“Even though Hitler and the Nazis made no secret of their war on the Jews, the SS operatives dutifully eliminated all traces of their murderous activities and instruments. No written orders for gassing have turned up thus far. The SS not only destroyed most camp records, which were in any case incomplete, but also razed nearly all killing and cremating installations well before the arrival of Soviet troops”
Arno Mayer, Why did the heavens not darken? (1990)
From the first moment the death camps were liberated and the atrocities of the 3rd Reich were disclosed, the level of horror made many abhor, wonder but also disbelieve that humanity was capable of such actions.
General Eisenhower, foreseeing the reactions of doubt and wanting to forfend them, visited the camps and called journalists from various countries to immortalize in film what had happened, so that it would not be described in the future as false propaganda. Even the SS thought no one would believe what they were doing to the prisoners. As we read in a survivor’s memoirs, the guards told the prisoners “after the war the rest of the world would not believe what happened; there would be rumors, speculation, but no clear evidence, and people would conclude that evil on such a scale was just not possible” (Terrence des Pres, The Survivor, 1976). As we know, this is exactly what happened. Holocaust denial started very early on, with the first relevant book by an academic published in 1962 (Revisionism and Brainwashing by Harry Barnes).
Michael Shermer, in his book “Why do people believe weird things?”, tackles the issue of Holocaust denialism and succeeds in un-masking its lies and falacies. The denial claims have taken many forms: that the Final Solution against the Jews did not consist in their extermination but only their exile; that no gas chambers were used to kill prisoners; or that the number of Jews (around 6 million) is over-exaggerated. In some instances, one can find a combination of denying the events along with congratulating Hitler for his “achievements” who, as they are quick to supplement, did not do enough… (Golden Dawn members have said as much)
The most “refined” among them, don’t want to be identified as “deniers”, referring to what they do as “history revisionism”. But historians know very well what revisionism means: it is the use of a methodology to re-examine historical events, concerning the motives of the protagonists and the process of decision making on their behalf. It is not refuting these events or the existence of the evidence, like the Holocaust deniers do. “Revision is the modification of a theory based on new evidence or a new interpretation of old evidence”, as Michael Shermer says. In reality, honest Holocaust Revision is the debate among historians on whether it took place according to Hitler’s plans that can be traced in the 1920s, or whether it arose as an after-thought, due to the inability of the Germans to relocate all the Jews (which was the original plan, as this side of the debate proclaims), an inability that was intensified because of the Nazi’s failures in Russia. There is, therefore, no denial of whether the Holocaust happened on the side of the historians, only a discussion on the motives, the reasons and the circumstances of its perpetrators.
A special mention to David Irving seems to be fitting, an originally significant historian, with eminent findings in the course of his career. Irving -even though not with professional historical education- isn’t one of those historians who read 10 books of popular history to write the 11th. He goes straight to the sources, to the original documents of the military bureaucratic apparatus and the journals of the war participants. He’s the one who discovered the relationship between the Nazis and the British far-right organization British Union of Fascists, in the form of the former founding the latter.
Later, he became a persona non grata when he was revealed as one of the deniers, using the tactic of “discrepancy as evidence”. Irving says there are no holes on the ceilings of gas chambers in Auschwitz, therefore the testimonies on SS soldiers inserting Zyklon-B gas from ceiling walls are false, therefore there were no executions of Jewish prisoners with gas in Auschwitz, therefore neither was there anywhere else, therefore there was no systematic execution of Jews by the Nazis, therefore the Holocaust is a lie. In short, “no holes = no Holocaust”. This was the phrase worn on t-shirts by Irving’s supporters in his London trial, when he sued someone who had called him “Holocaust denier” (he prefers “revisionist”). In reality, the crematorium was destroyed by the Allies’ bombs, so no one should expect to find any holes in the debris of a ceiling that is non-existent anyway.
Another such “inconsistency” the “revisionists” discovered, is that the door of the gas chamber in Mauthaousen does not have a lock. And, if it doesn’t lock, this means the prisoners could push it open any time they wanted…therefore the Holocaust is a lie. Shermer, who was determined to answer all of the deniers’ questions, visited the camp and established the fact that indeed there is no lock on the door (which opens outwards). When he asked the tour guide, he didn’t know why, and called his superior who also didn’t know. They asked the camp-museum’s director, and neither did he know how it was possible to keep prisoners in a chamber while poisonous gas was pouring in with no locked door to deter them from getting out. In the end, it was discovered that this particular door was not the original one being used when the camp was operating. The original had been moved to some European museum and replaced by a (bad) copy, for exhibition reasons. Due to inadequate bureaucratic handling of remnants like this and for the purposes of exchanging artifacts among various museums, it took Shermer almost 7 years to find out what had actually happened. Quite simply, no one had bothered with this detail until the deniers discovered the inconsistency of this particular narrative of the Holocaust. And it is always this type of details that the deniers grasp on to support that, since not everything is explained to perfection, therefore it must all be a lie.
