About 40 minutes into a film titled, “The Holocaust Debate,” shown last week at the Flathead County Library’s Kalispell branch, a group of four people got up and walked out, shaking their heads.
The film was a recording of a 1995 debate featuring Mark Weber, a historical “revisionist” who argues that the Holocaust – a term that broadly refers to the systematic killing of 6 million European Jews by the Nazis during World War II – did not occur, and Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution,” was to deport Jews, not exterminate them. Taking on Weber and arguing that the Holocaust is a historical fact was Michael Shermer, a science writer and editor of Skeptic magazine, which investigates controversial ideas and claims.
As the nearly two-hour movie progressed, where Weber had a litany of examples, statistics and sources to back up his arguments, like his claim that concentration camp gas chambers were only used to kill lice on clothes, Shermer dissembled, spoke haltingly and seemed to lack confidence in basic facts of the Jewish Holocaust – beyond dispute among nearly every academic historian in the world – to rebut Weber.
“Did the Nazis intend to exterminate European Jews?” Shermer said in his opening argument. “Even that question cannot be answered.”
At that point, the group of four got up and walked out. In the hallway outside the room where the film was being shown, they confronted the organizer of the event, valley resident Karl Gharst.
“It’s a pack of lies in there, that’s all it is,” said one white-haired woman whose husband was a pilot during World War II and declined to give her name. “He’s a supremacist if I’ve ever heard of one.”
“They’re here to do no good in this valley,” she added, pointing inside to the remaining 10 people still watching the film – the majority of whom belonged to a group called Kalispell Pioneer Little Europe (PLE), dedicated to encouraging white “nationalists” to move to the Flathead because of its high population of Caucasians. Members of the group routinely post job openings and housing information on the white nationalist Web site, Stormfront.org, to entice others to move to the valley.
Gharst, who identified himself as a full-blooded German, told the four viewers who had just walked out the film was revealing the truth that the Holocaust did not occur. Lifting a weathered baseball cap on and off his head nervously, Gharst asserted the people questioning him shared his views more than they realized: Since they too chose to live in the Flathead, he said, then they must also wish to live apart from other races. He quoted Nehemiah 13:3, a verse from the Old Testament that describes separating from Israel “all those of foreign descent.” To demonstrate the purity of his heritage, Gharst pinched his arm, pointing to where the skin grew flushed as a sign of his Saxon blood.
In response to a question from the group on where he was from, Gharst mentioned he had spent time in Georgia. One of the women asked him if he knew anyone in the Ku Klux Klan, and he replied that he did, and praised the group for its courage in the period following the Civil War.
“If it wasn’t for the Klan, the blacks would have murdered the whites in the South,” Gharst said. “Carpetbaggers were encouraging the blacks to murder the whites.”
At various points in the evening, Gharst characterized World War II as an act of aggression against Germany by the rest of the world.
“It’s a phenomenon that the state of Montana is the exact same size as Germany,” Gharst said during the discussion following the film. “I hate to think of the state of Montana fighting every race on the planet and nearly every country on the planet.”
“Germany couldn’t be for Germans, it had to be for Jews and Gypsies too,” he added.
Although there were only 10 people left in the room by the time the film was over, the night began with a much bigger crowd. Prior to the movie being shown, about 55 people gathered on the sidewalk in a protest organized by the Flathead Valley Multi-Faith Coalition, holding signs with messages like “God is Love,” and “We Honor WWII Vets.” Because it was the first night of Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the Hebrews’ Biblical escape from enslavement in Egypt, no members of the Flathead’s Jewish community were present.
Darryl Kistler, pastor of the United Church of Christ in Kalispell, organized the demonstration.
“It is not a Holocaust debate film, as abhorrent as that would be,” Kistler told the crowd standing in the rain. “It is a Holocaust denial film.”
Some demonstrators stationed themselves outside the library’s entrances to distribute fliers directing people to historical accounts of the Holocaust.
Bill Baumgarten, the retired priest of Christ Church Episcopal, disputed the premise of the film while he handed out fliers.
“What’s to debate? It’s like trying to say we didn’t go to the moon or the world is flat,” Baumgarten said. “It’s tinged with racism; it’s tinged with anti-Semitism.”
“I appreciate being in a community where every group has a right to organize,” he added. “It just doesn’t have to be at the expense of another group.”
Kistler and others opposed to showing the film filled the room’s seats until it reached maximum occupancy, then walked out 20 minutes after the movie began as a way, “to deny them as much as possible a recruiting tool.”
While historians may debate the origins and causes of the Holocaust, there is no question among serious researchers as to whether the genocide occurred, according to Richard Drake, chairman of the University of Montana’s history department and an expert on modern European history.
“These debates exist, especially on the Internet, but not in the academic world of scholarly writing, scholarly presses,” Drake said. “The fact of the Holocaust is accepted as an irrefutable truth in the mainstream academic world.”
Michael Berenbaum is a Holocaust expert at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and oversaw the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. He said he receives requests regularly to debate the Holocaust, but always declines.
“Most of us don’t engage in dialogue with Holocaust deniers,” Berenbaum said. “The moment you enter into debate is the moment you enter into saying this is a subject worthy of debate.”
According to Berenbaum, not every detail of what occurred during the Holocaust is known, and questions still linger about certain aspects, but these unknowns do not alter the basic truth of the genocide that occurred, as Holocaust deniers argue.
“Neither the perpetrators nor the victims have denied that it happened,” Berenbaum said. “The overriding nature of what they tell us is compelling, reinforcing and substantial by any rational conviction – Holocaust denial is both an offense to history and what we take for empirical evidence.”
Yet Berenbaum’s views were not shared by the majority in the room during a discussion following the film, where Gharst and others present described the Holocaust as a hoax perpetrated on the world that skews U.S. foreign policy to this day, while other historical atrocities do not receive the same attention.
April Gaede said she was upset that her daughters were shown the film, “Schindler’s List,” in high school, where the teacher described it as a documentary.
“This is just one aspect of history; you’re not putting that much interest into other aspects, like the bombing of Dresden or the internment of Japanese,” Gaede said. “It’s a way to vilify the Germanic people.”
Kalispell resident Brian Gray said the Nazis did not imprison innocent people in the concentration camps.
“The Germans were very meticulous in their record-keeping,” Gray said. “Most of the people were in there for crimes against the state.”
Ten days earlier, Gray posted on Stormfront.org his hope that the film would change viewers’ minds as to whether the right side won World War II.
“If people start seeing that the basis of the U.S. being the ‘good guys’ saving the world from evil Hitler was based on a lie, and that the good guys actually lost that war, maybe it will be easier for them to come forth with some racial identity,” Gray wrote on March 19. “In order to debunk the Zionists, we must show them to the white masses for the liars and murderers they really are.”
Greg Gerdes, who identified himself as president of the National Association of Forensic Historians, passed out fliers offering a $10,000 reward for anyone who could show proof of certain mass graves from the Holocaust he said were fraudulent. He added that he planned to bring Weber, one of the country’s foremost Holocaust deniers, to the Flathead to give a speech in June.
As the crowd began to disperse, Gharst told everyone he had reserved the library’s basement room for April 29, where he planned to show another film titled, “Epic: The Story of the Waffen SS,” which appears to take a sympathetic view toward the combat arm of the Nazi party – found guilty during the Nuremberg trials of crimes against humanity.
“You’ll find out they were very much a Christian people,” Gharst said.