Holocaust revisionists should be allowed to present and argue their point of view in a classroom setting such as a junior college because true historical knowledge is the process of getting to the truth of the matter through verifiable evidence. There are many people, such Deborah Lipstadt, a historian in Holocaust studies, who would deny those with conflicting beliefs the opportunity to spread what she contends is anti-Semitic lies and political propaganda, to young students who may easily fall prey to such lies. However, the danger is not in allowing their ideas, whether false or not, to penetrate into student consciousness where it may be taken as truth, but in not allowing them the occasion to provide an open debate on the subject in front of the students. The American culture and the rise in “mass media” have shaped a method of learning that undermines the importance of argumentation supported by verifiable evidence. For this reason, although Holocaust “deniers” have not adequately proven their case with justifiable evidence, inviting them to make arguments in the classroom will oblige students to compare the evidence on both sides and enable them to make a rational decision as to the truth of each side.
One of the foremost problems of discussing the Holocaust from the revisionist point of view involves the aspect of free speech and the consequences of that freedom to speak. If, on the one hand, their right to expose their point of view while the accusations against their position are true, namely that these so-called “revisionists” are promulgating lies and anti-Semitic hate propaganda, then establishing their viewpoint as valid in a school setting can be highly dangerous, especially when the environment is mostly authoritative. Deliberately teaching lies to students whose minds are easily influenced is an abuse of the pedagogical integrity of the school, which in many ways mimics political propaganda. In this case, protecting the revisionist freedom of speech can and should be limited to the arena in which it is presented. As Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman observe, “Being in favor of someone’s right to freedom of speech is quite different from enabling that speech” (Shermer). On the other hand, if their position is true and correct, the current view of history is then a lie passed down from class to class and regarded as historical truth. If their viewpoint is valid and yet denied inclusion in a school curriculum, then integrity and responsibility to truth are compromised. The distinction then must be made between the revisionist “point of view” and the evidence that an historical revisionist can present.
In an academic setting, it has been argued by students and professors such as Gary Nash from the University of California in Los Angeles, that the best way of teaching history should include as many viewpoints as possible, ostensibly to remove as much of the distortion as possible in any account (Lecture Notes I). This idea stems from evolving ideas about language and its effects on subjectivity in historical accounts. Haden White, professor of history at the University of California in Santa Cruz, considers history to be imaginative fiction writing (Lecture Notes I). In other words, historical analysis is only an interpretation of the facts and, as such, can never be objectively true. The notion that history exists only in the mind of the historian or that the historian is somehow constructing the past through the function of language gives rise to a theory of history that excludes an external reality. The result is the belief that all perceptions or perspectives of reality are equally valid. Therefore, in the academic setting, it would follow that all viewpoints should be represented as they offer a valid, if imperfect, side of the issue. However, inviting a Holocaust “denier” to a class for the purpose of presenting a contrary viewpoint simply for the sake of including that viewpoint must by the same philosophy include any point of view regardless of the source or the content. For example, an individual or group who insisted on the theory that aliens came down to earth and drugged Adolf Hitler, forcing him to exterminate the Jewish people, would in the same manner have to be given equal precedence in the classroom. It becomes apparent then that academic integrity must involve criteria that go beyond any one perspective or opinion to incorporate verifiable evidence of the matter. “We must be forthright and honest about what we know and do not know,” says Shermer and Grobman, an idea that places the validity and reliability of a viewpoint in the realm of knowledge based on evidence (Shermer). The philosopher John Searle describes this foundation in Western rationalistic tradition of epistemology where “knowledge is objective” and that “reality exists independently of our representations of it” (Searle). The difference is the assumption that an event did in fact occur during the period of 1939 through 1945 and that there would exist evidence that something occurred; then theories and interpretations to explicate the occurrence can be made that accurately correspond to the available evidence. The theories and interpretation would naturally provide merely an understanding of the event, subject to modification upon the arrival of new, credible evidence. Some Holocaust revisionists claim to have evidence to suggest that the current understanding of the Holocaust has been exaggerated, others claim that the Holocaust never happened at all and was simply a hoax by Israel to make money, and still others content that, although atrocities were committed during that time of war, the motivation behind it was not one of mass extermination of a people. In all of these cases, their claims must be supported by evidence if it is to be reliable. Then, if that evidence is proven to be correct or at least incontestable, it should become part of the historical knowledge of that event. In many cases, however, this type of revision is in some ways similar to the radical notion that the earth was round instead of a flat plane; the lack of knowledge and understanding of what evidence really is available can cause reactions of cognitive dissonance and immediate emotional outcries.
