[Image CNN via Twitter: Fair Use for Reporting]
by Andy Brockman
One of Britain’s leading Conflict Archaeologists, Professor Tony Pollard of Glasgow University, has weighed in to the row over the Trump Administration’s approach to facts. Professor Pollard has commented that the methods used by the newly inaugurated President’s media team, and in particular by Presidential Spokesperson Sean Spicer, to rubbish reports based on air photographs that the crowds at the President’s inaugural ceremony in Washington were smaller than those at the first inauguration of President Obama and those attending the Women’s protest march on 21 January, remind him of nothing so much as those used by Holocaust deniers to undermine air photographs of sites relating to the Holocaust.
With the Trump White House embroiled in another row over the omission of any mention of the Jewish People in its statement issued to mark the recent Holocaust Memorial Day, and with “Denial”, the feature film based on the David Irving v Penguin books libel trial, centering on American historian Deborah Lipstadt’s accusations of Holocaust denial against Mr Irving opening in UK cinemas, Andy Brockman investigates the background to Professor Pollard’s observation and examines the challenges archaeologists and historians face given the allegations that the media techniques, and perhaps even the views, of some members of the Trump Administration and its supporters are disturbingly close to those of Extreme-right political groups, and even to those of Nazi Germany.
On 4 April 1944 Mosquito Mk IX photo reconnaissance aircraft LR442 of 60 Squadron, South African Air Force, flown by Lt Charles Barry and observer Lt I MacIntyre, flying out of the airbase at San Severo in Italy, was tasked to overfly and photograph four potential objectives in southern Poland. The two final runs were made over what had been identified as a synthetic rubber factory outside the town of Oświęcim. In 1979 analysis of the photographs taken by Barry and MacIntyre were subjected to a fresh analysis by the American Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] and frames from the runs over Oświęcim were shown to be the first known independent photographs taken of the site which had in the meantime become infamous as the SS death camp Auschwitz; the scene of the murder of approximately one million men women and children, the vast majority of them Jewish. However, not everyone believes these verified historic facts.
The late Andrew Breitbart, founder of the eponymous right wing news channel, reportedly told Joshua Green of Bloomberg that Stephen Bannon, then of Breitbart and now President Trump’s chief political strategist, was “the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement.” The reference to Hitlers favourite propaganda film maker may come back to haunt the Trump White House in the wake of the astonishing confrontation between Presidential Spokesperson Sean Spicer and the assembled White House Press Corps on Saturday 21 January, during which Mr Spicer accused the media of manipulating photographs of the crowds in Washington’s National Mall during the inauguration of President Trump in order to play down the numbers present.
Mr Spicer alleged specifically that,
“…photographs of the inaugural proceedings were intentionally framed in a way, in one particular tweet, to minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall.”
He also had an explanation for the apparently disappointing turn out at the inauguration, telling the White House Press Corps,
“This was the first time in our nation’s history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall. That had the effect of highlighting any areas where people were not standing, while in years past the grass eliminated this visual. This was also the first time that fencing and magnetometers went as far back on the Mall, preventing hundreds of thousands of people from being able to access the Mall as quickly as they had in inaugurations past.”
Mr Spicer then added a further allegation,
“Inaccurate numbers involving crowd size were also tweeted. No one had numbers, because the National Park Service, which controls the National Mall, does not put any out. By the way, this applies to any attempts to try to count the number of protesters today in the same fashion.”
The President’s Spokesperson also had the numbers to hand to prove his point and they were big numbers,
“We do know a few things, so let’s go through the facts. We know that from the platform where the President was sworn in, to 4th Street, it holds about 250,000 people. From 4th Street to the media tent is about another 220,000. And from the media tent to the Washington Monument, another 250,000 people. All of this space was full when the President took the Oath of Office. We know that 420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama’s last inaugural. This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe. Even the New York Times printed a photograph showing a misrepresentation of the crowd in the original Tweet in their paper, which showed the full extent of the support, depth in crowd, and intensity that existed.”
The White House Press Corps were incredulous at Mr Spicer’s performance, although we now know that before Mr Spicer made his public statement his boss, President Trump himself, had telephoned the acting head of the US National Parks Service Michael T Reynolds and instructed Mr Reynolds to produce fresh photographs of the crowds in the National Mall, with the expectation that they would show that the President was correct in his view the media had deliberately underestimated the numbers. According to the Washington Post, which broke the story, Mr Reynolds complied with the request, however the new images failed to support the President’s contention. Remarkably, in spite of this seemingly secure evidence, sourced from a supposedly neutral Government body contradicting the White House’s position, Mr Spicer was still sent out to face the media to voice the White House allegation that the number of people present had been deliberately played down.
As if this apparently deliberate misleading of the assembled media was not a bad enough first day impression for the Trump team what followed Mr Spicer’s comments was even more astonishing.
The following day, Sunday 22 January 2017, another Trump aide, the President’s former campaign manager/handler/media minder Kellyanne Conway appeared on the NBC News programme “Face the Press”.
In the course of the interview programme host Chuck Todd asked Ms Conway why President Trump sent out his press secretary “for the very first time in front of that podium to utter a falsehood.”
Ms Conway replied,
“You’re saying it’s a falsehood and they’re giving, Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that”
Pointing out that four of the five allegations made by Mr Spicer about the media handling of the inauguration were demonstrably not true, Mr Todd concluded the only way a properly sceptical journalist could,
“Look alternative facts are not facts, they’re falsehoods.”
That is lies to you and me.
The only time l’ve come across this sort of bogus interpretation of aerial photos was by Holocaust denier’s
The media are still trying to work out how to deal with the Trump White House and top of the list is the question of how to respond to a media operation which apparently holds a demonstrable truth based on objective evidence in such contempt. However, to many that is an issue of current affairs, politics and, in the USA, the First Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech, it is not an issue for the world of archaeology. If the White House chooses to talk up an alleged conspiracy on the part of the Liberal media to to destabilise the President, and in so doing to place “alternative facts” in the public domain to allegedly sooth the President’s wounded ego, it is free to do so under the Constitution of the United States, which the President is sworn to uphold.