What the deniers don’t realize is that the method by which the historians confirm the facts of the Holocaust is the same that the archeologists and paleontologists use: the “convergence of evidence”. The Holocaust is not something that happened in a specific instance or place or to a person. It’s something that happened gradually, in the course of many years and in many countries. The plethora of evidence is astounding and includes:
- Documents – Correspondence, notes, drafts, orders, speeches, articles, memoirs and testimonies in the Nuremberg trials and more.
- Witnesses – testimonies by survivors, guards, locals, even by higher SS officials who did not deny the Holocaust.
- Photographs – Official photographs by the military and the Press, by citizens, by prisoners who took them in secret and then published them; by Allies and Germans after the war.
- Material evidence – The camps themselves, objects found in them that still exist today, and copies of destroyed ones.
- Demographic evidence – All those who the deniers claim survived, are missing.
So, proving the Holocaust is not based on circumstantial evidence, but on hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence, which all point to the same direction –that there was a systematic effort to exterminate the Jews in the concentration camps, with the use of poisonous gas and in other ways. The “inconsistencies” that the deniers indicate, even if they had remained unanswered, don’t mean much; it’s not for them to refute the whole theory, since the theory is not based on them.
The deniers do not deny the Nazis’ anti-Semitism. They don’t deny that the behavior of the Nazis towards the Jews was inhumane and violent (some even support it). Surely, they say, Jews died during the war, as other social, ethnic and religious groups did. But the volume of the dead was not the widely accepted 6 million Jews -it was somewhere between 300 thousand and 2 million (according to whom among them one might ask). Most of the victims did not die in gas chambers, but from disease, hunger or hardships in the camps (which they recognize only as “concentration camps” and not “death camps”). The deniers parallelize whatever happened to Jews with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans, or of Dresden and Hamburg by the Allies. Governments do bad things, they say, especially in times of war, and the deaths of Jews must be seen in such terms. What will our answer be?
First of all, the fact that “governments do bad things”, meaning the fact that others too do immoral actions, does not diminish the severity of the Nazis’ actions. The immorality of others does not counterbalance the immorality of the Germans.
Secondly, the aforementioned actions of the Allies, even though their necessity is a matter of contention until today, were efforts of an army to weaken another army, forcing it to surrender. The actions of the Nazis were made against unarmed civilians that did not, in any real sense, constitute a threat to their country (therefore it was not self-defense); they did not constitute a method of applying pressure on a hostile government to succumb to their demands (in contrast, the Holocaust was kept a secret from all enemies and allies); nor were they made in the effort to acquire land or material resources. The actions of the Nazis were against a race they deemed inferior and the carrier of a type of a Satanic force. Eichmann tried to use this argument of “moral equivalency” during his trial, and when the judge refused to take him up on it, he fell back on the usual and much-used excuse “I was just following orders”. Of course, this implies that there were orders, and to be exact, Eichmann never denied the truth of the Holocaust, he only tried to illustrate that the associated crimes were crimes sanctioned by the state, for which he had no blame.
The argument that Hitler, or the SS leadership, did not know about the Holocaust (“even if it happened”), meaning that there were no orders by superiors and, therefore, whatever happened, happened in the heat of the moment and by initiative of their subordinates, is easily answered as there is a plethora of evidence to the contrary. Other than the minutes of the Wannsee Conference (20 January 1942), where the decision to go forth with the Final Solution is illustrated, we can read here some of the protagonists’ statements that prove the systematic nature of the extermination and the leadership’s knowledge of it:
On 13 February 1945 Hitler said “Against the Jews I fought open-eyed and in view of the whole world…. I made it plain that they, this parasitic vermin in Europe, will be finally exterminated”.
Hans Frank (Hitler’s personal lawyer and chief jurist in occupied Poland) during a 1941 conference said: “But what’s to become of the Jews? Do you imagine they’re going to be housed in neat estates in the Baltic provinces? In Berlin they tell us: What’s bugging you— we’ve got no use for them either, liquidate them yourselves!”
Frank again, in December 1941 said: “…we now have 3.5 million Jews. We cannot shoot these 3.5 million Jews, nor can we poison them, yet we will have to take measures which will somehow lead to the goal of annihilation.”
