Why some people think the Holocaust never happened, and what to do about it.
by Brian Dunning
September 22, 2015
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Also available in Russian
There are some events in history so profound and personal that they govern the courses of lives even generations later. History tells us that a tenth of the 60 million human beings killed in World War II were Jewish civilians who were murdered for no reaon other than being Jewish. Decades later, some promote an alternative view, a "revisioning" as they call it; a view that claims these people did not die, but that it is a myth created by the Jewish people themselves in order to win unearned sympathy. Today we're going to take a look at Holocaust denial.
Let's say an intelligent person decides to sit down at the computer and spend a few hours making an honest and thorough assessment of the evidence, to decide whether the Holocaust happened, and if it did, whether it was really as big as 6 million. I'll tell you right now: by no means is that person necessarily more likely to conclude the Holocaust was real. For every piece of evidence one can find, thorough and well-reasoned counter arguments exist to contradict it, and are often easier to find. Complicating things further is that any given single piece of information, supporting either argument, can be fairly described as an out-of-context cherrypick. It's dangerous to assume that the Internet provides a consensus perspective.
I quickly grew conscious of this as I was planning how to frame this episode. My initial idea was to lay out what we know, and how we know it. Pretty basic. However, I have plenty of experience with anti-Semitism, having done episodes on the Rothschild banking family, the Zionist conspiracy, and other topics sure to attract the bigots, so I'm well aware of how the comments are likely to go on this episode. If I were to merely describe the evidence, the comments would be overloaded with contradicting claims so specific and diverse that it's virtually impossible to respond. So we will take a quick skim over some of that evidence, but my experience is that the more useful strategy in discussing this topic is to prepare the honest researcher for the broader task of being prepared for the incoming onslaught of pseudohistory, and be ready to recognize it for what it is.
History since World War II is filled with notable Holocaust deniers, from political leaders to armchair curmudgeons and authors and activists in between. Some have made Holocaust denial into their whole career, writing books and speaking to anyone who will listen. In many countries (most notably Germany and Israel) Holocaust denial is illegal, and the deniers often use this to claim oppression of free speech, or portray it as evidence of a conspiracy to cover up the truth. They frame themselves as courageous mavericks daring to challenge the orthodoxy. One author compares himself to Socrates:
In ancient Greece, Socrates became known as a wise man who continually asked troublesome and inconvenient questions. Ultimately it cost him his life. But his society, and all of subsequent history, reaped an immeasurable reward from his brave and relentless efforts.
In reality, historians and other scientists strive their entire careers looking for evidence that will change the paradigm, trying to make the big discovery. The idea of suppressing discoveries is completely antithetical to the existence of scientists and the scientific method, and everyone who follows them. So when we hear this claim being made, we should immediately become skeptical of the claimant. This author continues with his cries of suppression and censorship, even to the point of his foul Wikipedia edits being reverted:
Changes will be visible for a few hours, at most. At some point, an automatic 'restore' function will activate, erasing all unauthorized edits. So much for Internet freedom.
Most Holocaust deniers display all the characteristics of a crank, decrying accepted history as being bound by allegiance to a shadow cabal that requires conforming to the establishment viewpoint, while they themselves are the valiant rebels rescuing us from Big Brother, toiling under constant threat, their only compensation the gratification of having revealed the truth. Note that you'll never hear normal historians describe themselves or their own work in such terms; it doesn't occur to them, for one thing, because there is no Big Brother dictating how their research is supposed to go. That's a delusional invention of the ideologue.
Anytime you hear such language, you're almost certainly in the company of pseudoscience.
But at some point in any honest inquiry, it will become necessary to evaluate the evidence. Here are some of the most common points the Holocaust deniers will make, and what I hope is enough of a quick glance at each one to get you started if you want to seriously investigate any of them. The first point they often make:
There is no 'Hitler order' to exterminate the Jews.
True, but only in the sense that there's no one piece of paper saying "I order all Jews to be murdered, signed Adolf Hitler." The evidence that Hitler ordered the Holocaust, and that it was a fundamental of the Third Reich's strategy, is far more varied than one piece of paper, and it's vast. An excellent source is the book Hitler and the Final Solution by Gerald Fleming. You'll find it's so overwhelming that little room for doubt remains.
Witnesses have falsified or exaggerated their stories.
And if some have, that says nothing about the majority of testimony that is both reliable and thoroughly corroborated. This is a red herring: an irrelevant statement intended to distract attention away from what is relevant.
The fabled death camps of Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka do not seem to actually exist.
These particular camps were all dismantled and razed by the Germans by 1943 as the Soviets advanced, and extermination activities were mainly been moved to Auschwitz-Birkenau. That they're no longer there is perfectly consistent with their documented history; if it's intended to suggest that they therefore must have never existed, it's a bit like saying last February must have never happened either. Kind of bizarre logic.