However, there is a view that what happened in the White House Briefing Room and on NBC on 21 and 22 January 2017 has a direct relationship with one of the most evocative and contentious areas of current archaeological practice. The archaeology of conflict, and in particular the increasingly important archaeology of the Holocaust, where work by research teams led by Caroline Sturdy Colls of Staffordshire University at the extermination camp of Treblinka and by Yoram Haimi, and Wojciech Mazurek, leading a joint Israeli/Polish team at the similar Operation Reinhardt camp of Sobibor, have given physical reality in the present day to the documentary and photographic accounts and the recorded memories of the pitifully few survivors.
Following the Saturday Press Conference by Sean Spicer, but before the direct intervention of President Trump with the National Parks Service became known, one of the UK’s leading Conflict Archaeologists, Professor Tony Pollard of the Center for Battlefield Studies at Glasgow University, took to Social Media to voice his concerns that the tactics the Trump team seemed to be deploying against the media in Washington were horribly familiar.
Professor Pollard suggested,
“Trump’s team are now trying to blame the floor covering for the misinterpretation of numbers from aerial shots of inauguration. The only time l’ve come across this sort of bogus interpretation of aerial photos was by Holocaust denier’s revisionist ‘analysis’ of Death camp recon’ shots.”
The reconnaissance photographs of the industrial and death camp complex at Auschwitz-Birkenau, to which Professor Pollard refers, were first described by CIA Photo Interpreter Dino A Brugioni more than thirty years ago. Writing in the journal “Military Intelligence [vol. 9, no. 1 (Jan.-Mar. 1983): pages 50-55] Brugioni described how the Auschwitz air photographs, which had previously escaped the notice of Holocaust historians, were discovered in the files of the US Defence Intelligence Agency [DIA] in the late nineteen seventies.
“In 1978, while researching the [World War Two photographic intelligence] files with a colleague, Mr. Robert Poirier, we discovered aerial photos of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Complex that had been overlooked during and after the war period.”
In fact the research by Brugioni and Poirier showed that, by the time the Red Army liberated Auschwitz and its surviving inmates on 27 January 1945, the allied air forces had photographed the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, including the gas chambers and crematoria, at least 30 times. The most striking images, including a photograph taken by a South African Mosquito crew on 25 August 1944, show not just dozens of cattle trucks lined up in the camp sidings, but also columns of people, apparently recently detrained, and, most hauntingly, some apparently en-route to the gas chambers to be murdered.
The CIA Analysis of an air photograph of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex taken on 25 August 1944.
[60. Sqad. SAAF, Sortie No. 60/PR694 Public Domain via Wikipaedia]
Brugioni and Poirier published the full results of their research in the intelligence archives in a CIA report in 1979, and of course the discovery of the existence of such apparently objective and damning contemporaneous photographic evidence of the murder of Jewish and other prisoners actually in progress was a disaster for the growing Holocaust denial industry. That is the loose international alliance of former and neo Nazi’s, anti-Semites, renegade historians and their fellow travelers, who, starting soon after the end of World War Two and the resulting War Crimes trials, had set about trying to demolish the massive and diverse body of data relating to the Holocaust. With the emergence of verified contemporary photographs it was essential that they now sought to undermine the credibility of the new evidence.
The broad line of attack most often used in the attempt to debunk the air photography of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex by Holocaust deniers, which Professor Pollard refers to, is described most succinctly by Mark Weber, director of the “Institute for Historical Review” on a web page entitled “Auschwitz: Myths and Facts”
“Telltale Aerial Photos
Detailed Allied aerial reconnaissance photographs taken of Auschwitz-Birkenau on several random days in 1944 — during the height of the alleged extermination period there — were made public by the CIA in 1979. These photos show no trace of piles of corpses, smoking crematory chimneys or masses of Jews awaiting death, things that have been repeatedly alleged, and all of which would have been visible if Auschwitz had been the extermination center it is said to have been.”
The grandly titled “Institute for Historical Review” describes itself as,
“… an independent educational research and publishing center that works to promote peace, understanding and justice through greater public awareness of the past, and especially socially-politically relevant aspects of twentieth-century history. We strive in particular to increase understanding of the causes, nature and consequences of war and conflict. We vigorously defend freedom of speech and freedom of historical inquiry.”
However, while marking a decline since 2002, the US based pressure group monitoring anti-Semitism, the Anti Defamation League, describe the Institute as,
“Once a leading voice in the international movement to deny the Holocaust and vindicate Hitler and the Nazi regime.”
In other words the vigorous defence of “freedom of speech and freedom of historical inquiry”, is actually a self serving defence of the freedom to be apologists for the Nazi regime and deniers of one of the most recorded and studied events of the 20th century, the Holocaust.
Following an attempt by the IHR to recruit mainstream historians to provide some academic credibility and top cover against counter attacks the Organization of American Historians went as far as commissioning a study of publications issued by the Institute. An OAH panel concluded that the Journal of Historical Review was “nothing but a masquerade of scholarship.”
Weber and the Institute also collaborated frequently with the prolific and now disgraced British historian and convicted Holocaust denier David Irving. Played by Timothy Spall in the new film “Denial”, David Irving has been careful not to make any explicit claims that the Auschwitz air photographs are fakes, or that they have been tampered with. However, he has made a number of comments which seek to blur or damage their credibility. For example in this observation which is copied directly from Mr Irving’s website. Here Irving is commenting on a “letter” which refers to “dot like markings” which are visible on images taken in May and September 1944 when the murders at the camp were in full horrific spate.
“David Irving comments
ONE thought that occurs to me: perhaps they are craters from a small stick of bombs? But they would probably have been repaired in the three months concerned? What is the plume of smoke said to be from, visible in the May and August 1944 photos? What was it in likelihood?
