"History is Far Too Important to Be Left to History Professors": Combating Holocaust Denial on a Small College Campus
About a year ago Emporia State University's student newspaper, the Bulletin, ran an ad from the Committee for an Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH). Few Emporians and fewer students had ever heard of CODOH before March 1, 1999. So when the advertiser offered the cash-strapped newspaper $200 up front, it seemed like easy money. Who would complain? The Bulletin published the ad.
Faculty and students responded quickly, explaining the nature of CODOH and its tactics. Like other Holocaust deniers, CODOH seeks to "set the record straight" in college newspapers by questioning established historical facts about the deliberate murder of European Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, the mentally ill and physically deformed, and all the others the Nazis classified as subhuman. The Bulletin staff immediately apologized, but not in print, and claimed that they were duped by the advertiser. If they had only known the seriousness of the distorted message, an editor said, the ad would never have been published. The story should have ended there, but it didn't. Our experience at Emporia highlights a significant problem on our nation's college campusesthe ongoing efforts of Holocaust deniers to corrupt the historical memory of today's college students.
CODOH is led by Bradley R. Smith, who has focused all his efforts on attacking the Holocaust by subverting college students. Smith and his allies target college newspapers because the mainstream press, including the New York Times, refuses to run the ads. CODOH and similar groups, like the Institute for Historical Review, instead surf the net and check online college schedules for Holocaust courses. They then target these courses with ads that attempt to blur reality and cast doubt on Nazi atrocities. When criticized, Smith makes himself attractive to college newspapers by claiming a "First Amendment" or a "free speech" right that appeals to undergraduates seeking to be the next generation of Woodwards and Bernsteins.
Many naïve editors fall prey to the money and the message. Fortunately, there are other student-journalists who provide a better example, and have decided not to run the ad. Smith cites letters from editors who refuse to publish his ads, and he often argues with them on his web site. Some students have been extremely inventive in their responses to Smith, particularly Tiffanie Wilson, editor of Logos, the student newspaper at the University of the Incarnate Word, who ran the ad, but with a disclaimer that the Logos did not agree with the ad's content. She then sent the ad fee to the Anne Frank Museum.2 Other student papers, such as the Seahawk of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, simply said "no."
The public rightly believes that universities are cradles of learning, but the meaning of the university is sometimes lost on a generation with very little collective memory of the past. Today's students have been led to believe that history is bunk and has little relevance in their lives. Students have not been encouraged to question, but rather to obey; not taught to think critically, but to answer the questions at the end of the chapter. Unfortunately, our society and educational system have produced a generation unhinged from the past, and the historical profession has to accept some of the responsibility. To the deniers, the gas chambers did not exist, The Diary of Anne Frank is a fraud, and the numbers of dead just don't add up. If CODOH can persuade students to accept even those few assumptions, they have achieved their objective, and cleared the way for a revival of anti-Semitism and political fascism.
Their persistence in these efforts was evident here at Emporia. After the uproar in the spring of 1999, we felt we had solved the problem of Holocaust denial, but on January 31, 2000, the Bulletin ran the advertisement again. The staff knew full well the ad's content and message. They had even debated the issue, reached a consensus, and approached the university's publishing board insisting they needed the revenues. Although the board expressed serious reservations concerning the ethics of publishing the ad, the editorial staff decided to publish it anyway. Later, the editor said that she and the staff "do not regret running the ad." She went even further by claiming, "Nothing in the ad was racist, and it did not amount to discrimination."3
After being told of the reappearance of the ad by concerned students, Chris Lovett, one of the authors of this piece, stopped by the newspaper's office, and pointed out to the editors that they had violated their own policy against "academic dishonesty" and "discrimination based on race, creed, and national origins." Lovett warned the staff that they were opening the door to other controversial figures such as David Duke and the Reverend Fred Phelps to run ads. The editors (as well as their advisor, who was also present) offered no response. However, in its next issue, the Bulletin published an "open letter" from Bradley R. Smith, prompting some faculty members to quip that Smith had become an unofficial voice of the editorial board.
Student response was swift. Concerned students organized an ad hoc committee called "Students for Integrity of the Press."4 Some wrote letters to the editor. Initially the Bulletin responded by claiming that publishing the CODOH ad was solely a monetary decision. However, as the letters poured in and pressure mounted from both the student government and faculty senate, the paper became more defensive. After the faculty senate passed a resolution asking the Bulletin to reflect on running similar ads in the future, the Bulletin shifted direction and claimed that they were defending a "freedom of speech" issue. In an editorial on February 17, the paper argued that "newspapers need the freedom to express all sides of an issue in order to inform their readers."5 That same day, the University Public Affairs Club held a forum to discuss the issue. Some faculty members defended the paper's right to run the ad and claimed that those who questioned the ad were attempting to censor the paperone speaker even suggested that supporters of the faculty senate resolution were "Nazis." Ted Toadvine, the philosophy professor who authored the resolution, questioned the wisdom of publishing the CODOH ad, and Chris Lovett cited the responses by other student newspapers and the New York Times.6 While the paper's adviser argued that there would be no impact from the ad, clearly damage had already been done. In the midst of the controversy at Emporia, the Osage County Chronicle, published in a nearby town, printed a letter to the editor filled with blatant anti-Semitism and claiming that,
We've all seen the photographs of those poor starving Jews taken in the camps. Those poor pathetic souls. Just one little problem. The pictures are fakes. The people in the pictures were not taken in the camps, they weren't even taken in the Europe. They were taken in a hospital in Asia. The people in the pictures were not starving; they are in the final stages of Elephantiasis.. That's the Holocaust Museum. A lot of fakery that proves nothing.7
The Bulletin dug in its heels and hunkered down for a long fight. Letters continued coming to the Bulletin. One of the most poignant was from Norma Robinson, the director of the Student Health Center, who, thinking of her own grandmother, asked, "If the Holocaust did not occur as the CODOH ad stated, my family would like to know where did she and the other victims go?"8 An informed student took the paper to task, challenging their conception of censorship by asking, "Has the Bulletin been taken out of circulation? No and it probably never will be unless fascism becomes a viable political form again."9 Another student examined the charges made by Smith, found each to be false, and concluded: "Bradley Smith has mastered the art of taking people's words out of context and twisting them to fit his own ends."10
By this time, parents were involved and contacted the paper, the faculty, and the university administration. Karen Smith reached Harry Mazal of the Holocaust History Project and sought his aid. Mazal produced a counter ad and published it in the Bulletin at his own expense.11 Faculty representatives approached the local newspaper, Emporia Gazette, and requested a speaker who could come to campus to address the issues of press freedom and journalistic responsibility for a sixties-style teach-in.
