Pyrotechnics set the tone at the beginning of Mr. Death.

Another innocent victim: Thomas Edison’s experiment electrocuting an elephant at Coney Island.

Human breakage - McNamara studied this problem at Ford by dropping human skulls down a stairway.

Protests ignored

IBM machine or abacus? The two men learned a kind of “calculation” from their trades but could not recognize their errors in dealing with much larger problems.

The Establishment’s mindset prefigures those selected to be a part of the Establishment.

We see only half the story at times.

Interpretive mistakes were made, here at Tonkin Gulf.

Zündel and his associates don hardhats to deflect the weight of historical evidence.

Fred’s first trip to Europe became a mission but ...

... he failed to take into account an abundance of hard evidence.

Fred, out of work, out of luck: after testifying for Zündel in Canada, Fred’s consulting jobs dried up.

Dim denial: the inside of Auschwitz facilities used to gas to death innocent human beings.

Deutsch ist wichtig. Fred never examined the documents amassed in archives.

A track less traveled: most people who believe in the reality of the Holocaust have never been to Auschwitz.

Detective Fred on-site looking for what really transpired.

Detective Van Pelt later tracks Leuchter’s trail.

The texture of evidence makes the Holocaust tangible to Van Pelt.

The texture of archival evidence was never experienced by Fred.

The logic of error

Given the pyrotechnic opening of Mr. Death, and its inclusion of a segment featuring the electrocution of an elephant (an experiment performed by Thomas Edison), Errol Morris’ fascination with technokiller Fred Leuchter might strike one as morbid or even perverse. Similarly, in The Fog of War, Morris includes a significant segment of skulls crashing on impact after having been dropped down a stairwell, which was, in fact, precisely the manner in which McNamara studied the problem of “human breakage” during his tenure at Ford. These morbid scenes notwithstanding, the director’s philosophical interests reach much deeper than death. Morris’ portraits of McNamara and Leuchter, men who would never describe themselves as “killers,” though many others have, serve to magnify the intractable problem of human fallibility.

When Morris asks McNamara how he was affected by the ever more strident protests against the Vietnam War, the former Secretary replies,

“I don’t think my thinking was changing. We were in the Cold War. And this was a Cold War activity.”

In this single phrase lies the key to the mystery of why people never seem to be able to learn from other people’s mistakes. It is the very nature of mistakes not to be recognized by the people who make them at the time when they make them.

Some people may learn from their own mistakes, as McNamara takes himself to have done, for since his retirement he has invested considerable energy and time in trying to increase awareness of the dangers of nuclear weapons. But people do not generally learn from other people’s mistakes. This is not because they do not want to, but, rather, because no two situations are ever exactly the same. In order to recognize the applicability of “the lessons of history” to the present, one would have to accept that the current situation were relevantly similar to that of the past. However, when regarded in detail, the rich texture of history is invariably unique. Nothing like the Vietnam War could ever have occurred at any time in history other than when it did, which is precisely why McNamara quite rightly insists that his thinking at the time was largely determined by the dynamics of the Cold War:

“It’s almost impossible for our people today to put themselves back into that period. In my seven years as Secretary, we came within a hair’s breadth of war with the Soviet Union on three different occasions. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for seven years as Secretary of Defense, I lived the Cold War.”

In a similar way, when people defend the actions of U.S. President George W. Bush, who on March 19, 2003 flouted international law and waged offensive war on the grounds that with the events of 9/11 the world forever changed, they effectively deny the relevance of any of the teachings of history for the present day.

McNamara and Leuchter applied the very same powers of deduction and calculation that had led to their professional success to other contexts, which led to their infamy. But they were unable to recognize their errors regarding Vietnam, on the one hand, and the Holocaust on the other, for these problems exceeded their ken. They themselves were incapable of appreciating this fact, for they were operating from within a cognitive context that permitted them to make their mistakes, as McNamara explains:

“We were wrong, but we had in our minds a mindset that led to that action. And it carried such heavy costs. We see incorrectly or we see only half of the story at times.”

As outsiders or in retrospect (in McNamara’s case) we recognize that these men applied the wrong tools to the problem at hand, rather like someone who tries to remove a screw using a hammer. Is it “vicious” or “evil” to attempt to remove a screw using a hammer? No, it is stupid.

When Fred Leuchter’s lack of certification as an engineer in the state of Massachusetts was claimed to discredit his alleged expertise, Zündel offered this hilarious albeit earnest defense:

“Did Christ have a diploma in Christianity? Did Marx have a diploma in Marxism? Did Adolf Hitler have a diploma in National Socialism? No, they did not. But they knew a hell of a lot about their field.”

