When a three-day conference in Tehran on the future of the Palestinians ended last month, the few hundred militant leaders and their backers had heard speeches condemning Israel and pledging support for Hamas - but not, as many anticipated, any experts challenging evidence of the Holocaust. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he'd stage a conference of Holocaust skeptics, right around the time he referred to the mass murder of European Jews during World War II as a "myth."
Ahmadinejad may be the first president of a country to challenge the Holocaust, allying himself with an array of claims viewed among serious historians in much the same light as the case for a flat Earth. He seemed to soften that a bit during the April meeting, referring to his "serious doubt" that the Nazis killed 5 million to 6 million Jews.
If the Iranian president does convene a conference challenging Holocaust evidence - a former Iranian foreign minister said it is still being planned - he'll step into what scholars describe as a parallel universe, an arena of minutiae and semantic gamesmanship where the weight of historical evidence is never so great that it cannot be dismissed with a fine point, even if the point has been willfully or innocently misconstrued.
"This is a completely other world," says Michael Marrus, a Holocaust scholar at the University of Toronto. "They are the masters of the tiny detail. They have twisted and exploited every minor issue."
In Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History and the David Irving Trial, Richard J. Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge University, refers to the "obscene and ridiculous fantasy-world of the Holocaust deniers," to which most scholars on Nazi Germany pay little mind.
The scholarship about Holocaust denial might recommend ignoring the whole thing, if it were not for the fact that stranger notions have caught on. Writer and lawyer Alan Dershowitz has called Holocaust denial the new Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, the bogus blueprint for Jewish world domination.
This piece of 19th-century czarist propaganda was exposed as a fake in the 1920s, but that has not stopped Hamas, which now runs the Palestinian government, from citing the Protocols in Article 32 of the party charter as evidence of Israeli menace.
When Hitler's National Socialists made similar use of the Protocols in the 1930s, it joined the many myths about Jews - such as stories about killing Christian children in religious rituals, conspiring with the devil, killing God's son - that have helped to shape Jewish experience.
Holocaust denial suggests an odd turn on this pattern, as the argument would have a cataclysmic Jewish experience seen as a myth contrived by Jews for political advantage.
Attempts to debunk accounts of Nazi atrocities have been around in various forms since soon after the end of World War II, with skeptical articles first emerging in France.
Those who carry on this denial tradition, including writers such as the Briton David Irving - now in jail for violating Austria's laws against denial - frequently deny that they deny the Holocaust. They acknowledge that the Third Reich persecuted, deported and even murdered some Jews.
Mark Weber, head of the Institute for Historical Review, identified by scholars in the field as the chief purveyor of denial literature in the United States, considers the term "denier" a smear. He's quick in an interview to say that, of course, "there was a Holocaust," but he rejects the very points that give the term its meaning.
He insists that the Nazis pursued an anti-Jewish policy of deportation, not extermination. He does not accept that they used gas chambers, nor that they killed between 5 million and 6 million Jews.
Weber and others in this camp insist upon their scrupulous attention to evidence. They say they rely on scientific studies. They write books loaded with footnotes. They attend conferences where research papers are presented. They say their work is no different from any academic pursuit, except that they reach politically unpopular conclusions.
Deborah E. Lipstadt, who teaches modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, published one of the early books on the phenomenon in 1993 only after overcoming strong impulses to ignore Irving and others, hoping they would go away. In Denying the Holocaust, she insists deniers are racist extremists who demand attention not for the merit of the ideas but "because of the fragility of reason and society's susceptibility of such farfetched notions. Many powerful movements have been founded by people living in similar irrational wonderlands, national socialism foremost among them."
The evidence is a sea of paper, photographs, motion pictures, artifacts of wood, leather, metal, cloth, concrete, chemical residues, human voice. From such stuff people make legal cases, history, culture, identity - each its own sort of story.
Some of the evidence has been gathered at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, custodian of a story told to more than 1.5 million visitors a year. Starting on the fourth floor, the visitors descend to the third and the second, shuffling from Munich to Warsaw to Oswiecim, from the fires of Kristallnacht to the chimneys of Auschwitz.
What to say about people who claim the story is just not so?
As little as possible, says museum director Sara J. Bloomfield.
"The last thing you want to do is give them attention or a media platform, which in a way is what you're doing here," says Bloomfield, sitting in her office with its bookcases, high ceilings and brick walls painted white.
"They want the history debated; that is their goal. We don't debate whether this history happened," she says, adding that the deniers' pursuit is "more about anti-Semitism and politics than it is about history."
Asked why the challenges of Irving and his ilk are necessarily anti-Semitic, Bloomfield points to the vast array of material associated with the Holocaust.
"The perpetrators themselves, the Germans, have admitted it," she says. "When you look at the overwhelming weight of evidence, you have to ask what's going on here."
As compelling as it may be, the permanent exhibition itself would not necessarily "prove" the Holocaust to even a well-meaning skeptic. Such a person would have to examine published histories, testimonies, source material and whatever remains of physical evidence at death camp sites.
This is the nature of "convergence of evidence," as Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman put it in their book, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? published in 2000.
