Fear of a Gray Planet

March 10, 2015

Multiple Pages
Fear of a Gray Planet

Seminal historian Professor Raul Hilberg chose a Maya Angelou PBS tai chi summit about rape and evil to make a shocking claim about Hitler.

Do you know how giddy I was to write that? I was giddy because I know I’m the first person in the history of the world to string those words together as a sentence. When I was a teenager, my friends and I used to see if we could come up with a legible sentence that no human before us had ever uttered. To this day, I still recall winning that competition by saying, “Look out, here comes Edward James Olmos on a unicycle, and he’s brought the woodpeckers.”

As much as that line still makes me laugh, it was pure fiction. But the Hilberg sentence is real. Yes, Raul Hilberg, the father of Holocaust history, chose a 1988 PBS documentary in which Maya Angelou uses tai chi to overcome rape and evil to make a declaration so startling that PBS edited it out of the broadcast. And, in fact, he may have implicated himself as a perjurer.

How do I even start eating this overstuffed monte cristo of craziness?

“I’m asking my question rhetorically, because I know the answer. It’s the ‘fear of the gray area.’”

“Facing Evil with Maya Angelou” was a PBS special hosted by LBJ dirty-trickmeister-turned-lovable-homespun-Gomer Bill Moyers. The concept of the show was simple: Angelou would explore issues of evil, including lynchings, the Holocaust, and her own rape as a child, and then make everyone feel better with tai chi and “happy dancing.”

Did I say simple? I meant insane.

For some reason (and I don’t know why) Hilberg decided to begin his talk with a startling anecdote. And PBS censored that anecdote (and I totally know why). Some years ago, I found the original audiotape of Hilberg’s speech. The full PBS special is online; you can see it here. Hilberg makes his appearance at the 50:52 mark; his speech begins at 53:36.

This is the opening part of Hilberg’s speech. On the audio clip, I’ve let it run so that it bleeds over into where PBS chose to begin the remarks.

For those of you too lazy to click on the clip, here’s a transcript of the censored portion:

In 1976, I went to a small town in Bavaria, Ludwigsburg, which has the headquarters for investigations of so-called National Socialist crimes, an office maintained by the provinces of the Federal Republic of Germany. About thirty prosecutors were housed in that particular building, and I went there to study court records, various affidavits, and other materials. But one afternoon, they said, “We’re having a party today, would you join us?” Why, yes. They said, “we have one bottle of wine for each person.” (laughter from the audience). And after a while I chanced to talk to the deputy chief of that office, and I said to him this: I’ve been troubled by one question. And I’m afraid that I went into print with something that isn’t entirely accurate. And that is the role of Adolf Hitler himself in the annihilation of the Jewish people in Europe. Now, I know that you are only concerned here with live individuals, and that you do not investigate the dead.

But still … what do you think?

“Ach,” he said, “we’ve often fantasized about drawing up an indictment against Adolf Hitler himself. And to put into that indictment the major charge: the Final Solution of the Jewish question in Europe, the physical annihilation of Jewry. And then it dawned upon us, what would we do? We didn’t have the evidence.”

And he laughed.

This is not insignificant. Here’s Hilberg, in 1988, speaking of a conversation he had with German war crimes prosecutors in 1976. In-between ’76 and ’88, Hilberg testified against Canadian Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, who was on trial under Canada’s “false news” law. Let’s be clear—Hilberg was helping the Canadian government put Zundel in prison simply for publishing a pamphlet. And on the stand, Hilberg steadfastly maintained that there was at least one, maybe two, direct orders from Hitler to initiate the “Final Solution.”

We know from Hilberg’s censored PBS comments that as early as 1976 he was very aware of the lack of any direct evidence implicating Hitler, yet on the stand in Toronto in 1985, he didn’t mention what he told the West German prosecutors in ’76 —his fear that he “went into print with something that isn’t entirely accurate” regarding Hitler’s role. Hilberg was asked by Zundel’s attorney a multitude of questions directly pertaining to the accuracy of Hilberg’s book, and the claims he made in it regarding Hitler’s involvement in the Holocaust. Under oath, he defended his “not entirely accurate” material as being completely accurate.

Hilberg perjured himself.

But there is, I would argue, a bigger story here. The story isn’t “Why would Hilberg perjure himself?” (the damn fool shouldn’t have taken part in that show trial to begin with), but rather, “Why would PBS edit out the most fascinating remark in the speech?” That’s what interests me. In a boring-as-toast special featuring overweight people doing tai chi, PBS chose to leave out the one thing that might have sparked a genuinely interesting debate.

I’m asking my question rhetorically, because I know the answer. It’s the “fear of the gray area.” Hilberg’s comment was an admission that, even by the late ’80s, there were still large gaps in our knowledge of the Holocaust. Too many—way too many—mainstream historians and media figures believe that the existence of these “gray areas” must be covered up, lest the gaps and uncertainties open the door to “denial.”

The fear of the gray area is hardly limited to the field of Holocaust history. Every discipline (scientific, medical, historical, etc.) has its gray areas, and every discipline has its outlying groups designated as skeptics or deniers. And in every discipline, far too many professionals feel that the best way to keep out the “fringe” is to suppress the gray areas. Personally, I say embrace them, and let the chips fall where they may.

Yes, broadcasting Hilberg’s opening remarks might have driven a few people to Holocaust denial (or, dare I say, legitimate revisionism), but suppressing those key few minutes not only robbed viewers of some tantalizing food for thought, but it also turned Hilberg’s speech into a crashing bore.

Maybe it was just an attempt to make Maya Angelou’s tai chi look appealing in comparison.

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