Paradoxes of belief: Holocaust denial edition

(or, Vonnegut’s Mother Night reversed)

I’ve long thought it amazing how many odd, nearly unbelievable, individual stories are hidden in the corners of the grand ghastly narrative of the Holocaust; and no matter how many stories I read — Peter Wyden’s account of Stella Goldschlag, for instance, his Jewish schoolmate in 1930s Berlin who specialised in sniffing out undercover Jews for the Gestapo — there’s always another even stranger, such as the jewish graphic designer Cioma Schönhaus who survived the war, and saved many other lives, by learning to forge identity papers.

Holocaust denial seems to have its own bizarre corners. To wit, this new revelation:

[David Stein] a cerebral, fun-loving gadfly who hosted boozy gatherings for Hollywood’s political conservatives […] brought right-wing congressmen, celebrities, writers and entertainment industry figures together for shindigs, closed to outsiders, where they could scorn liberals and proclaim their true beliefs. That he made respected documentaries on the Holocaust added intellectual cachet and Jewish support to Stein’s cocktail of politics, irreverence and rock and roll.

[Under his original name David Cole he] was once a reviled Holocaust revisionist who questioned the existence of Nazi gas chambers. He changed identities in January 1998.

This reads like an April Fool’s prank, or a high-concept film plot from the fevered leftist imagination. The right-wing Jewish Holocaust documentary maker and fanatical Israel supporter is actually a secret neo-Nazi. Ha ha. Who would believe that? It’s not so easy to change your identity, particularly if you’ve just made yourself notorious on TV chat shows. And how would a man with no past be able to start a new career and become a political insider?

But what intrigues me most of all is when the Guardian article touches on the question of Stein/Cole’s true beliefs. One of the important lessons of modern cognitive psychology and philosophy of mind is that it is very difficult — perhaps impossible — to develop a coherent theory of beliefs, under which statements like “X believes Y” are statements of fact. (See, for example, the seminal book by Stephen Stich, that relegates beliefs — and other many other concepts — to the realm of “folk psychology”.)

At first it sounds like he was an adolescent enjoying provocation, and that he was disturbed by the way his opinions were appropriated by white supremacists.

In January 1998, wanting to start anew, Cole wrote a letter to the JDL, recanting his views.

It sounds at first like he’s trying to tell a conventional self-exculpatory story: I never really believed it, I got carried away with the contrarian sport of it, when I understood better I dropped that whole identity, and atoned by making truthful documentaries about the Holocaust. But in the Guardian interview

the recanting was fake, he said. Cole today still challenges established Holocaust scholarship, including the certainty about Nazi gas chambers… [He says] “I haven’t changed my views. But I regret I didn’t have the facility with language that I have now. I was just a kid.”

And the documentaries?

 He knew the subject, needed an income and US schools and universities had budgets to commission such projects. He said: “I gave mainstream audiences what they wanted.”

After all that, does it make sense to even pose the question of what his “true beliefs” are? He devotes his career to espousing conventional history, devotes his free time to a related but different ideology, but holds to the idea that he’s “really” a different person, with a completely different set of beliefs, and that he was only forced to espouse those conventional views by his circumstances. Most of us have less obvious (and less disreputable) contradictions in our so-called belief systems, so we have no need to assign different names to different sides.

It’s a reversal of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, his novel of a German-American who is charged with war crimes after having spent the war in Germany making antisemitic radio broadcasts, where he was in fact a spy, using the broadcasts to conceal coded messages to his superiors in Britain.

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