This Wisconsin town, with a population of 18,800, is the kind of place where church parking lots fill up on Sundays, people leave their cars running when they duck into the grocery store and residents greet former neighbors like long-lost friends when they come back for a visit.
Marshfield, about 200 miles northwest of Milwaukee, is also home to Christine Miller, a Holocaust revisionist who has peddled her message throughout central Wisconsin.
Miller, in her late 60s, recently secured space at the Marshfield Public Library for a pro-Nazi exhibit that she designed. The exhibit, which ran for two weeks in April, included a homemade Nazi flag — the swastika was inexplicably backward — reproductions of watercolor paintings by Hitler and other Nazi artifacts. Miller also translated German newspapers and displayed books available from revisionist Web sites.
To many, Miller’s message is offensive and shocking enough, but most outsiders will probably be more surprised by her ability to secure prime exhibition space at the local library. In fact, however, Miller boasts a long record of successfully flooding the public square with her revisionist ideology.
The Marshfield News-Herald, where I worked as a reporter and editor from 1993 to 1996 before moving back to Milwaukee, frequently publishes Miller’s letters.
“Most people, and that includes Americans of German descent, side with the victor where life is easy and honorable,” Miller wrote in a letter published May 14. “But my sympathies have always been with the witches, the heretics, the losers and that includes Nazi Germany.”
Miller has also broadcast Holocaust revisionist videos on a local public access cable channel. In the case of both the newspaper and the television station, Miller has capitalized on rules requiring open access and what officials describe as their absolute commitment to free speech.
The newspaper has a policy of printing all letters it receives, although readers are limited to one missive a month. Executives at the cable station say that they air Miller’s revisionist videos — most produced by well-known Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, the Institute for Historical Review or other “professional” sources — because if a resident brings them in, the shows qualify as local programming.
Open access to public forums is also the reasoning behind the library exhibit: Library officials say that their policy requires them to open two display cases to anyone who wants to use them.
In an interview with the News-Herald, library director Lori Belongia defended her decision to permit the exhibit.
“Any time we abridge the right to speak for one, we abridge the right for all of us to speak,” Belongia was quoted as saying in an April 4 News-Herald article on the exhibit. She added: “We invite anyone and everyone to use our cases. If you think you have a point of view that isn’t represented, we’ll get you signed up.”
News-Herald editor Tom Berger weighed in three days later with a similar take, arguing that while “few people in our community would agree with what Miller has to say about the Third Reich, Hitler, death camps and Nazis,” the strength of “our nation is that it allows — even welcomes — people with opposing viewpoints to be heard, and it stands tall for those who have little standing at all in circles of power and influence.”
My own connection to Miller dates back to 1996, when, as a News-Herald reporter, I covered the first of Miller’s many unsuccessful campaigns for a seat on the local school board. Running on a platform of German nationalism, Holocaust denial, cutting teachers’ salaries and a “return to the good old days,” Miller regularly pulls in 10% to 25% of the vote in local school board elections. This year she received 1,434 votes, compared to 231 votes in her first run. That wasn’t enough to win, but it was more than enough to make Marshfield’s 15 Jewish families increasingly uneasy.
All but one of the Jewish families have ties to the Marshfield Clinic, one of the country’s largest private medical facilities. It houses a hospital, several medical training programs, the National Farm Medicine Center and research and educational foundations. Medicine is now the biggest industry in Marshfield, a community once primarily made of farms and factories.
Members of the local Jewish community, in addition to many of this generation’s righteous gentiles, have been writing letters to the News-Herald for years, decrying Miller’s activities. But until now, no group — Jewish or otherwise — has taken any official action regarding Miller. Rabbi E. Daniel Danson, religious leader of Mount Sinai Congregation, a synagogue in nearby Wausau, which also serves Marshfield’s Jewish community, said that the organizational silence in the past represented a deliberate policy.
“We didn’t want to rise to the bait,” Danson told the Forward. “But the situation has reached critical mass.”
Following the opening of the library exhibit, Danson was moved to express his concerns about Miller in a meeting with the editor of the News-Herald. The rabbi has also met with critics of the exhibit.
An increasing number of Marshfield residents seem to agree that stronger action needs to be taken to rebut Miller’s claims. Author Alden Carter is circulating a petition protesting the exhibit and requesting advance notice of future exhibits.
My own response was to use Miller’s best weapon — the First Amendment — against her: I urged a friend who is a doctor at the clinic, Jerry Goldberg, to reserve the library’s display cases. Then I called Paula Simon, executive director of the Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations, of which I am a member, and made contact with Harriet McKinney, of the Milwaukee chapter of the American Jewish Committee.
Officials at AJCommittee shipped “Visas for Life: The Righteous and Honorable Diplomats” to the library. The exhibit, which is on display until May 31, highlights the efforts of members of the international diplomatic corps who helped Jews escape Nazi-occupied Europe.
Other positive developments have emerged from the controversy surrounding Miller’s library exhibit. A three-hour meeting was held between the editorial board of the paper and representatives of the Jewish community, which Goldberg described as “productive.”
The board of the library is reviewing, and will probably revise, its current policy regarding the display cases.
Local Jews have been meeting with Qasim Raza, a leader of Marshfield’s Muslim community, and Mindy Gribble, a member of the library’s board of directors and the parish nurse at First Presbyterian Church, to discuss constructive ways to counter hatred and intolerance.
At the first meeting, Gribble arrived armed with materials from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Montgomery, Ala.-based organization dedicated to combating hate groups. By the time the initial powwow ended, a larger meeting had been scheduled at the Presbyterian church to form an organization to promote tolerance and understanding, and to plan the city’s first-ever cultural fair.
Meanwhile, Simon and Goldberg are working with the Milwaukee-based Coalition for Jewish Learning to provide videos to be played on the public access cable.
The turn of events has supplied a much-needed sense of relief and reason for optimism. The First Amendment can be used to spread hate in the community — but, as Marshfield is learning, it can also be used to help combat bigotry and intolerance.