Methodology of Holocaust Denial
Before addressing the three main axes of Holocaust denial, let us look for a moment at the deniers' methodology, their modes of argument. Their fallacies of reasoning are eerily similar to those of other fringe groups, such as creationists.
1. They concentrate on their opponents' weak points, while rarely saying anything definitive about their own position. Deniers emphasize the inconsistencies between eyewitness accounts, for example.
2. They exploit errors made by scholars who are making opposing arguments, implying that because a few of their opponents' conclusions were wrong, all of their opponents' conclusions must be wrong. Deniers point to the human soap story, which has turned out to be a myth, and talk about "the incredible shrinking Holocaust" because historians have reduced the number killed at Auschwitz from four million to one million.
3. They use quotations, usually taken out of context, from prominent mainstream figures to buttress their own position. Deniers quote Yehuda Bauer, Raul Hilberg, Arno Mayer, and even leading Nazis.
4. They mistake genuine, honest debates between scholars about certain points within a field for a dispute about the existence of the entire field. Deniers take the intentionalist-functionalist debate about the development of the Holocaust as an argument about whether the Holocaust happened or not.
5. They focus on what is not known and ignore what is known, emphasize data that fit and discount data that do not fit. Deniers concentrate on what we do not know about the gas chambers and disregard all the eyewitness accounts and forensic tests that support the use of gas chambers for mass murder.
Because of the sheer quantity of evidence about the Holocaust—so many years and so much of the world involved, thousands of accounts and documents, millions of bits and pieces—there is enough evidence that some parts can be interpreted as supporting the deniers' views. The way that deniers treat testimony from the postwar Nuremberg trials of Nazis is typical of their handling of evidence. On the one hand, deniers dismiss the Nuremberg confessions as unreliable because it was a military tribunal run by the victors. The evidence, Mark Weber claims, "consists largely of extorted confessions, spurious testimonies, and fraudulent documents. The postwar Nuremberg trials were politically motivated proceedings meant more to discredit the leaders of a defeated regime than to establish truth" (1992, p. 201). Neither Weber nor anyone else has proven that most of the confessions were extorted, spurious, or fraudulent. But even if the deniers were able to prove that some of them were, this does not mean that they all were. On the other hand, deniers cite Nuremberg trial testimony whenever it supports their arguments. For example, although deniers reject the testimony of Nazis who said there was a Holocaust and they participated in it, deniers accept the testimony of Nazis such as Albert Speer who said they knew nothing about it. But even here, deniers shy away from a deeper analysis. Speer indeed stated at the trials that he did not know about the extermination program. But his Spandau diary speaks volumes:
December 20, 1946. Everything comes down to this: Hitler always hated the Jews; he made no secret of that at any time. He was capable of tossing off quite calmly, between the soup and the vegetable course, "I want to annihilate the Jews in Europe. This war is the decisive confrontation between National Socialism and world Jewry. One or the other will bite the dust, and it certainly won't be us." So what I testified in court is true, that I had no knowledge of the killings of Jews; but it is true only in a superficial way. The question and my answer were the most difficult moment of my many hours on the witness stand. What I felt was not fear but shame that I as good as knew and still had not reacted; shame for my spiritless silence at the table, shame for my moral apathy, for so many acts of repression. (1976, p. 27)
In addition, Matthias Schmidt, in Albert Speer: The End of a Myth, details Speer's activities in support of the Final Solution. Among other things, Speer organized the confiscation of 23,765 apartments from Jews in Berlin in 1941; he knew of the deportation of more than 75,000 Jews to the east; he personally inspected the Mauthausen concentration camp, where he ordered a reduction of construction materials and redirected supplies that were needed elsewhere; and in 1977 he told a newspaper reporter, "I still see my guilt as residing chiefly in the approval of the persecution of the Jews and the murder of millions of them" (1984, pp. 181-198). Deniers cite Speer's Nuremberg testimony and ignore all Speer's elaborations about that testimony.
No matter what we wish to argue, we must bring to bear additional evidence from other sources that corroborates our conclusions. Historians know that the Holocaust happened by the same general method that scientists in such historical fields as archeology or paleontology use— through what William Whewell called a "consilience of inductions," or a convergence of evidence. Deniers seem to think that if they can just find one tiny crack in the Holocaust structure, the entire edifice will come tumbling down. This is the fundamental flaw in their reasoning. The Holocaust was not a single event. The Holocaust was thousands of events in tens of thousands of places, and is proved by millions of bits of data that converge on one conclusion. The Holocaust cannot be disproved by minor errors or inconsistencies here and there, for the simple reason that it was never proved by these lone bits of data in the first place.
Evolution, for example, is proved by the convergence of evidence from geology, paleontology, botany, zoology, herpetology, entomology, biogeog-raphy, anatomy, physiology, and comparative anatomy. No one piece of evidence from these diverse fields says "evolution" on it. A fossil is a snapshot. But when a fossil in a geological bed is studied along with other fossils of the same and different species, compared to species in other strata, contrasted to modern organisms, juxtaposed with species in other parts of the world, past and present, and so on, it turns from a snapshot into a motion picture. Evidence from each field jumps together to a grand conclusion— evolution. The process is no different in proving the Holocaust. Here is the convergence of proof:
Written documents: Hundreds of thousands of letters, memos, blueprints, orders, bills, speeches, articles, memoirs, and confessions.
