Guenter Lewy (born August 22, 1923) is a German-born American author and political scientist who is a professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His works span several topics, but he is most often associated with his 1978 book on the Vietnam War, America in Vietnam, and several controversial works that deal with the applicability of the term genocide to various historical events.
In 1939 he migrated from Germany to Mandatory Palestine. After World War II, he migrated to the United States to reunite with his parents. Lewy earned a BA at City College in New York City and a MA and PhD at Columbia University. He has been on the faculties of Columbia University, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He currently lives in Washington, D.C., and is a frequent contributor to Commentary.
He has been labelled a genocide denier by the International Association of Genocide Scholars.
Lewy was born in Breslau, Germany, (now Wrocław, Poland) in 1923. At the age of nine he joined a German-Jewish scouts organization called Die Greifen (lit. "the griffins"), which he has suggested was important in shaping his desire for an academic career. Described by Lewy as a "quasi-Romantic" group, Die Greifen emphasized music, literature, and song, particularly Landsknechtlieder, encouraging the youths to avoid becoming "Spiessbürger" ("philistines"). By 1938, as persecution of Jews in Germany increased, Lewy began to lobby his family to leave Germany behind. After Kristallnacht, in November 1938, when his father was interned in Buchenwald for four months and he was beaten, his parents sent him to Mandatory Palestine. Later in the war, when Lewy was of fighting age, he voluntarily took up arms against Germany, serving in the Jewish Brigade.
Areas of research
The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany
First published in 1964, Lewy's The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany has proven both controversial and influential. Rolf Hochhuth's play The Deputy had appeared only a year earlier, indicting the Vatican for failing to act to save the Jews during the Holocaust; amidst the Vatican's outrage with the play, Lewy's text continued in the same vein:
One is inclined to conclude that the Pope and his advisers—influenced by the long tradition of moderate anti-Semitism so widely accepted in Vatican circles—did not view the plight of the Jews with a real sense of urgency and moral outrage. For this assertion no documentation is possible, but it is a conclusion difficult to avoid.
The text received much praise, including that of Alfred Grosser, who characterized the text as a "terribly precise volume" which demonstrated that "all the documents show the Catholic Church cooperating with the Nazi regime". The Vatican opted to answer the critical allegations by releasing a series of documents aiming to refute the growing perception of the Vatican having been conniving in the Holocaust. One Jesuit priest answering Lewy's text on behalf of the Vatican suggested that Lewy's conclusions were based "not on the record but on a subjective conviction ... This ready acceptance of a Nazi-inspired wartime legend is a measure of Lewy's inability to plumb the motives of Pius XII ... There is no proof, in this book or anywhere else, that Pius XII thought Nazism was a 'bulwark' in defense of Christianity."
In the context of other historical works examining the legacy of the Vatican in the era of the Holocaust, Lewy's work has been described as "exceedingly harsh".
America in Vietnam
Lewy had suggested that his America in Vietnam, published in 1978, would "clear away the cobwebs of mythology that inhibit the correct understanding of what went on—and what went wrong—in Vietnam." The text, which argues against traditional or "orthodox" interpretations of the war as an unnecessary, unjust, and/or unwinnable war replete with disastrous mistakes and widespread American atrocities, has proven influential for many western scholars that share similar views of the conflict. It predated and influenced other reinterpretations including those of Norman Podhoretz, Mark Moyar, and Michael Lind. America in Vietnam thus attracted both criticism and support of Lewy for belonging to the "revisionist" school on Vietnam. Lewy argues,
It is the reasoned conclusion of this study ... that the sense of guilt created by the Vietnam war in the minds of many Americans is not warranted and that the charges of officially, condoned illegal and grossly immoral conduct are without substance. Indeed, detailed examination of battlefield practices reveals that the loss civilian life in Vietnam was less great than in World War II and Korea and that concern with minimizing the ravages of the war was strong. To measure and compare the devastation and loss of human life caused by different war will be objectionable to those who repudiate all resort to military force as an instrument of foreign policy and may be construed as callousness. Yet as long as wars do take place at all it remains a moral duty to seek to reduce the agony caused by war, and the fulfillment of this obligation should not be disdained. I hope that this book may help demonstrate that moral convictions are not the exclusive possession of persons in conscience opposed to war, and that those who in certain circumstances accept the necessity and ethical justification of armed conflict also do care about human suffering.
