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Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?

(Reposted to this site on 1/23/2001)

dnyhistby Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman
Published by University of California Press

Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? is an in-depth investigation into those who say the Holocaust never happened. The authors discuss issues of free speech and refute the deniers’ points one by one.

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Denying History takes a bold and in-depth look at those who say the Holocaust never happened and explores the motivations behind such claims. While most commentators have dismissed the Holocaust deniers as anti-Semitic neo-Nazi thugs who do not deserve a response, social scientist Michael Shermer and historian Alex Grobman have immersed themselves in the minds and culture of these individuals. They have conducted personal interviews with the deniers, visiting their California and Toronto headquarters, reading their literature, monitoring their Web sites, engaging them in debate, and even traveling around Europe to conduct research at the Nazi extermination camps. Uncovering a complex social movement, the authors go much deeper than ever before not only in understanding the motives of the Holocaust deniers, but also in refuting their points one by one. In the process, they show how we can be certain that the Holocaust happened as it did and, for that matter, how we can confirm any historical event.

Shermer and Grobman investigate the free speech issues surrounding Holocaust denial and place them in the larger context of pseudohistory. They provide a fascinating summary of the major personalities and organizations involved in Holocaust denial, revealing their motives. In their discussion of extremists, neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other fringe groups, the authors explore why people join such groups in the first place, examining the context in which Holocaust denial arises. Thoughtful, erudite, and original. Denying History broadens our ways of thinking about the claims of those who deny the history of the Holocaust and other historical events.


You will not find a more straightforward Holocaust book than Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? The authors’ basic argument is this: The extermination of six million Jews during the Second World War is a historical fact. Those who deny it are wrong.

It’s hardly a provocative thesis. But ask yourself this: Would you be able to refute a Holocaust denier? The fact of the Holocaust is like the spherical Earth: Every reasonable person accepts it, but few can prove it. That is why Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer teamed up with historian Alex Grobman to write Denying History. They believe thinking people have a duty to fight Holocaust denial head on; and they want them to come to the battle armed with historical facts.

When the eyes of the public are upon them — such as during the 1985 trial of Canadian Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel, or the famous 1994 Donahue episode that pitted two Holocaust deniers against Shermer and an Auschwitz survivor — deniers often get the best of staged confrontations. The most prominent deniers know a lot about the Holocaust, especially arcane subjects like the chemistry of Zyklon-B gas and the architecture of gas chambers. Many of the sound bites they spit out are quite true. It is a fact, for instance, that the Nazis never manufactured soap from Jewish bodies on a mass scale — contrary to urban legend. Deniers are also correct when they claim that there is no known Holocaust order bearing Hitler’s signature. David Irving, the on-again/off-again denier who recently lost a defamation suit in Britain, has never had to make good on his $1,000 challenge to any historian who could produce such a document.

But, as Denying History makes clear, there is still a mountain of evidence proving the nature and scale of the Holocaust. The Nazis’use of gas chambers has been established by, among countless other sources, the 1946 Nuremberg confession of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, as well as the 250-page autobiographical manuscript he wrote while awaiting execution. The estimate of six million killed is supported by a spate of historical studies, and also by Nazi physician Wilhelm Hoettel, who testified at Nuremberg that: “In the various concentration camps approximately four million Jews had been killed, while about two million were killed in other ways.”

None of this evidence convinces the true denier, of course. He is, by necessity, a conspiracy theorist. To him, every confession was coerced, every photograph faked. As the authors of Denying History demonstrate in psychological profiles of today’s most prominent deniers, they see the “holohoax” as a plot by Jews (or,”the traditional enemies of truth” as they are commonly referred to in denier circles) to discredit the Nazi regime and the German people. “There are certain aspects of the Third Reich that are very admirable [such as its eugenics and euthanasia programs] and I want to call people’s attention to these,” Zündel told Shermer and Grobman in an interview. What the Holocaust has done, he argues, is to “bar so many thinkers from re-looking at the options that National Socialism German-style offers.”

