Lipstadt, Deborah
Lipstadt, Deborah

Back to the Age of Unenlightenment

Pope Benedict XVI has reinstated a bishop who denies the Holocaust and suggests that 9/11 was an American plot. The Vatican reportedly has done so to strengthen relations with a renegade segment of the Catholic Church. This is one of those inexplicable moves that leaves many asking, “Have they no decency?” A possibly more appropriate question is, “Have they no common sense?”


Deborah E. Lipstadt

A number of commentators have observed that this event will “complicate” Vatican-Jewish relations and make it more difficult for the two parties to come to an agreement about a papal visit in the near future. This may be true, but it is an exceptionally narrow way of looking at the implications of this move. Simply put, it makes the Vatican look as if it is once again living in the most unenlightened of ages.


Holocaust denial is an explicit form of anti-Semitism. Its only purpose is to inculcate contempt for Jews. According to deniers, Jews use the Holocaust to win the world’s sympathy and, in so doing, win reparations from Germany and political support for Israel. Such a charge, based on the imagery of money and political manipulation, hearkens back to anti-Semitic stereotypes. Why a pope would want to give support to such a movement is baffling. More baffling, however, is why the pope would want to associate the Vatican with someone who preaches lies and manipulations of history.

In 2000, I spent 10 weeks in a British court because Holocaust denier David Irving charged that I had libeled him by calling him a denier and an anti-Semite. My legal team traced Irving’s comments and claims about the Holocaust back to their sources. In every case we found some form of invention, manipulation, distortion or deletion. The documents he claimed “proved” that the Holocaust did not happen did no such thing.

His wrongs were so egregious that the judge, in a sweeping condemnation, used language not often heard in a British legal decision. Irving, the judge wrote, “perverts” and “distorts.” His statements about the Holocaust were “misleading,” “unjustified,” “a travesty,” “unreal.”

But this was not happenstance or a series of improbable mistakes, the judge said. Irving’s “falsification of the historical record was deliberate and … motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs, even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence.”

Holocaust deniers rely on a merry-go-round of “I will cite you and you will cite me.” Irving’s claims about the Holocaust are drawn whole cloth from or parroted by other deniers, such as reinstated Bishop Richard Williamson. Deniers have no independent proof on which to rely, because there is none. The Vatican has associated itself with a body of lies.

But Williamson does not just deny the Holocaust. He also claims 9/11 was staged by America as a pretext to invade Afghanistan. The linkage between the two sets of denial is, of course, not happenstance. Implicit in 9/11 denial is the charge that 4,000 Jewish workers in the World Trade Center were warned to stay home that day. In fact, about 500 Jews were among the victims. That is over 15 percent of the total, and a number consistent with the Jewish population of the New York metropolitan area. Moreover, how could so many people be told this information and thousands more not hear about it?

In short, both of Williamson’s claims are not only malicious forms of anti-Semitism, but they are completely illogical. They would be laughable were it not for the tragedies they address.

In embracing Williamson, the Vatican has done far more than set back Vatican-Jewish relations. It has made itself look like it is living in the darkest of ages. One awaits a pronouncement that it is heresy to believe that the Earth revolves around the sun — or didn’t the Vatican already once do that?

is Dorot professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University. Her most recent book is “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier.” Her blog is The Kaddish Connection Network distributed this piece.