Holocaust Denial, Bad Historiography, and a Trial that Tops Hollywood

by Ari Levine (@arilevine11)

(Cover photo from IMDb)

A few years ago, I went to a screening of the Rachel Weisz film Denial at Brandeis University. Based on an unbelievably true story, the film’s protagonist, Deborah Lipstadt, was in the audience at this Brandeis screening (where she got her PhD) and was sitting just a few rows in front of me. The film dramatizes a critical battle in the history of Holocaust scholarship and historiography, a lawsuit that put history on trial. Lipstadt, an expert on Jewish history and the Holocaust, wrote Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory in 1993.

To Lipstadt, denying the Holocaust as a historical truth is an expression of anti-Semitism that certain deniers conceal as earnest historical revisionism. She warns of one writer in particular, David Irving, when she writes, “Irving is one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial. Familiar with historical evidence, he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda.”[1] Seeing himself depicted in such a negative light led Irving to file a lawsuit in British court against professor Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books. In the British court system, the defendant (in this case Lipstadt and Penguin) had to prove their own innocence as well as effectively prove he was a liar and argue the Holocaust. Lipstadt and her legal team arranged a defense team that brought together several historians on Germany and the Holocaust as expert witnesses, including Richard J. Evans, Robert Jan Van Pelt, and Christopher Browning. Irving, on the other hand, represented himself.

A writer of popular histories on World War II, David Irving was known for having controversial and contrarian views on the war that bordered largely on sympathy towards Hitler and the Nazis. His first book, The Destruction of Dresden (1963), came from a desire to paint the allies in as negative a light as Irving could muster. Richard Evans spent a couple years prepping for the trial by intensely examining every piece of writing Irving ever wrote. He and his team of postgraduate assistants focused on The Destruction of Dresden because amongst the contemporary scholarship, “Irving perhaps attracted the most attention and has the largest popular readership…The Destruction of Dresden was probably the most widely read of Irving’s books.”[2] Irving made a credible enough claim that the bombing of Dresden and ensuing firestorm was a horrific atrocity committed against German citizens, but he bolstered his claim with flimsy history.



All newspaper photo credits from The Telegraph

It’s not often a Hollywood production focuses on historiography, but Denial gives particular focus to the defense’s strategy of portraying Irving as a racist not through his words and ideas but through his sloppy and distorted historical research. We learn in graduate school to follow a historian’s sources, and their sources’ sources. Richard Evans did just that with the footnotes in The Destruction of Dresden. At some point, Irving met and interviewed Hans Voigt, a local official in Dresden at the time of the bombings. Voigt was placed in charge of establishing a bureau which would help collect the records and belongings of those already dead and those buried in the ruins of the city. Irving’s first distortion, according to Evans, was to refer to Voigt’s bureau as being in charge of tallying a death-roll.

Voigt told Irving that the official number dead was 40,000, but that it was actually 135,000. Without investigating this claim, Irving put the larger number in his book as the number of people killed by the Allied bombing. In subsequent editions, the number seemed to grow higher and higher, up to 250,000. Of course, he claimed his source for the updated numbers came from the chief medical examiner of Dresden, when in fact it came from a random urologist, not a health official.[3] Evans concludes that Irving’s historiography was seriously flawed, explaining, “His numerous mistakes and egregious errors are not, therefore, due to mere ignorance or sloppiness; on the contrary, it is obvious that they are calculated and deliberate. That is precisely why they are so shocking.”[4]

To give a couple examples of Irving’s influence as a historian after the initial success of The Destruction of Dresden, Howard Zinn cites Irving’s ‘research’ in his bestselling A People’s History of the United States, which is frequently taught in schools and colleges.[5] And Kurt Vonnegut, in his seminal classic Slaughterhouse-Five, writes “One of the books that Lily had brought Rumfoord was The Destruction of Dresden, by an Englishman named David Irving…I deeply regret that British and U.S. bombers killed 135,000 people in the attack on Dresden…”[6] That such notable writers as Zinn and Vonnegut embraced Irving’s work demonstrates his mass appeal, at least in the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike most other Holocaust deniers, Irving presented himself as a historian, rather than a racist conspiracy theorist. This is why Lipstadt considered Irving so dangerous. He was not in charge of a hate group, like David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

However, this is not to suggest he was a hidden bigot. Irving’s focus for his 1977 book Hitler’s War was to absolve Hitler of any responsibility of directing what he referred to as the “monstrous killing machine” that was Auschwitz; by 1983, Irving began “offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who could prove that Hitler knew about the Holocaust.[7] By the time the second edition released in 1991, Irving appeared to fully embrace Holocaust denial, removing any reference of a final solution and changing Auschwitz from the “monstrous killing machine to “a slave labor camp.”[8] Speaking before a neo-Nazi rally in Calgary in 1991, Irving boasted “I say quite tastefully, in fact, that more women died in the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car…than ever died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.”[9]



