Bishop Richard Williamson, Holocaust denial, and the problem of “recantation” by cranks

Because of the fallout from the revelation by Brian Deer that very likely Andrew Wakefield, hero of the antivaccine movement but, alas for his worshipers, one of the most dishonest and incompetent scientists who ever lived, had almost certainly falsified data for his infamous 1998 Lancet paper that launched a decade-long anti-MMR hysteria that shows no signs of abating, I ended up not coming back to a story I was very interested in. Although this story is about Holocaust denial, the questions raised by it are applicable not only to history and Holocaust denial, but to any area of science or history subject to crankery. In other words, this story brought up questions that to me apply not just to the skeptical evaluation of Holocaust denial, but to skepticism and science in general.

To recap, that story is about Bishop Richard Williamson, one of the four rogue bishops whose excommunication Pope Benedict XVI rescinded a couple of weeks ago, opening the way, or so Benedict seemed to hope, to a reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the über-conservative breakaway sect known as the Society of Saint Pius X. Unfortunately, Benedict not only neglected to demand that these four bishops publicly acknowledge the legitimacy of the Second Vatican Council and its teachings and accept the authority of the Pope before reversing their excommunication, but he and his vetters overlooked a rather glaring problem with Bishop Williamson.

They overlooked that he has been an utterly anti-Semitic loon of a Holocaust denier for at least the last 20 years, so much so that he’s buddies with David Irving. They even overlooked that Williamson had given an interview on Swedish television in November that demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is an utterly anti-Semitic loon of a Holocaust denier. This interview probably would have faded into well-deserved obscurity along with most other verbal emissions of little-known cranks had it not been for timing most unfortunate (for him and the Pope). It turns out that Williamson’s interview aired the same day that the the Pope signed the decree rescinding the four bishops’ excommunications.


When last I wrote about this saga, Pope Benedict had demanded that Williamson publixly recant his Holocaust denial. Yesterday, it appears that Williamson is too anti-Semitic even for the SSPX, whose writings on its website drip with anti-Semitism. Apparently, however, Holocaust denial is just too much even for the SSPX:

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina —  A Roman Catholic bishop whose denials that the Holocaust ever happened led to Vatican demands he recant has been removed as the head of an Argentine seminary, local media reported Sunday, citing a Catholic official.

The ultraconservative Society of St. Pius X has dismissed Bishop Richard Williamson as director of its seminary in La Reja, outside Buenos Aires, according to independent Argentine news agency Diarios y Noticias and the newspaper La Nacion.

That SSPX booted Williamson from his position is not in and of itself amazing, especially in the context of its other actions, which include scrubbing its website of “inconvenient” articles, such as one blaming the Jews for deicide. What I’ve come to find fascinating in the interim since I last wrote is the very concept of a Holocaust denier recanting. What, exactly, would that mean? Is it possible for a Holocaust denier to be sincere in recanting under orders? I started to get an inkling of the possible answers in, of all places, an interview with Bishop Williamson published in Der Spiegel yesterday:

SPIEGEL: The Vatican is demanding that you retract your denial of the Holocaust, and it is threatening to not allow you to resume your activities as a bishop. How will you react?

Williamson: Throughout my life, I have always sought the truth. That is why I converted to Catholicism and became a priest. And now I can only say something, the truth of which I am convinced. Because I realize that there are many honest and intelligent people who think differently, I must now review the historical evidence once again. I said the same thing in my interview with Swedish television: Historical evidence is at issue, not emotions. And if I find this evidence, I will correct myself. But that will take time.

Brilliant! Well, not really. It’s a rather transparent attempt to play for time, all the while painting himself as seemingly reasonable. He just wants do do more research! In fact, reading what he said, I can’t seem to shake an image of O.J. searching relentlessly for the “real” killer of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, never to be deterred until he finds the proof he needs. Or, I feel amusement like that of Michael Moynihan that comes from thinking “of a nutter like Williamson ‘reviewing’ historical data on the Holocaust, a subject that has been covered in great depth by historians like Christopher Browning, Saul Friedlander, Raul Hilberg, and Hans Mommsen, all of whom are slightly more qualified to render judgement on the subject.” When faced with the overwhelming mass of evidence that the Nazi regime undertook a systematic, industrialized program of mass murder designed to purge Europe of Jews, how will he react? Will he think that maybe–just maybe–he was wrong when he proclaimed that there were no gas chambers and that the number of Jews killed by the Nazis was nowhere near six million, that number being in his view a huge exaggeration? Or will he, like brave, brave Sir Robin, quickly turn his tail and flee? I think you know the answer. He will “research” the Holocaust the same way that the incompetent self-proclaimed “execution expert” Fred Leuchter “researched” the Holocaust, except that, unlike Leuchter, he can’t even trouble himself to actually go to Auschwitz:

SPIEGEL: How can an educated Catholic deny the Holocaust?