The segments of Zündel are consistently and deeply comic, in stark juxtaposition to those featuring Zündel’s and Leuchter’s morally stern critics, dark and somber judges who condemn the two misguided men for being misguided. Morris’ philosophical point here is profound. Zündel and Leuchter hold beliefs that are deeply flawed—it’s not that they are evil, but that they are clowns. And, ultimately, they arrived at their eccentric beliefs about the Holocaust in the very manner in which they arrived at their other, socially acceptable, beliefs, through applying their own intellect to the data with which they had been confronted.

When people rail against Holocaust revisionists, one thing that they fail to bear in mind is that, as despicable as Holocaust denial may seem, in fact revisionists are in a tiny minority who raise skeptical questions about “the received view.” It may well be that their skepticism is motivated by subterranean racism and other psychological and emotional forces, but the fact remains: they are going against the grain to raise the questions that they do. In other words, though they are evidently wrong in the conclusions that they have drawn through their idiosyncratic “reexamination” of the facts, they are independent thinkers in a way in which the vast majority of people who supported the Nazis then or unreflectively accept what they have been told by their own government today, are not. Fred Leuchter expresses his consternation at being treated as a criminal for holding a set of beliefs as follows:

“I bear no ill will to any Jews any place, whether they're in the United States or abroad. I bear a great deal of ill will to those people that have come after me, those people who have persecuted and prosecuted me, but that’s got nothing to do with them being Jewish. That only has to do with the fact that they've been interfering with my right to live, think, breathe, and earn a living. As far as being a Revisionist, at this point, I’m not an official Revisionist, but I guess I’m a reluctant Revisionist. If my belief that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Majdanek makes me a Revisionist, then so be it. They've expressed their unquestioned intent of destroying me simply because I testified in Canada, not because I have any other affiliation with any anti-Semitic organization, not because I’m affiliated with any Nazi or Neo-Nazi organization.”

Errol Morris recognizes that ignorance is omnipotent vis-à-vis the person who suffers from it in the moment: an ignorant person does not know what he does not know. Problems arise when people assume that they do know what they do not know, but where does the moral culpability for a person’s ignorance lie? A mistake is, by definition, not something intended by the person who makes it. Ignorance is a type of mistake for which, therefore, the individual cannot reasonably be said to be morally reproachable. When people willfully don blinders, refusing even to entertain information possibly relevant to the question at hand, then some would claim that they are culpably ignorant. But this merely postpones the same concern, leading ultimately to a variation on the initial question: what sort of person would choose to be ignorant? Is a person who freely chooses to be ignorant sufficiently rational to be held responsible for his choice?

In the cases of McNamara, Leuchter and Zündel, these men made mistakes precisely because of their own spiraling ignorance and delusion, which they themselves could not surmount, for they believed what they believed. Whether or not their false beliefs were a matter of wishful thinking, they were nonetheless beliefs.

By placing Zündel under the bright light of shining irony, Morris suggests that this man is yet another victim of himself, a tragic victim of his own limited powers of cognition and pretensions to The Truth. The irony of Holocaust revisionism is that the Holocaust was so horrific, that it verges on the surreal and is very nearly incredible. Were incontrovertible historical evidence not preserved at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. (and elsewhere), one could only wonder how such an atrocity could ever have taken place. As the remaining survivors pass away, humanity will become more and more dependent upon historical evidence, but it is probably the case that most people today believe in the reality of the Holocaust on the basis of hearsay.

Errol Morris protested the Vietnam War and is obviously not a Holocaust revisionist, but he presents these characters sympathetically, because he recognizes that their vice is an admixture of ignorance and self-delusion to which everyone is prone. Thus his portrayal of the contradictions involved in the historian Robert Jan Van Pelt reveal him not to recognize how he himself embodies some of the very Leuchterian characteristics which he decries:

“Leuchter is a victim of the myth of Sherlock Holmes. A crime has been committed. You go to the site of the crime and with a magnifying glass you find a hair, or you find a speck of dust on the shoe. Leuchter thinks that is the way reality can be reconstructed. But he is no Sherlock Holmes.”

In relaying, without apparent irony, his own investigative process in retracing Leuchter’s steps, van Pelt explains,

“I have a job to do and my job, my first job, is to try to understand where this guy [Leuchter] was at what time. To take that tape and to record every camera angle, where it was, what piece of wall they were looking at, where he took the samples. It was important to be able to follow that trail very, very precisely. I wanted to see how he had done it.”

Echoing Leuchter’s own discovery of his “mission” to serve the truth, Van Pelt later reports about himself,

“The first time I came into the archive I was stunned. I had found a mission, I had found a task, I’d found a vocation. When you go to Birkenau there is very little left and to suddenly have in that room that concentration of evidence. There is a tactile reality, an incredible texture, the texture of making that camp...”

Continued: Revisionist history

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