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Proving the Holocaust
The Refutation of Revisionism & The Restoration of History
By Michael Shermer
Publisher, Skeptic Magazine
The late historian, Koppel Pinson, in his classic history of Modern Germany (1966), laid out the monumental task of understanding Hitlerian Germany and the Nazi Holocaust in a chapter appropriately entitled “Germany Goes Berserk”:
To deal adequately with the history of Germany under Hitler, and to describe the diabolical perversity, the wild flights of political fantasy, the enormity of the crimes committed, and the disaster and ruin brought both to Germany and to the entire world, and at the same time to be able to fathom the motivations and psychological stirrings of all the participants in this most terrifying drama in world history would require the historical insight of a Thucydides or a Burckhardt, the capacity for philosophical and esthetic all-embracingness of a Tolstoy, and the prophetic compassion of a Jeremiah (p. 479).
Lamentably, few historians today aspire to unfold the layers of the past in as broad a scope and as deep a cut as these titans of our profession. But we must not only dwell, like God, in the details, we must also attempt an all-encompassing explanation for how and why the details fell into place as they did.
Although the body of literature on the Holocaust is of Brobdingnagian proportions, the few books and articles on Holocaust revisionism are mostly chronologies of revisionists’ ulterior racial and/or political motives, with a few claims and refutations scattered throughout. If we are going to live up to Spinoza’s Dictum (one of the mottoes of this magazine)–“I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them”–then it is not enough to dismiss revisionists’ claims as anti-Semitic pornography. We must understand the claims, the revisionists, and the Holocaust itself, in order to understand how and why they want to revise it.
Does the Holocaust need to be proven, as my title implies? On one level, no, because it has already been proved by historians over the past 50 years of archival research, oral histories, and physical site inspections. But on another level–a scientific one (and history can be a science)–every knowledge claim must be proved and improved. There are no self-evident truths in science, and no doctrines that should be taken on faith. The Holocaust, like evolution, is robustly supported and generally accepted by all but a fringe minority, but it must nevertheless be continually tested, regularly revised, and constantly improved.
This essay is divided into four parts: (1) defining the Holocaust and what revisionists are specifically claiming; (2) examining the revisionists’ motives, and fallacies; (3) refuting the revisionists’ claims (e.g., by proving the intentionality of the top Nazis to exterminate European Jewry, and the use of gas chambers and crematoria to accomplish this), through a convergence of evidence from many different sources; finally, (4) illustrating how history can be distinguished from pseudohistory–the rewriting of the past for present personal or political purposes.
I am no Tolstoy, nor am I a Holocaust specialist. As a professional historian (with research interests in the history of science and the philosophy of history) and publisher of Skeptic, I do not intend to prove the Holocaust so much as to demonstrate how the Holocaust is proven. This is an exercise in historical and scientific methodology to demonstrate that pseudohistory cannot succeed when scientific methodology is applied to studying the past.
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.