Rather than play to Irving’s game and debate the Holocaust, Lipstadt’s team of historians and lawyers made Irving and his career as a historian the center of the case. Rather than prove the Holocaust happened, which would prove Irving incorrect in his own assertions but allow him a place in a hypothetical debate, they proved Irving was a Holocaust denier fueled by his own hatred of Jews and adulation of Adolf Hitler. The defense’s barrister, Richard Rampton, put it bluntly, “My lord, Mr. Irving calls himself a historian. The truth is, however, that his is not a historian at all but a falsifier of history…Mr. Irving has used many different means to falsify history: invention, misquotation, suppression, distortion, manipulation and not least mistranslation.”[10]

In her book that sparked this trial, Lipstadt differentiates between revisionist historians who revisit historical with new questions and/or evidence from Holocaust deniers, who use Historical revisionism as a facade to hide their true intentions. Lipstadt writes, “In an attempt to hide the fact that they are fascists and anti-Semites with a specific ideological and political agenda— they state that their objective is to uncover historical falsehoods, all falsehoods.”[11] Deniers of this sort found a home with journals like The Institute for Historical Review whose mission was to uncover the real historical truths (when in reality the vast majority of its publication rejected ethical historical practice) and with controversial but “legitimate” scholars like David Irving.

Thus, Irving made his biggest mistake as being labeled a racist and an anti-Semitic Holocaust denier in open court would erode his academic facade. As captured in Denial, the most memorable piece of evidence of Irving’s personal racism from the trial came from his diary, which was submitted as evidence. Rampton reads to the judge a nursery rhyme that Irving had taught his infant daughter: “I am a Baby Aryan/ Not Jewish or Sectarian/ I have no plans to marry an/ Ape or Rastafarian.” This was a turning point in the trial. Irving had rested largely on a free speech argument, that Lipstadt could not call him a Holocaust denier as he merely held a contrarian opinion on the Holocaust. But Lipstadt argued in her book that all Holocaust deniers are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and this rhyme turned the favor toward Irving being a sincere racist, and thus winning the libel case for Lipstadt.

The judge, Sir Charles Anthony St. John Gray, issued his opinion on April 11, 2000. He supported the defense’s argument that Irving willingly misrepresented history, and that his “historiographical “errors” converge, in the sense that they all tend to exonerate Hitler.”[12] He continues, “My conclusion [is] that Irving displays all the characteristics of a Holocaust denier. He repeatedly makes assertions about the Holocaust which are offensive to Jews in their terms and unsupported by or contrary to the historical record.”[13] Finally, Mr. Justice Gray concludes most bluntly, “Irving is an anti-Semite and a racist.”[14]


What was on trial in David Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt? The true account of the Holocaust? Ethical historiography? An opportunity to redefine what it meant to be antisemitic and racist in the new millennium? I believe all of these were at stake in this trial. Amazingly, I saw the movie, with Professor Lipstadt in the audience, but could still hardly believe everything was true. Creative liberties have to be taken somewhere. But reading through the trial transcripts, the events that took place in the courtroom had the same dialogue (his equation of Chappaquiddick with Auschwitz is shown prominently in the beginning of the film’s trailer[15]), with the same evidence, and the same attention given to prove Irving as a racist and a bad historian. Denial, by focusing on the historiographic details and questions often emphasized in graduate school, is a film that stands as a testament to good history.



(Rachel Weisz and Deborah Lipstadt, Washington Post)

[1] Lipstadt, Deborah. Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. London: Penguin Books, 1994. 181.

[2] Evans, Richard J. Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial. New York: Basic Books, 2001. 150.

[3] Evans. Lying About Hitler. 150-156.

[4] Evans, Richards. “Expert Witness Report by Richard J. Evans FBA” in Irving vs (1) Lipstadt and (2) Penguin Books. Available online through Pratique de l’Histoire et Dévoiements Négationnistes. https://phdn.org/negation/irving/EvansReport.pdf. Section 1.6.2

[5] Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2003. 421, 704.

[6] Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-dance With Death. New York: Dell Publishing, 1999. 233-234.

[7] Bazyler, Michael J. “The Holocaust on Trial: David Irving vs Penguin Books Ltd. and Deborah Lipstadt.” in Jews on Trial, edited by Robert A. Garber. Jersey City: KTAV Publishing House. 2004. 226.

[8] Bazyler. “The Holocaust on Trial”. 226

[9] Bazyler. “The Holocaust on Trial”. 227

[10] Guttenplan, D.D. The Holocaust on Trial. New York: W.W. Norton. 31-32

[11] Lipstadt. Denying the Holocaust. 4.

