberal in that way,” Brown said. “He was very thoughtful about things he would say. He was not ‘one of them’ in the [world of] sixties politics.” Like many libertarians, whether inclined to the left or the right, Smith had a maverick streak, so perhaps the seeds of his ultimate career were always present, if apparently benign.
“But I think the thing that pushed him over,” Brown said, “was that he never could get published.” For an aspiring writer in a city with so many successful writers and artists, this was a failure that could rub a man raw. “It wasn’t like he never got close. He had corresponded with literary journals—The New Yorker, The Atlantic. He wasn’t a total dud. He was sending things back and forth, and he couldn‘t crack it. The people we knew were all interested in the same things, and he couldn’t make it like they could, and it was killing him.
”I think he found a niche to do a 180; he had the skills that were needed for that niche. It can from some happenstance meeting”—Smith met a Holocaust denier at a libertarian convention—“and it was out of great despair that he found a place. And I think it just took over his life. He saw that he could go with it, and he did, and it just took over.”
Despite the odd turn that Smith’s life took, Brown remembered their time together as pleasant, and their parting as amicable. “We lived together all the time I was doing my dissertation,” she said. “He was a wonderful friend to me, he was lovely to my two young children.” He even had an aliyah at her son’s bar mitzvah, reading the prayer for a Torah reading. “I tell you, he was—long after our personal sexual relationship was the core of what kept us together, he was a wonderful friend to me, in terms of my kids, and he understood what was import to me and them.”
I mentioned to Brown that Smith was now married to a Mexican woman.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” she said. “It would be too intrusive psychologically to live with someone who asked too many questions of him. He’d have to be with someone as bright as he is, or be with someone with a caretaking relationship, and there would be that comfort. It wouldn’t be a woman who could provoke him. He has taken a position. He knows the other paths, and he doesn’t need to be placed in conflict or turmoil about those things.”
Having talked about her ex-lover’s new life of obsession with Jews, I was moved to asked Brown about her own relationship to Judaism.
“I am more of a practicing Jew now than then,” she told me. “I was in school then. I had my hands full with having young children. I was raised not in an Orthodox home, but I was educated in a yeshiva, and I had a very big background in Jewish studies. And he was always interested in that. ”
Although Smith had refused to give me his ex-lover’s name, forcing me to track her down without his help, he had told me about her existence; he was not ashamed to have lived with and loved a Jew. Weber, by contrast, had refused to discuss the truth or falsity of the rumors that he had a Jewish sister. Smith had chosen to love a Jew, a fact that could potentially be much more damaging among his professional colleagues, yet he had volunteered the information, while Weber, who couldn’t be expected to choose his sister’s religious path, seemed worried that I would find her. And when I did find Terese Weber, Mark’s Jewish sister, thus confirming the rumor that had been spread for years by his enemies in other factions of the anti-Semitic right, she was perfectly happy to talk. “I always thought the day would come when somebody would come fishing for information,” she said, as soon as I told her why I was calling.
“I had an Orthodox conversion,” Terese told me, when I reached her by phone. She now lives in Houston and is a professional harpist, working under the business name Have Harp Will Travel. Her ex-husband, she went on to say, is an Israeli Jew whom she married in 1984 and who took her to Israel in 1987. “I had a Conservative conversion in 1984 at a quite conservative congregation in Tucson, and an Orthodox conversion in Portland before we went [to Israel], and then I had to go before a beit din in Tel Aviv.” Terese, who is now 53, also studied Hebrew at an ulpan in Israel, and she lived there until 1989, by which time her marriage was shaky. “We divorced in 1990, but we’re still on very good terms.” And, Terese added, she still considers herself a Jew.
Terese analyzed her brother with the same compassion, albeit more exasperation, that I had heard from Susan Brown as she’d talked about Bradley Smith. Brown, of course, has been free of Smith for over thirty years, free in a way that a sister is never really free of a brother. Especially when, as Terese sees it, Mark is simply seeking attention from their parents.
“I don’t believe he believes it,” Terese said. “I think he embraced it as a subject because it’s the worst thing he can think of to do. He’s just acting out. My theory is it’s just a gigantic acting-out.
“As far as whether he was into it from an early age: yes. He knew all about it”—Holocaust denial. “Even though he embraced the liberal cause of the Biafrans when he was 18, he has been onto this since he was about 20.”