The CIA captions are of course by Dino A Brugioni, who later wrote a book on Photo Fakery.
They were disowned by the National Archives in a memorandum placed in their Auschwitz files.
I DO notice that the four mysterious dots on the roof of Kremas II and III are no longer visible on this new photo. The hired Auschwitz expert Prof Robert Van Pelt attached importance to them as proof of the existence of the “holes” — visible from 30,000 feet, but missing (as Pelt conceded) when examined from an altitude of six inches. Of course, the CIA experts were not able to get their hands on the RAF photo archive, presumably.
Notably, in the Lipstadt Trial of 2000 Mr Justice Gray attached importance to the dots as being conclusive proof of the presence of those holes, in reaching his finding that no reasonable historian could have doubted their existence.”
With the carefully framed questions and backhanded comments, each paragraph can be read as a calculated mis-direction designed to sow doubt in the veracity of both the images and those who verified them. This strategy is made even more explicit with the references to Dino A Brugioni having written a book about faking photographs. Of course, just because you are a professional photographic interpreter and can spot a fake, it does not mean you would wish to create your own, or pass off someone else’s fake as genuine, but the suggestion is planted in the mind of the reader.
Of course this is also a fallen angels dancing on the head of a very sharp pin argument. Even if the images had been tampered with, the likes of the IHR and Mr Irving would have to similarly demolish every single other piece of evidence relating to what happened at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex and at every other site related to the Holocaust. Of course they cannot do so and instead they are forced to fall back on smokescreens of selective quotation, half-truth, misrepresentation and falsehood, which exploits a tendency towards “false equivalence” among some academics and journalists. That is an ethical view in which freedom of speech and “balance” demands that all views are treated as being equally valid, rather than being presented simply fairly and in proportion to the evidence presented and the scholarly consensus. Another example is the treatment of “global warming” in a way which suggests the scientific community is deeply split over the issue, when in fact the denial of human influenced climate change is very much a minority position.
In the absence of commonly accepted chains of evidence such conviction based positions as climate change, and Holocaust denial, demand that the adherents to those positions reference continually each other in a dark mirror version of mainstream academia. This tendency can be observed in the case of David Irving’s website which in addition to being extensive, detailed and apparently comprehensive, also carries a link to the now suspended internet account of the self styled “Committee for Historical Truth”. However, thanks to the invaluable work of web archive.org, which preserves extinct web pages in an electronic version of prehistoric mud, it is still possible to see the page Mr Irving is referring to. The page includes this comment,
“From 1944 to 1993 the Holocaust lobby’s story was Auschwitz-Birkenau wasn’t bombed because the 3,000 to 10,000 daily mass murders were kept secret through a circle of fences one kilometer (0.6 mi) from Birkenau so noone outside the camp knew about the mass executions until an April, 1944 prison escape, and the camp was out of range for bombers until late 1944.
In 1993 Air Photo Evidence published air photos proving the Germans made no attempt to hide the Birkenau Cremation buildings which had no outer fence and only one wire fence close to the buildings so mass executions would have been visible, and Birkenau was not out of range as American planes bombed the Monowitz industrial complex 6 km (4 mi) east starting in August, ’44.
The photos sent shockwaves through the Holocaust lobby which hastily organized a 1993 Auschwitz Bombing convention in Washington, DC, to change their story and agree to new reasons why Birkenau was not bombed.”
John C Balls conclusions regarding his examination of air photography relating to Holocaust sites
[John C Ball: Fair Use for Reporting]
Aerial photo ‘analysis’ has often been used by Holocaust deniers
The originator of this view is another Holocaust denier who has specialised in the so called “revisionist” interpretation of Air Photo evidence of sites relating to the Holocaust, Canadian consulting geologist John C Ball.
After an apparently forensic analysis of air photographs of a number of Holocaust sites Ball concluded,
“To this day there is no air photo evidence to support the alleged mass murder of the Jews at any location in Europe occupied by the Germans during World War Two. Further, air photo analysis refutes the claim that the Nazis had intended, at whatever time, to keep events in the alleged extermination camps secret. In many cases the air photos provide clear proof that some of the events attested to by witnesses, such as the destruction of the Hungarian Jews or the mass executions at Babi Yar, did not in fact take place. We may hope that the release of Soviet air photos dating from the time the camps were in operation will shed further light on these issues.”
The reason behind this failure this was of course a political conspiracy. Ball alleged,
“The fact that these photos have not been published to date may already speak for itself. That the photos in Western hands were altered in order to incriminate Germany, and were first published by the CIA, is also very significant indeed.”
In other words we are in full on “worldwide Jewish conspiracy” mode as promulgated by any anti-Semite, Neo-Nazi and Nazi apologist worth their salt.
Not surprisingly the Anti Defamation League, was less than impressed, describing Ball’s work in these terms,
“Based on aerial photos of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, and Majdanek, Ball declares it “irrational to believe mass murders could have been conducted for even one day in the visible corners” of these “busy work camps.” To convince readers of his position, he presents extensive photographs, diagrams, and video clips of such camps accompanied by an audible, spoken narration. The distortion of visual evidence has long been a tactic of Holocaust deniers.”
Coming full circle, the reference to an alleged deliberate “distortion of visual evidence” is a view which might sound rather familiar to anyone present in the White House press room on 21 January.
In fact on the one occasion John Ball was called upon to voice his opinions in public, in a Canadian court where he was called as an expert witness in the 1988 retrial of Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel, the presiding Judge Thomas [who had recently presided over another case which hinged on evidence from air photography and was thus more familiar with the subject than many who might occupy the bench], ruled that, while air photographs were legitimate evidence, John Ball’s qualifications were not sufficient to enable him to take the stand and a properly qualified and experienced expert was required. However, that did not stop David Irving from also linking to Ball’s website.