Lewy criticizes what he terms the "war crime industry", and what he perceives to be the double standards of the Western media, which, he alleged, neglected to report equally on the crimes of Vietnamese communists, giving the figure of 36,725 political assassinations perpetrated by the VC/NVA between 1957 and 1972. About the crimes committed by American soldiers, Lewy asserts that "between January 1965 and March 1973, 201 Army personnel in Vietnam were convicted by court-martial of serious offenses against Vietnamese. During the period of March 1965 to August 1971, 77 Marines were convicted of serious crimes against Vietnamese."
In recalling the 1971 congressional testimony of some American veterans who were critical of the war, one of whom compared American action in Vietnam to genocide, Lewy suggests that some "witnesses sounded as if they had memorized North Vietnamese propaganda." The book is critical of domestic opponents of American participation in the Vietnam War. In using the phrases "peace activists" or "peace demonstrations", Lewy often puts quotation marks around the word "peace", implying alternative motivations for the activism. The author alleges a possible connection between cases of sabotage in the Navy and the anti-war movement:
Between 1965 and 1970, the Navy experienced a growing number of cases of sabotage and arson on its ships, but no evidence could be found that antiwar activists had directly participated in a sabotage attempt on a Navy vessel. Cases of fragging and avoidance of combat may well have been instigated at times by antiwar militants, though no hard evidence of organized subversion was ever discovered.
The text was praised by Vietnam veteran and United States Senator Jim Webb, Andrew J. Pierre of Foreign Affairs, and by several newspapers, including The Economist, which described it as "in many way the best history of the war yet to appear". Critics included historians of the "orthodox" school as well as polemical critics such as linguist and Vietnam War opponent Noam Chomsky. Chomsky, after being singled out for criticism by Lewy in the book, wrote that "every state has its' Guenter Lewys". According to Chomsky, Lewy's "concept of the writing of moral-historical tracts ... is misrepresentation of documents, uncritical regurgitation of government claims, and dismissal of annoying facts that contradict them, and [his] concept of morality is such as to legitimate virtually any atrocity against civilians once the state has issued its commands."
Winter Soldier Investigation
America in Vietnam, which appeared seven years after the Winter Soldier Investigation, became controversial in the context of the 2004 United States presidential election. Presidential hopeful John Kerry had been involved with the Winter Soldier Investigation; in the context of the campaign, Lewy's suggestion that the Winter Soldier Investigation was dishonest and politically motivated was frequently cited to impugn John Kerry's reputation. Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the group of which Kerry had been a part, alleged that American war policy and conduct in Vietnam was resulting in war crimes being committed. Lewy suggests that the group used "fake witnesses" in the Winter Soldier hearing in Detroit, and that its allegations were formally investigated:
The results of the investigation, carried out by the Naval Investigative Service, are interesting and revealing. Many of the veterans, though assured that they would not be questioned about the atrocities they might have committed personally, refused to be interviewed. One of the active members of the VVAW told investigators that the leadership had directed the entire membership not to cooperate with military authorities. A black marine who agreed to be interviewed was unable to provide details of the outrages he had described at the hearing, but he called the Vietnam war "one huge atrocity" and "a racist plot." He admitted that the question of atrocities had not occurred to him while he was in Vietnam, and that he had been assisted in the preparation of his testimony by a member of the Nation of Islam. But the most damaging finding consisted of the sworn statements of several veterans, corroborated by witnesses, that they had in fact not attended the hearing in Detroit. One of them had never been to Detroit in all his life. He did not know, he stated, who might have used his name.
Government officials have said they have no record of any such Naval Investigative Service report, but that it is possible it could have been lost or destroyed. Lewy later said that he could not recall if he had actually seen the alleged report or simply been told of its contents. "I don't think Lewy is interested in presenting any of [the Winter Soldier testimony] as truthful," University of Richmond history professor Ernest Bolt told the Chicago Tribune. "He has an angle on the war as a whole." Bolt said it is impossible to tell whether Lewy fairly characterized the naval investigative report because no other historian had seen it.