The response to the position of Holocaust revisionists by historians, professors, academicians, Jewish groups and Holocaust survivors, has been largely negative. Those who would take any stance on the issue that is contrary to the currently held historical belief are instantly attacked for their views and motives as being anti-Semitic hate speech originating from a political scheme for power. Many revisionists, regardless of their background, are denounced and persecuted for their assertions, such as Dr. Robert Faurisson, who first reported on the inconsistencies between the architectural designs of the crematoriums at Auschwitz and the theory that they were used as gas chambers. Among other negative public feedback, he has frequently been physically assaulted of which three occasions almost proved fatal. Others include men such as Ernst Zundel, who has printed several books and pamphlets concerning what he calls are exaggerated claims of the Holocaust story, and Fred Leuchter, an expert in execution machinery who set out to analyze several of the gas chambers in Germany and concluded they were incapable of functioning as mass extermination camps (Zundelsite). Not only are they physically threatened, their livelihood and situations have been compromised and some even face court trials in several countries for their views. Deborah Lipstadt, professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust studies, holds that Holocaust “deniers” really only desire to “resurrect National Socialism and make it a politically viable movement,” because they are “motivated by an adoration for Nazi Germany and an abiding anti-Semitism” (Lipstadt). In the spirit of Leopold Van Ranke’s scientific method for historical study, any new evidence that could be found concerning any historical event should be properly examined regardless of what the result would be to previously held conceptions (Lecture Notes I). Steve Paulsson, from the Department of History at the University of Leicester, describes the study of history as “a forensic discipline: it is concerned with drawing conclusions about the past on the basis of evidence, whatever evidence the past has left behind” (Paulsson). While negative emotional reactions tend to ignite in view of new and disconcerting information, their claims of possessing new evidence must not be overlooked or dismissed, as racist or anything else, but regarded in a purely rational way, in the interest of truth, by first understanding what evidence they have and what is the source.
Holocaust revisionism has become a movement that has succeeded in gaining public awareness through the adamant and zealous pursuit of their proclaimed “truth” of the matter, usually by having a very well-informed understanding of what evidence is really available, then attacking each one individually. The crux of their argument includes several fundamental points. The chief contention involves the architectural plans of Auschwitz and the general unfeasibility of the construction in the service of mass extermination, the fact that the term “gas chambers” never appear on the blue-prints, only that it was a crematorium, and the exaggerated number of Jewish victims arriving at a total of six million who were murdered, mostly at Auschwitz. The evidence for these assertions is largely theoretical and speculative, as well as selective and operating under false assumptions. For example, Mark Weber, in an article entitled “Auschwitz: Myths and Facts,” cites Fred Leuchter’s report on the gas chambers and his “sworn testimony” that since the gassing was technically impossible, it constituted incontestable and authoritative evidence (Weber). Some of his findings in the report include the fact that only minute traces of cyanide from the gas Zyklon B could be found from the “supposed” gas chambers while substantial traces could be found in the delousing chambers, that there was no ventilation system in the chambers in order to drop the cyanide inside and still protect the Germans from the gas, and that the facilities were too damp to allow the gas to react (Leuchter). However, many of the conclusions in the report result from faulty presumptions, disregard of logic, and misuse of evidence. For example, the samples taken were of ruins from buildings exposed to the elements for over fifty years, since most of the gas chambers were destroyed at the close of the war, which makes any inference as to the structure and function of the buildings unreasonable (Keren). Weber argues against the figure of six million deaths since, he contends, it promoted by the confession of an Auschwitz commandant, Rudolf Höss, whose testimony was submitted to the Nuremberg trials following the war although it was obtained mainly through torture. As some of his confessions proved to be false, however, Weber concludes, “Even historians who generally accept the Holocaust extermination story now conclude that many of the specific statements made in the Höss ‘affidavit’ are simply not true. For one thing, no serious scholar now claims that anything like two and a half or three million people perished in Auschwitz.” However, other evidence in the form of official documents, files, receipts, and orders, taken by Russian troops from the concentration camps and for many years locked away in Moscow, show exactly how many died in the camps and at what time, yet this argument continues to circulate (Iams). Other allegations include evidence from which the conclusion does not follow. For example, Weber begins with the general belief that Jews who were unable to work were put to death, then cites a document stating how many were unable to work, about 86%, and concludes, “Auschwitz-Birkenau was established primarily as a camp for Jews who were not able to work.” It does not follow that the camp was intended for people who were unable to work by the fact that there was a higher percentage of people who were unable to work; in fact it more readily supports the idea of “death camps” instead of prisoner labor camps (Weber). In many of their assertions, it is clear that much of their “evidence” is really not objective or viable at all, but instead reverts back to a point of view that includes select information, with an apparent nationalistic bent. However, their ideas have quickly penetrated mainstream thinking and gained much support, effectively influencing a wide number of people through the insubstantial knowledge base of the public about Nazi Germany.
