Bradley R. Smith’s “Break His Bones”

was my first day of VITA this season. I’m going to miss half of the days this year because I’ll be away on vacation, but today I helped six households take a total of $5,744 back from the U.S. Treasury.

, I briefly reviewed “The Man Who Stopped Paying” — a one-act-play / monologue on war tax resistance composed 25 years ago by Bradley R. Smith shortly before he decided to dedicate himself to covering the Holocaust denial beat full-time.

That play has recently been released as a novelization (under the name The Man Who Saw His Own Liver). The publisher of that book, noting my interest, offered to send me a review copy, and also sent along Smith’s autobiographical Break His Bones: The Private Life of a Holocaust Revisionist.

Myself, I’m pretty satisfied with the orthodox interpretation of the Holocaust: roughly, that the virulently race-crazed, antisemitic, and murderous Nazi regime increased its bloodlust year after year until finally they had plunged whole continents into war and built an industry of mass-murder in which millions of people were gassed to death.

Smith believes that the jury is still out on parts of the story. He buys that the Nazis were wicked, antisemitic, and belligerent, and that they were bent on destroying Jewish culture in Europe. He isn’t ready to believe that there was a state policy to exterminate Jews, nor that Jews were mass murdered in camps by gas or any other means. He thinks that unreliable witnesses, testimony summoned by torture, and propaganda campaigns that were misinterpreted as evidence, have all been uncritically accepted into the historical record by a “Holocaust industry” that isn’t devoted to determining the truth so much as it is to building a monument (one that usefully justifies Israel’s claims to Palestine and to American obsequiousness).

I’m used to hearing these sorts of arguments from people who have a pro-Nazi or anti-Jew axe to grind. After having read Smith’s book, I don’t see much evidence for either one in Smith. Some make the case that there can be no such thing as non antisemitic Holocaust denial — that to deny the Holocaust can be nothing but an antisemitic act. And certainly if you don’t believe the Nazi regime carried out a policy of mass murder, this does tend to make Nazi Germany seem just one among many wicked regimes who inflicted war and suffering on the world — and not the supremely evil icon and Godwin’s law foil that it is today — which is perhaps objectively a pro-Nazi maneuver (though this stretches “pro-Nazi” a bit). Smith does say he hopes to remove the burden of what he provocatively calls the “blood libel” of the Holocaust from the German people.

People believe all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons, and their motivations are often hard to fathom and not at all obvious. And people can be disingenuous or evasive about their motives. But part of the charm of Smith’s writing is how he shares his sometimes self-deprecating introspection into his own motives. If I had to guess from this, I’d say he’s not antisemitic, but mostly just ornery.

In , he ran a bookstore, and was arrested, jailed, and convicted for selling Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. This makes him a First Amendment Martyr, First Class. When he now claims that his passion for “Holocaust revisionism” is based in his beliefs in free inquiry and free speech, he’s at least got that point on the résumé in his favor.

Smith doesn’t like being told what to think, and when he saw that the orthodox Holocaust story was something that was taboo to question — indeed illegal in some places — he decided he’d have to stand up for the underdog.

But not without some misgivings.

When you express doubts which others believe are evil, and which in fact may cause many individuals to suffer and to feel diminished and perhaps even humiliated, you have an obligation to act out of a good conscience and to value what can be called right relationship. Which means I must be a good man or the mischief and grief I cause by saying I doubt what I doubt will be gratuitous.

For me, misgivings like this would make me want to make damn sure I had all my facts straight before shooting my mouth off. But Smith’s conclusion was that he must be “willing to say publicly I do not believe what I do not believe, particularly when what I no longer believe relieves another people, in this instance Germans, of the moral burden of a specifically horrendous crime I no longer believe they committed.”

Myself, I possess no rock solid proof that the Holocaust happened as it is most typically described — certainly nothing that would convince Smith. But this doesn’t bother me much. I also have no rock solid proof that England exists and is not the result of “a conspiracy of cartographers.” But, as Smith himself points out:

There’s no end to argument. A new thought, new information is always turning argument back on itself. There’s no end to it. At the same time, you have to make decisions. Little leaps of faith.