The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies
Lewy argues in The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies that the Gypsies' overall plight does "not constitute genocide within the meaning of the genocide convention." Lewy concludes that in the case of the Nazi persecution of the Gypsies the "use of the term 'genocide' would seem to involve a dilution of the concept.", but that the question is not to determine if the Holocaust is the Nazi's worst crime; to refuse the "genocide" label is not, Lewy argues, a way to minimize the sufferings of Gypsies, Poles, Russians and other non-Jewish victims of Nazism. The introduction is devoted to the long history of violence against Gypsies before the Nazis took power, with a special focus on the laws adopted in Bavaria and some other German Länder at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, showing the continuity between the last year of the Weimar Republic and the first years of Nazi regime. In a section entitled "Roots of Hostility", Lewy argues that the main reason of the persecution against Gypsies before 1933 was prejudice. Though Gypsies are not a violent people, he adds that prejudice is not always the single reason; the misbehavior of a minority among nomadic Gypsies contributed also to hostility and prejudices.
The book was praised by Saul Friedländer, who called it "a work of great compassion and exemplary scholarship." According to Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, "Lewy's account of Nazi measures against the powerless Gypsies is unsurpassed in the English language." Henriette Asséo, lecturer at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, specialist of Gypsy history, wrote that Lewy's book "requires humility, giving a new, considerable documentation", adding, however, that the rejection of "genocide" label can be "discussed" Hans Mommsen agreed completely with Lewy, including with the rejection of "genocide" qualification.
The book was criticized by Norman G. Finkelstein who wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung:
Lewy's argument goes like this: Gypsies were as ruthlessly slaughtered by the Einsatzgruppen as the Jews, but only because they were suspected of spying; Gypsies were deported to Auschwitz like the Jews, but only "to get rid of them, not to kill them;" Gypsies were gassed at Chelmno like the Jews, but only because they had contracted typhus; most of the few remaining Gypsies were sterilized like the Jews, not however to prevent their propagation but only to "prevent contamination of 'German blood.'"
The book has also been singled out for criticism, particularly by Romani scholars, who believe that it blames the Roma people for their own massacre. Lewy's work has been criticized as a text which "overstates" the differences of the persecution of Jews and the persecution of Roma in the Nazi era, in a manner indicative of "the priorities of latter-day scholarship, about the way that the murder of the Jews has been promoted to obscure so much of the rest of the Nazi record of atrocity".
"Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?"
In September 2004, Lewy published an essay in Commentary entitled "Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?":
[E]ven if some episodes can be considered genocidal—that is, tending toward genocide—they certainly do not justify condemning an entire society. Guilt is personal, and for good reason the Genocide Convention provides that only "persons" can be charged with the crime, probably even ruling out legal proceedings against governments.
As to whether the American Indian experience resembles the fate of the Jews under the Nazi regime:
No matter how difficult the conditions under which the Indians labored—obligatory work, often inadequate food and medical care, corporal punishment—their experience bore no comparison with the fate of the Jews in the ghettos.
The paper is highly critical of Ward Churchill, particularly in regards to his attributing the word "genocide" to the destruction of American Indian civilization. Lewy dismissed as bogus Churchill's assertion that the United States Army intentionally spread smallpox among American Indians by distributing infected blankets in 1837.
Views on the Armenian Genocide
In The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide, Lewy argues that there is insufficient evidence of the Young Turk regime organizing the massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. According to Professor Tessa Hoffmann of Berlin's Free University, Lewy had conceived of the idea of writing on the Armenian Genocide as early as 2000:
In the summer of 2000 a retiree, resting on my couch, expressed a strange intention. Guenter Lewy, the retired American political scientist, wanted to subject "the Armenian massacres" to a similar revision as he had done before with respect to the Sinti and the Roma. That revision, argued Lewy, had shown that even though their fate in World War II proved tragic, it did not represent a "real" genocide, as there were no centrally organized and state-sponsored premeditation and genocidal intention.