[12] “Judgement of Mr. Justice Charles Gray.” Section 13.31. The entire judgement, as well as the transcript of the trial itself, can be found at https://www.hdot.org/

[13] Judgement Section 13.161

[14] Judgement Section 13.161

[15] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yH7ktvUWaYo

Reviewed: Terror in the Heart of Freedom

(Photo from University of North Carolina Press website)

Rosen, Hannah. Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 407 pp., $35 (paper)

The introduction of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment offered an imposing challenge to traditional definitions of the identity of citizens in the South based on race. A person’s skin color would no longer be the determining factor in determining citizenship, as was the case before the Civil War. This invited heated legal debates and violent backlashes against the evolving political landscape. Alongside the changes to the makeup of American citizenry came new spheres through which rights and citizenry could and would be restricted, ones that had to shift the way they were contested with the abolition of slavery based on skin color. Instead, Hannah Rosen argues that gender— through sexual violence committed by white men against black women in particular— became an essential building block in the recreation of a stolen racial hierarchy.

Rosen operates within several converging sets of historiographical debates surrounding the subject. Race, gender, citizenship, and violence are all topics that come together in Rosen’s inquiry, and it is an impressive feat to successfully put these discourses in conversation with one another. Rosen begins by framing her understanding of Reconstruction from historians including Eric Foner. Rosen places the start of Reconstruction in 1861, earlier even than Foner’s starting year of 1863. Rosen asserts that Reconstruction begins in 1861 because it marks the first Union occupation of Confederate land.[1] Rosen then locates theories of race from scholars of transnational slavery and the broader African diaspora in the Atlantic World such as Thomas Holt, Rebecca Scott, and Laurent Dubois. Likewise, Rosen draws heavily from Joan Wallach Scott and Nell Irvin Painter’s push for gendered historical analyses of Reconstruction, frameworks which historians like Foner had ignored. While Rosen borrows these tools, she advances the literature through her ability to weave together diverse scholarship and methodological approaches. Rosen elaborates in a footnote that an inspiration for the book was to show that a cultural analysis of gender and rape could be understood using the practices of social history. Historians, for Rosen, do not have to abandon the “linguistic turn.”[2]

Rosen utilizes an interesting approach to the organization of the book. Split into three parts, the narrative begins with the Memphis riots of 1866. This focus on a singular event and city allows for an intensive application of theories broached in the introduction. From a city (Memphis), Rosen shifts focus in the second part of the book to a state, Arkansas. Finally part three brings the narrative to the South as a whole, showing that violence was indeed pervasive throughout the region. By moving the analysis outward from city to state to region, Rosen is able to show how local events such as the Memphis riots were portrayed in other states and how conservative perceptions of black citizens in popular presses adapted to reflect similar occurrences throughout the South.

Rosen looks at a myriad of sources when analyzing the Memphis riots. Testimonies, official casualty reports, and newspapers help Rosen determine the oftentimes stark contrast between the physical results of violent incidents and how violence in the region was perceived. For example, the aggression of African Americans during the Memphis riots were highlighted in white narratives of the riots while the actual victims, those murdered, robbed, or raped, were overwhelmingly nonwhite. And in testifying before committees, black women insisted that they did not consent to assault. This is significant to Rosen because, in so doing, these Memphis women claimed a form of citizenship by outright rejecting the slave-master relationship that dictated that enslaved women could not consent to sexual encounters with their white masters. By beginning with specific voices in a particular locale, Rosen is then able to transition the study to violence throughout the region.

Most impressively, Rosen does not lose her focus on intimate sexual violence, even as the narrative expands from Memphis to Arkansas to the South. In Arkansas, the debate over the 1868 state constitution addressed not only issues of race but also gender. Rosen contests that white conservatives contested African American male participation in the state convention due to their skin color but also because of their inability to control their women as they too strove to articulate their standing as citizens without rights. Women do not take a backseat in this political battleground, as even without voting rights of their male peers they lead the charge. By employing a gendered analysis to the convention, Rosen can point the reader past the official speakers to highlight these struggles in the home and in public spheres.

Gender does not replace race as the historical tool of analysis in studying the Reconstruction era. Rather, it serves to enhance the battlefield in historicizing the fight for citizenship and equal rights. Rosen is able to show in her analysis that by including consideration of gendered violence alongside racial categories, these battles for the right to be equal Americans can be more easily illuminated. Rosen does not claim to be the first scholar to introduce a gendered analysis of Reconstruction, but she does go further to show the intimate connection between race and gender as historical factors operating under the umbrella of violence.