Williamson: I addressed the subject in the 1980s. I had read various writings at the time. I cited the Leuchter report (eds. note: a debunked theory produced in the 1980s claiming erroneously that the Nazi gas chambers were technically impractical) in the interview, and it seemed plausible to me. Now I am told that it has been scientifically refuted. I plan now to look into it.

SPIEGEL: You could travel to Auschwitz yourself.

Williamson: No, I will not travel to Auschwitz. I’ve ordered the book by Jean-Claude Pressac. It’s called “Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers.” A printout is now being sent to me, and I will read it and study it.

SPIEGEL: The Society of Saint Pius X has set an ultimatum for the end of February. Are you not risking a break with the group?

Williamson: In the Old Testament, the Prophet Jonah tells the sailors when their ship is in distress: ” Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.” The Society has a religious mission that is suffering because of me. I will now examine the historic evidence. If I do not find it convincing, I will do everything in my power to avoid inflicting any further harm on the Church and the Society.

Don’t you just love the “persecution gambit” that Holocaust deniers love to play, how they love to don the mantle of free speech and portray themselves as nothing more than humble seekers of the truth?

Of course, here is where the problem with ordering a Holocaust denier to “recant” comes in. If Williamson were simply to obey the orders of the Pope and SSPX and publicly say something like, “Sorry about all that Holocaust denial since the 1980s; I didn’t really mean it, and the Holocaust did really happen,” it would be mind-numbingly obvious that his statement would be utterly insincere and that he would be making it only because he was ordered to. In other words, his “recantation” would be a lie, and if the Pope and SSPX accepted it they would be accepting a lie. If I thought there was any chance that Williamson would be willing and able to examine the evidence fairly and actually open himself to the possibility of changing his mind in response to it, I might find his desire to reexamine the evidence admirable, except that I know that the evidence for the Holocaust was just as strong 25 years ago as it is now. Williamson screwed up his “review” of the evidence back in the 1980s. What makes anyone think he could get it right now?

But notice how, even though it clearly means a lot to him to be officially part of the Church again, Williamson will not go out of his way to “do research” on the Holocaust. He will not travel. He has picked a single source that, apparently, if he finds it “unconvincing,” will allow him to hold fast to his current Holocaust denial. Notice how he makes lame excuses for not doing the research, for example, his all but saying, “Well, the book I want to read for my research hasn’t arrived. Never mind that he has a blog, meaning that he uses the Internet. If he has Internet access there is a wealth of material readily available to him that he could use to begin his research, starting with, ironically enough, the very book he is seeking, which has been reprinted with permission in its entirety on The Holocaust History Project website and at He can pick either site and then just read the book on his computer screen. If he’s the old-fashioned type (and, it would appear, virtually all SSPX clergy are pretty “old-fashioned” kinds of guys, as in 16th century old-fashioned), he could print it out and read it on good, old-fashioned paper.

No, no, Williamson doesn’t need to thank me. I’m more than happy to help out.

So is Professor Deborah Lipstadt, Director, Rabbi Donald A. Tam Institute for Jewish Studies, and Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies in the Department of Religion at Emory University. O. her blog, she suggested several excellent sources of scientifically and historically valid information on the Holocaust, including the judgment in favor of Professor Lipstadt in David Irving’s trial, Professor Lipstadt’s own rebuttal of the claims Williamson made in his Swiss interview, the Myth/Fact Sheet, The Holocaust History Project, and Van Pelt report. (To that, I’d also add Nizkor’s Techniques of Holocaust Denial, which refutes some of the most common denier canards, several of which Williamson parroted in his interview for Swiss television.) In fact, Professor Lipstadt even tried to e-mail Bishop Williamson, but unfortunately it bounced, leading her to resort to sending her letter with the sources listed above by old-fashioned snail mail.

Again, Williamson needn’t thank me or Professor Lipstadt. We’re both more than happy to help.

It is clear that Bishop Williamson’s Holocaust denial is not a new phenomenon. It has clearly been built up over at least two or three decades. It is clearly a highly ingrained belief. You can almost feel him building a wall that would prevent any new evidence that conflicts with his world view from entering his mind or influencing his thought.