In his book he states that the killings were not genocide, because they have not been proven to have been governmentally organized, and also because "the argument that the deportations in reality constituted a premeditated program of extermination of the Armenians of Turkey is difficult to square with many aspects and characteristics of the relocations", including the non relocation of Armenian communities of cities like Istanbul, Smyrna (Izmir) and Aleppo; the fact that "the trek on foot that took so many lives was imposed only on the Armenian in eastern and central Anatolia, a part of the country that had no railroad. Although the one-spur Baghdad railway was overburdened with the transport of troops and supplies, the deportees from the western provinces and Cilicia who had the money were allowed to purchase ticket by rail and were spared at least some of the tribulations of the deportation process"; the "great deal of variation" exhibited by the resettlement process, "that depended on factors such as geography and the attitude of local officials". According to Lewy, "the Ottoman government wanted to arrange an orderly process, but did not have the means to do so."
On pages 204–205 of The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey, however, Lewy indicates that Marshal Otto Liman von Sanders was on an inspection tour of Smyrna, in November, when he was made aware of the deportation of Armenians, that included old women and sick children. Liman sent a message to the vali demanding an immediate stop to the deportations. Liman threatened that if the deportations did not stop he would use troops under his command to end the deportations.
About the number of Armenian victims, Lewy argues that it "can only be estimated, because no death statistics for this period exist"; calculating the total losses of Ottoman Armenians between 1914 and 1919, Lewy uses the figure of 1,750,000 individuals for the pre-war population in the whole Ottoman Empire, figure used by historians like Charles Dowsett and Malcolm E. Yapp, then estimate the number of survivors in 1919 to around 1,108,000, making an average of several estimations, including the tabulation of George Montgomery (American official in the Paris Peace Conference in charge of Near East) and the figure of the Armenian National Council of Constantinople; so, Lewy estimates the total losses for World War I to around 642,000.
Lewy's research on this and related topics has been criticized by University of California, Davis professor Keith David Watenpaugh:
[Lewy's] recent writings on mass violence including those on Native Americans, the Roma, and now the Armenians indicate a belief that the Shoah was the unique genocide of the 20th century, a position generally rejected by scholars of the Holocaust ... the larger purpose of Lewy's intellectual output ... [is] to construct a conceptual lattice for Holocaust exceptionalism and defend political claims that might be derived thereby.
According to David B. MacDonald, Lewy "actually denies the Armenian genocide in a manner similar to his denial of the American Indian and Roma genocides", and "while the sources he uses are either Turkish or pro-Turkish, Lewy insists that 'debate' is ongoing and there has been no resolution". MacDonald points out that sources like Kamuran Gürün and Bernard Lewis "hardly demonstrate the existence of a genuine academic dispute".
According to Mark Potok, editor of the Intelligence Report journal of Southern Poverty Law Center, the facts of the Armenian genocide are quite well known. The ruling party of the day massacred intellectuals, forced hundreds of thousands of Armenians into what amounted to death marches, and systematically despoiled the victims of their property. Professor Raphael Lemkin coined the word "genocide" in 1943 with the Armenian slaughter in mind. In 2005, the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) wrote the Turkish foreign minister to remind him that the massacre of Christian Armenians was indeed 'a systematic genocide'.
On November 17, 2008 Lewy filed a defamation suit against the Southern Poverty Law Center, Inc., and writer-editor David Holthouse in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. On September 28, 2010 the case was settled when the SPLC agreed to publish a retraction and apologize to Lewy for suggesting that he was "a Turkish agent". In its statement, the SPLC stated that it had erred in assuming that "any scholar who challenges the Armenian genocide narrative necessarily has been financially compromised by the government of Turkey." The settlement with Lewy included an undisclosed monetary payment. Lewy's counsel in the case, David Salzman and Bruce Fein, lead the TCA's Turkish American Legal Defense Fund.
About the vote of the IAGS, Lewy wrote:
I am less than impressed by the unanimous vote of the International Association of Genocide Scholars that the Armenian case "was one of the major genocides of the modern era." The great majority of these self-proclaimed experts on Ottoman history have never set foot in an archive or done any other original research on the subject in question.
In response, the IAGS labelled Lewy a "genocide denier".
