Revilo Oliver, founding member of the John Birch Society, twisted my father’s ideas about the Holocaust. The Jews became the Communists and Nazis became loyal soldiers following orders.
I was in the first grade when I started walking to St. Timothy’s School, a Catholic grade school in my Chicago neighborhood. The four-block hike from my home on Maplewood took me down Devon Avenue, a busy commercial street lined with small shops, most with Jewish owners.
I was around ten when it dawned on me that I heard lots of conversation about World War II and the fate of Jews in eastern Europe. The old folks usually spoke in Yiddish, so I didn’t understand much. But I did hear the English words “smoke,” “ghetto,” and “camps.”
My across-the-alley-neighbor, Mrs. Fishman, told me that the Jews in Germany were forced to wear yellow stars and then they were put into railroad cars.
“Now they’re all dead,” she said. “No one is left.”
I asked my father about the stars and boxcars. He told me how the Nazis arrested Jews across Germany and Poland. He told me about the gas and the crematoriums.
I remember his face when he said that the ashes of the dead covered everything. I remember his voice cracking when he described what the Allies found when they liberated the camps: piles of corpses and emaciated prisoners in striped prison pajamas.
Before I knew the word Holocaust, I knew the Nazis had tried to kill every Jew in Europe. I knew this for certain.
Then my father joined the John Birch Society and became a national leader. Our home was Ground Zero for the Birch recruiting efforts in the Midwest. Lots of Dad’s Birch friends stopped by to share a meal, help recruit new members, or discuss the plans for growth and development.
One frequent guest was Dr. Revilo P. Oliver, a classics professor from the University of Illinois in Campaign-Urbana. He was a founding member of the Birch Society and a personal friend of Birch founder, Robert Welch. Welch often described Oliver as one of the “ablest speakers on the Americanist side.”
Oliver got a hearty welcome from my parents. After all, any friend of Robert Welch was an automatic friend of Stillwell and Laurene Conner.
Using the Birch network, Oliver peddled his revised history of World War II; one in which the Jews invented the Holocaust and foisted the story of their imaginary persecution on an unsuspecting world. I heard Oliver spin his vile “Holohoax” ideas right in my parents’ living room.
The first time I met Oliver he gave me the creeps. His long face was exaggerated by greasy black hair, bushy eyebrows, beady eyes and wide handlebar mustache. I never saw Oliver smile. But his lips often curled in a nasty snarl, especially when he was berating someone who dared to disagree.
Oliver was a frequent contributor to National Review, William F. Buckley’s magazine, and to the John Birch Society’s magazine, American Opinion. In the pages of these journals, he expressed some of his most controversial positions including a 1965 slam against the United States for “an insane, but terribly effective, effort to destroy the American people and Western civilization by subsidizing . . . the breeding of the intellectually, physically, and morally unfit.”
Oliver peppered his speeches and his articles with racial slurs and discredited historical assumption. In his role as a member of the John Birch Society speakers’ bureau, he railed against Communist subversion inside our government while insisting that President Roosevelt tricked the United States into World War II in order to help his friend, Joseph Stalin, the Russian dictator.
Along with this interpretation of World War II, Oliver peddled his version of the Holocaust, one in stark contrast to everything I’d learned from our Jewish neighbors and my own father. Gone were the yellow stars and the death camps. Gone were the gas chambers and crematoria. Even the witness of American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald and Dachau was repudiated. Instead, Oliver said that there were no gas chambers and no exterminations.
My parents parroted Oliver. The Holocaust stopped being so terrible, the death camps turned into detention camps. Jews were imprisoned because they were Communist traitors. The “Final Solution” became fiction, and the Nazis were loyal military men following orders.
I’d met Jews with tattoos on their arms. I’d seen photographs from Buchenwald. I knew that millions of men, women and children were gassed and their ashes coated everything when the fires roared. I knew all of this as well as I knew my name. I was not even 14 and I thought my parents had lost their minds. Dr. Oliver had helped them
No matter what Revilo Oliver said, he continued to serve (with my father) on the John Birch Society National Council, the inner circle of the organization. My parents drank in everything he said and repeated most of it, almost verbatim. Robert Welch heaped praise on Oliver for his outstanding contributions to the Birch cause.
All of this Oliver devotion stopped abruptly in July of 1966, when Oliver headlined the New England Rally for God, Family, and Country, an annual Birch-sponsored festival held in Boston and billed as a reunion for conservative Americans. In his speech, “Conspiracy or Degeneracy, Oliver talked about “vaporizing” Jews as part of the “beatific vision.”
Oliver’s statements generated an avalanche of negative press, followed by internal Birch turmoil on how to respond. Oliver had said all of this and more for years and every single member of the Birch leadership had heard him. But time this was different. Oliver was speaking at a public Birch-sanctioned and sponsored event. His shocking anti-Semitism reflected badly on the John Birch Society, and the press reported the story.
In early August, Welch told council members that Oliver had resigned. In a split-second, he vanished from my parents’ conversation. They pretended that Oliver had never been a Birch leader or a personal friend.
Revilo Oliver lived the rest of his life as a hero to neo-Nazis, skin heads and white supremacists. His views never moderated.
In 1982, twelve years before his death by suicide, Oliver wrote that democracy would only be possible by “deporting, vaporizing, or otherwise disposing of swarms of Jews, Congoids (Africans), Mongoloids and mongrels (mixed-race) that now infest our territory.”
Oliver put an indelible mark on the John Birch Society, built a network of Holocaust deniers, and recruited countless followers to spread his message of hate. Unfortunately, his ideas did not die with him.
Neo-Nazis and historical revisionists continue their campaign to deny the reality of Hitler’s Holocaust. To confront today’s deniers and minimize their impact, we all have to take a hard look at the man who fueled the movement.
Believe me, Revilo Oliver was the vilest person who ever came to dinner.