It is tempting to mock these confused men (there is a great essay to be written on why there does not exist a single preeminent female denier. The authors told me in an interview that the only women they see at denier conferences are wives and girlfriends – and that every one is bored out of her mind). But Denying History betrays no contempt for its subjects. The authors believe everyone has a right to be heard; and they treat Holocaust deniers with clinical detachment. This attitude reflects the authors’ position of intellectual strength. Hatred for Holocaust deniers is compounded by the helpless fear that the pseudo-historians’ specious lies may spread. When one is armed with concrete knowledge, however, that fear is lessened and hatred gives way to pity.

Jonathan Kay, The Holocaust for Dummies
National Post – July 22, 2000

(CNN) — Upon General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s visit to the Nazi concentration camps after the conclusion of World War II, he declared, “I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position, then on, to testify at first hand about these things, in case there ever grew at home the belief or assumption that ‘the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’ ” Fifty years later, Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman are forced to make the same refutations in their new book, “Denying History.”

One would think it almost impossible to deny the occurrence of the Holocaust. After all, historians, government officials, newspaper reports, books, movies, survivor testimony, and the Nuremberg trials all point to the systematic extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazis during World War II. Yet some theorists disbelieve mainstream thought when it comes to the Holocaust, and they rely on three alternate lines of reasoning to support their case – the enormity of the deaths was exaggerated, gas chambers were used for delousing rather than extermination, and Hitler intended to deport rather than exterminate the Jews. But these ideas are the tenets of right-wing extremists, hardly in danger of influencing the mainstream. As a result, “Denying History” would seem to be an unnecessary work; why do the authors need to contest the deniers when the deniers have no credibility in the first place? Yet Shermer and Grobman do more than just refute ridiculous allegations. They also use the example of Holocaust denial literature to examine free speech issues, the psychology of right-wing extremists, and the role of biases in historical research.

A myriad of events

In one chapter, entitled “The Noble Dream: How We Know Anything Happened in History,” Shermer and Grobman use the Holocaust as a springboard toexamine the overall formation of history, usually defined as a tug-of-war between personal biases and historical fact. Events are proven by converging lines of evidence, all of which point to the same conclusion, which — in this case — would be that the Holocaust did occur. “The Holocaust is not a single event that a single fact can prove or disprove,” the authors write. “The Holocaust was a myriad of events in a myriad of places and relies on myriad pieces of data that converge on one conclusion. Minor errors or inconsistencies cannot prove or disprove the Holocaust, for the simple reason that these lone bits of data never proved it in the first place.”

It is these minor inconsistencies, however, that fuel the theories of Holocaust deniers. Shermer and Grobman examine the denial arguments piece by piece, from the lack of traces of Zyklon-B on the walls of the gas chambers (explained by the exposure of the tested bricks to the elements) to the lack of a letter from Hitler ordering the extermination of the Jews (but there also is no letter ordering the beginning of the war).

Unsurprisingly, Shermer and Grobman offer compelling arguments that the Holocaust did occur — photographs, graphic eyewitness testimony, confessions of perpetrators, and the remnants of the death camps, among other things. To put it mildly, they blow the deniers out of the water. Not that it’s a difficult feat.

Logical arguments

We know that that the Shermer and Grobman argument is the more logical of the two even before the book begins, which could make for a highly uninteresting work. But the authors avoid falling into the boredom trap through their examination of alternate aspects of Holocaust revisionism. For example, one of the most interesting and original sections of “Denying History” deals with the psychology of extremists — from neo-Nazis and Stalin to Mahatma Gandhi and Betty Friedan. And while they seem to be strange bedfellows, these opposing ends of the political spectrum share a certain conviction in their beliefs that defines them as ideologues. As the authors write, “The ‘true beliefs’ of extremist ideological thinking are often so amorphous and so ambiguous that it is difficult to refute them. Further, when these beliefs form the basis of group cohesion, when they create in their followers a passionate, almost obsessional attachment to them, that is another sign of extremism.”

Chapters such as this provide the fascinating insight into the ideological mind. Other detours — such as the free speech issue and biographies of the main figures in denier literature — are sprinkled like sugar throughout “Denying History,” holding our interest while we wait for the inevitable conclusion.

