In his long lifetime, James von Brunn—the 88-year-old who earlier this month allegedly shot and killed United States Holocaust Memorial Museum guard Stephen Johns—managed to embody every cliché about the Holocaust-denying anti-Semite: seething with hatred toward Jews, convinced that somehow they rig the money system, certain that there are multiple world-wide conspiracies afoot. And if we stopped to think harder about it, we might have to admit that there’s something comforting about how perfectly von Brunn fulfills our preconception of the Holocaust denier. It is pleasantly convenient to imagine that all Holocaust deniers belong to one coherent movement—as if all of our enemies could be found, and could fit, in the same contained, albeit ghoulish, landscape.
In reality, however, that caricature grossly misunderstands this anti-Semitic Holocaust skepticism, which is not a unified movement but a loose confederation of people who often have very little in common. The major American organization known for its theories of Holocaust denial, the Institute for Historical Review (IHR), received just under $250,000 in contributions for the 12 months ending on April 30, 2008, the last year for which figures are available, and that money could have come from only a handful of contributors; the Institute’s publishing arm had sales of $53,269—or, to give a generous estimate, about 5,000 books. The Institute’s Journal of Historical Review was last published in 2002, and the very next year a rival publication, The Revisionist, which had already folded once before, ceased publication. The world of Holocaust denial comprises one-man enterprises, fledgling organizations with tiny budgets and few followers, and amateurish magazines with the lifespans of fruit flies.
These enterprises seem poised to become even more fragile, thanks to an internecine feud that began early this year and threatens to cripple an already lame Holocaust-denial movement. In January, IHR director Mark Weber posted an article on his web site arguing that Holocaust “revisionism” has failed to gain traction in either history departments or with the public at large: “[T]here has been little success in convincing people that the familiar Holocaust story is defective,” Weber wrote. And, he continued, it was time to leave the Holocaust behind and focus on Jewish malevolence today: “Jewish-Zionist power is a palpable reality with harmful consequences for America, the Middle East, and the entire global community. In my view, and as I have repeatedly emphasized, the task of exposing and countering this power is a crucially important one. In that effort, Holocaust revisionism cannot play a central role.”
Soon after Weber’s statements became public, his onetime friend and colleague, 79-year-old Bradley Smith, was quick to denounce his former fellow traveler. “There are those who feel he has … betrayed the revisionist movement,” Smith told the Forward.
Holocaust deniers are a touchy bunch, prone to infighting, but the war of words between Weber and Smith, two old allies, was something special; a battle had been joined in the heart of the American Holocaust-denial movement. I was intrigued by Weber, this man who claimed to be leaving Holocaust revisionism behind. It was easy enough to judge him just an anti-Semite at war with other anti-Semites. If anything, Weber’s shift to anti-Zionism only confirmed his anti-Semitism; after all, if he were just a disinterested, objective historian, then having dropped the historical question of the Holocaust he’d begin a study of, say, the British raj or the history of Hawaiian agriculture. That he continued to be obsessed with the alleged lies and machinations of Jews seemed proof of an objective disorder.
But because I believe in redemption, and because Weber’s web site offered a curious mixture of anti-Semitic nonsense and mainstream news articles about Israel, and even articles from the Jewish press, I decided that it was worth trying to talk to Mark Weber. Maybe he was a new man. Or maybe he was trying to become one. And while I was at it, I figured, I might as well also try to talk to Smith.
Between February and May, I met in person and spoke multiple times on the telephone with both Smith, who lives in Mexico and whose cuddliness in person seems to mock his reputation as a dangerous extremist, and Weber, a 57-year-old native Oregonian who seems a good deal smarter than Smith but also a good deal less mirthful. These were men whose friendship was on the outs, and each was eager to emphasize his differences with the other. But they were also similar, in ways I did not expect. For example, both Weber and Smith seem to think of themselves as Enlightenment liberals: Smith fashions himself a free-speech absolutist, whose Holocaust skepticism is merely about usefully breaking taboos, while Weber sees himself as a positivist, sifting evidence to determine what is true and what is not. Each man, too, seems to want to be loved and, I thought, a bit puzzled that it has not worked out that way. Most surprising, both Weber and Smith loved Jews. They don’t love Jews generally, of course, but each man has a Jewish woman in his past with whom he has had a close relationship. Discovering these contradictions in the lives of Smith and Weber did not arouse in me any sympathy, and of course it doesn’t discredit their ideas, which are wrong on their own merits. But to meet these two men late in their careers in anti-Semitism, and to get to know them as they tangled with each other, helped illuminate what kind of man might choose to cross the borders of respectable opinion, and what inner needs might keep him exiled from his fellow man.
After I had secured the Weber interview, Smith, whose home in Mexico is just 100 miles from where Weber lives in Southern California, volunteered to drive across the border and meet me. For one airfare, I could meet two extremists.
Of the two men, Bradley Smith is much closer to the common perception of a classic Holocaust denier, singularly obsessed with disproving the existence of the Nazi machinery of death. But the elderly Smith was kindly enough to endure the traffic jam at the Mexican-American border and meet me at the Starbucks in San Clemente, California, the beach town where Richard Nixon began his exile. Smith had left a message on my mobile phone saying that he would wait for me in the parking lot, and that’s where I found him, snoozing behind the wheel of his pickup truck. I rapped on the window, and the aging radical opened his eyes with a start, remembered where he was, smiled at me, popped open his door, and lumbered out, smiling warmly. In his worn flannel shirt and jeans, a scraggly white beard dressing up his weather-beaten face, Smith looked like an old, sagacious cowhand, the kind of guy whose favorite story is about how he forgave the beloved bull who once got startled and kicked him in the head.
Once we were both seated at the coffee shop, I tried to ask Smith about possible flaws in the works of great Holocaust historians.
“Yeah,” Smith said, “that’s what I started with, I read Hilberg. I didn’t read them very closely. Because I’m not really interested in the history of the period.”
I was a little shocked. “I mean, you read Lucy Dawidowicz’s book on the period? You read David Wyman?”
“Not thoroughly,” Smith said. “Wyman, I didn’t read. He came a bit too late.”
I was astounded. “But that’s kind of amazing, right? Because here are these classic works of Holocaust literature that purport to show it all and you say you haven’t read them closely. So you have read Arthur Butz, who’s a nobody in the field, closely, but you haven’t read the great titans in the field closely?” “You know what? I’m not interested in the story,” he replied. “Revisionists have written very detailed documents about the holes—”
“So what are you interested in?”
“In a free exchange of ideas.”
“But you aren’t interested in trying to find out which ideas are right?”
“Not particularly. You know what I’m really interested in? Every generation has its taboo, and I happen to be here with this taboo. I happen to be here with this one. And I can see how it’s exploited, and who benefits from the exploitation.”
And so it went for a while. As we got up to leave, Smith said that he had a gift for me. He reached into his bag and produced paperback copies of The Man Who Saw His Own Liver and his self-published memoir, Break His Bones: The Private Life of a Holocaust Revisionist. He assured me that they were both good reads.
Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.