This book accomplishes its task of merging historical approaches and methods. For graduate and upper-level undergraduate students, Rosen showcases her research and skillful application of historiography in incredibly detailed endnotes that offer additional debates and considerations of secondary scholarship from various fields contributing to the topic, and these notes are incredibly helpful in piecing together her historical approach. Future scholars on the subject would do well to consider Rosen’s multi-layered approach to violence (whether gendered, racialized or both) as a product of politics during Reconstruction.

Reviewed by Ari Levine (@arilevine11)

[1] Rosen, 245.

[2] Rosen, 251-252.

Rube Goldberg and the Utility of Creativity in the Modern Age

by Ari Levine (@arilevine11)

A Rube Goldberg machine is familiar to most people, even if the name cannot quite be placed. Exemplifying creative if inefficient ways to accomplish simple tasks, they evoke a childlike wonder with what modernity can (sometimes unnecessarily) achieve. Rube Goldberg machines amaze in movies, television, and in science classrooms throughout the country, so I found it surprising that I knew next to nothing about the man behind the machine, Rueben “Rube” Goldberg. A new special exhibit, “The Art of Rube Goldberg”, opened at the National Museum of American Jewish History which allows audiences familiar with the wacky machine to learn about its namesake.[1]

The museum celebrates American history through the perspective of American Jewish life. Its website describes its mission as striving to “inspire in people of all backgrounds a greater appreciation for the diversity of the American Jewish experience and the freedoms to which Americans aspire.”[2] By highlighting Rube Goldberg’s impressively versatile life, the special exhibit successfully fulfills this mission while also demonstrating how the life of a truly unique individual can effectively be representative of a much larger body.

The exhibit opens appropriately with an interactive Rube Goldberg machine, to get a table tennis ball from point A to point B in the most nonsensical way imaginable, just as Rube Goldberg would have wanted. The room then transitions to Goldberg’s early life growing up in the turn of the 20th century in San Francisco. While Goldberg showed artistic talent at a young age and drew cartoons for his high school newspaper, his father wanted his son to be a fit for an expanding labor market for engineers. But Rube chose not to conform to his father’s ‘modern’ sensibilities, turning down a lucrative job at the San Francisco sewer system to pursue a career as a cartoonist.

Image 1 - Rube Goldberg

One of his early successes as a cartoonist, Foolish Questions, featured a tagline that would become a signature of his humor, “ask a stupid question, get an even stupider answer” which simultaneously celebrates and satirizes creative thinking, and is a theme that certainly resonates proudly throughout the exhibit in Goldberg’s cartoons, designs, and phrases, which all benefited from the innovations of syndication. His intricately delirious inventions led to his name entering the popular lexicon in 1928 with an addition to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. An adjective, “Rube Goldberg” defines the process of “accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply.”[3]

Goldberg’s ridiculous approach to modern technology took a darker turn as his cartoons began to reflect growing concerns about the dangers of technology and the modern era. One cartoon in particular does a very effective job at portraying the delicacy of the atom bomb in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. But for Goldberg, the evolution from nonsensical inventions to more serious political cartoons were less about the difficulty in drawing cartoons. A quote from Goldberg featured above the political cartoon gallery states that for him, drawing cartoons were easier because they were “almost pure idea” and they were not something that required his perfectly nonsensical framework of reasoning.

Image 2 - Rube Goldberg

Of course, the Rube Goldberg of this exhibit would not want the guests to leave with a cynical outlook regarding technology and modernity. An entire section of the exhibit is presented as a dedicated playroom of sorts—Lego bricks, toy race car tracks, anything that inspire children to reach their creative potentials were laid out like a candy factory. For the child in every visitor, this workspace presented an opportunity to construct a unique Rube Goldberg machine, and learn how physics and geometry all influence and are influenced by the creative mind. This section encouraged kids to take inspiration from Goldberg’s silly designs and create even sillier designs on their own. While an adult might see this space as messy, unorganized, and chaotic, for the intended audience it is precisely the atmosphere that Goldberg insists makes for the most satisfyingly inefficient creative productivity.

Overall, the exhibit aptly celebrates the life of a unique individual, while also introducing to visitors a unique perspective on the purpose of a creative mind in the modern age. For historians in particular, Goldberg’s legacy also invites further questions regarding the embrace of technological automation in the 20th century. Near the end of the exhibit a turnstile of pop culture depictions of a ‘Rube Goldberg Machine” are played. One notable example of the skeptical view of automation is taken from Charlie Chaplain’s Modern Times. Goldberg’s influence on the film is notable, as Chaplain’s character “the little tramp” is put through contraptions and machines that prove to the factory management that efficiency is the way of the future. The majority of the exhibits, however, celebrate creativity as the ultimate key to winning the modern era— a foolish dilemma with even more foolish solutions.

Image 3 - Rube Goldberg

[1] All information regarding Rube Goldberg in this article, unless cited otherwise, come directly from the exhibit itself. This includes all photos shared in this article, which were all taken by the author.