The points made in “Denying History” are valid, sometimes ridiculously so. There are no new arguments, no shocking insights, no fascinating turns of logic. But sometimes restating the obvious is a necessary task in the face of those who create unfounded alternate realities. It is a thankless mission which Grobman and Shermer accomplish admirably.

Contesting the Holocaust Deniers
By Susan McMahon, Special to CNN.com
Web posted at:August 24, 2000 12:35 PM EDT (1635 GMT)

Holocaust denial has been much in the news lately as proponents find their work under investigation, or the glare of courts. First, a documentary — Dr. Death, by filmmaker Errol Morris — retraced the steps of Fred Leuchter, an American who earned his nickname by designing electric chairs for U.S. prisons. Leuchter filched bricks from the Auschwitz camp, then claimed upon examination that mass gassings could not have taken place there; Morris revealed, among other discrepancies, that the physical samples Leuchter studied had been exposed to nearly half a century of weather — a part of the would-be scientific equation Leuchter had somehow neglected to factor in.

Then in April of this year, a British judge dismissed a claim of defamation by historian David Irving against author Deborah Lipstadt over her 1994 book that named him as a Holocaust denier. Irving had long sought to establish scholarly credentials for his attempts to refute the fact that Jews were systematically exterminated in the concentration camps, but the judge ruled that Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence.”

Denying History, an exceptionally interesting study of both Holocaust denial and the deniers themselves, explores these conclusions in depth, and in relatively virgin territory, for the marginal men and women who invent this propaganda are often dismissed out-of-hand. Authors Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman, on the contrary, requested interviews with the major players — and got them, along with gifts of documents and smiling photographs. Their approach to the deniers’ arguments is equally direct. Shermer is a professor of the history of science and the founder of Skeptic magazine — a publication dedicated to debunking scientific hoaxes using the tools of standard logic as well as the scientific method. By applying these techniques to the theories of Holocaust denial, he and Alex Grobman — Holocaust historian and founding editor-in-chief of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Annual – have produced a unique primer for the study of history itself.

The book opens with a foreword on the need to refute, rather than dismiss, such arguments, because with their scholarly apparatus of footnotes and bibliographies, the Holocaust deniers look convincing to many people. Many have mastered a plethora of details, such as the temperature at which Zyklon-B evaporates, or the fact that a particular gas chamber door cannot lock — points of information that are hard to refute in debate and cloak the presenter with a veneer of unassailable expertise. From these bases in isolated fact, they draw generalized conclusions about the verity of the entire historical event.

But the authors have a larger pedagogical purpose: Using Holocaust denial as a case study, they attempt to teach the reader how to understand the difference between history and pseudohistory. How do we know that the Holocaust (or any other event) actually happened? The proof, Shermer and Grobman say, lies in the convergence of evidence — in the fact that a multitude of separate pieces such as documents, the confessions of the perpetrators, the testimonies of the survivors and photographs, all of them corroborated over and over again, point to the same conclusion. Shermer and Grobman argue that in developing an alternative explanation, it is not enough to extrapolate from individual elements, such as a missing lock on the door of a gas chamber. “[Deniers] must proffer a theory that not only explains all of the evidence, but does so in a manner superior to the present theory. This they have not done.”

Using just such evidence, Shermer and Grobman examine, then dispatch, the deniers’ claims, starting with the open-minded premise that each is an objective possibility to be proved or disproved. They also tackle that bugbear of the contemporary academy, postmodern relativism: the idea that it is impossible to know the truth about anything because all investigations are culturally tainted. The recent fashion of historical relativism is, they argue, “a seedbed” for pseudohistory, since if nothing is demonstrably true, there can be no standards for ascertaining the past.

There are other disconcerting threads connected with Holocaust denial: the tricky free-speech debate, for example, which is relied upon by the entire fraternity of deniers, including Canada’s notorious Ernst Zundel. Here, as elsewhere, the authors approach one of our era’s most controversial subjects with dispassion and fairness. They lay out the arguments for and against legislating hate laws (Canada and many European countries have done so, the United States has not), and reach the interesting compromise conclusion that, although freedom of expression is paramount, it should never be confused with anyone else’s obligation to facilitate that expression. (Zundel once tried to submit an advertisement to be run in Skeptic and was refused.)