The teach-in, "Freedom of the Press and Holocaust Denial," supported by the academic vice president and the vice president for student affairs, was designed to avoid posturing, formal position papers, or name-calling. The teach-in began with Richard Chamberlain, professor of German, reading Paul Celan's moving Holocaust poem "Death Fugue." Pat Kelley, the editorial page editor of the Emporia Gazette, was one of the speakers, along with members of the faculty and student body. The Bulletin staff chose not to send a representative. For two hours, students and faculty discussed freedom of the press and moral responsibility. Ron McCoy, a professor of history, noted, "People have the right to deny an event, [such as the Holocaust] but none of us is obligated to provide them with the mantle of legitimacy given to them by putting it in the paper."12 Some students expressed hurt and dismay that the ad appeared, though others found it difficult to grasp Martin Neimoller's warning about the problem of failing to confront evil when the evil appears not to apply directly to us. In all, faculty and university officials found the evening an improvement over the acrimony of the earlier forum.
Public response to the teach-in came quickly, particularly from World War II veterans. Kenneth Bradstreet published a letter in the Emporia Gazette, telling the Bulletin's editor and adviser, "you have offended me." He continued by saying, "The people who sent the ad are counting the survivors of that time in history as we pass away, leaving them to spread their untruths uncontested."13 Another veteran, who also wrote to the Emporia Gazette, noted, "For the doubters who believe the Holocaust did not occur, I have two sets of photographs of the happenings, one a hard copy, and the other . . . a burdened memory that will be carried in my mind for the rest of my life."14
The Bulletin continued to publish letters to the editor, but refused further editorial responses. One student commentator wanted to put the issue to bed.15 But it would not go away. The Bulletin never apologized, never acknowledged a mistake, and never promised not to publish the ad again. Only time will tell whether the student paper will venture into Holocaust denial once more. The events were perhaps best summed up by Pat Kelley of the Emporia Gazette, "The truth, sad though it may be, is this: Lies do not die, and the only defense against them is to keep telling the truth to children, generation after generation."16
Christopher Lovett and Sam Dicks teach at Emporia State University.
1. Willis Carto, quoted in "Introduction to Holocaust Denial: Anti-Semitism Masquerading as History," http://www.adl.org/holocaust/introduc.html.
2. Tiffanie Wilson, "Personal Values vs. Journalistic Responsibilities," University of the Incarnate Word Logos, March 10, 1999.
3. Wenzl, "When History Is Less than a Memory."
4. Ryan Wilson, "Student Committee Asks Bulletin to Stop Running Offensive Ads," The Bulletin, March 2, 2000.
5. "Holocaust Ad Becomes Free Speech Issue," The Bulletin, February 17, 2000 (italics added).
6. Kim Metrokatsas, "Forum Draws Big Crowd; Spurs Debate," The Bulletin, February 12, 2000; The New York Times "will not, however, accept advertisements that deny a recognized crime of substantial proportions or vividness, e.g., the Holocaust, the Irish famine, slavery, the Armenian massacre, etc." The following is taken from a form letter sent by Robert P. Smith, the advertising manager at the New York Times. The Anti-Defamation League made this letter available.
7. T. V. Allen, "Evil Sect," Osage County Chronicle, February 17, 2000.
8. Norma Robinson, "CODOH Legitimacy Questioned," Bulletin, February 21, 2000.
9. Laura Phillippi, "Student Explains Censorship; Wants an Apology," Bulletin, Febrauray 21, 2000.
10. Heather Meiers, "Student Shares Research on Holocaust," Bulletin, March 6, 2000.
11. Harry W. Mazal, OBE, "The Holocaust: Denial Mendacity Hatred," Bulletin, March 9, 2000.
12. Barry Owens, "Holocaust Ad Spurs Discussion," Emporia Gazette, Feb. 29, 2000.
13. Kenneth Bradstreet, "The Holocaust Happened," Emporia Gazette, March 1, 2000.
14. Ken Lenke, "He was there," Emporia Gazette, March 4, 2000.
15. Bradley Lewis, "CODOH Issue Needs to Be Put to Bed," Bulletin, February 21, 2000.
16. Patrick S. Kelley, "Learning Experience," Emporia Gazette, Feb. 29, 2000.
Copyright © American Historical AssociationLast Updated: September 13, 2007 2:09 PM