Professor Pollard has his own independent views on the quality of John Ball’s work,
“Aerial photo ‘analysis’ has often been used by Holocaust deniers to argue for instance that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. A good example is indeed John Ball who claimed that US wartime AP’s were doctored to show Zyklon B chutes on hut roofs when he believed there were none.”
In fact analyst, Nevin Bryant, concluded of Ball’s specific allegation that dots had been added to the crematoria roof to represent the hatches through which the SS dropped the Zyklon B pellets into the gas chambers below [our italics],
“…four shaded markings on the roofs of Morgue 1 of both Crematorium 2 and 3 did belong to the original negative and were not added later on”
The final nail in the coffin of John Ball’s theory that the Allied air photographs of Auschwitz Birkenau had been deliberately tampered with, and with it his reputation as a photo analyst, is provided by another ex CIA and commercial photo analyst, Carroll Lucas, who summarised the investigation into Ball’s allegation that the Auschwitz air photographs had been tampered with by the CIA stating,
“The bottom line is that the cans of aerial reconnaissance film extracted from the DIA files, provided to the CIA, and finally presented to the National Archives, unequivocally contain unedited and untainted original and duplicate negatives of U.S. aerial reconnaissance missions flown over targets adjacent to the Auschwitz I/ Auschwitz II/ Birkenau facilities.”
This is a technique of misdirection which comes straight out of the Holocaust denial playbook
Not even Sean Spicer complained that the high angle oblique photographs of the Trump inauguration taken on January 20th were tampered with. Yet Spicer did claim that they had been misinterpreted, alleging the white ground coverings accentuating the size of the unoccupied spaces giving the impression there were fewer people present than the President had claimed. Similarly John Ball claimed on no other evidence than his own interpretation and perception that there were no fences around the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and in both cases attempts were made to obfuscate the numbers of people involved. Of course, so far we have a single parallel of wishful interpretation, albeit a striking one. Then on 21 January 2017 President Trump himself doubled down and ensured the story would run, when he complained about the media coverage of the crowd numbers, telling a gathering of CIA officers at Langley,
“We had a massive field of people, you saw them – packed. I get up this morning, I turn on one of the networks and they show an empty field,” then added.
“I said ‘wait a minute, I made a speech’, I looked out the field was, it looked like a million, a million and a half people, they showed a field where there were practically nobody standing.”
Media Spokesperson Sean Spicer once again backed up his boss, loyally telling the media that the crowd at the inauguration “was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe”.
Openly available information showed that both men were demonstrably wrong. However, that was not the point. As in the case of Holocaust denial, the counter claim was out there and destined to be repeated by true believers whenever that alleged conspiracy by the Liberal Media against the President is discussed.
This is a technique of misdirection of the public and reinforcement of the belief system of your political base which comes straight out of the Holocaust denial playbook, as set out very neatly by the founder of the French Far Right political Party the Front National, and another Holocaust denier, Jean Marie Le Pen. In the 11 June 1986 edition of the Front National magazine National Hebdo, Monsieur Le Pen was quoted as saying,
“It is a purely a question of historical research …. All reasonable people accept that Jews died en masse in the Nazi camps. What “revisionist” historians are disputing is the method of extermination, i.e. the gas chambers, and the numbers involved, i.e. six million …. These are matters for specialists and must be settled by historical methodology. In the case of the genocide of the Jews, I do not find it surprising that historians on both sides should, in all good faith, take time to put forward their figures.”
To be fair this approach of misdirection, false moral equivalence, obfuscation, and outright lying, is also out of the propaganda playbook of any regime, Government or political movement seeking to undermine the credibility of its opponents when they deploy apparently factual evidence backed up by expert opinion; £350 million a week for the NHS anyone? However, for most people there is something particularly offensive about attempts to diminish the horrific nature of an unprecedented historical event for which there is so much written, photographic, personal and increasingly archaeological, evidence.
With that in mind thePipeLine asked Professor Pollard to sum up why he had felt the need to comment on the issue of the Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway’s questioning of the air photographs of the crowds in the National Mall and the introduction of the concept of “Alternative Facts” into the dialogue between the White House and the Media. Professor Pollard told us,
“My observation was born from genuine shock that such idiotic and blatantly wrong statements could be made about aerial photos and the first thing that came to mind were these cases of [Holocaust] denial.”
However, in the fast moving events which have marked the first weeks of the Trump Administration, the issue of the treatment of historical data has now gone much further than the relatively simple matter of the numbers present at President Trump’s inauguration.
Anyone who has ever taken part in a formal debate knows the unwritten rule that the moment you accuse an opponent of behaving like a Nazi you have lost the argument [or you are the British left wing politician Ken Livingstone, or current UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, both of whom have ensured pages of media coverage based on leveling such accusations]. However, while the direct influence of full on neo-Nazi’s and Holocaust deniers like former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute, on the Trump Administration can be overstated; the kind of criticism offered by Professor Pollard cannot be easily dismissed as a case of hyperbole on the part of just another disgruntled, elitist expert. Indeed, there is an increasing amount of evidence that Far-right perceptions of nation, history, and historical evidence are at the center of the thinking in the Trump White House.
For example, supporters of Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute, which identifies itself as “an independent organization dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world,” were seen on video published by Atlantic magazine heiling President Trump’s election with Nazi style straight arm salutes.
Members of the National Policy Institute greet the election of Donald Trump as President with Nazi style straight arm salutes.
[Video: the Atlantic via You Tube]
Then, as this article was being written, the White House itself posted a statement to mark Holocaust Memorial Day which, unlike its predecessors, conspicuously failed to mention the undoubted fact that, while many groups, including Poles, Communists, homosexuals, Jehova’s Witnesses and the Roma people, suffered during the Holocaust, the Jewish people were specifically singled out for deliberate annihilation. White House spokesperson Sean Spicer confirmed the omission was not an oversight by an inexperienced administration. Instead Mr Spicer attacked the critics suggesting,
“The idea that you’re nitpicking a statement that sought to remember this tragic event that occurred and the people who died in it is just ridiculous,” Mr Spicer told the White House Press Corps on 30 January “To suggest that remembering the Holocaust and acknowledging all of the people — Jewish, gypsies, priests, disabled, gays and lesbians — is frankly pathetic that people are picking on a statement.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, President of the Anti Defamation League, did not agree, reminding CNN that Holocaust Memorial Day was established by the United Nations in part because of the actions of several countries, including Iran and Russia, in refusing to recognise the specific targetting of the Jewish population of Europe during the Holocaust, such countries,
“opting instead to talk about generic suffering rather than recognizing this catastrophic incident for what is was: the intended genocide of the Jewish people.”
