Holocaust Denial – A dilemma for Historical Truth?

The 29th April 2015 will mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Dachau, the first concentration camp built by the Nazi Regime and the blue print for all other concentration camps throughout Nazi controlled Europe. The Nazi SS officers who were to command the extermination camps as Rudolf Hoess and Josef Kramer were to start their careers at Dachau. These men were to implement what is known as the Holocaust or the deportation and organised murder of the jewish population in Europe.

Much of what we know about the Holocaust comes from the survivors of the concentration camps and extermination camps. We also know about the Holocaust from the testimony of SS officers at trials as the Nuremburg trials, The Auschwitz Trials and the Treblinka trials. Historians also rely on the very few written documents such as the  Höfle Telegram and the Gerstein report  Historians also have to rely on the physical evidence such as the concentration and extermination camps. Unfortunately, the SS perpetrators tried to hide all evidence of their crimes by demolishing the gas chambers at Auschwitz and the entire camp such as at Treblinka.

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While it is the responsibility of historians to investigate events using primary sources, the works of historians often reflects their own views and biases. David Irving, a British World War 2 historian, has been criticized for his views on the Holocaust. In 2000, David Irving attempted to sue Deborah Lipstadt for libel when she accused David Irving of being a ‘Dangerous spokesman’ for Holocaust Denial. However David Irving was found guilty of being motivated ‘ by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence”.

But what is Holocaust denial? Holocaust deniers deny the well established facts about the Holocaust. They assert that the murder of approximately six million Jews during World War II never occurred and that the Germans are victims of a Zionist plot to extort vast sums of money from them on the basis of a hoax. In the libel trial against Deborah Lipstadt, the court found that David Irving ‘qualifies as a Holocaust denier. Not only has he denied the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz and asserted that no Jew was gassed there, he has done so on frequent occasions and sometimes in the most offensive terms‘.

Why would anyone want to deny the Holocaust? Holocaust deniers more commonly refer to themselves as Holocaust revisionists who contest the accepted historical truth of the Holocaust. As Arthur Butz wrote in the 1991 article for the Institute for Historical Review ‘Historians generally support the legend, but there are precedents for nearly incomprehensible blindness on the part of scholars’.  But Holocaust revisionists as Arthur Butz deny that the Holocaust ever took place and claim that ‘The “Final Solution” spoken of in the German documents was a program of evacuation, resettlement and  deportation of Jews with the ultimate objective of expulsion from Europe’.

Revisionists deny the Holocaust based on political grounds, accusing the jews of making up the Holocaust to gain sympathy or use the Holocaust for their political purposes.  Mark Weber, a known Holocaust Denier, accused the Simon Wiesenthal Center of being ‘not only an expression of immense Jewish-Zionist power in America, it plays an important role in maintaining that power. In promoting its agenda, it carries out a well-funded and effective propaganda campaign of deceit, disinformation and lies in support of Israeli oppression’. Other prominent revisionists as David Irving held strong right wing views that held Hitler and the Third Reich in a ‘favorable light’ while portraying the Holocaust and Hitler’s critics as liars and denying that the Holocaust had occurred – or that Hitler knew about the Holocaust.

How can anyone deny the Holocaust? With the overwhelming eyewitness testimony, the Holocaust has been established as historical fact. Eyewitness testimony provides an important tool for understanding the Holocaust. As the Yad Yashem acknowledges that Holocaust Survivors are our main medium for the story of the Holocaust. Their testimonies play a central role in the understanding the events of the Holocaust as well as their significance. Their testimonies often provide the sole source on many aspects of the devastation’.

However Holocaust deniers exploit one of the problems of using Holocaust survivor testimony – that it can be unreliable. For example, it is widely believed that diesel engines were used in the gas chambers at Treblinka. This comes not only from eyewitness testimony but also SS testimony. SS officer Gustav Munzberger, who worked in the extermination area at Treblinka testified that “When all the chambers were filled with about 3,000 Jews, the heavy wooden doors were fastened with iron bolts. Now I went through the corridor, opened the door to the engine room, and gave a sign to Schmitz or Zänker to start both diesel engines. The Russian T-34 tank engines were started by three Ukrainians and a Jew. They needed a lot of diesel’. Even historians Jonathan Harrison, Roberto Muehlenkamp, Jason Myers, Sergey Romanov, Nicholas Terry believe now that gas and not diesel was used in the gas chambers at Treblinka.

Holocaust deniers as Arnulf Neumaier have attempted to use science to dispute the Holocaust. One of the claims is that the gas chamber would not have been able to withstand the pressure of gas being pumped into a sealed room. Another Holocaust denier, Fred Leuchter, was called as an expert to testify at the David Irving libel case against Deborah Lipstadt. Fred Leuchter had claimed after obtaining samples from the roof of the gas chambers at Auschwitz that ‘no significant residues of hydrogen-cyanide compounds except in one structure, which was commonly agreed to have been the building in which the slave labourers’ clothing was fumigated with Zyklon B gas’

Should historians reply to such idiotic claims by Holocaust deniers? Do Holocaust deniers have a valid point? As the number of holocaust survivors diminish over the years, historians will be unable to rely on survivors testimony as a primary source for the Holocaust. This poses a problem particularly when examining the Holocaust at Treblinka where the SS destroyed the camp and evidence of the crimes they committed at Treblinka. Only two survivors of Treblinka  Kalman Tagiman and Samuel Willenberg are still alive to give testimony to the crimes committed there. With the diminishing numbers of holocaust survivors, historians will be forced to rely on other primary sources for the Holocaust.

If historians are to find the truth of the Holocaust, then their research and conclusions must be able to withstand scrutiny. In 2012, British forensic archaeologist Catherine Colls-Sturdy  visited Treblinka where her team found evidence of a number of buried pits using geophysical techniques.  Holocaust deniers have disputed eyewitness testimony not only of the gas chambers at Treblinka but have disputed the claims of mass graves being dug by the nazis using excavators. That the SS had the jewish labor dig up the bodies and burn them using mass incinerators to hide their crimes has also been disputed by deniers.

The archaeological work done by Catherine Colls Sturdy and her team at Treblinka has proven to be valuable to historians in proving the existence of not only the mass graves but also the gas chambers at Treblinka. In the absence of any photographs of Treblinka and any physical evidence, the archaeological findings of Colls-Sturdy have helped to bring alive Treblinka – not only as a memorial but as a place where real people perished. Without the physical evidence to prove the Holocaust, then the Holocaust can and will be disputed and soon forgotten.

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If historians are to be truthful to historical inquiry and to refute those that deny the Holocaust, then historians must find ways of interacting with science and archaeology to support eyewitness testimony on the Holocaust. In the David Irving vs Deborah Lipstadt trial, the expert testimony of Robert Van Pelt proved to be very effective in dismissing the findings of Fred Leuchter that the gas chambers at Auschwitz did not exist. Without working with science to support Holocaust survivor testimony, historians will find themselves with diminishing resources on the Holocaust. This will be exploited by Holocaust deniers to create doubt that the Holocaust ever happened or be used to diminish the scale on which it happened. History must be based on facts, not lies.

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