From Joseph Goebbels’ diary: “”The Fuhrer is convinced his prophecy in the Reichstag is becoming a fact: that should Jewry succeed in again provoking a new war, this would end with their annihilation. It is coming true in these weeks and months with a certainty that appears almost sinister. In the East the Jews are paying the price, in Germany they have already paid in part and they will have to pay more in the future.” (19 August 1941)
Heinrich Himmler in a speech (4 October 1943): “I am now referring to the evacuation of the Jews, to the extermination of the Jewish people. This is something that is easily said: ‘The Jewish people will be exterminated’, says every Party member, ‘this is very obvious, it is in our program’”.
Johann Paul Kremer, speaking in Auschwitz (he was the doctor there): “By comparison Dante’s Inferno seems almost a comedy. Auschwitz is justly called an extermination camp!”
Theodor Malzmueller, a guard, said: “we had been dedicated to the Kulmhof [Chelmno] extermination camp as guards…in this camp the plague boils of humanity, the Jews, were exterminated. We were to keep quiet about everything we saw or heard, otherwise we would have to reckon with our families’ imprisonment and the death penalty…”
How many quotes are needed for the deniers to be convinced that the Nazi leadership under Hitler’s command organized the systematic extermination of the Jews?
There is no lack in conspiracy theorizing by the deniers on the manufacturing of the rhetoric around the Holocaust, with its most usual expression being the claim that the Jews invented the Holocaust and exaggerated the number of their dead, to force the Western governments to let them found the State of Israel. But what played a pivotal role in the UN’s decision to split Palestine in two was the Balfour Declaration, meaning the promise by the British to give the Jews a piece of the region. This Declaration was made in 1917, long before Hitler’s ascension, the break of war and the Holocaust itself. Other reasons for the granting of land to the Jews (as the UN thought, at least) were that in Palestine there were many Jews, that these Jews had already exploited the lands they inhabited, that they had a historical bond with the land and, finally, that there had to be a solution for the survivors of the Holocaust. This last one, meant that it was in the interest of the Jews to exaggerate the number of Jews that survived, not the number of those killed.
Besides, the reparations from Germany to Jews were calculated on the basis of the cost of relocating (transporting and settling) Jews in Israel, and not on the basis of how many died in the crematoria. Once more, it would be in the interest of Jews to lie about too many survivng, not having been exterminated.
Finally, concerning the actual number of the dead, which the deniers contest, the official calculations differ every time an effort to count them is made. How is it, they ask, that every study concludes a different number? The number varies between 5.1 and 6.3 million dead Jews. The figure is derived from population demographics. Every historian uses a different method, and counting is extremely complex: The number of Jews of every country, state, city and village before the war has to be taken into account, and then after the war. Also, the number of those who died of natural causes, accidents, murders, suicides etc. and finally the number of those who fled to countries with no Nazi influence (“You don’t count the immigrants” say the deniers pompously -but we do). Other historians used state documents, like birth and death certificates, others used archives of synagogues. It is such a complex problem, that the fact that every scholar offers a different result tells us that the numbers are not fraudulent. If everyone presented the same number, given the complexity and the margin of error of all methods, then we could reasonably suspect willingness to deceive.
The conspiracy theorists insist on this, saying that a false high number of fatalities would win the world’s sympathy for the plight of the Jews and would raise guilt for the Europeans, something that would give the last spark for the allowance to found the State of Israel. But why would the Jewish conspirators take such risk? Why would they risk the certainty of reparations for the dubious results of a sentimental nature, which could very well not be fruitful? Either way, the reasons that the Western nations allowed the founding of Israel were historical, cultural and religious. The Jews had in their possession written promises by the British. There existed diplomatic reasons for the West’s support for their claim; and also strategic ones. The Muslims of the region (both the ancestors of the modern Palestinians and their neighbors) did not have the political, financial or strategic power to reverse the decision of the West (as was proved by the result of the 1948 war). The Jews, on the contrary, were the West’s “familiars” (being, essentially, Europeans themselves) and they were cooperative and understanding of their common interests. They would constitute a good ally and consort of the West among the relatively unknown and unpredictable Middle Eastern peoples.
The more David Irving “revises” the Holocaust the more books he sells, and the more he is called to speak in conferences by deniers and far-right groups. But his constant re-revisions concerning the number of the Jewish victims of war (in the beginning he said they were 500,000, then “at least a million”, and then 4 million), in combination with his involvement with neo-Nazi organizations and parties, destroyed any hint of objectivity on the side of the historian or hope that he could provide anything useful to the conversation. In 1982, he attempted to unite the neo-Nazi parties of Britain in a party called Focus, in which he would play a leading role. In a 1995 conference, whoever would buy his book Hitler’s War, would receive, as a gift, a miniature swastika, similar to the one Hitler had placed on his black Mercedes.
Photographs from the Majdanek death camp in Poland (taken in 2004):
- Michael Shermer – Why People Believe Weird Things
The photos from Majdanek are from my own visit, the rest of the article photos are from here: