Errol Morris and the Tricky Art of Refuting Holocaust Denial

“I didn’t want to make a movie proving the world is round,” Errol Morris keeps telling me. And “For my next movie I’m going to prove the sky is blue.” Things like that. And I can understand the source of his concern. His new film, Mr. Death , is more than a refutation of Holocaust denial, it’s a brilliant, provocative meditation on the nature of evil, the nature of innocence and the nature of truth. And he’s so concerned it not be reduced to an answer to the spurious and malicious “factual debate” over Holocaust denial that he’s almost reluctant to take credit for a number of extraordinary instances of investigative coups he scored in the course of making a film about Fred Leuchter, the Mr. Death of the title. A self-proclaimed electric chair expert, Mr. Leuchter some 10 years ago metamorphosed into the doyen of the Holocaust deniers with The Leuchter Report : The End of a Myth : A Report on the Alleged Execution Gas Chambers at Auschwitz, Birkenau and Majdanek, Poland , an alleged “scientific” demonstration that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. It is a report that has become the central tenet, the virtual Bible of the odious Holocaust “revisionists,” a report that is demolished on its own terms in a

few seconds of film in Mr. Death -by an interview nobody had thought to do before Errol did-an interview buried in the middle of the documentary.

What astonished me on first watching Mr. Death is that Errol barely draws attention to the crushing refutation in the film; it’s never commented upon, even though it is the pivot of the film, I believe, the lens that places everything else in the film in perspective, a lens that permits Errol to engage in what might otherwise be a disturbingly intimate exploration of the mind of a Holocaust denier.

Why such an exploration in the first place? Why devote time to an idiot like Mr. Leuchter? “The Holocaust is the central mystery of the 20th century,” Errol remarks in one of several phone conversations after I’d seen a semifinal version of Mr. Death , “The mystery isn’t, ‘Did it happen?’ but ‘How could it possibly happen?’ And by looking at someone like Leuchter, maybe we can learn something about that.” Learn something about why ordinary Germans became Hitler’s willing executioners by learning how apparent schnooks like Mr. Leuchter can, half a century later, become implicit accessories after the fact to mass murder by denying the crime happened.

But Mr. Morris has done more than explore the mind of Mr. Leuchter-he’s exploded his bogus science. “Has this been reported before?” I asked Errol about the devastating testimony Errol evokes from the lab scientist who did the chemical analysis that Mr. Leuchter and the Holocaust deniers brazenly and ignorantly misused to give “scientific credibility” to their hateful no-gas-chamber lies.

“No one had ever asked him before,” Errol said, adding once again, “but I don’t want this to be about proving the world round.”

Over the course of our recent conversations he almost reluctantly disclosed the investigative odyssey that underlies Mr. Death , including the archival detective work behind an important historical deduction and a stunning discovery he didn’t even bother to include in the film.

When it comes to Holocaust denial, is it worth proving the world is round? It’s a question Errol and I had frequent occasion to discuss and occasionally argue about in the past six years or so as he was working on Mr. Death and I was finishing the manuscript of Explaining Hitler in which I address the relationship between Holocaust deniers and Holocaust perpetrators-the origin of the former in the latter. And it might be worth sketching that context as a way of explaining why I think Mr. Morris’ investigative achievement is more important than he is willing to acknowledge.

Holocaust denial is such a peculiarly postmodern phenomenon-both an expression of, and a refutation of, the key postmodernist dogma that there is no such thing as truth, historical or otherwise, there are only “constructions,” “competing narratives” with no reason to “privilege” one over the other-so postmodern that it’s often forgotten that the very first Holocaust denier was the chief Holocaust perpetrator: Adolf Hitler. (It would be somewhat unfair to call Hitler the first postmodernist.)

In fact, in reading through the 1,000-page stenographic transcripts of Hitler’s wartime dinner-table conversation, a chore I undertook in the course of researching my book, I came across what I believe is the first recorded moment in which Adolf Hitler, Holocaust perpetrator, becomes Adolf Hitler, Holocaust denier. Of course, we know he pursued a strategy of denial from the beginning: never, so far as we know, putting his signature on a written order (relying on oral Führer -orders) never allowing himself to be glimpsed in the vicinity of a death camp, disguising his intentions in what Lucy S. Dawidowicz, perhaps the most acute analyst of Hitler’s denial strategy, has called “esoteric language.” All of which gave would-be deniers like David Irving the excuse to make bogus deductions that since Hitler’s signature could not be found, he never signed off on mass murder, and mass murder thus never happened.

But that’s a kind of passive denial; there’s a moment when one can see Hitler formulating an even more outrageous active denial strategy. It’s a moment I came upon in the stenographic account of Hitler’s “table talk” on Oct. 25, 1941, when his guests at dinner in the Führer ‘s command bunker on the Eastern front, the headquarters for his invasion of Russia, were Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s two chief partners in genocide.

The hands of all three were already steeped in blood; already hundreds of thousands of Jews had been murdered by the Einsatzgruppen, the roving killing squads. And yet over tea and cakes down in the command bunker, with the stenographer present to take down Hitler’s spin on history, Hitler called the notion that there’s “a plan to exterminate The Jews” just a “rumor” being spread to slander him. Of course, he added the Jews deserve to be murdered, and he was glad the rumor was being spread, but it was just a rumor: the Jews were just being “parked” in “the marshy parts of Russia.”

It is in this remarkable aside, preserved for us only by accident, that Hitler captures and epitomizes what I believe is the secret, unexpressed attitude of Hitler’s successors, today’s Holocaust deniers: They know it happened, they’re glad it happened, the Jews deserved it, but they’ve found an ingenious way to twist the knife in the backs of the dead victims-by denying it happened, claiming their death is only a rumor, “propaganda,” a lie, a myth. Confirmation that this is the true impetus beneath esoteric language of current Holocaust deniers can be found in the memoir of former neo-Nazi German skinhead leader Ingo Hasselbach ( Führer-Ex , with Tom Reiss).

Although this is, I believe the rule for most Holocaust deniers, is it true of Mr. Leuchter, the subject of Mr. Morris’ documentary, the electric chair expert become gas chamber “debunker”? This is the key mystery at the heart of Mr. Death : Is Mr. Leuchter a gullible simpleton blinded by bad science or is he, beneath the aura of an aggrieved innocence, a more calculating and sinister figure little different from the vicious hatemongers who have taken him up as an icon of their cause?

It’s a question-deluded true believer or cynical manipulator-that persists in scholarly debates over the mind of Hitler himself. A question that arises in the case of Mr. Leuchter: the calculus of delusion, self-deception and evil, a question I’d been discussing, sometimes arguing about, with Errol ever since he first showed me some of the early footage he’d shot of Mr. Leuchter. He’d been following Mr. Leuchter, observing him at close range (close enough to observe that the geeky fellow drinks upward of 40 cups of coffee a day). Following Mr. Leuchter from death row execution chambers where he plied his day job as an electric chair consultant, through his growing celebrity among the Holocaust revisionists who use The Leuchter Report as “scientific proof” that no gas chambers existed-and thus no mass murder transpired-at Auschwitz.

You may not be familiar with The Leuchter Report , a sad but sinister document in which Mr. Leuchter claims the analysis of stones and scrapings he vandalized from the walls of the crematoria at Auschwitz show no significant trace of cyanide gas. Which proves, Mr. Leuchter claims, that there were no gassings at Auschwitz. Ignore the massive testimony of Auschwitz eyewitnesses, inmates, guards and even the camp commandant because of my amateur chemistry experiment, Mr. Leuchter enjoins us. Yet millions of copies of this “report” have been distributed in dozens of languages by neo-Nazis all over the world, making Mr. Leuchter a celebrity name in that noxious company. He’s made regular appearances at mock scholarly conferences of “revisionist historians.” He’s succeeded in converting once respected historians like Mr. Irving to Holocaust denial, on the basis of his so-called science. His credentials have been questioned, yes; he has no specialized training in chemical analysis. His sampling methods have been disputed (most of the original bricks and stones of wartime Auschwitz have been removed by local peasants in need of their own building materials.) But not until Mr. Morris looked into it did anyone check on Mr. Leuchter’s lab work or look up the lab scientist who did the cyanide gas testing-and in one stroke refute Mr. Leuchter’s pretensions to science.