By concentrating on a single book on the operation of the Auschwitz gas chambers, Williamson is showing a mindset that is common to many cranks, namely that of thinking that there must be one single “magic bullet” of evidence that either proves or disproves a something, be it a series of events over 12 years in history or a scientific theory. By way of comparison, consider how creationists, be they the “intelligent design” or “young earth” variety, deal with evolution. They pick apart single strands of evidence, thinking that any weaknesses in a single strand disproves the theory of evolution. For example, if there is a questionable bit of evidence in the fossil record, they’ll zero right in on that, ignoring all the other evidence that supports evolution. Think of how HIV/AIDS denialists deal with the science of HIV. They’ll point to any study that doesn’t fit quite so neatly in with the existing paradigm, zero in on it like a laser, and say that it “discredits” the HIV/AIDS hypothesis. Consider antivaccinationists. They will pick apart minor flaws in the studies that fail to find an association between vaccines and autism, and ignore the rest of the data.

The historicity of the Holocaust does not depend upon whether there were gas chambers at Auschwitz, anyway, although that factory of industrialized murder contributed up to 20% of the total number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. The historicity of the Holocaust is supported by multiple converging strands of evidence from many sources, including Nazi documents, eyewitness accounts, forensic studies, among others. Similarly, the HIV/AIDS hypothesis does not depend upon any one study, but rather hundreds–nay, thousands–of studies approaching the question whether and how HIV causes AIDS from various directions and disciplines and nearly all converge on the same conclusion: HIV causes AIDS. The same is true of evolution, which is supported by many lines of evidence from many disciplines that all converge upon the same broad conclusion of common descent by which every creature alive today evolved through natural selection and other mechanisms and through which every living creature is related. Creationists may find single bits of evidence that may have been misinterpreted or that don’t fit neatly into what they consider to be an evolutionary niche and claim that they somehow “discredit Darwin,” but ignore the convergence of evidence from numerous disciplines, including paleontology, archaeology, anthropology, genetics, molecular biology, geology, and others, that converge upon the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Unfortunately, demanding that a Holocaust denier like Williamson “recant” is nearly always a useless and futile exercise. Cranks like creationists, Holocaust deniers, HIV/AIDS denialists, antivaccinationists, 9/11 Truthers, and the like tend to be so attached to their views that the likelihood of “recantation” is slim. Their world view is too much a part of who they are. They go out of their way to construct an edifice that seems, at least to the, internally self-consistent and logical, even if it goes against established science and, from the outside, is even self-contradictory. That’s because crankery such as this is almost always constructed against something rather than for something. Holocaust denial is designed to be a weapon against the Jews, as a prominent Holocaust denier in essence admitted just last month. Creationism is designed to combat evolution because certain fundamentalist religious people do not like the implications of evolutionary theory, which refute their religious beliefs regarding the creation of the world, the origin of life, and the uniqueness of man compared to animals. HIV/AIDS denialism is arguably a reaction against the implications of HIV causing AIDS, namely that a virus, not immorality, causes AIDS, given that the usual “alternative” hypothesis preferred by HIV/AIDS denialists is that some combination of drug use and promiscuity somehow “weakens the immune system” and causes the syndrome.

So is it ever possible for a true crank like Williamson to realize he is wrong? It’s difficult, and usually requires a lot of help. However, it is not impossible. For example, Jean-Claude Pressac, who wrote the very book that Williamson is searching for in order to read, Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers, was once a Holocaust “revisionist.” He changed his mind, and even describes how he went from being a Holocaust denier to writing one of the definitive works on Auschwitz. Pressac shows that “conversion” (not a great word, given its religious connotations, but the only one I could think of at the moment) is possible. However, by and large, the truly committed cranks, the Williamsons, the Michael Behes, the J.B. Handleys, the Michael Egnors, the Christine Maggiores of the world do not change their minds.

Does that mean it’s a complete waste of time to try to persuade such people? If your goal is to change their minds, probably. However, if in doing so by publicly refuting their arguments (for example, on a blog), there remains the possibility that you might be able to persuade those who are not committed cranks, who might believe the blandishments of the cranks because–well, because they don’t know any better. That’s one reason why I remain engaged in a constant battle to explain why, for example, antivaccinationists and “alternative” medicine advicates are wrong about the science. I have no illusion that I’ll persuade Jenny McCarthy or J.B. Handley that their arguments are a load of pseudoscientific rubbish and even downright lies. However, I hope that parents who read my Respectful and not-so-Respectful refutations of such nonsense will see just how bad their reasoning is. Similarly, refuting Holocaust deniers can provide evidence to counter the misinformation that cranks like Williamson use to persuade people of their cause and maybe–just maybe–on rare occasions persuade a crank to rethink his position and rejoin the world of the rational.

That’s why I hope that Williamson actually gets Deborah Lipstadt’s letter and reads it. I hope against hope that he does indeed evaluate the sources she provided. I hope that he figures out that Pressac’s book on the Auschwitz gas chambers is freely available on the web, thanks to The Holocaust History Project.

It’s a slim hope, but I have to believe it’s possible to persuade a man like Williamson to recant and actually mean it, even if it is incredibly unlikely ever to happen.