Terese added that Mark “was raised Catholic,” and she explained that her parents’ Catholicism was open-minded and questioning, not at all reactionary: “It’s an inversion of my parents’ ideals,” she said of her brother. I had already spoken with five of Mark’s classmates from Portland’s Jesuit High School, Class of 1969; they had all described their schooling as rigorous but fairly progressive, especially for a boys’ Catholic school. But all five also agreed that Mark Weber had stood apart from the dominant school culture. He was a bit of a loner—smart, a strong member of the debate team, but not particularly social. None of them could remember if he had siblings; one was expressly certain that Weber had been an only child, and this at a school where many of the Catholic boys had numerous brothers and sisters. In truth, of course, he was one of four children: besides Terese, there are a brother and a sister who still live in Portland. It’s just that he never seemed to talk about them.
Terese suggested other reasons that her brother might be attracted to Holocaust denial: he is smart and curious, has always loved to debate, and has a natural affinity for the underdog, whether the Biafrans or, in an odd inversion of the idea of the underdog, the historical revisionists. But she kept returning to the idea that finally this was Mark’s Oedipal struggle, and she insisted that some for some people that is explanation enough. “Don’t you know anyone,” she asked me, “who chooses not to have a fulfilling life because it would give too much naches to their parents?”
Their parents were not, Terese added, the easiest people. “Neither of my parents had very much example of how to bring up a family,” she said, sounding more sorrowful than angry. And perhaps it was a difficult legacy for all the children. Terese is divorced, her brother Bruce is a drifter with no permanent address, and Mark’s first marriage resulted in a bitter divorce after three years; Mark almost never sees his 11-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter. Still, Terese makes no excuses for her brother: “He had every advantage. Catholic grade school, Jesuit high school, the best money could buy. There was money to go to college. I’m sorry he turned out so colorful.”
Mark Weber does not concur with his sister’s diagnosis. “I’m rather close to my parents, both of them,” he said, “and to everyone in the family except my sister Terese. I felt secure as a child.” He would not discuss his differences with Terese except to say, “I love her, and I wish her well.”
This may sound strange, but I believe him. In most regards, Weber seems like a fairly normal person, and his feelings for his parents are, like most people’s feelings about their parents, probably mixed. His family psychodrama was not, in any case, unusual enough to explain his chosen profession.
Weber is best understood as a particular kind of history buff. Bradley Smith is basically a provocateur—as he admitted, he’s a Holocaust revisionist who doesn’t read much Holocaust scholarship—but Weber is a relentless accumulator of facts and theories about history. When we were fact-checking this article on the phone, one of his lengthiest corrections involved my description of his library. “It doesn’t just contain books about Jewish history,” he told me. “There’s Russian history, European history….” And in fact his interests have always been broader than Robert Faurisson’s or Arthur Butz’s; both men are single-issue voters, concerned largely with gas chambers. Meanwhile, Willis Carto’s magazine pursues fringe topics like “Indo-Aryan end-time beliefs” and whether the government has secretly spirited the gold away from Fort Knox. Weber keeps his head buried in books about European history and journals about Middle Eastern politics.
But as one professor of mine, who had worked as a public historian, once told me: “Beware the history buff.” The buff—as opposed to the scholar, or the curious peruser, or the dilettante—eats up all this knowledge but can’t properly digest it. He (most buffs seem to be male) cannot keep facts in perspective; he fails at precisely the task the scholar is good at, figuring out which facts matter most, which pieces of evidence to privilege, what to weigh more than what. So a particular truth—that there are a lot of Jewish executives in Hollywood, or that African Americans commit more crimes, per capita, than whites—assumes an outsized importance. With no ability to create proper contexts for facts, the buff is in danger of becoming either a conspiracy theorist or a bigot, or both. This is why there is so much crossover between the communities of, say, 9/11 skeptics and anti-Semites. Conspiracy theorists and bigots are people with faulty judgment casting about for answers; but whereas the conspiracy theorist needlessly increases the complexity of the world, the bigot needlessly simplifies. “The Jews have secret meetings where they plan the world economy,” says the conspiracy theorist; “the Jews are treacherous, bad people,” says the bigot.
However much crossover the two communities may have, and however much a given obsessive personality may veer from one pathology to the other, the conspiracy theorist and the bigot are always in danger of falling out. What looks like common ground—“We all agree that Jews are the problem”—is quickly discovered to be an irreparable schism. For Weber, Smith’s desire to keep looking at diagrams of locking mechanisms on gas-chamber doors starts to look pretty silly, and his explanation that there’s been a massive historical fraud, beginning at the Nuremberg trials, looks like a fairly weak conspiracy theory. For Weber, now, it’s not complicated, it’s simple: Jews are a different kind of people—“an ethnic community with a consciousness fortified by an unusual religion,” as Weber put it, and “[t]here’s no other group in the world like that.”
There were moments in my conversations with Mark Weber when I felt a keen despair, a sadness that actually began keeping me up at night. Partly, I was reacting to his cold and pessimistic analysis of “the Jewish problem”: Jews can be poisonous to the societies in which they live, but Zionism is “an aberration” and Israel is “a failure by its own standards.” So, I had asked him, “What’s the answer for the Jews?” And Weber replied, “It’s a huge problem. Nobody has an easy answer.”
As chilling as this was to hear, there was something clarifying, and tonic, about listening to the mind of Holocaust denier at work. As he spoke, it was patently obvious how his obsessive study, and the accumulation of facts—shorn of actual wisdom—led him to into the comfortable embrace of absurd conclusions.
Wisdom is an obvious cure, but it was by talking with Weber that I came to realize the importance of compassion, too. In college and graduate school, I studied history for many years, and never once did I think that it was important how I felt about my subjects; the proper goal was the ever-elusive objectivity. But talking with Weber made me realize something about objectivity: being objective about a particular set of facts cannot always save one from spending a lifetime railing against the Zionist menace (or the black menace, or the invasion of Latino immigrants). Some measure of interest in—compassion for, even love for—those people, those fellow human beings, is an incentive to look at the whole picture: why many Jews love Israel, why black crime rates are higher, why Latinos break the law to come to America.
Weber thus has two problems that prevent him from being a real historian. Not only can he not put facts in their proper context, he doesn’t really want to. He dislikes Jews, and even if his dislike weren’t further complicated by his deforming need for simple answers, it’s absurd for someone who dislikes Jews to be a historian of the Jews. It’s in the nature of humanity that only someone who likes another person or group of people—likes with skepticism, of course, but still likes—can have the sympathetic imagination to really understand that person or group. At the very least, a good scholar has to seek out the company of his subjects—something that would be easy for Weber, whose Orange County is hardly Judenrein. Weber has a deep admiration for Jews—us powerful, cohesive, brilliant Jews—but it’s an admiration that could never survive actually knowing us. “I’m not friends with many Jews,” Weber admitted to me. Hardly surprising, of course. But for his research he goes to AIPAC conventions, not Sabbath services, not classes at the local JCC. He doesn’t go to coffee shops in Jewish neighborhoods to eavesdrop. He does not, in short, do his research. Like sons of the Confederacy who seem to know everything about the glorious old South but don’t really understand anything, Weber has a lot of facts, and most of them are even right. But by the standards of the true historian, Weber is a lowly fraud.
Once, after hearing Weber lament that Jews would always be an insoluble problem, I said that if he were right, Jews would deserve his compassion. He did not quite see matters that way. “I don’t wish Jews badly,” he said, “but I am less concerned with the future of Jews than I am with humanity, the world.” That Jews are part of humanity, and that we live in his world, seemed an idle technicality at best.
One scholar of Holocaust denial told me, quoting a friend, that Holocaust deniers they “are like the shit you step on in the street—it has no relevance unless you fail to scrape it off before entering your home.” In part, I understand the sentiment: I often felt as if Weber, in particular, had come home with me, invaded my office, even my bedroom. But I don’t share the scatological disgust. Instead, I remember what the theologian Stanley Hauerwas once told me about premillennial dispensationalists, those fundamentalist Christians who extrapolate from the Bible extremely complicated, unbelievably detailed, scenarios about the end times, like those in the Left Behind novels. “They’re very smart,” Hauerwas said. “You can’t be stupid and come up with that. God gave them minds, and they need to use them.” In other words, forbidden by their religion from developing real intellectual curiosity, they turn their brainpower toward half-baked biblical exegesis that makes sense according to its own hermetic logic. Weber and Smith are trapped like that. Holocaust denial is, like more benign species of fundamentalism, a well-furnished playground for immature and sometimes deranged intellects. It isn’t necessarily about Jews, or even about the Holocaust; it’s about finding something to do with one’s mind. These people aren’t stupid or cynical: Smith does seem to have a noble libertarian streak, and Weber is smart and industrious. And if they could scale the walls that they’ve built for themselves, and look around at the world outside the playground, they might even do some good.