[2] https://www.nmajh.org/MissionStatement/

[3] Merriam-Webster Dictionary. “Rube Goldberg”. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/rube%20goldbergs

Reviewed: The Argentine Silent Majority

Carassai, Sebastián. 2014. The Argentine Silent Majority: Middle Classes, Politics, Violence, and Memory in the Seventies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

The historiography of violence in Argentina focuses largely on the political and active participants of the 1970s. These could be military officers who overthrew the government or insurgent guerilla cells that became their targets. These groups vary across ideological and class lines, but all either committed or experienced violence during the decade. But this only addresses a small percentage of the Argentine population. The rest, the vast majority, stayed silent during the regime of the Military Junta and remain mostly silent in conventional histories of the period. In The Argentine Silent Majority, Sebastián Carassai investigates this overlooked group in order to consider the population’s reaction to the political violence as a whole, how violence affected the nation in subtler, indirect ways, and establishes the importance of analyzing memory within the broader narrative.

Richard Nixon popularized the term “silent majority” in a speech rallying support for the Vietnam War.[1] Nixon’s phrase reached out to those who did not actively participate in the public discourse. The American silent majority did not join in the various countercultural movements, and were members of various classes, professions, and creeds. Carassai’s silent majority is markedly different. Carassai instead defines the silent majority as the “nonactivist middle class” devoid of any unifying political ideology outside of a general opposition to the Peronism of the previous government (13).

One of the more startling trends observed by Carassai was the reaction of the middle class intelligentsia to the violence of El Proceso. Banality, rather than silence, embodied the reactions. Through an analysis of political cartoons in newspapers and magazines over the course of the decade, Carassai found that depictions of violence became “the given state of affairs, as the tacit rules of political life, as a naturalized way of living” (253). Argentinians, rather than outright support or reject the violence, merely accepted it as the new normal. Carassai does a good job here of analyzing humor and the ways in which cartoonists and comedians used jokes to accept the new reality. In one instance, for example, a famous comedian, Alberto Omedo, staged his own disappearance for his television program (262). This was in 1976, a few months into the official start of El Proceso de Reorganización Nacional, the Military Dictatorship, where forced disappearances and became a signature of the Junta’s state violence and were evident to most from its beginning.

Carassai’s approach combines documentary analysis (cartoons, photographs, advertisements, television programs, etc.) with oral testimonies. These interviewees vary in background and career but are generally categorized as members of the nonactivist class who reminisce on the violence that surrounded, without explicitly penetrating, their daily lives. Carassai does a great job of exhibiting middle class Argentinians as they confront their recollections of the decade. In several instances, people cannot help but avoid the use of the personal when talking about her memories. Carassai refers to this phenomenon as an “impersonal register” which linguistically divorces the interviewees from personal involvement in the violence and political upheaval (170-180).

Where The Silent Majority falters at times is in establishing the middle class as being definitively non-activist as per Carassai’s central thesis. The line between activist and non-activist is tenuous at points. If according to Carassai, the vast majority of the Argentine middle class were the silent majority that supported the military dictatorship with explicit silence and absence of activism, then how did some members silently resist the violence or criticize it and the junta (83, 114-115, 197)? Can one be judged by being active or non-active solely by membership in guerilla groups, labor unions, or by appearing publicly in protests? Many of the cartoons that Carassai analyzes were published in newspapers that employed members of the middle class, so can publishing satires of violence be considered proper criticism or activism on the part of the cartoonists and editors? Proper clarification on the definition of activism would have helped Carassai clarify this issue and determine a clearer line between the nonactivist middle class who accepted the regime by remaining silent and the activists who suffered from state violence and repression.

The Silent Majority asks readers to look at the agency of those not directly involved in the political upheaval of the 1970s and to study violent acts such as disappearances and detentions from the perspective of those who could not relate to or recall such violence directly. In focusing on the margins of this violent period in Argentine history, Carassai posits that memory serves as a determining function in the formation of class-consciousness and the role of the citizen in a military junta. Carassai’s broad study of a specific group does a great job at challenging a traditional historiography to expand its scope to unexplored boundaries, and should cement the prominence of memory in any future scholarship of the military junta and violence in Argentina.

[1] Nixon, Richard M. 1969. “Nixon’s ‘Silent Majority’ Speech.” Watergate.info. http://watergate.info/1969/11/03/nixons-silent-majority-speech.html.

Reviewed #2: A Match Made in Heaven? Race Laws in the United States and Nazi Germany


James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, Princeton University Press, 2017, 208 pp., $24.95.