In revealing the underlying structures of reputable historical investigation, and contrasting them with the ways disreputable history is built, Shermer and Grobman have introduced a much-needed element into the ongoing struggle to maintain the historical record. Denying History offers us tools for critical thinking that can be applied to all of the disputed past, and to the barrage of undifferentiated information that assaults us on a daily basis.

Contesting the Holocaust
From David Watson,
Globe and Mail
A national Canadian newspaper

“At one level, Denying History is about the Holocaust: why do some people deny that it happened, and how do we know that it really did? At another level, the book is about truth in history: can we ever really understand the past? But whether you have never had an interest in the Holocaust, or have always been passionately interested in it, or are sick and tired of hearing about it, you won’t be able to stop reading this great gripping story.”

Jared Diamond, winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize
for Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies.

“Shermer and Grobman destroy the Big Lie that the Holocaust never occurred, relentlessly confronting outrageous claims with ghastly, irrefutable facts. Denying History is all the more remarkable for its evenhandedness in the face of the Big Lie’s perversity. Adding to its value is the authors’ lucid exploration of the difference between revising history in light of genuine evidence and insisting, against all evidence, that history didn’t happen. By any measure, an engrossing and important book.”

D.J. KEVLES, California Institute of Technology,
author of In the Name of Eugenics.

“An excellent and timely book that not only maps the unseemly quagmire inhabited by the Holocaust deniers and other pseudohistorians, but also equips the user with the critical tools and historical information that, in distinguishing acknowledged fact from insidious fabrication, recovers the road to a civic dominion of common sense and common decency.”

ROBERT JAN VAN PELT, Professor of Cultural History,
University of Waterloo

“Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman provide the necessary ammunition to confront one of the basest phenomena in today’s academic world: the attempt to deny obvious historical facts surrounding one of the greatest tragedies of our time-the Holocaust. They show how any historical facts are verified and proven, and they deal with the specifics of the deniers’ falsifications. In so doing they are filling a vacuum-the need of people who are not experts on the Holocaust, and who have no easy access to the wealth of documentation about it, to answer those who, usually motivated by pro-Nazi sympathies and antisemitism, deny or corrupt facts. The book will prove to be very useful not only in this, its prime purpose, but also as a general source of information about central aspects of the Holocaust, which usually receive only scant attention from historians. I would recommend the book to a wide audience interested in this crucially important event of our century.”

YEHUDA BAUER, Director, Research Institute of Yad Vashem,
and author of The Holocaust in Historical Perspective

“Like cancer, HIV, and influenza, Holocaust denial is a drain on human resources, energy, and creativity. Yet for the health of the society and the well-being of the individual citizen the maladies must be confronted, their spread halted, and their sources identified and neutralized. Shermer and Grobman have given us a splendid study of the voices and sponsors of Holocaust denial. The study, replete with authoritative citations, moves fluently from the eyewitness reports in World War II through to the contemporary advocates for Adolf Hitler and his way of death.”

The Philadelphia Center on the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights

An important battle in the fight against Holocaust denial has been won. David Irving has been exposed as a Holocaust denier, a racist and an anti-Semite by a British court. As one of their most articulate and knowledgeable spokesman, Irving provided respectability and legitimacy to the denier movement. His writings and pronouncements will now be seen for what they really are-lies, distortions and polemics. Irving’s objective has been to advance the denier agenda by separating the Holocaust from fascism so that it can be seen as a legitimate alternative to democracy. Many deniers of the Holocaust want to destroy democracy in the West. They also want to deny the Jews the right to live in a post-Holocaust world.

This is not a victory for the Jewish community alone. It is a victory for all those who want to preserve and maintain a free and democratic society, who believe in objective history and who understand that Holocaust denial is an attack against the way legitimate historians transmit the past to the future. The danger is that once the history of one group is distorted, it will be that much easier for the history of another group to be distorted as well.

