A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Is there any factual basis for Holocaust denial?

September 27, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

Last night I watched Schindler's List for possibly the 12th or 15th time. Even though it is a depressing movie it is uplifting to see what Schindler did during that very difficult time. My question is this. What facts do people who claim the Holocaust either did not happen or did not happen to the extent of six million Jews dead (I won't go in to all the others persecuted) use to justify their position? I would think that just the paper trail alone would be more than enough to give a clear picture as to what happened. I know the Nazis were mad about their paperwork and documented everything; do deniers claim that all this paperwork is fabricated?

SDStaff DavidB replies:

People who try to use history as a political tool rather than a search for the truth often don't care whether something is correct or not. The message is the important thing, not the facts.

Holocaust deniers use a wide variety of claims to try to back up their version of history. Their thinking seems to be that if they can poke a hole in one small area, historical support for the Holocaust will collapse (an attitude they have in common with creationists). But that's just not the way it works.

Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman describe the way proper historical study works in their recent book, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? Confirmation of the Holocaust, as with most things in history, comes not from a single fact or document, but through a convergence of many different lines of evidence, just as it does in science. They 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." So even if a denier can find fault with one small piece of information, or two historians differ in the way they interpret some data, that doesn't bring all of history crashing down.

The different lines of evidence for the Holocaust include written documentation, eyewitness testimony, photographs, the camps themselves, and population statistics. All of these point inescapably to the conclusion that the horror of the Holocaust really happened.

Deniers sometimes claim the paperwork was fabricated, or misunderstood, or altered — anything but real. They claim confessions of Nazis were extracted through torture, or that the Nazis falsely confessed because they knew the true story wouldn't be accepted, so they just went along. This makes no sense. If you knew you were going to be executed, would you just go along with the executioner? Why not at least try to say what really happened? The answer, of course, is that the confessions were accurate, but the deniers don't want to accept it.

How do the deniers justify their positions? Mostly they don't. They generally try to attack standard history rather than defend their own ground. For example, they will ask where they can find a signed order from Hitler commanding the extermination of the Jews. There isn't one, so far as we know. As Shermer and Grobman note, "Now there is a consensus among Holocaust historians that such a document probably never existed."

"Aha!" the deniers say. "This proves that Hitler didn't give any order."

It does no such thing. On the contrary, Hitler may have learned his lesson when he earlier signed documents ordering euthanasia for the handicapped in Germany. When the public found out what was going on, the program was stopped. "Given this precedent, it seems doubtful that Hitler would have committed his signature to any similar document, such as one ordering the Final Solution. From then on any orders to kill people would probably have been verbal." But, the authors note, there is a great deal of other evidence implicating Hitler, even without the evidence of a signed order.

Another popular claim from deniers is that the gas chambers were only used for delousing. They try to back this with all sorts of nonsense, such as chemical tests for cyanide that fail to differentiate between the outside and inside of a gas chamber brick that had been exposed to the elements for decades. Or saying that a chamber couldn't have been used to execute people because the door doesn't lock, forgetting to mention that the door in question is a replacement, and that the original, lock and all, is now in a museum.

The deniers say the crematoria were just used to dispose of people who died of natural causes, but ignore evidence linking the gas chambers to the crematoria. For example, Shermer and Grobman analyzed some aerial photos of Auschwitz and found that they showed people being marched towards the crematoria buildings. Other evidence shows that these people were likely marching to their doom.

One particularly odd claim is that the term "exterminate" used by the Nazis in dealing with the Jews was improperly translated from the German, and that the Nazis really just wanted to root out the Jews and deport or imprison them. When presented with contrary evidence, the deniers find new ways to twist and turn to avoid admitting that "exterminate" means "exterminate." It's amazing, frankly.

I can't cover all the deniers' claims here. If you're interested, I recommend the book mentioned above, as well as Deborah Lipstadt''s book, Denying the Holocaust (the one for which she was unsuccessfully sued by denier David Irving not too long ago).

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