A History of Holocaust Denial Comes Under Scrutiny in The Evidence RoomHistorians in the News
tags: museums, Holocaust, art, Holocaust denial, exhibits
In 1996, a Holocaust denier sued a Holocaust scholar for libel. More than a half-century after the end of World War II, the British author David Irving had devoted himself to obfuscating the Nazi genocide of some six million Jews in an antisemitic and often racist effort to retroactively exonerate Adolf Hitler’s regime from one of the worst war crimes in recorded history. Through his lawsuit, Irving attacked the American historian Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher for characterizing him as a falsifier and bigot who manipulated evidence of Germany’s killings in one of her books. And because the burden of proof for British libel cases lies with the accused, Lipstadt and her lawyers were tasked with proving that Irving had lied about the Holocaust.
An architectural manifestation of the ensuing courtroom battle now occupies the Hirshhorn Museum. The Evidence Room is an installation of three reconstructions and 65 plaster casts reproducing various blueprints, documents, hatches, and doors from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp used by Lipstadt’s defense team to debunk Irving’s conspiracy theory that the Holocaust never happened. Joined together, these objects become haunting talismans of the Nazi death machine. Visitors can examine the full-scale replica of a gas chamber door, built with hinges on the outside and a cage around its peephole to prevent victims from easily breaking it down. Also on view is the gas column built by the death camp’s practitioners to recapture the cyanide fumes of Zyklon-B after use, allowing for more frequent gas chamber murders.
Originally commissioned for the Venice Architecture Biennale, the installation was designed and built by a team from the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture in Ontario, Canada under the direction of Robert Jan van Pelt, an expert witness in Lipstadt’s libel case famous for compiling a 700-page report on the historical evidence surrounding Auschwitz.
Here at the Hirshhorn, curator Betsy Johnson has organized the installation within the confines of another exhibition, What Absence Is Made Of, which documents how the avant-garde has over the last 70 years infused its conceptual practices with themes of memory, disappearance, and death. The juxtaposition is instructive, illustrating how the political has become its own aesthetic category over the last few generations. And whereas Absence predominantly represents memory as the dematerialization of history, The Evidence Room argues the exact opposite: memory as the manifestation of history.