- Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Didn't Happen and Why Do They Say It? by Michael Shermer & Alex Grobman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Hardcover. 312 pages. Bibliography. Index.
Review by Samuel Crowell
For some years now Michael Shermer, an adjunct professor at Occidental College and the editor of Skeptic magazine, has been a fixture on the revisionist scene: not because he agrees with revisionists, but because he is willing to openly discuss and debate elements of the Holocaust legend with them. Over the years he has, generally with good humor, engaged in lively exchanges with several leading revisionists, including Bradley Smith, Mark Weber, and Robert Faurisson. These contacts lent a highly personal and anecdotal flavor to his previous writing about Holocaust revisionism, in his 1997 book, Why People Believe Weird Things. In Denying History, Shermer has teamed with a devout Jew from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Alex Grobman, ostensibly with a view to refuting once and for all the arguments of the "Holocaust deniers."
The book has some strong points. Shermer is an earnest popularizer, and goes to great lengths to describe his pragmatic attitude towards historical knowledge. As a result he provides a readable but nevertheless fairly sophisticated discussion of modern-day historical methods, academic arguments about those methods, and epistemology. On the other hand, when the discussion actually turns to the Holocaust and the various classes of evidence offered, Shermer and his co-author are for the most part reduced to repeating over and over the now well-known mantra of the "convergence of evidence."
By "convergence of evidence" Shermer means a situation in which data from a variety of different fields all point to a specific factual conclusion. Shermer argues that there are eighteen kinds of data that converge on the fact of the Holocaust: five testimonies, four Nazi speeches, blueprints of the crematoria, photos of dead inmates, more testimonies, Zyklon B orders, Eichmann's confession, postwar statements of the German government, and many missing Jews (p. 118). No, the list does not add up to eighteen, and no, we are not making fun of Shermer's argument: this is exactly what he says, except that by the end of his litany the eighteen kinds of data have become eighteen proofs "all converging on one conclusion."
There are at least three things wrong with Shermer's argument. The first problem is that if we accept the word "Holocaust" as a rubric to describe everything that happened to Jewish people in the Second World War we immediately run into a problem of relating the disparate parts to each other. For example, it is well known that thousands of dead persons were photographed by the Americans and the British in such camps as Bergen Belsen, Buchenwald, and Dachau: these photographs prove that there were many dead, Jews and others, in these camps when they were captured, nothing more. Sophisticated exponents of the Holocaust are in agreement with revisionists that such evidence has no bearing on what did or did not happen in alleged "extermination" camps such as Auschwitz or Treblinka.
The second problem is that the evidence does not necessarily converge on the stated conclusions. For example, when discussing the mass gassing claim, Shermer argues that we know mass gassings took place because of (1) testimonies, (2) blueprints of crematoria, (3) Zyklon B traces, (4) photographs, ground level and (5) aerial, and (6) existing ruins. But these categories of evidence provide distinctly different levels of evidentiary value. The testimonies, as is well known, are frequently implausible, were generated at a time when gassing stories had been widely disseminated, and were given before courts committed to upholding the gassing claim. The blueprints, on the other hand, only show that crematoria were planned. The existence of Zyklon B traces, in camps where the product was widely used for disinfection, is automatically moot. The ground level photos show piles of dead bodies. The aerial photos prove that crematoria were built. The ruins provide evidence that delousing stations, as well as crematoria, were built. None of the non-testimonial classes of evidence would necessarily lead to a conclusion that mass gassings took place, while the testimony itself remains unreliable.
Shermer's "convergence of evidence" argument appears to be rather that, if various classes of evidence do not contradict the central assertion, these other classes of evidence corroborate, or converge, on that central conclusion. In the same way, an old woman in the seventeenth century could have been shown to have gamboled in a midnight glade with Satan -- and then been burned at the stake, so long as a broom and a cat were produced.
The third problem with Shermer's "convergence" model is that by returning again and again to rather weak categories of evidence -- such as eyewitness stories, aerial photos, cans of Zyklon, the use of the word "Ausrottung" (extirpation) in public speeches -- he passes over the enormous gap in the documentary record. It is precisely this documentary gap -- the absence of any reliable documentation at any level that points to homicidal gassing, and the absence of documentation to indicate that the Third Reich was pursuing a policy of exterminating all Jews -- that leads people to the revisionist perspective.
Of particular interest to my own studies is Shermer and Grobman's attempt to prove that mass gassings took place. As expected, there is quite a bit of emphasis on testimonies, but there are a few nuggets of information to be mined. We learn, for example, that the shower room in the Mauthausen crematorium was equipped with "a heavy steel door with a peephole" (p. 168), in other words, a bomb shelter door (p. 168), and that the "gas chambers" at Majdanek underwent severe alterations after the war (p. 164). Unfortunately, Shermer handles this data in a manner that is simplistic, if not deliberately tendentious. For example, he quotes a source who claims that the "gas chambers" at Majdanek used "pure carbon monoxide" (p. 165), although the actual tanks at the site are clearly marked "carbon dioxide," with some other ingredient scratched out (probably a disinfectant for which the carbon dioxide served as a dispersant.) The height of naïveté is achieved in the discussion of Mauthausen, where Shermer argues that the presence of a radiator, ventilation, and fake showers proves the existence of a homicidal gas chamber, and that "no other explanation ... is plausible" (p. 172). Since the shower arrangement at Mauthausen is not fake, however, Shermer is reduced to arguing that equipping a shower room with ventilation or heating is necessarily sinister.
Around this central core, Denying History groups several long chapters at the beginning which discuss the writing of history, and provide in depth personal descriptions of many leading revisionists, including Mark Weber of the Institute for Historical Review. Towards the end of the book there are several arguments designed to convince the reader that, yes, Hitler was responsible for the Holocaust, and yes, it was the worst thing that ever happened. None of this is particularly edifying. Meanwhile, Shermer and Grobman seemed locked in a time warp: they fail to discuss any of the extensive revisionist forensic and documentary research of the past several years.
On the whole, Denying History is simply an expansion of what Shermer offered in his previous book: various vignettes about leading revisionists, speculations as to why they believe what they believe, without the slightest thought that they might be at least partly right. Shermer, as before, deserves praise for his patient, almost didactic tone when discussing revisionists, but, also as before, he falls far short in his efforts to provide any proof of what he alleges as fact. The sole novelty of the book comes from the presentation of additional evidence for mass gassing and the existence of an extermination program. But this evidence, as usual in Holocaust histories, doesn't really move beyond the implausibilities of the eyewitness accounts, and the supplementary detail in the end proves nothing, except, perhaps, the existence of a bomb shelter in the Mauthausen crematorium.
From The Journal of Historical Review, January/February 2001 (Vol. 20, No. 1), page 45.
About the author
Samuel Crowell is the pen name of an American writer who describes himself as a "moderate revisionist." At the University of California (Berkeley) he studied philosophy, foreign languages (including German, Polish, Russian, and Hungarian), and history, including Russian, German,and German-Jewish history. He continued his study of history at Columbia University. For six years he worked as a college teacher. Crowell's lengthy essay, "Wartime Germany's Anti-Gas Air Raid Shelters," was published in the July-August 1999 Journal, pp. 7-30.