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The Restoration of History
Pseudohistory–the rewriting of the past for present personal or political purposes–takes many forms, Holocaust revisionism being just one. The question is, why now? Several answers are proffered by Lipstadt and others. People associate fascism with the Nazis, and the Nazis with mass murder. Disprove the Holocaust, and fascism loses this stigma. Also, victims of inhumanity are granted a certain amount of moral authority–strip them of that and you take away their power.
There are other, deeper reasons, I believe, that underlie the revisionist movement, having to do with the larger movements of pseudoscience and pseudohistory. Reason and rationality, as skeptics know too well, are under attack on all fronts. No claim, no matter how absurd, is immune from belief by someone or some group. But beyond this there is an intellectual current brought about by the philosophers of my own profession–the historiographers. It began in 1935 when Charles A. Beard delivered his now-famous lecture on “That Noble Dream” of objectivity, that was quickly disappearing. Beard defined history as “contemporary thought about the past” where he argued that “no historian can describe the past as it actually was and that every historian’s work–that is, his selection of facts, his emphasis, his omissions, his organization, his method of presentation–bears a relation to his own personality and the age and circumstances in which he lives” (1972, pp. 315-328). This vision of historical relativity may be summarized in the following enumeration:
1. History exists only in the minds of historians.
2. The past is constructed by historians, much as sculptors construct figures out of marble.
3. Historians can only know and describe the past through available documentation, which itself covers only part of “what really happened.”
4. Historians can no more purge themselves of bias than anyone else, including physicists and biologists.
5. There is no complete causal structure of contingent events in the past.
6. Historians construct a causal structure in their minds out of the available documentation.
7. Historians’ job is to present this constructed past not as it actually happened but as it might have happened in one interpretation only.
The relativism of the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s returned in a different covering cloth as literary criticism and deconstruction in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It is a by-product of our egalitarian age: if everyone and everyone’s opinions are equal, then everyone’s histories are also equal. Just rewrite the past to fit present needs. History empowers, so it is acceptable to deconstruct the history of those in power, and reconstruct it for those who are not. African-Americans are embracing their African heritage, but in the process some extremists are now claiming all of Western civilization as their own–the Egyptians were black, along with the Greeks and Romans, who stole their legacy from the Africans. Native-Americans are also recapturing their past, but in the process some are blaming the white European male for all that is evil in the world.
The solution to the problem of pseudohistory is not just in refuting the claims of pseudohistorians. We must also treat history as a scientific discipline, concerned not only with names, dates, and narratives, but with analyses and methodologies. We saw that the Holocaust is proved through a convergence of evidence–a concept taken from a philosopher of science. But this is, in fact, how any historical event is proved. There is a convergence of evidence that comes together from different sources to tell a story. Whether the story is told in a narrative form or an analysis is irrelevant, as long as the facts are presented and the interpretations are made within the boundaries of the evidence. If one practiced history as the revisionists do in trying to challenge the Holocaust story, there would be no history. The past would dissolve into a Rorschach-like blot in which observers see whatever they like. For this reason we need now, more than ever, to make history a science. If we do not, it could be the end of history.
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.