Even the Pro-Trump Zionist Organization of America commented that it was,
“…compelled to express our chagrin and deep pain at President Trump, in his Holocaust Remembrance Day Message, omitting any mention of anti-Semitism and the six million Jews who were targeted and murdered by the German Nazi regime and others.”
A current media buzz word is “Optics”; that is the appearance of a policy or event to the watching public. The problem for the Trump Administration is that the optics of the Holocuast Memorial day row plays directly to the one of the core controversies faced by the new administration, an alleged tolerance of, if not actual sympathy and support for, anti-Semitic and racist political views.
The issue is admittedly complex, and the available evidence is sometimes contradictory. For example Donald Trump’s son-in-law and reportedly influential advisor, the New York property developer Jared Kushner, is an observant Orthodox Jew and the President’s daughter Ivana converted to Judaism when they married. However, President Trumps Chief Strategist is former Hollywood scriptwriter Stephen K. Bannon, who, until taking up the post of Chief Executive of the Trump campaign in August 2016, ran the Far Right news website Breitbart News and Bannon has faced criticism regularly that he has condoned, if not supported, and even voiced himself, anti-Semitic views. In fact any examination of Bannon’s career and his recorded statements, shows that his world view, while driven seemingly by a particular view of epic historical events, appears to be much more complex than one founded on anything as simple as Nazi style anti-Semitism, and that is what makes it even more disturbing perhaps.
Steve Bannon has “…the appearance of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman portraying a somewhat louche uncle who has just decided to diversify into the industrial production of Chrystal Meth”
A sixty three year old Virginian, who has the appearance of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman portraying a somewhat louche uncle who has just decided to diversify into the industrial production of Chrystal Meth, Stephen K. Bannon is seen an outsider to the Washington political establishment. The son of a working class Irish Catholic family, after receiving a degree in National Security Studies from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and an MBA from Harvard Business School, Bannon joined the the US Navy, serving at sea as a Surface Warfare Officer in destroyers and also as a aide at the Pentagon. On leaving the service Bannon worked in mergers and acquisitions for investment banker Goldman Sachs, founding an investment bank specialising in media projects, finally gravitating to the media full time as a writer and producer, including as producer of the 2015 polemical documentary “Generation Zero” . From this right of center media platform Bannon became a founding member of the board of conservative publisher Andrew Breitbart’s brainchild, Breitbart News.
It was while in charge of Breitbart News that he faced not just the joking suggestion from Andrew Bretbart that he was the Leni Riefenstahl of the Alt-right movement, but more seriously, repeated accusations of anti-Semitism. For example it was under Mr Bannon’s tenure at Breitbart that Jewish conservative activist David Horowitz was allowed to describe a rival, conservative commentator, Bill Kristol, as a “renegade Jew”. Horowitz responded on Breitbart that Bannon was the subject of a witch hunt in spite of the fact that he, Horowitz had written the headline and justified the usage stating,
“Renegade” means “deserter.” That’s what Kristol was doing. He was betraying America and the Jews and that’s what I said in the article and that’s what my headline was supposed to capture.”
This controversy was not a one off lapse of judgement. Bannon also referenced the heritage of anti Trump Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, describing Ms Applebaum as “a Polish, Jewish, American elitist scorned.”
In addition his ex-wife testified in court that Bannon had told her that,
“the biggest problem he had with Archer [School for Girls] is the number of Jews that attend. He said that he doesn’t like Jews and that he doesn’t like the way they raise their kids to be ‘whiny brats’ and that he didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews.”
Mr Bannon denied that allegation. Indeed, his former Hollywood writing partner, and Bernie Sanders supporting Democrat, Julia Jones, told the Daily Beast website,
“I never knew the ‘racist Steve’ that’s being reported now. I never heard him make any racist jokes, and his best friend was an African-American who went to [college] with him… I never saw even a hint of racism, but I did see this elitism… He would always look down on poor people of any color. At one point, he told me that only people who own property should vote.”
However, speaking before the Trump victory and Stephen Bannon’s appointment to the White House Ms Jones also observed that,
“Steve [Bannon] is a strong militarist, he’s in love with war—it’s almost poetry to him. He’s studied it down through the ages, from Greece, through Rome… every battle, every war… Never back down, never apologize, never show weakness… He lives in a world where it’s always high noon at the O.K. Corral.”
Other sources have echoed that image. However, Ms Jones’ observations also highlight the enigma of just what are Stephen Bannon’s core political beliefs. At a book launch in November 2013 Mr Bannon reportedly told author Ronald Radosh,
“Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too…I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
Radosh reported the comments in the Daily Beast. However, Bannon again denied the conversation took place.
It has also been reported that Bannon has long wanted to do more than simply promote European Far Right parties such as, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Alternative for Germany (AfD), and the Party for Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands on the Breitbart websites, The Daily Beast also reported that a source close to Bannon said,
“He has long wanted to work with all of those parties, but that was only in promoting them with Breitbart. Now he has the power of the White House to do it.”
Somewhere along the line Steve Bannon also came under the influence of “Generational Theory”, a historical model proposed by two amateur historians William Strauss and Neil Howe. Strauss and Howe published two books, Generations, in 1991 and most influentially The Fourth Turning in 1997 in which they proposed essentially that American history [and that of other parts of the world] ran in approximately eighty year cycles, each cycle or “Turning” lasting around twenty years, and consisting of four stages which could be observed and even predicted.