"[T]here is an assumption by deniers that if they can just find one tiny crack in the Holocaust structure, the entire edifice will come tumbling down. This is a fundamental flaw in their reasoning," Shermer and Grobman wrote, putting italic emphasis on this phrase: "The Holocaust is not a single event that a single fact can prove or disprove."
Shermer, a historian of science and the founder of Skeptic magazine, recruited Grobman, a Holocaust scholar, for the six-year project, which involved picking through such gruesome particulars as gas chamber construction and Zyklon B poison gas residue.
Although Shermer says in an interview that there's probably room for further excavations of evidence at death camp sites, the book affirmed the essential elements of established Holocaust history as understood today.
John C. Zimmerman, who is not a historian by profession, came to similar conclusions in his book, Holocaust Denial: Demographics, Testimonies and Ideologies, also published in 2000. His study paid particular attention to the five Auschwitz crematoria. He cites analysis by the Crakow Institute for Forensic Research showing residue of Zyklon B where deniers claimed it did not exist. He argues that construction details show that particular rooms could not have been morgues, as some deniers have claimed, but were indeed gas chambers.
In an interview, Weber does not insist that there were no people killed in gas chambers, but neither will he acknowledge that there were.
"I don't see any compelling evidence of that," says Weber, dismissing as "vague" the testimonies from people who watched gassings and removed corpses from gas chambers.
Historians have variously counted between 4.6 million and 6.3 million Jewish victims of the Nazis, but Weber only concedes up to 1 million. He takes issue with how "victims" of the Holocaust are counted.
Anne Frank, for instance. The best-known Jewish casualty was arrested in hiding with her family in Amsterdam in August 1944 and moved first to the Westerbork concentration camp in northern Holland. She was then deported to Auschwitz in Poland, then back to Bergen-Belsen in Germany in October 1944. There she died at 16 in a typhus epidemic in February or March 1945.
"She wasn't killed; she died," says Weber. He admits the circumstances were "terrible," but he says, "if the policy was to kill her, they would have killed her in Auschwitz."
If Weber, Irving and others claim they are practicing as historians, legal scholar Lawrence Douglas has written that their arguments "powerfully evoke the rhetoric of attorneys, practiced in the art of adversarial litigation."
One of the most extensive public airings of the claims and methods of Holocaust deniers took place in a British courtroom in 2000, as Lipstadt, the American historian, defended herself against Irving's lawsuit claiming she libeled him by calling him a denier in her book, Denying the Holocaust.
British and American libel law are opposites of each other, in that British law burdens the defendant to prove the allegedly defamatory statement is true. That meant Lipstadt had to prove Irving was a denier, a point that hardly seemed controversial to her when she wrote the book.
But the case that seemed evident in her book was not so easily made in court, as it demanded comprehensive analysis of Irving's scholarship and continual clarification of his obfuscations. Some witnesses defended Irving's work as legitimate historical inquiry.
After a 10-week trial, Judge Charles Gray read from a 355-page decision that made Lipstadt's critique of Irving seem relatively mild, using words such as "travesty" and "reprehensible" to describe Irving's use of historical materials. According to Lipstadt's account of the judge's decision in History on Trial, Gray declared Irving an "antisemite" and a "racist" who was "motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence."
The evidence has an eerie way of foreshadowing denial.
In light of the Institute for Historical Review's insistence on the Nazi policy being Jewish deportation, not extermination, an Aug. 2, 1943, diary entry of Hans Frank, Germany's governor general in Poland, seems particularly chilling: "We started here [in Poland] with 3.5 million [Jews] and now only insignificant working parties are left. As for the remainder - we shall say some day - they migrated."
In one of the first images visitors see in the Holocaust Museum permanent exhibit, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower stands amid a litter of corpses at the newly liberated Ohrdruf concentration camp in Germany in April 1945. This was not an extermination camp and so would not necessarily be part of a denier argument, but his remark seems prescient, as he says he wanted to see the evidence of "starvation, cruelty and bestiality" for himself, "to give first hand evidence of these things, if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to 'propaganda.'"
A few steps away, another photograph shows a young Nazi standing outside a Jewish-owned shop in Germany on the day of a boycott, April 1, 1933, displaying a large sign in German and, for some reason, also in English: "Germans defend yourselves against Jewish atrocity propaganda. Buy only at German shops!"
The tendency to see the Holocaust as propaganda aiding Jewish causes has run through this form of extreme "revisionism" at least since the Frenchman Paul Rassinier published The Drama of European Jewry in 1964. The gas chambers, he said, were an invention of the "Zionist establishment."
When Ahmadinejad threatens Israel in one breath and in the next calls the Holocaust a "myth," he echoes a familiar song. How it's playing, and what his remarks do for the cause of the likes of Irving, is hard to say.
Weber certainly does not seem enthusiastic about the remarks, saying Ahmadinejad is not a historian and should keep these thoughts to himself.
Next to the Irving trial outcome, Lipstadt says Ahmadinejad is the deniers' "worst nightmare ... I don't think it helps."
Ahmadinejad's intended audience is clearly not the world's academic historians, but Lipstadt figures that his remarks do say something significant about the leader of a country that apparently has serious nuclear aspirations.
"Some say he's crazy," says Lipstadt. "I say he's crazy like a fox."