Segregation, racial bloodlines, institutionalized violence, separate public facilities for different peoples, the illegality of mixed-race marriages. If any of these terms seem recognizable to those familiar with the Jim Crow era South, these constituted daily reality of African-Americans of the time. For many in this country, there has and always have been two Americas: the land of the free and the home of the brave, accessible to those with privilege on one hand. And on the other a legacy of slavery, racism, and violence to those without.[1] This heritage has been a troubling topic for American historians to grapple with. In Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, James Whitman, a professor of Comparative and Foreign Law at Yale University, looks at the other America and how its foundation of racism inspired lawyers, judges, and lawmakers of Hitler’s Nazi regime.

In seeking answers to the ‘Jewish Question’, Nazi laws had already stripped German Jews of their citizenship and ability to serve in the army but were working towards creating the legal structure of their ideal German. As Whitman deftly points out in this book, in order to fully realize their dream of institutional racism directed at unwanted members of society, Nazi lawmakers looked at the model of legally codified racism for inspiration: America. Whitman adds an interesting perspective for historians because of his proficiency with comparative law. The purpose of a comparative approach in these case studies applies not only to the letters of the new laws, like the Nuremberg Laws, but also histories of legal jurisprudence in trials like Plessy v. Ferguson, which effectively create de facto laws that can be compared. Additionally, this comparative is appropriate because Whitman shows, through the writings and statements of Nazi lawyers, that comparing the two legal systems was not performed first by Whitman, but by those Nazis who sought established legal structures to justify their racial laws, and so began the comparisons themselves. Moreover, the most compelling argument made in the book that America indeed served as Hitler’s inspiration for his racial laws comes not from Whitman himself but from his primary sources. Statements made about America and their laws from Nazis were intended to be compliments. A key example in the book is from Hitler himself, who openly praised and admired America’s 1924 Immigration Law, which established entry quotas based on national origins (59). It is this earnest admiration that makes the comparison so jarringly effective in studying the connections between American and Nazi law.

Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 11.48.02 PM

Die Nurnberger Gesetze” (Nuremberg Race Laws) laid out 4 racial categories regarding citizenship. The categories are in order of racial blood purity: “Deutschbluetiger” (German Blood), “Mischling 2” (Mixed Race 2 Grade), “Mischling 1” (Mixed Race 1 grade), and “Jude” (Jew). Credit: History Unfolded Project at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Whitman divides Hitler’s American Model into two chapters. The first one addresses the change in citizenship status for Jews in Germany, juxtapositioned by the de facto second-citizen status experienced by African-Americans. The second chapter addresses the most challenging comparison, the Blood Law. The decision in Plessy v. Ferguson established the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Homer Plessy was not treated as a white man because of his 1/8th “octoroon” status. This inspired Nazi law codified on the basis of blood purity (127-128). Jews could not marry other Germans, and this parallel law existed in the United States in many states until Loving v. Virginia (33).

Yet Whitman also highlights the cautions that should be taken when using a comparative approach. For example, though the wording may be similar, it is difficult to directly compare results and methods. Though both relied on lineage and bloodlines, American racial laws were based around skin color, while German Jews “maintained their communal identity by their culture, not their color (129).” Though parallels are drawn between America’s racial classifications And ultimately, the Nazis regarded the American system as being “too harsh”, the race troubles “too different (131).” This conclusion turns on its head the notion that the Nazis were the sole makers of their heinous ideas. Though the murderous actions of the Nazis cannot be misattributed, the legal structure that supported and justified their racial classifications were inspired by the American system. Whitman concludes by showing that the Nazis identified America as the nation “that had achieved the “fundamental recognition” of the truths of racism, and taken the first necessary steps” with Nazi Germany to see the race problem answered beyond the steps taken by America (160).

Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 11.47.39 PM

1935 Nazi Germany Bench that reads “Nur für Juden!” (Only for Jews) Credit: Weiner Library

Though Whitman ably compares American and Nazi laws, one area that invites further investigation is how courts in both countries reacted to racial laws. The book covers laws, codes, and legal theories such as legal positivism, but falls short in some areas of providing examples of practical applications in the court system outside of landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases. Readers are able to gain valuable insight through the writings of Nazi lawyers and judges regarding race laws. Still, it would further benefit the comparative analysis to incorporate varied echelons of American and Nazi legal systems.

Hitler’s American Model appeals to several types of readers. Legal historians will find Whitman’s comparative approach between separate legal structures compelling. Readers who do not have a masterful grasp of law/legal history can also find this book accessible as an introduction to comparative law through an important (and relevant) case study. Historians of American history, especially those who focus on the differences between Nazi Germany and America, will benefit greatly by looking at the similarities rather than the differences between the two opposing sides of World War II. This book effectively shatters the idea of the Third Reich being a uniquely evil entity and, more importantly, encourages deeper reflections into our own legal jurisprudence through a comparative approach.

[1] A good example of this rhetoric can be found in Martin Luther King’s “The Other America” Speech, given in 1967 in the Aurora Forum at Stanford University.