According to Generation Theory the World is currently living through the “Millennial Saeculum”, the final Turning, or crisis, which supposedly began with the financial crash of 2007 and the so called War On Terror.
Historian David Kaiser, who is broadly sypathetic to Generation Theory, and who was interviewed by Bannon for his documentary “Generation Zero”, wrote in “Time” magazine that one of the attractions of the theory is that it was not idealogically based. However, Kaiser did seem genuinely concerned by Bannon’s response to the implications of living in the Crisis of the fourth Turning.
“Bannon had clearly thought a long time both about the domestic potential and the foreign policy implications of Strauss and Howe. More than once during our interview, he pointed out that each of the three preceding crises had involved a great war, and those conflicts had increased in scope from the American Revolution through the Civil War to the Second World War. He expected a new and even bigger war as part of the current crisis, and he did not seem at all fazed by the prospect.”
Kaiser concluded his article saying that during recording,
“…he [Bannon] repeatedly pressed me to say we could expect a conflict at least as big as the Second World War in the near or medium term. I refused.
Apocalyptic rhetoric and apocalyptic thinking flourish during crisis periods. This represents perhaps the biggest danger of the Trump presidency, and one that will bear watching from all concerned citizens in the months and years ahead.”
Generational Theory is very much from the fringes of historical study, and so are some of the other strands of political philosophy apparently underlying the actions of the Trump White House. Most recently, remarks made by Bannon and an article apparently approved by him, have both been noted because they reference the works far right Italian political philosopher Julius Evola . Previously little noticed by English speaking scholarship, in March 2016 Bannon’s Breitbart listed Evola, alongside other thinkers, including H L Mencken and the so called paleoconservative movement which had supported Pat Buchanan’s runs for the Presidency, as among the inspirations of the newly coalescing Alt-right.
Significantly in the evolution of his philosophy, the monocled minor aristocrat, Evola had begun his career as supporter of the left wing, proto surrealist Dada movement, and had then came under the influence of Nietzsche, eventually completing his intellectual journey by becoming an influential theorist on the Far Right, reputedly gravitating towards Himmler and the SS view of nation and history because Mussolini’s corporate state Fascism was too moderate. In his book describing Evola’s social and political world view Paul Furlong wrote in terms which might almost be a check list for the modern Alt-right. For Furlong,
“The complete Evola held views that it is fair, if somewhat summary, to categorise as elitist, racist, anti-semitic, misogynist, anti-democratic, authoritarian, and deeply anti-liberal.”
While in the United States, Evola influenced the development of the strand of Right-wing republicanism called Palaeoconservatism, the ideology of which was defined by the late Professor Michael Foley as a world view which presses,
“…for restrictions on immigration, a rollback of multicultural programmes, the decentralization of the federal policy, the restoration of controls upon free trade, a greater emphasis upon economic nationalism and isolationism in the conduct of American foreign policy, and a generally revanchist outlook upon a social order in need of recovering old lines of distinction and in particular the assignment of roles in accordance with traditional categories of gender, ethnicity, and race.”
Again, this might be the template for a Donald Trump campaign speech.
Bannon’s citing of Evola came at the end of his contribution to a conference held in the Vatican by the Human Dignity Institute, a conservative Catholic organisation which is seen as part of the Religious Right. Speaking from Los Angeles via Skype, Bannon took a historical long view of what he perceived as a conflict between the Judeo-Christian West and Islam, stating,
“If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places… It bequeathed to us the great institution that is the church of the West.”
The siege of Vienna and the battle of Tours are of course the scene the two great defeats of predominantly Muslim armies, which prevented the expansion of first the Arab Empire and second the Ottoman Empire, into Western Europe.
Here it might be disturbing to note that the novel “Victoria: A Novel of 4th Generation War”, written by Palaeoconservative theorist William S Lind, ends with the white insurgents, who are led by a Marine Corps captain who was cashiered for opposing “political correctness”, planning the Tenth Crusade. Disturbing because Lind is also the co author, with Paul Weyrich, of an influential book, “The Next Conservatism”. Writing on the website Traditional Right, Lind published a photograph of himself presenting a copy of the book to then candidate Donald Trump adding,
“Trump’s views on avoidable foreign wars, free trade, political correctness and a number of other subjects have much in common with The Next Conservatism. If he reads it, our book might be helpful to him in fleshing out his agenda.”
Commentator Bruce Wilson of the Talk to Action blog described Trump’s campaign video“‘On Point’ With Sarah Palin and Donald Trump” as opening with,
“…a mini-Trump speech that could have been ghostwritten by William Lind:” In the video Trump says to camera, “I don’t like what I see happening to America. The infrastructure of our country is a laughingstock all over the world. Our airports, our bridges, our roadways — it’s falling apart. It’s terrible thing to see. Our politicians are all talk, no action. Millions of people are flowing across our Southern border. We’ve got to build a real wall… Let’s make America great again.”
There is also the question of the Trump Administrations relationship with Vladimir Putin’s increasingly nationalist and nativist Russia. While critical of his regime stating it is a Kleptocracy, Steve Bannon has also supported the nationalist elements of the regime of Russian President Putin telling the conference of the Human Dignity Institute,
“I’m not justifying Vladimir Putin and the kleptocracy that he represents, because he eventually is the state capitalist of kleptocracy. However, we the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he’s talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism — and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing. I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors, and that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States, and I think it’s what can see us forward.”
Historians and conflict archaeologists reading this vision of a politically cleansing military confrontation between East and West and fantasies about new Crusades, will by now be reaching for other examples of iconoclastic, strongly nationalist political leaders and propagandists, with a belief in the superiority of certain members of society over others, a further belief in the deployment of military power, a belief in the need for conflicts of faith and ideology and a desire to overturn the existing political and media establishment.