Mr. Leuchter kept the lab man, Jim Roth, who has a doctorate in chemistry from Cornell, in the dark concerning exactly where the samples came from and what exactly he was testing for. In doing so, Mr. Leuchter remained in ignorance of a crucial fact about testing for cyanide gas. As Mr. Roth states in Mr. Death , cyanide gas would only penetrate to a few microns’ depth in stone or plaster surfaces. And the fact that Mr. Leuchter took big chunks out of walls and floors, without telling the lab man that he wanted the outside surface analyzed, resulted in analysis of samples which, when pulverized, diluted upward of 10,000 times any cyanide that might have been found on the surface of the walls-even assuming Mr. Leuchter had the right surfaces in the first place.

Mr. Leuchter’s test, his “proof,” the whole Leuchter Report , then, was and is a joke, the product of ludicrously inadequate knowledge and slovenly reasoning, not science. Mr. Leuchter himself would be little more than a pathetic joke if his fraudulent thesis were not such a widely distributed, poisonously employed lie.

But again, as Errol asks, do we-does he-need to prove the world is round?

I don’t know. It’s a question that troubled me over the years Errol and I had been discussing this question. There are some in the Jewish community who believe in good faith that it’s better to utterly ignore the Holocaust deniers, not give them legitimacy and publicity by “debating” their absurd premises. While I know it’s a sincerely held point of view, I disagree with it: I believe Holocaust denial needs to be examined. All too often in the rhetoric of those who say to ignore them, I hear the echoes of those who said “ignore Hitler, he’s too absurd to be taken seriously.” (That’s at the heart of my quarrel with film buffs who excuse Charlie Chaplin’s trivializing film, The Great Dictator .)

The lesson I took from my study of the works of the heroic anti-Hitler journalists in Munich, who reported on his rise to power, was that Hitler and Nazism thrived on the counterfeiting of history and on the profusion of sinister conspiracy theories like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the “stab-in-the-back” theory (that Jews caused Germany to lose World War I). Munich journalists risked their lives to combat these theories because they knew that however absurd they were, they could have-and did have-profoundly evil consequences.

In addition, my notion of how to respond to Holocaust denial was shaped by my conversation with Prof. Berel Lang, the brilliant philosopher who had written about the idea of a “history of evil,” a history in the evolution of human malignancy in which Hitler represented a new but not necessarily final chapter. What, then, might be the next chapter, the next step in the evolution of evil, if not Holocaust denial, a new demonically artful level of evil whose proponents find an ingenious way to murder the dead all over again? To relish the slaughter secretly while twisting the knife in the backs of the dead (talk about a stab in the back). To both erase the victims from history and yet assassinate their character and memory afresh. As such, it’s a phenomenon, a mentality that deserves to be studied, and Mr. Morris’ film represents a thoughtful, groundbreaking effort.

Still, when the time approached to see the film, I found myself worrying about my reaction to it, worrying whether it would strain our friendship. It was a concern I expressed in a column I’d done on the occasion of Errol’s last film, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control . I’d spoken about my belief that what has made his work so distinctive, in Fast, Cheap , in Gates of Heaven , in The Thin Blue Line , was the tenderness, the genuinely loving attentiveness he lavishes on the often bizarre figures he films. That’s what made Mr. Death “a kind of philosophical suspense story to me,” I wrote. “Will these techniques work on a Holocaust-denying electric chair expert? Or will it be a film about the limits of humanizing explanation, the limits of the lens of love?”

Finally, I had to end the suspense: A British film crew was coming to New York to interview me for a television documentary they were making to be released in conjunction with Mr. Death and a retrospective of Errol’s work at the Museum of Modern Art. And a MoMA curator had called me asking if I’d be the interlocutor in a “Conversation With Errol Morris” after one of the screenings. So I had to see what I felt about how he handled this potentially inflammatory topic.

What a relief it was when I finally saw Mr. Death . It’s a film that demonstrates the philosophical sophistication Mr. Morris (a former doctoral student in philosophy) brings to the question. It’s a film that does much more than refute the deniers: It unmasks them. I’m not going to speak of it in much detail this far in advance. (It’s due to open in late December, though it’s being screened at the Toronto Film Festival this month.) But I’m not reviewing it here in movie critic, film buff terms. There’s plenty in the film for the esthetes to chew on. I just think it’s important for the reception of Mr. Death to call attention to its achievement as investigative journalism. To point out, as someone familiar with the state of the art of Holocaust history and Holocaust denial, that this film advances the story in a way that a merely esthetic assessment of the film might miss.

In this respect, Mr. Death bears more than a casual relationship to The Thin Blue Line , a documentary about a Texas murder case in which Errol didn’t merely play the esthete observer, he intervened to solve the murder and free the man wrongly convicted of it from a pending date with the executioner. Both films also are meditations on the questionable of scientific authority-in The Thin Blue Line , it’s the testimony of the “forensic psychiatrist” Dr. James Grigson, a.k.a Dr. Death-and on Errol’s recurring preoccupation with questions of epistemology: how do we know what we claim to know; how do we know what’s inside each other’s heads.

So there’s certainly more in Mr. Death than a refutation of The Leuchter Report . Still, the refutation-and the precise weight and placement it’s given in the film-is a key to its point of view. By slyly placing the refutation after we’ve watched smug self-satisfied deniers like Ernst Zundel and Mr. Irving cite it for its serious scientific authority, the film performs an act of revision: on the revisionists a kind of retrospective dunce cap is placed upon their heads, making them seem like sad clowns, somehow unaware of the funny hats that make them seem, for all their pretensions to rationality, like circus freaks. Errol doesn’t even seem to say it; you just see it.

But there’s more to Errol’s investigative achievement in the film than this.

There is the remarkable archival detective story in which Errol, in conjunction with the brilliant historian of Auschwitz Robert Jan van Pelt (co-author with Deborah Dwork of Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present ) broke the Auschwitz code of esoteric euphemisms to prove that a rare explicit reference in a document to a “gas chamber” ( Vergasungskeller ) was not the “carburation room,” as the Holocaust deniers claim, but in fact the killing chamber they can no longer deny exists. It’s too immensely complicated for me to recount this detective story in its entirety here, but after I drew it out of Errol he did finally own up to a kind of satisfaction with his documentary detective work. “I am a creature of documents,” he said. He loves nothing better than to find the hidden esoteric truth in the subtext of an archival fragment.

In fact, the more I talked to him, the more remarkable investigative achievements I was able to draw out of him, ones that he seemed reluctant to speak of at first because he didn’t want to make it a film that “proved the world round.” Including one stunning discovery he didn’t even include in the final footage of Mr. Death: he’d found and filmed the hatches to the gas chambers, the hatches through which the SS dropped the cyanide gas, the absence of which had been used by quacks like Mr. Leuchter to deny gassing occurred. He’d found them decaying in an abandoned storage room at the death camp.

The hatches to the gas chamber-and he leaves them out! But I came to feel upon reflection that there was a kind of method to Mr. Morris’ modesty. That by dropping the refutation of Mr. Leuchter’s entire premise into the middle of the film and not commenting on it, not giving it any special billboarded, trumpeted attention, he is giving exactly the right weight to it. Exactly the right oh-by-the-way-in-case-anyone-is- so -deluded-as-to-take-this-guy’s-pretension-to-science-seriously, it’s all bogus. Now let’s get on to the more interesting question of why anyone would choose to delude himself this way, and is it possible to believe such hateful nonsense in any kind of innocent way, the way Mr. Leuchter portrays himself-as a questing naïf.

I’m inclined to believe the best epitaph for Mr. Leuchter in the film was provided by David Irving, of all people, in an interview in the film in which he says that The Leuchter Report had “converted” him. Mr. Irving describes Mr. Leuchter as someone who exhibits “criminal simplicity.” And he means it as a compliment, as a way of evoking Mr. Leuchter’s supposed innocent scientific objectivity. Mr. Death could be said to be a portrait of that fascinating borderline realm between sinister innocence and criminal simplicity. It suggests that at a certain point even innocent stupidity becomes criminal, sinister, culpably evil. After Mr. Death , it will be impossible even for the criminally stupid to claim innocence again.