How to Fight the Reemergence of Nazism in America

Above: How to effectively punch Nazis, featuring Captain America


White Nationalism. The Alt-Right. America First. Fascism. There has been a lot of terminology and associations tossed around this past election cycle. Our nation has ignored a reality that has always been there, the reality that hatred is alive and well and, more dangerously, organized both on the streets of Charlottesville or in the basements of mothers’ houses. Donald Trump’s candidacy and victory have become something of a rallying cry for the “basket of deplorables.” Unpacking the history of racism in America has been an ongoing task for historians of American history and critical race theorists. As a graduate student, I could not accomplish this feat in a blog post or 20 volumes. Instead, I will point out two instances in American history that show how a fundamental tenet of American jurisprudence, Freedom of Speech, can be used as a most useful tool in the fight against Nazism, Neo-Nazism, and the hatred they brew.


Protesters gather at the University of Virginia to “Unite the Right.”

When Theodore Roosevelt was the President of the Board of New York City Police Commissioners (the modern equivalent to the Commissioner of the NYPD), he faced a first-amendment crisis. Hermann Ahlwardt was a vehemently anti-Semitic writer and member of the German Reichstag who was traveling to Berlin to speak and requested official police protection for a lecture that is protected under the first amendment. People, especially New York’s Jewish population, were scared and determined to see that the commissioner did not allow the man to speak. Duty bound by the first amendment, Roosevelt could not restrict the man’s speech, nor did he wish for Ahlwardt to become a martyr of bigotry. Instead, Roosevelt used Ahlwardt’s right to preach hatred as an opportunity to make him and his views seem absurd and nonsensical. Thus, Ahlwardt preached his crusade against the Jews with the full protection of around 40 Jewish police officers.[1] This solution may seem novel today, or even ineffective, but in an era before most of the landmark Supreme Court cases concerning the first amendment, Roosevelt offers a vigorous defense of the principle of free speech while also stressing the need to combat hatred through legal channels.



Pictured above: Theodore Roosevelt hard at work during his time as New York City Police Commissioner.


In 1977, The National Socialist Party of America (NSPA), led by Frank Collin, looked to stage a massive demonstration and march in Illinois. Chicago might have been a logical choice as a large urban center with many potential people to listen to their message and consider joining the organization. However, Collin had no intention to increase recruitment from this rally, merely incite intimidation and terror. It was for this reason he and his organization chose the small village of Skokie, Illinois as the site of their demonstration. The reason for Skokie was simple: it had a large population of Holocaust survivors. The city sued for injunctions and issued ordinances to stop the NSPA from marching. With much controversy, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) fought for the NSPA’s right to demonstrate and won their argument in front of the Supreme Court in National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie (1977).



Pictured above: Frank Collin, the leader of the National Socialist Party of America. He was kicked out of a previous neo-Nazi organization when it was discovered he had Jewish ancestry. He later went to jail for child molestation.


Aryeh Neier, the then national executive director of the ACLU, put it best in his book discussing the case, Defending My Enemy (1979) when he assesses whether he and the ACLU chose incorrectly in the battle between free speech absolutism and fighting Nazis. Neier says, “I made no such choice. I supported free speech for Nazis when they wanted to march in Skokie to defeat Nazis. Defending my enemy is the only way to protect a free society against the enemies of freedom.”[2] Neier observes that in America, Neo-Nazi and other hate groups have often used the principles of our nation in ways they most certainly would restrict from others if given a chance. However, it is these very principles, not a superiority of race, ethnicity, or creed that make America great. Even though Collin and the NSPA won the case with the help of the ACLU, they ended up moving their march to Chicago, away from the community of Holocaust survivors who were spared from watching swastikas and Nazis march in front of their homes.

How can we defeat hatred and bigotry in the “Make America Great Again” era? As the American jurist, Louis Brandeis put it, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”[3] The best way to combat Nazism is not by punching Nazis, but rather by exposing their disease-ridden ideas. Theodore Roosevelt and Aryeh Neier stood by their principles and fought Nazis/racists precisely by using free speech, rather than their fists, as the ultimate weapon.


Photo Sources





[1] Roosevelt, Theodore. 1920. An Autobiography 1858-1919. New York: Macmillan. Pg 205-206

[2] Neier, Aryeh. 2012. Defending My Enemy: American Nazis, the Skokie Case, and the Risks of Freedom. New York: International Debate Education Association. Pg 5

[3] Brandeis, Louis. Other People’s Money, and How the Bankers Use It. Washington DC: National Home Library Foundation, 1933. Pg 92


Notes from the Field: Making Primary Sources Fun (Again)

Kevin Fox and I introducing the lesson to the BVM students.

by Ari Levine (@arilevine11)

As I went through my student teaching practicum in my last semester at Brandeis University, I learned quickly that teaching history is unfortunately teaching something that not many teenagers see as cool. My lessons were truly ones of trial and error that being a student teacher could afford to test out. Better to figure out which lessons were duds before I had my own classroom, right? I slowly but surely honed my ability to connect the boring past with the relevant present.