The second quarter of the twentieth century suggests a number of such examples, ranging from the Socialist to the National Socialist, and the period between 1939 and 1945 offers at least 50 million reasons why such ideas are incredibly dangerous.
“It probably sounded better in the original German”
However, in promoting a far right vision of politics, allegedly at the very least condoning anti-Semitism, not to mention allegations of mysogeny and white supremacy, Stephen Bannon is not a new phenomenon in the Grand Old [Republican] Party. Anti-Semitism has long been an issue in the United States, and it is easy to forget that alongside the fight for Black Civil Rights, which included incidentally many white Jewish activists, there was a parallel fight to end segregation penalising Jewish people. In this context the right wing of the Republican Party has long harboured individuals who allegedly held Far-right and anti-Semitic views.
For example President Trump has recently revived the slogan “America First”, using it to controversial effect in his inaugural address and for many commentators deliberately reviving the memory of the isolationist “America First” movement of the late 1930’s which was led by a proven anti-Semite Charles A Lindbergh.
World famous as a pioneer aviator, and the first aviator to fly the Atlantic solo, Lindbergh’s venture into politics in the late 1930’s would tarnish his reputation permanently.
In November 1939, Lindbergh used the pages of the Readers Digest to articulate his view of a coming conflict between the White race and Asia, stating,
“We, the heirs of European culture, are on the verge of a disastrous war, a war within our own family of nations, a war which will reduce the strength and destroy the treasures of the White race, a war which may even lead to the end of our civilization. And while we stand poised for battle, Oriental guns are turning westward, Asia presses towards us on the Russian border, all foreign races stir restlessly. It is time to turn from our quarrels and to build our White ramparts again.”
Having treated the Readers Digest as a pre Internet incarnation of Breitbart News, Lindbergh told a rally in Des Moines Iowa, held on 11 September 1941, that,
“The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt Administration.”
Alluding to classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theory Lindbergh then added, “Instead of agitating for war, Jews in this country should be opposing it in every way, for they will be the first to feel its consequences. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”
However, while Lindbergh’s “America First” racism and anti-Semitism is well known and notorious, what is less well advertised is the fact a much more recent right wing politician, Senator Pat Buchanan, ran unsuccessfully for the Republican Presidential candidacy under the same slogan in 1992. As well as being an acknowledged influence on the development of the Alt-right, as noted previously, Buchanan had form for, to put it kindly, equivocation about the Adolf Hitler and the Nazi period.
On 5 August 1977 Buchanan, who had been an adviser and speech writer under President Nixon and who would become an influential White House staffer under Presidents Reagan, wrote in the St. Louis Globe – Democrat,
“Those of us in childhood during the war years were introduced to Hitler only as a caricature…Though Hitler was indeed racist and anti-Semitic to the core, a man who without compunction could commit murder and genocide, he was also an individual of great courage, a soldier’s soldier in the Great War, a leader steeped in the history of Europe, who possessed oratorical powers that could awe even those who despised him. But Hitler’s success was not based on his extraordinary gifts alone. His genius was an intuitive sense of the mushiness, the character flaws, the weakness masquerading as morality that was in the hearts of the statesmen who stood in his path.”
However, in spite of acknowledging the Holocaust as a fact, Buchanan wrote in 2007,
“If you want to know ethnicity and power in the United States Senate, 13 members of the Senate are Jewish folks who are from 2 percent of the population. That is where real power is at….”
At which point it is impossible not to quote the late columnist and humourist Molly Ivins, who said of Buchanan’s now infamous “Culture Wars” speech during the 1992 Presidential campaign,
“It probably sounded better in the original German”
Adding to the disquiet at the Trump Administration’s alleged Alt-right takeover of the levers of Government via the Republican Party, is the baiting of anyone who questions the Trump/Bannon world view, in particularly the baiting of the mainstream media.
In an interview with the New York Times, given on 25 January 2017, Bannon stated that,
“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” Bannon added,
“You’re the opposition party. Not the Democratic Party. You’re the opposition party. The media’s the opposition party.”
Meanwhile on the second day of his presidency the President himself stood in front of the CIA memorial wall at Langley and as well as making the claim about the false reporting of the numbers present at the inauguration, he also told CIA staffers,
“You know, I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth. Right?”
It has been pointed out that this attempt to demonise the mainstream media and the branding of mainstream news providers such as CNN as “fake news” is endorsing the idea of Lügenpresse [Lying Press] and that this too is another disturbing echo of the Nazi period.
While the term Lügenpresse emerged in right wing circles in the mid nineteenth century, it was most infamously deployed by both the Nazi propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, and by the Communist East German regime, in an attempt to destroy the credibility of their critics in the media. Equally disturbing for many critics of the Trump White House’s attitude to criticism, is the fact the word has recently been repopularised by the racist Pegida movement in Germany and from there, the critics suggest, it was taken up by far right supporters of the Trump campaign itself.
Indeed, the supporters of the National Policy Institute, who heiled the President’s victory with straight right arm salutes in the now infamous post election video, were also heiling the deliberately calculated use of the term Lügenpresse by the organisation’s leader Richard Spencer. A grinning Spencer, who is said to have coined the term Alt-right itself, told his audience of around two hundred,
“The mainstream media, or perhaps we should refer to them in the original German, Lügenpresse” adding later “One wonders if these people are people at all, or instead soulless golem animated by some dark power, to repeat whatever talking point John Oliver stated the night before.”
The Golem is of course a creature in human form created from inanimate matter and is taken from Jewish folklore. It is this suggestion that opponents of the Alt-right are somehow soulless and guided by a “dark power” which is most sinister to the critics of the movement.
Meanwhile, in another potentially disquieting media interview, this time with the Hannity programme on the President’s favorite news outlet, Rupert Murdoch’s conservative Fox News, President Trump described members of so called Islamic State as, “sneaky, dirty rats”. The President elaborated,
“They’re sneaky, dirty rats and they blow people up in a shopping center and they blow people up in a church…These are bad people. When you’re fighting Germany and they had their uniforms, and Japan and they had their uniforms and they had their flags on the plane, and the whole thing. We are fighting sneaky rats right now that are sick and demented. And we’re going to win.”