It would be a mistake to assume that this victory against David Irving will stop the denial movement. It will not. The true believers will see this as further proof of an international Jewish conspiracy. And Irving will undoubtedly try to use his newfound fame to advance Holocaust denial throughout the world. This is why Denying History: Who Says The Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It , a gripping, very well written, and thoroughly researched book by distinguished historians Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman is such a timely and critical weapon in exposing their lies, agenda and techniques for all to see.

By conducting personal interviews with the deniers, visiting their California and Toronto headquarters, reading their literature, monitoring their Web sites, attending their conferences and conducting extensive research at the Nazi extermination and concentration camps, the authors amassed the information needed to refute the deniers points one by one. They expose the fallacies in the deniers’ methods and reasoning by showing that the Shoah “was a myriad of events in a myriad of places and relies on myriad pieces of data that converge on one conclusion.” When the deniers succeed in finding an inconsistency in a testimony they immediately claim that one error makes the entire history of the Shoah suspect.

But as Shermer and Grobman point out “We prove the Holocaust through a convergence of data that include: Written documents-letters, memos, blueprints of the camps, orders, bills, speeches, articles, memoirs and confessions. Eyewitness testimony accounts from survivors, members of the Jewish sonderkomandos who took bodies out of the gas chambers, SS guards, commandants, local townspeople and high-ranking nazi officials. We have many letters from German soldiers stationed on the Russian front to their families in, which they describe the mass shooting of Jews. Photographs-including official military and press photographs, civilian photographs, secret photographs taken by survivors, aerial photographs, German and allied film footage and photographs taken by the German military. The camps themselves; And inferential evidence-population demographic, reconstructed from pre-World War II. For example, if six million were not killed, what happened to all these people?”

Attempts to equate the killing of Jews with the bombing of the German City of Dresden (the moral equivalency argument) are also refuted.

When the deniers claim that the plight of the Jews was exaggerated to extract money to finance the state of Israel through war reparations, Shermer and Grobman counter that when reparations were made, the amount Israel received from Germany was based not on the number of Jews who were killed, but on the cost to Israel of absorbing and resettling Jews who survived the war.

They explain how deniers rationalize the massive evidence used at the Nuremberg Trials and other postwar trials in Germany and elsewhere and the methods developed to determine how many people were killed. They also shatter the myth that Jewish fat was used to make soap. After the war the Allies did find soap that was made of human fat, but this was a renegade operation at the Stutthof extermination camp (about twenty-two miles east of Gdansk) that was not officially sanctioned by the Nazis. Most probably the fat of Russian prisoners of war was used.

In the process of debunking the deniers, they demonstrate not only how we know the Holocaust occurred, but also how we know anything happens in history. We learn much about why people are drawn to fringe and extremist groups and to Holocaust denial. We also gain new insight into the personalities and the motivations of the leadership of the denial movement.

College campuses have been ripe targets for deniers through paid advertisements in student newspapers. Shermer and Grobman show how some editors of these newspapers and even members of the faculty have been duped into publishing these ads because they erroneously believe that this is a free speech issue, which it is not. As Shermer and Grobman aptly observe, “We must never pass a law that says Holocaust deniers must never publish their own literature. But we are not obligated to publish it for them in our own publications.” We must not confuse the right to express an opinion with “the obligation to facilitate that expression.” Would we tolerate advertisements that question whether slavery occurred in the United States or provide a forum to communists to espouse their totalitarian form of government, they ask. Then why should we allow Holocaust deniers a platform to denounce democracy and advocate fascism?

In his introduction to Denying History, Professor Arthur Hertzberg notes that Shermer and Grobman have performed “a great service in this book” by “providing the refutations to those who attack the credibility of our historic memory. In the deepest sense this book continues the Jewish commitment to defend historic truth and the honor of the Jewish people.” Denying History is an indispensable tool in the fight against Holocaust denial. It should be part of every library where people cherish freedom.

Rabbi Dr. Bernhard H. Rosenberg Congregation Beth-El, Edison, NJ 08817

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