The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Michael Shermer Comments on the July 22 Debate

On July 22nd, 1995, Michael Shermer participated in a debate about the Holocaust with the Director of the IHR, Mark Weber. Mr. Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine and Director of the Skeptics Society; he has participated in a number of debates with advocates of pseudoscientific beliefs, most notably creationists.

Asked to comment on the IHR's description of the debate, Mr. Shermer wrote:

Regarding the IHR's claim that I was knocked out in the debate with Weber, I read the same thing in the creationist literature after my debate with Duane Gish. What would you expect them to say? "Shermer really embarrassed the revisionist movement and set us back several years. We may never recover and the IHR directors are contemplating closing our doors." Right!

In truth, I conceded absolutely nothing. At Majdanek, for example, there are three gas chambers in one large building. The one large wooden one with a glass window in it and doors that do not really lock was obviously used for delousing clothing and not killing people. Anyone who goes there can see that and I think most Holocaust historians know this already. But there are two concrete gas chambers in the back of that building with blue staining, no windows, steel doors that lock, peep holes with metal grids and glass coverings. These were obviously not used just for delousing and I said so. (If all you are doing is delousing clothing then why build additional, small rooms in the back of the large delousing chamber, and why use steel doors, with locks and peepholes. What are you peeping at, if not dead bodies of humans? Lice? I don't think so.)

The main point I made is this: revisionism is important and revisionism is done all the time -- by professional historians. The Holocaust has been revised and it will continue to be revised. But it will be done by historians, not by so-called Holocaust revisionists. What I did in going to Majdanek and concluding that the one gas chamber was not for homicide but the other two were, is a form of revisionism -- done properly. Where the IHR would then conclude from this that the entire Holocaust is a hoax, I would simply modify the story a tiny bit. It may be true that the IHR or David Cole has been saying this all along. But so what? They say all sorts of things, most of which is utter nonsense. The fact that they occasionally say something that turns out to be what historians say is true, is not what I would call historical revisionism.

The deeper point of my presentation, which I believe was totally lost on almost everyone in the room (probably my fault for getting too philosophical about history), is the fact that history is an interaction of large scale forces -- necessities -- and unplanned, chance events -- contingencies. Auschwitz, for example, is filled with seeming inconsistencies (especially if you are looking for them, as revisionists do) as a perfectly designed killing machine, because it was never orginally designed to be such a place. It evolved into what it became in the end after many, many years of modifications in response to the war, population demographics, Nazi policy, and especially Himmler's long-range plans for Auschwitz to be a model Aryan city for the future of the Thousand Year Reich. Robert Jan Van Pelt has elucidated this brilliantly in an essay in "Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp," (1994, Indiana University Press, Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum, editors). Most of the killing was done in concentrated time blocks so the fact that a few aerial photos do not have smoke coming out of the crematoria means nothing. Then what about the eyewitness reports that claim those furnaces were burning 24-hours a day, all year? They are wrong. No historian worth his salt accepts eyewitness accounts at face value without corroborative evidence to back it up. For revisionists to claim that eyewitness accounts are not reliable is not revisionism -- it is redundancy.

In the end I would not take too seriously anything the IHR says in its promotional literature. This is all just puffying, which all groups do to get more members and sell more stuff. I stand by what I said at that conference, I backed down from no one, and I conceded nothing. I will add that Mark Weber, Greg Raven, and the other revisionists in the crowd, including an old member of the Waffen SS, were extremely polite to me and behaved with absolute professionalism throughout the day. By contrast, David Cole showed up midway through the debate, flitted around in the back of the room and outside wispering to everyone like a little boy who thinks he is more important than he really is, and clamped on to the one newspaper reporter who was there so that readers would know who the real revisionist in the IHR is. A fascinating study in human behavior is David Cole.

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