Historical knowledge is no longer prevalent, especially among students in high school and even college, because the mode of learning and understanding has shifted with the electronic media revolution. Whereas knowledge was once transferred in the linear structure of written text, the epistemology of electronic media is fragmented, imparting a general feeling through imagery instead of sequential arguments (Lapham). The implications of this epistemological shift suggest that, as David Marc writes, “the information gained in schools becomes a shrinking percentage of the whole as increasing quantities of data are industrially distributed by mass media,” where “facts, dates, names, places, institutions, cause-and-effect theories and other components that inform a literacy-based historical perspective are reduced to the accoutrements of an entertainment experience” (Marc). The rise in infotainment and docudramas use imagery and sounds to present a highly stylized representation of history that is more emotionally convincing than is the actual evidence. An article in The Atlantic Monthly writes, “Today the Holocaust is ubiquitous. Films such as Shindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice, television programs, novels, memoirs, and works of history all add to the sum of what we know- or think we know- about what Raul Hilberg, the pre-eminent scholar in the field, called “The Destruction of the European Jews” (Guttenplan). Other forms of literature have arisen, departing from traditional analytic, linguistic structures, to include the comic strip documentary of the Holocaust as depicted in Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The representation or the image becomes the information, constituting the context and information base of historical understanding. There is also an aesthetic quality to the representation that contributes to the shift in what the historical perception becomes. Teodor Adorna remarked that the history at Auschwitz makes poetry impossible, essentially because the atrocities committed during that time completely demoralize the concept of beauty and goodness (Lecture Notes II). Yet the multi-sensory pleasure derived from the electronic media experience contradicts this assumption. The result, however, is that students can and need no longer focus or analyze the content, which encourages them to make opinions without factual evidence. The consequences of this mode of thinking include not only the ease and relatively unobstructed power to manipulate and evoke certain emotive responses of public opinion, but the general deconstruction and questioning of all that constitutes rational thinking and evidential proof.
The techniques of manipulation that Holocaust “revisionists” employ in all of their work, from selecting one or two points while ignoring masses of other evidence, reporting them out of context, and then reconstructing them to fit an irrational conclusion, is possible through the speed and widely broadcast spectrum of the internet, publishing appliances of Kinko’s, campus journals, and many other possibilities for spreading ideas. However, their particular ideas can to a great extent become detrimental to the current notion of acceptable evidence by raising questions about the evidence itself. Although questioning evidence is not new to the founding of truth, the absence of knowledge on a subject can influence perceptibility to certain theories. For example, the idea that footage of piled dead bodies was staged as Shindler’s List or Leni Reifenstal’s Triumph of the Will, can sound plausible if one did not know that there existed footage by British and American film crews entering the camps while soldiers were liberating the survivors (Frontline). The testimony of thousands of survivors can easily be dismissed as traumatic memories, largely subjective and hardly reliable, as in the case of Paul Ingram and his two daughters who, through the significant influence of psychotherapists, reported repressed memories of sexual abuse, molestation, and even ritual and satanic abuse, that were false in that they had no basis in evidence (Wright). The general deterioration of physical evidence is alarming, such as the possession of ten pounds of human hair reported to have traces of cyanide, and is now part of the Auschwitz museum. A report in The New Yorker stated that “After half a century in a room without temperature or humidity control, and having been subjected to various treatments, including occasional washing, the hair has become faded and brittle,” and in some cases, disintegrating into dust (Ryback). The gas chambers and crematoriums themselves have fallen into ruin and disrepair over the years, many of which were destroyed by the Germans themselves after their defeat in World War II, which only serve to eradicate one source of evidence from the compilation. Deborah Lipstadt comments about survivor testimony, remarking, “When there is no one left to say ‘this is what happened to me’ then it will be easier for deniers to say ‘it is not true,’” an idea that aptly poses the problem for evidential theory today (Lipstadt). If the very basis for fact is undermined, then knowledge becomes non-existent and the relativity of theories and “points of view” take precedence and indeed, the foundation for belief.
