Taking On Holocaust Denial, Point By Point

Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?
By Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009
$18.95 (paperback)

Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman spent years interviewing dozens of Holocaust deniers — not so much to depict them as lunatics or neo-Nazi shills, as many historians and others have already done, as to engage them in a point-by-point discussion of their claims. Immersing themselves in the literature and conferences of the deniers, the authors write, was to enter "a looking-glass world where black is white, up is down and the normal rules of reason no longer apply."

Denial of the Holocaust — the Nazis' use of gas chambers, crematoria and other methods to systematically murder as many as 6 million Jews during World War II — began, the authors write, only months after the war's end. In late 1945, Alexander Ratcliffe, then leader of the British Protestant League, ran articles in Vanguard, his self-published magazine, claiming that "concentration camps were inventions of the Jewish mind" and that newsreel footage had been "faked in Jewish cinemas." Over the next 60 years, the deniers elaborated — Jewish losses were wildly exaggerated to extract monetary reparations from the Germans; Hitler did not order the Jews' death at all, and in fact tried to defend the hapless Jews; Jews died, but mostly from disease and other unavoidable effects of a major war.

The authors note that not all deniers start out as anti-Semites — some are honestly taken in by the arguments of previous deniers, which typically focus on minutiae of the Holocaust. That is why they wrote their book: "Most Holocaust deniers are very knowledgeable about very specific aspects of the Holocaust — a gas chamber door that cannot lock, the temperature at which Zyklon-B evaporates or the lack of a metal grid over the peephole on a gas chamber — so that anyone who is not versed in these specifics cannot properly question and answer their claims."

Shermer and Grobman — respectively, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and a columnist for Scientific American, and the president of the Institute for Contemporary Jewish Life — know that it may seem insulting to acknowledge the deniers' arguments, even if just to refute them. But they believe they must. And, given the contemporary spread of denial, they are right. They cite the example of a student who reads a newspaper ad claiming that gas chambers were used only for delousing clothing, not mass murder. The professor who responds only by pointing out that the ad was run by anti-Semites deprives that student of a real answer. The student, the authors write, "may begin to wonder if there is something to the claims she has read because her teacher did not (could not?) provide answers."

"Deniers claim that no extermination camp victim has given eyewitness testimony of gassings," write Shermer and Grobman before going on to cite dozens of eyewitness accounts of the murderous gassings from SS officials, Nazi doctors and members of the Sonderkommandos, concentration camp prisoner teams forced to help run the crematoria. They examined official records, aerial photographs and snapshots smuggled out of Auschwitz. Not content to rely purely on archives, the writers traveled to the extermination camp sites of Dachau, Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Mauthausen, among others, to flesh out their investigative work.

Shermer and Grobman argue that no single line of evidence alone proves that gas chambers and crematoria were used for genocide — "rather we are arguing that these lines of evidence converge on this conclusion." It's an important rebuke to deniers, who focus on what the authors call a "snapshot fallacy," picking a historical document or fact and stripping it of its historical context.

Mainstream historians, for example, "have searched in vain for a signed document by Hitler authorizing the Final Solution," and deniers seize upon this to "prove" the Holocaust never happened. But Shermer and Grobman note that Hitler signed a 1939 letter on his personal stationery authorizing the extermination of handicapped German citizens, a move that provoked a German bishop to raise a public outcry over the program, which forced Hitler to mostly abandon the operation. As a result, Hitler would have avoided attaching his signature to any similar document. "There is no written order from Hitler to start the war either," the authors add.

Denying History was originally published in 2000, but a revised and expanded edition was printed this April to examine new threads of Holocaust revisionism that have found mainstream outlets. Those include Pat Buchanan's 2008 book Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War, in which the MSNBC commentator and three-time presidential candidate suggests the war was an act of imperial aggression by England and the United States. Mark Weber, whose Institute for Historical Review is a major purveyor of Holocaust denial literature, now cites Buchanan's book as an example of "revisionism gone mainstream." Shermer and Grobman rightly attack the notion that the murder of the Jews was merely "the unfortunate by-product of war, or collateral damage amidst the larger carnage." As they point out, "years before the war even started, Hitler went after the Jewish people with a vengeance."

"We can no longer ignore the deniers, calling them names and hoping they will go away," the writers conclude. "They are not going to go away. They are highly motivated, reasonably well financed and often well versed in Holocaust studies." That sad fact was underlined this June, when a man steeped in the theories of Holocaust deniers attacked the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., convinced that "the Jews" were engaged in a plot to destroy America.

— By Casey Sanchez