Denying History: Reviews
Whether you have never had an interest in the Holocaust, or have always been passionately interested in it, or are sick and tired of hearing about it, you won’t be able to stop reading this great, gripping story.
Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman provide the necessary ammunition to confront one of the basest phenomena in today’s academic world: the attempt to deny obvious historical facts surrounding one of the greatest tragedies of our time — the Holocaust. They show how any historical fact is verified and proven, and they deal with the specifics of the deniers’ falsifications. In so doing they are filling a vacuum — the need of people who are not experts on the Holocaust, and who have no easy access to the wealth of documentation about it, to answer those who, usually motivated by pro-Nazi sympathies and antisemitism, deny or corrupt facts.
An excellent and timely book that not only maps the unseemly quagmire inhabited by Holocaust deniers and other pseudohistorians, but also equips the user with the critical tools and historical information that, in distinguishing acknowledged fact from insidious fabrication, recovers the road to a civic dominion of common sense and common decency.
Toronto Globe & Mail (April 2000)
Holocaust denial has been much in the news lately as proponents find their work under investigation, or the glare of courts. First, a documentary — Dr. Death, by filmmaker Errol Morris — retraced the steps of Fred Leuchter, an American who earned his nickname by designing electric chairs for U.S. prisons. Leuchter filched bricks from the Auschwitz camp, then claimed upon examination that mass gassings could not have taken place there; Morris revealed, among other discrepancies, that the physical samples Leuchter studied had been exposed to nearly half a century of weather — a part of the would-be scientific equation Leuchter had somehow neglected to factor in.
Then in April of this year, a British judge dismissed a claim of defamation by historian David Irving against author Deborah Lipstadt over her 1994 book that named him as a Holocaust denier. Irving had long sought to establish scholarly credentials for his attempts to refute the fact that Jews were systematically exterminated in the concentration camps, but the judge ruled that “Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence.”
Denying History, an exceptionally interesting study of both Holocaust denial and the deniers themselves, explores these conclusions in depth, and in relatively virgin territory, for the marginal men and women who invent this propaganda are often dismissed out-of-hand. Authors Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman, on the contrary, requested interviews with the major players — and got them, along with gifts of documents and smiling photographs. Their approach to the deniers’ arguments is equally direct. Shermer is a professor of the history of science and the founder of Skeptic magazine — a publication dedicated to debunking scientific hoaxes using the tools of standard logic as well as the scientific method. By applying these techniques to the theories of Holocaust denial, he and Alex Grobman — Holocaust historian and founding editor-in-chief of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Annual – have produced a unique primer for the study of history itself.
The book opens with a foreword on the need to refute, rather than dismiss, such arguments, because with their scholarly apparatus of footnotes and bibliographies, the Holocaust deniers look convincing to many people. Many have mastered a plethora of details, such as the temperature at which Zyklon-B evaporates, or the fact that a particular gas chamber door cannot lock — points of information that are hard to refute in debate and cloak the presenter with a veneer of unassailable expertise. From these bases in isolated fact, they draw generalized conclusions about the verity of the entire historical event.
But the authors have a larger pedagogical purpose: Using Holocaust denial as a case study, they attempt to teach the reader how to understand the difference between history and pseudohistory. How do we know that the Holocaust (or any other event) actually happened? The proof, Shermer and Grobman say, lies in the convergence of evidence — in the fact that a multitude of separate pieces such as documents, the confessions of the perpetrators, the testimonies of the survivors and photographs, all of them corroborated over and over again, point to the same conclusion. Shermer and Grobman argue that in developing an alternative explanation, it is not enough to extrapolate from individual elements, such as a missing lock on the door of a gas chamber. “[Deniers] must proffer a theory that not only explains all of the evidence, but does so in a manner superior to the present theory. This they have not done.”
Using just such evidence, Shermer and Grobman examine, then dispatch, the deniers’ claims, starting with the open-minded premise that each is an objective possibility to be proved or disproved. They also tackle that bugbear of the contemporary academy, postmodern relativism: the idea that it is impossible to know the truth about anything because all investigations are culturally tainted. The recent fashion of historical relativism is, they argue, “a seedbed” for pseudohistory, since if nothing is demonstrably true, there can be no standards for ascertaining the past.
There are other disconcerting threads connected with Holocaust denial: the tricky free-speech debate, for example, which is relied upon by the entire fraternity of deniers, including Canada’s notorious Ernst Zundel. Here, as elsewhere, the authors approach one of our era’s most controversial subjects with dispassion and fairness. They lay out the arguments for and against legislating hate laws (Canada and many European countries have done so, the United States has not), and reach the interesting compromise conclusion that, although freedom of expression is paramount, it should never be confused with anyone else’s obligation to facilitate that expression. (Zundel once tried to submit an advertisement to be run in Skeptic and was refused.)
In revealing the underlying structures of reputable historical investigation, and contrasting them with the ways disreputable history is built, Shermer and Grobman have introduced a much-needed element into the ongoing struggle to maintain the historical record. Denying History offers us tools for critical thinking that can be applied to all of the disputed past, and to the barrage of undifferentiated information that assaults us on a daily basis.