Eyewitness testimony: Accounts from survivors, Kapos, Sonderkommandos, SS guards, commandants, local townspeople, and even upper-echelon Nazis who did not deny the Holocaust.
Photographs: Official military and press photographs and films, civilian photographs, secret photographs taken by prisoners, aerial photographs, and German and Allied film footage.
Physical evidence: Artifacts found at the sites of concentration camps, work camps, and death camps, many of which are still extant in varying degrees of originality and reconstruction.
Demographics: All those people who the deniers claim survived the Holocaust are missing.
Holocaust deniers ignore this convergence of evidence. They pick out what suits their theory and dismiss or avoid the rest. Historians and scientists do this too, but there is a difference. History and science have self-correcting mechanisms whereby one's errors are "revised" by one's colleagues in the true sense of the word. Revision is the modification of a theory based on new evidence or a new interpretation of old evidence. Revision should not be based on political ideology, religious conviction, or other human emotions. Historians are humans with emotions, of course, but they are the true revisionists because eventually the collective science of history separates the emotional chaff from the factual wheat.
Let us examine how the convergence of evidence works to prove the Holocaust, and how deniers select or twist the data to support their claims. We have an account by a survivor who says he heard about the gassing of Jews while he was at Auschwitz. The denier says that survivors exaggerate and that their memories are unsound. Another survivor tells another story different in details but with the core similarity that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. The denier claims that rumors were floating throughout the camps and many survivors incorporated them into their memories. An SS guard confesses after the war that he actually saw people being gassed and cremated. The denier claims that these confessions were forced out of the Nazis by the Allies. But now a member of the Sonderkommando—a Jew who had helped the Nazis move dead bodies from the gas chambers and into the crematoria—says he not only heard about it and not only saw it happening, he had actually participated in the process. The denier explains this away by saying that the Sonderkommando accounts make no sense— their figures of numbers of bodies are exaggerated and their dates incorrect. What about the camp commandant, who confessed after the war that he not only heard, saw, and participated in the process but orchestrated it? He was tortured, says the denier. But what about his autobiography, written after his trial, conviction, and sentencing to death, when he had nothing to gain by lying? No one knows why people confess to ridiculous crimes, explains the denier, but they do.
No single testimony says "Holocaust" on it. But woven together they make a pattern, a story that holds together, while the deniers' story unravels. Instead of the historian having to present "just one proof," the denier must now disprove six pieces of historical data, with six different methods of disproof.
But there is more. We have blueprints of gas chambers and crematoria. Those were used strictly for delousing and body disposal, claims the denier; and thanks to the Allied war against Germany, the Germans were never given the opportunity to deport the Jews to their own homeland and instead had to put them into overcrowded camps where disease and lice were rampant. What about the huge orders for Zyklon-B gas? It was used strictly for delousing all those diseased inmates. What about those speeches by Adolf Hider, Heinrich Himmler, Hans Frank, and Joseph Goebbels talking about the "extermination" of the Jews? Oh, they really meant "rooting out," as in deporting them out of the Reich. What about Adolf Eichmann's confession at his trial? He was coerced. Hasn't the German government confessed that the Nazis attempted to exterminate European Jewry? Yes, but they lied so they could rejoin the family of nations.
Now the denier must rationalize no less than fourteen different bits of evidence that converge to a specific conclusion. But the consilience continues. If six million Jews did not die, where did they go? They are in Siberia and Peoria, Israel and Los Angeles, says the denier. But why can't they find each other? They do—haven't you heard the stories of long-separated siblings making contact with one another after many decades? What about the photos and newsreels of the liberation of the camps with all those dead bodies and starving inmates? Those people were well taken care of until the end of the war when the Allies were mercilessly bombing German cities, factories, and supply lines, thus preventing food from reaching the camps; the Nazis tried valiantly to save their prisoners but the combined strength of the Allies was too much. But what about all the accounts by prisoners of the brutality of the Nazis—the random shootings and beatings, the deplorable conditions, the freezing temperatures, the death marches, and so on? That is the nature of war, replies the denier. The Americans interned Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals in camps. The Japanese imprisoned Chinese. The Russians tortured Poles and Germans. War is hell. The Nazis were no different from anyone else.
We are now up to eighteen sets of evidence all converging toward one conclusion. The denier chips away at them all, determined not to give up his belief system. He is relying on what might be called post hoc rationalization—after-the-fact reasoning to justify contrary evidence—and then on demanding that the Holocaust historian disprove each of his rationalizations. But the convergence of positive evidence supporting the Holocaust means that the historian has already met the burden of proof, and when the denier demands that each piece of evidence independently prove the Holocaust he is ignoring the fact that no historian ever claimed that one piece of evidence proves the Holocaust or anything else. We must examine the evidence as part of a whole, and when we do so the Holocaust can be regarded as proven.
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