Now, as a graduate student, I find myself back in an unfamiliar role, that of a learner. The Information Wanted Project caught my attention because it gave me an avenue to apply history as I never had before, working intimately with microfilm reel after reel of old newspapers, looking for needles in haystacks. This aligned with my core goal as a teacher, bringing history to the public, so I jumped at the opportunity.

I was able to get involved in a more education-based way when a teacher at Blessed Virgin Mary School in Darby, PA reached out to Dr. Giesberg, asking if any graduate students would be interested in teaching a lesson centered on this microfilm. I volunteered along with Kevin Fox, and quickly found that what had become second nature for me during my student teaching was now foreign. I did not know anything about the students and the school beyond that the school was a small Catholic mission school and the majority of students were minorities.

Not every student—or every class—is the same, so being able to tailor a lesson based on the class is important. Unfortunately, it was a luxury I didn’t have. I was in the dark, but still determined to make history fun and engaging. If this was my classroom, and I knew my students, I might have had a different approach. But this wasn’t my classroom, and Dr. Giesberg, Kevin, and I were not their teachers.

The restrictiveness I initially felt immediately gave way to ultimate freedom: we could have as much fun with this as we wanted. We didn’t have to match the lesson to their unit or an upcoming test, or assign homework to reinforce mastery of the material. Without boundaries, what was the best way to connect our work and us with these young students? Primary sources.

Using primary sources to teach history is not a new concept in educational pedagogy. Classrooms are no longer like what you might see in movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. History classrooms have long ceased to be lecture halls showing a one-way direction of information for students to write down and be tested on. Primary sources help get students to care and develop critical thinking skills in a way that nothing else can.

As a graduate student, I don’t often have the opportunity to analyze primary sources as much as I might like, as my courses focus more on analyzing historiographies explored by other historians and scholars. My outlet for primary source consumption has come in the form of the Information Wanted Project, and I wanted to create a lesson plan that represented the project and also included my perspective as a graduate student.

Kevin and I came to the conclusion that the best way to get students to feel like graduate students for a day was to assign them the work that we did for the project each week. To put it simply, this entails looking at old newspapers and sifting through them for information wanted ads pertaining to families who searched, sometimes in vain, to reconnect with lost members after the Civil War.

I spent days scanning entire pages of newspapers, fighting tooth and nail with the copy machine to make the font something an ordinary person could read, and of course hoping and praying that nothing too explicit would be present in the newspaper (again, this is a downside of not knowing the culture of the school going in). Finally, I had some semblance of material that one could call a lesson: Three newspapers, each from a different time period and location, and each containing at least one ad.


Myself and a teacher from BVM discuss a group’s findings.

For me, the best teaching happens after collaboration and modification, so Kevin and I planned the structure of the lesson: Dr. Giesberg would present the basic genealogy of the project, then we would come in with something fun and challenging for the students to attach themselves to. We had questions prepared but also trusted ourselves to let the conversation grow naturally. I can’t say it enough: planning without knowing who you’re planning for is extraordinarily difficult.

With as much adoration as I had for my three 9th grade World History classes I taught as a student teacher, I must admit that the students at Blessed Virgin Mary School showcased a passion for the material and a hunger to participate that would make any teacher envious. I was taught by my mentor teachers to always have enough copies of the material—not one for every student, but two or three for every student.

A general rule of thumb for teachers is to always be over prepared. I made 30 copies in total, anticipating a small class size one might expect at a mission school. I was not expecting to walk into the church auditorium to the entire 7th and 8th grade, about 45 students total. Kevin and I adjusted quickly and distributed the papers to groups instead of partners. At least this meant that collaboration and conversation would be even more emphasized.


Kevin Fox working with a student to locate an elusive ad.

Finding the ads proved to be as challenging for the students as it usually is for myself, Kevin, and the other collaborators on the project. I’ve learned that the beauty of teaching history comes not from having students answer your questions, but from giving the students the material and fostering their critical thinking skills so they can come up with their own questions.

What did the ads mean? What story were they telling? Why put them in newspapers? Having the students discuss these questions and hearing their brilliant and inquisitive answers was very reassuring. In a time where it seems that the humanities are losing traction to STEM in jobs and in value, it is good to know that the future of historians is safe and secure, so long as the great students at Blessed Virgin Mary School continue to ask these questions and explore the seemingly endless possibilities of answers.

All photos provided by Dr. Judith Giesberg.