Otherwise you end up treading water in a puddle of philosophical skepticism, or unable to choose between increasingly baroque conspiracy theories. As the saying goes, don’t have such an open mind that your brain falls out.

Soon after the attacks, Smith wrote:

We know the airplanes actually existed. We know that the World Trade Towers existed. We know the airplanes really did crash into the Towers. There really were great fiery explosions. Immense columns of smoke really did lift up into the heavens. There were hundreds if not thousands of “eye-witnesses” to the same specific event. People really did jump from windows eighty and a hundred floors above the ground. The towers really did fall down. Are there going to appear “deniers” now who will try to dismiss the destruction of the World Trade Center as a hoax? Will they try to “revise” the story, claiming that the planes missed their mark? That the towers did not really collapse but are still standing? That there really was no deliberate plan to kill the people in the towers? Not likely. Very different from the “gas-chamber” stories — or don’t you think so?

Time has rusted this argument with a thick layer of irony. The various and weird “9/11 Truth” theories and theorists rival those of the Holocaust deniers in spite of the many living eyewitnesses, the photographic evidence, and so forth. It’s just one of those things. Some people think the Earth is hollow and there are folks living on the inside. Some think the world is ruled by alien reptiloid shapeshifters masquerading as such notables as Queen Elizabeth. Some people think they speak with Jesus every night before bedtime. Can you prove them wrong? — if you’ve ever tried, you’ll know better than to try again.

If you spend too much time amongst such people and your mind is sufficiently open, you too will come to realize that all of the proof that the world isn’t hollow and that Queen Elizabeth isn’t a peerless chameleon is remarkably shoddy and circumstantial. Furthermore, suspiciously few credible experts will give your arguments on these matters anywhere near the attention and respect needed to refute them — evidence, perhaps, that they are ultimately irrefutable. Before you know it your brain’s fallen out.

Smith went on spread the good news that the Holocaust didn’t happen after all. This was thankless work that didn’t pay well and exposed him to danger. He lost friends and was unable to contribute much to the support of his family. His writing career was derailed, as he spent most of his writing energy putting together words that no publisher wanted anything to do with. His Holocaust denial writing appeared as self-published newsletters or as paid advertisements and supplements in college papers (which, even as such, were rejected at least as often as they were printed).

His brain fell out some time ago. Now he’s a believer. He combs the minutiae of eye witness stories of gas chambers for implausibilities with his skeptic’s hat on, but then credulously accepts the testimony of a clown like Fred Leuchter who concludes there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. His unbalanced standards of judgment show up most blatantly during his attempt to discredit Jankiel Wiernik’s writings about his experiences as a prisoner at Treblinka.

Wiernik, to save his own life, agreed to do construction and other work at the camp, while his fellow prisoners were being murdered — indeed, he says he helped to construct some of the gas chambers in which the murders took place. He later took part in an uprising in which he escaped, and he wrote of his experiences. After the war he testified in the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel.

Smith compares Eichmann and Wiernik: “Eichmann’s defense was that he knew nothing about exterminations in such camps and, in any case, he had been following orders. He was hanged in Jerusalem. ¶ [Wiernik] claims that he knew everything about the exterminations at Treblinka and moreover that he helped build the chambers in which they took place. His defense was that he followed orders. Wiernik survived Treblinka and the war and lived out the remaining 30 years of his survivor life in Israel as an honored citizen. In university English classes the professors call this sort of thing irony…”

It’s offensive and intellectually dishonest arguments like this that ultimately deflate the proud “free inquiry” balloon. The reason it’s called free inquiry instead of “free verse” is that it has an aim — one that requires intellectual honesty and a love of truth. Otherwise it’s propaganda, axe-grinding, or annoyance and doesn’t get to wear the same handsome clothes as “free inquiry” does.

So why did I finish his book? It’s a little rough around the edges but charmingly written for the most part. Smith himself is an interesting character, and the autobiographical and introspective parts of the book have a value of their own without reference to the whole Holocaust thing. And I’ve got an affection and some hard-earned sympathy for lonely oddballs who write furiously to cover some eccentric and mostly unloved subject matter.