According to Joseph Albert Kechichian, writing in the International Journal of Middle East Studies,:
... Lewy has been amply rewarded by Turkish authorities in Ankara and abroad through the launching of a massive campaign to distribute his book free of charge to libraries and to select groups of diplomats. Equally noteworthy, Lewy has been decorated at a special ceremony in Ankara with, ironically, the İnsanlığa Karşı İşlenen Suçlar Yüksek Ödülü (High Award for Fighting in Opposition to Crimes Against Humanity) ... [by] a well-known organization whose mission includes the systematic denial of the Armenian genocide through propagandistic and partisan research and publications; the organization is sponsored and underwritten by the Turkish government.
Writing in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Professor of Political Science Michael Gunter has argued that the fact that Lewy's book was distributed free to libraries does not demonstrate that the argument of the book is somehow illegitimate. Nor does the fact that Lewy was presented with an award by the Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies (ASAM), a Turkish think tank, prove that he is lying or is in the service of the Turkish government. Indeed, in many parts of his book, Lewy is highly critical of the quasi-official Turkish position which speaks of "so-called massacres". Michael Gunter points out that Lewy's book has been praised by many reviewers, including the Ottoman military historian Edward J. Erickson in The Middle East Journal and by the German scholar of comparative genocide, Eberhard Jäckel, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of March 23, 2006. Edward J. Erickson wrote indeed that:
Of particular note is Lewy's interest in the work of Vahakn N. Dadrian, an American sociologist, who is considered by the Armenian camp to be one of the preeminent writers on the Armenian genocide today. ... Lewy systematically examines the sources cited by Dadrian and finds that the latter frequently misrepresented and misquoted sources or failed to include important contextual information. Lewy contends that the implications of Dadrian's dishonesty cast doubt on the veracity of many of his assertions regarding the existence of a historical case proving genocide. ... This is an important book because it presents a much-needed corrective to the one-sided view that many have of the Armenian deportations and massacres.
There could be some mistakes in the history, but it should be more objective to enlighten those mistaken events with the helping of the historians. Guenter Lewy's book, The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey, A Disputed Genocide, mainly focuses on the massacres in Ottoman Turkey, and he strongly stands on the way of the truths which he finds from the historical documents. After all, he mentions that trustfully the deaths of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey can not be called "genocide". There were some deaths but they can not be called as genocide. For calling genocide, it is needed to have a look at the definition of genocide which is mostly accepted to intention to annihilation of one group. To use or say genocide for an event it has to involve an intention of annihilation. In the Armenian case the main aim was not based on the intention of Armenian annihilation. The only thing was deporting· the Armenians from some places only for security purposes, because the Armenians became a big problem for the Turks during World War I with the rebellions and armed guerillas inside the country.
Norman Stone, professor emeritus at Oxford University called Lewy's book "the best recent account of the Armenian massacres". The sociologist Taner Akçam published a lengthy review of Lewy's work, criticizing his methodology and lack of familiarity with the workings of the Ottoman state. He also faulted him for basing his arguments on questionable premises and making select use of sources which conform to his own views and conclusions.
Uniqueness of the Holocaust
In the Journal of Genocide Research, David Stannard called Lewy
one of the last of a disappearing breed: the extreme "uniqueness" advocate determined to assert—in the face of contrary and increasingly overwhelming fact and logic—that, of all the mass killings that have ever occurred in the history of the world, only the Holocaust, or more precisely the Shoah, rose to the level of true "genocide."
Lewy's response included:
Let me try to set the record straight: In none of my writings have I ever asserted the uniqueness or singularity of the Holocaust, and indeed I do not believe that the Holocaust is the only instance of mass killing that deserves to be classified as an act of genocide. With Yehuda Bauer I would call the Holocaust unprecedented but not unique, because the term unique suggests that something like the Holocaust can never happen again. In point of fact, later in the 20th century we witnessed the terrible genocides of Cambodia and Rwanda. I would welcome it if critics of my work would limit themselves to dealing with the substance of my positions rather than falsely impute to me ulterior motives.
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- Norman Stone, Turkey: a Short History, London: Thames & Hudson, 2010, p. 181.
- David Stannard, Deja Vu All Over Again, Journal of Genocide Research, Volume 10, Issue 1, March 2008, p. 127.
- Lewy, Guenter, Reply to Tony Barta, Norbert Finzsch and David Stannard, Journal of Genocide Research, Volume 10, Issue 2, June 2008, p. 307.
- Appearances on C-SPAN
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