It becomes important that students who are considering the Holocaust include the perspective of the “denier” point of view, not as a way to encourage a belief in their understanding about the historical event, but as a way to compel the student to find the evidence of the matter and logically determine the reliability of any one statement. In this way, students will no longer passively accept any statement of their instructor, their textbook, even the false information circulating in television, on the radio, or the Internet. The environment of free debate in the classroom not only stimulates the student to gain real knowledge of the subject, but also alerts the student to other political schemes, manipulation, and propaganda. Holocaust denial is not the only example of “revisionism” with a nationalistic bent. The compulsion to re-write history to support a more nationalistic sense has emerged not only in the U.S. with the issue of national standards in the study of history for students in grades K through 12, but in Japan as well, as an article in the New York Times International reports that, “now the far right is rushing to put out histories that many academics say will whitewash the past.” As Kanji Nishio remarked, “Why should Japan be the only country that should teach kids- 12 to 15 year old kids- bad things about itself?” (Howard). The only way to combat this tendency toward automatic belief and total acceptance of what appears to be real is to revert back to the method of Leopold Ranke, which among other things, include the study of original sources, maintaining skepticism, and respecting the integrity of evidence (Lecture Notes I). The upshot for the student will be the attainment of an invaluable skill for critical thinking to last long after University days are over.
French, Howard. “Japan’s Resurgent Far Right Tinkers with History.” The New York Times International. 25 Mar. 2001.
Frontline. “Memory of the Camps.” Ex. Prod. Sidney Bernstein. Narr. Trevor Howard. 1996. Videocassette. WGBH Educational Foundation: Boston.
Guttenplan, D.D. “The Holocaust on Trial.” The Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 2000. Vol. 285, No. 2. P. 45.
Iams, John. “Russia turns Holocaust documents over to U.S.” The Standard-Times. Online newspaper. 29 Oct. 1996. Available: http://www.s-t.com/daily/10-96/10-29-96/c06wn161.htm.
Keren, Danny, and Jamie McCarthy. “The Leuchter Report: Holocaust Denial & The Big Lie.” The Nizkor Project, 1993-1998. Online. Available: http://www.nizkor.org/faqs/leuchter/index.html.
Lapham, Lewis. “The Eternal Now.” Introduction to the MIT Press Edition. Handout.
Lecture Notes I. David Clemens. English 2. 25 Feb. 2001.
Lecture Notes II. David Clemens. English 2. 26 Mar. 2001.
Leuchter, Fred. The Leuchter Report: The End of a Myth. Toronto: Samisdat Publishers, 1988. Internet. Available: http://www.ihr.org/books/leuchter/leuchter.toc.html.
Lipstadt, Deborah. “A Clear and Future Danger.” Email handouts, p. 17.
Marc, David. Bonfire of the Humanities-Television, Subliteracy, and Long-Term Memory Loss. Syracuse University Press, 1995.
Paulsson, Steve. Email post. February 15, 1995.
Ryback, Timothy. “Evidence of Evil.” The New Yorker. 15 Nov. 1993: p. 69.
Searle, John. “The Western rationalistic tradition…” Handout.
Shermer, Michael, and Alex Grobman. Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? Berkeley: U of California P, 2000.
Weber, Mark. “Auschwitz: Myths and Facts.” Zundelsite. October 1993. Available: http://www.zundelsite.org/english/basic_articles/myth.html
Wright, Lawrence. Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
Zundelsite. “The Victims of Zion.” Victims of Holocaust Terrorism. 21 pp. Online. Available: http://www.zundelsite.org/english/debate/victims/