There's no evidence of mass graves.
Tell that to the Sonderkommandos, Jewish prisoners whose full-time job it was to dispose of the dead, much of which was exhuming and burning corpses. At Auschwitz, 900 Sonderkommandos were needed to keep up with the volume; imagine the size of such a work site. After the war, exhumation of the dead continued for more than a decade, work which is thoroughly documented.
The Zyklon-B gas was actually used for delousing, not for mass executions.
The Nazis bought vast amounts of Zyklon-B (German for cyclone), diatomaceous Earth or gypsum impregnated with hydrogen cyanide and a warning eye irritant. It was designed for fumigation of buildings and vehicles, and could also be used for clothing or orchards. Denialists say Zyklon-B wasn't comparably efficient as other poison gases available. Untrue, it certainly was; in fact hydrogen cyanide gas is what's used in gas chamber executions today. It was also widely available and inexpensive during the war, because of its popularity for industrial fumigation.
Gassing with diesel engine exhaust would not actually work.
Many Holocaust victims were killed in the back of trucks as they were transported from one camp to another to be cremated. The truck exhaust was simply piped into the back, and presto, a mobile gas chamber. Denialists claim this is impossible because there's not enough carbon monoxide in truck exhaust, only carbon dioxide, which isn't as harmful. The only way to come to this conclusion is truly to deliberately avoid or ignore basic and widely available facts. The astronauts in Apollo 13 would have died if they hadn't been able to jury-rig a device to scrub out the CO2, and it's easy to find plenty of examples of suicides accomplished by running car exhaust into the car with a hose.
Wartime air photos of Auschwitz show none of the alleged mass-burnings or cremations.
Simply not true and trivially disproven; the online transcript for this episode contains a link to an album of aerial photographs of Auschwitz showing those things in explicit detail, complete with the wartime labeling by the reconnaissance analysts.
The "6 million" number has no basis in fact.
This is the heart of much Holocaust denial: If it did happen, it was a far smaller number. But this number is not a guess, it's a calculation. 5.5 to 5.9 million is the best supported range. How do we know this? Arithmetic. The data comes from thousands of sources that far exceed the scope of this episode, and it's not all anecdotal and it's not accounted for by relocation. The lines of evidence include hard evidence like population and census data, plus more than 3,000 tons of German documents, as well as testimony from both sides, and all of these varied sources converge in the same range.
But if all these claims are so easily debunked, why is it so easy for people to believe them? Why do so many want to believe them? Anti-Semitism can account for only a part of Holocaust denial; perhaps the founding core of it, but it has spread considerably from there. Many who question it are simply honestly persuaded by reasoned-sounding arguments put forth. Pseudoscience, and by extension pseudohistory, can be very persuasive when wielded by those obsessed with it. Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman discuss the unassailable apparent expertise in their book Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?
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.
I couldn't. Very few could, at least not without some focused study on each specific point. People hear these claims, but very little to dispute them. Historians may know the history, but the pseudohistorians know their pseudohistory far better and often more passionately. Pseudohistory can be an insidiously easy sell.
On April 12, 1945, General Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the Ohrdruf concentration camp in Germany, the first liberated by American forces, along with generals Patton, Bradley, and others. The day was clear but cold, and absolutely still. It was a grim inspection; the Supreme Commander witnessed the worst of humanity's horrors with his own eyes. Eisenhower wrote of the experience in a number of letters, including the following words to General Marshall:
I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to change these allegations merely to "propaganda".
And sadly, "Zionist propaganda" is indeed precisely a term used by today's Holocaust deniers. Eisenhower had one tool in his power to combat this: he ordered every Allied soldier in the area who was available to also tour Ohrdruf so they too could bear witness. It's unfortunate that the same order cannot be handed down to those today who deny history.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Holocaust Denial." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
22 Sep 2015. Web.
23 May 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4485>
References & Further Reading
Butz, A. The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry. Newport Beach: Institute for Historical Review, 1994.
CFCA. "Notable Holocaust Deniers." Antisemitism. The Coordinating Forum for Countering Antisemitism, 30 Jun. 2007. Web. 14 Sep. 2015. <http://www.antisemitism.org.il/eng/Notable%20Holocaust%20deniers>
Evans, R. In Defense of History. New York: Norton, 1999.
Fleming, G. Hitler and the Final Solution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Irving, D. Hitler's War. New York: Viking Press, 1977.
Lacquer, W., Baumel-Schwartz, J. The Holocaust Encyclopedia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
Lipstadt, D. Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. New York: Free Press, 1993.
Shermer, M. Why People Believe Weird Things. New York: W. H. Freeman & Company, 1997. 211-241.
Shermer, M., Grobman, A. Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
Zimmerman, J. Holocaust Denial: Demographics, Testimonies, and Ideologies. Lanham: University Press of America, 2000.
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