While few would defend the proven atrocities of IS, it has to be recognised that dehumanising an opponent, and presenting that opponent as mentally ill vermin to be exterminated, is a standard tool of political and racial Propaganda from both the Far-right and Far-left. For example, some of the Allied Propaganda effort against the Japanese during World War Two was every bit as racist and dehumanising as that employed by the Third Reich and in both cases historians argue such media portrayals acted as a moral gateway to making what would otherwise be seen as brutal and abhorrent treatment, even atrocities and war crimes, possible and even acceptable. Even so, there is undoubtedly a particular, and to many a frightening, resonance, when a Leader whose most senior strategist has been accused of anti-Semitism, white nationalist and even Fascist sympathies, uses the same language and imagery of Muslims as Joseph Goebbels used of Jews in the infamous 1940 propaganda film “the Eternal Jew”.
With Donald J Trump, another populist politician like Pat Buchanan, and earlier Charles A Lindbergh, now ensconced in the White House and attempting to run the United States under the 1930’s isolationist slogan of “America First”; and doing it while using the language of nativist politicians from the extreme and religious Right, the fear must be that not just the methods of Holocaust Denial, but perhaps even the case for denial itself, and certainly the language of the people who engineered the Holocaust, are now current in the circles which won Donald Trump the presidency.
A worse fear is that the same language may sometimes even be uttered by the President himself and that such language is not merely the careless use of hyperbole for political effect, but a deliberate political strategy to create a climate of opposition and fear to justify the President’s policy moves on issues such as the Travel ban on refugees from Syria and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa.
Of course, the US Courts have ruled the travel ban as Unconstitutional so far, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel was reported as using her first telephone call to the new President to teach him about the responsibilities towards refugees which the USA owes under the Geneva Convention. However, it is against that background on 30 January  White House spokesperson Sean Spicer said of dissenting diplomats in the State Department who were reported to be circulating a draft dissent memo critical of the President’s controversial executive order banning refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States for at least three months,
“At some point if they have a big problem with the policies that he’s instituting to keep the country safe, then that’s up to them to question whether or not they want to stay or not,”
Add to this Witches brew of crudely divisive and dehumanising imagery and intimidation, the suggestions of the censoring or suppression of Scientific data which the President does not agree with, such as that relating to climate change, and the challenge this lays down to mainstream academics researchers and journalists is clear.
“…ask yourself, 500 years from today, what are they going to say about me?”
For the most part the culture in academia is to stand above the day to day political dogfight, to keep personalities out of the picture and to let the metrics of peer reviewed arguments and data published in journals of record speak for itself. However, the logic of the clear attempts to manipulate, obfuscate and falsify the images of President Trump’s inauguration on 20 January, and of Professor Pollard’s subsequent observation that such methods are those of the Holocaust deniers, is that archaeologists and historians may not be able to hold that line. Indeed, it might not even be ethical to try to remain above the controversy. It might also be pointless in pragmatic terms. If academic data, discussion and comment begins runs counter to the actions and justifications of a Government prepared to offer the media and public “alternative facts”, and in areas such as climate change they already are, such critics will become part of the White House’s definition of the Lügenpresse regardless of academic convention, the number of letters after anyone’s name and the quantity of citations for learned articles they have gathered.
For scholars of the history and archaeology of war and conflict, such as Professor Pollard, the choice necessitated by the approach to history of the Trump Administration is particularly acute. It is their attempts to understand, describe and explain the conflicts of the past one hundred years, and especially contentious subjects such as the Holocaust, which are most dangerous potentially to the Alt-Right idealogues in the White House’; people who seek to explain the world in binary, Darwinian terms as a simple conflict of civilisations, culture and skin colour, or as the manifestations of a generational theory of history which some mainstream historians have depicted as Pseudo Science. Idealogues like Stephen Bannon may have read Sun Tzu and a lot of military history, but they would probably be criticised heavily for drawing pernicious and dangerously wrong conclusions from that reading were they to present such a thesis to the likes of Professor Pollard and his colleagues for peer review.
For archaeologists and historians the cost of at best acquiescence in such views and at worst collaboration with them, can also be drawn from the record of the twentieth century’s totalitarian regimes. The images of perverted and manipulated data, egregious ethical transgressions and even crimes of the Russian Academy of Science during the Stalin era and, most infamously, the activities and war crimes of the Nazi Ahnenerbe, are an unmistakable flashing red warning light reminding academics that, while they are professionals in their field, they are at the same time also members of diverse social, political and religious networks and communities, any and all of whom might find themselves the target of the next 4am Tweet of pique, travel ban, or, eventually perhaps, much worse.
At which point it is worth recording what historian William O’Neil wrote of Charles Linburgh,
“In promoting appeasement and military unpreparedness, Lindbergh damaged his country to a greater degree than any other private citizen in modern times. That he meant well makes no difference.”
In the case of the forty-fifth President of the United States, Donald R Trump, and in particular of some of the people around him such as Chief Councillor Stephen K. Bannon, there is not even the comfort of proof that they do actually mean well. It all comes down to whether any individual observing these events is prepared to take the chance that they do. However, when you consider the suggestion from Alt Right guru Julius Evola that to bring about changes in society it,
“… is not a question of contesting and polemicizing but of blowing everything up”
… that might not be a risk which it is acceptable to take. As Stephen Bannon told the Human Dignity Institute conference in 2016,
“…ask yourself, 500 years from today, what are they going to say about me? What are they going to say about what I did at the beginning stages of this crisis?”
When one side seems determined that just such a crisis of civilisation is in train, and might even be attempting to engineer it, that is a question which works both ways.
The White House has been contacted regarding Professor Pollard’s observation and has been asked to comment, however, up to the time of publication, no reply has been received.