Defining the Holocaust

© Copyright Skeptic Magazine

Defining the Holocaust

One of the fundamental principles of science is to define the key terms of a subject. To avoid talking at cross-purposes we need to know what historians and revisionists mean by “the Holocaust.” When a historian asks “How can you possibly deny the Holocaust?” and a revisionist responds “I’m not denying the Holocaust,” they are obviously defining it in different ways. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives a historical usage of “complete destruction, especially of a large number of persons; a great slaughter or massacre” (caust–burn, holo–whole). By this definition, then, the Nazis attempted a holocaust since they did not succeed in completely exterminating European Jewry. But Holocaust historians mean something much more specific.

The Holocaust, according to the Director of the Research Institute of U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Michael Berenbaum, is “the systematic state-sponsored murder of six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II; as night descended, millions of others were killed in its wake” (1993, p. 1). Please note the clause following the semi-colon. Holocaust revisionists complain that Holocaust histories, as well as the museum, concentrate too much on Jews and ignore the millions of others who were persecuted and killed. Obviously they do not, nor does the museum. Capital “H” Holocaust, then, specifically refers to the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews.

What Holocaust revisionists are explicitly denying are three points found in most definitions of the Holocaust:

  1. There was an intentionality of genocide based primarily on race.
  2. A highly technical, well organized extermination program using gas chambers and crematoria was implemented.
  3. An estimated five to six million Jews were killed.

Revisionists do not deny that there was rampant anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, or that Hitler and many of the Nazi leaders hated the Jews. Nor do they deny that Jews were deported, their property and wealth confiscated, and that they were rounded up and forced into concentration camps where they were, in general, very harshly treated and made the victims of overcrowding, disease, and forced labor. Specifically what the revisionists claim is (Weber, 1993, 1994a, 1994b; Irving, 1994; Cole, 1994; Zuendel, 1994):

1. There was no intention, or policy, on the part of the Nazi leadership to exterminate European Jewry. The “Final Solution” to the “Jewish question” was deportation out of the Reich. Because of early successes in the war, the Reich was enveloping more Jews than they could deport. Because of later failures in the war, the Reich concentrated Jews into ghettos, and finally into camps.

2. The main causes of death were disease and starvation generated primarily by the Allied destruction of German supply lines and resources at the end of the war. There were shootings and hangings (and maybe some experimental gassings), and the Germans did overwork the Jews in forced labor in the war effort, but this accounts for a very small percentage of the dead. Gas chambers were for delousing only, and the crematoria were used to dispose of bodies that succumbed to these other forms of death, especially disease.

3. Anywhere from 300,000 to one or two million Jews died or killed in ghettos and camps.

In this analysis I mean by the Holocaust: The intentional or functional near-destruction of a people based primarily on race. I include these qualifications:

1. Whether approval to exterminate European Jewry was officially given or tacitly approved is irrelevant to the final outcome. While I believe there was an intention on the part of Hitler and a few other extreme anti-Semites (e.g., Streicher and Himmler) from early on in the regime, the function of carrying it out evolved over time, mitigated by such contingencies as an increase in political power, growing confidence in getting away with a variety of persecutions, the impracticality and impossibility of transporting the Jews out of the Reich, and the infeasibility of eliminating Jews by disease, exhaustion, overwork, random shootings, and mass shootings.

2. Gas chambers and the crematoria were only part of many mechanisms of extermination, proved through a collaboration of physical and documentary evidence with eyewitness accounts from perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. But should it ever turn out that gas chambers played a lesser role than we once believed, this is no way lessens the crime–murder is murder. (As we have seen in Rwanda, where between 100,000 and 200,000 people were murdered in less than a month, neither gas chambers nor crematoria are necessary for mass exterminations.)

3. Five to six million killed is a general estimate (no historian takes the six million figure literally). I tend to go with the more conservative figures because of the still unknown quantities killed in the Soviet Union. But if it turns out that fewer than this were killed, say “only” three to four million, this in no way lessens the crime– millions are millions.

Work Cited

Shermer, Michael. “Proving the Holocaust: The Refutation of Revisionism & the Restoration of History,” Skeptic, Vol. 2, No. 4, Altadena, California, June, 1994. Published by the Skeptics Society, 2761 N. Marengo Ave., Altadena, CA 91001, (818) 794-3119.

Skeptic Magazine