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Review: Contesting the Holocaust deniers
"Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say it?"
(CNN) -- Upon General Dwight D. Eisenhower's visit to the Nazi concentration camps after the conclusion of World War II, he declared, "I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position, then on, to testify at first hand about these things, in case there ever grew at home the belief or assumption that 'the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.' "
Fifty years later, Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman are forced to make the same refutations in their new book, "Denying History."
One would think it almost impossible to deny the occurrence of the Holocaust. After all, historians, government officials, newspaper reports, books, movies, survivor testimony, and the Nuremberg trials all point to the systematic extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazis during World War II. Yet some theorists disbelieve mainstream thought when it comes to the Holocaust, and they rely on three alternate lines of reasoning to support their case - the enormity of the deaths was exaggerated, gas chambers were used for delousing rather than extermination, and Hitler intended to deport rather than exterminate the Jews.
But these ideas are the tenets of right-wing extremists, hardly in danger of influencing the mainstream. As a result, "Denying History" would seem to be an unnecessary work; why do the authors need to contest the deniers when the deniers have no credibility in the first place?
Yet Shermer and Grobman do more than just refute ridiculous allegations. They also use the example of Holocaust denial literature to examine free speech issues, the psychology of right-wing extremists, and the role of biases in historical research.
'A myriad of events'
In one chapter, entitled "The Noble Dream: How We Know Anything Happened in History," Shermer and Grobman use the Holocaust as a springboard to examine the overall formation of history, usually defined as a tug-of-war between personal biases and historical fact. Events are proven by converging lines of evidence, all of which point to the same conclusion, which -- in this case -- would be that the Holocaust did occur.
"The Holocaust is not a single event that a single fact can prove or disprove," the authors write. "The Holocaust was a myriad of events in a myriad of places and relies on myriad pieces of data that converge on one conclusion. Minor errors or inconsistencies cannot prove or disprove the Holocaust, for the simple reason that these lone bits of data never proved it in the first place."
It is these minor inconsistencies, however, that fuel the theories of Holocaust deniers. Shermer and Grobman examine the denial arguments piece by piece, from the lack of traces of Zyklon-B on the walls of the gas chambers (explained by the exposure of the tested bricks to the elements) to the lack of a letter from Hitler ordering the extermination of the Jews (but there also is no letter ordering the beginning of the war).
Unsurprisingly, Shermer and Grobman offer compelling arguments that the Holocaust did occur -- photographs, graphic eyewitness testimony, confessions of perpetrators, and the remnants of the death camps, among other things. To put it mildly, they blow the deniers out of the water. Not that it's a difficult feat.
We know that that the Shermer and Grobman argument is the more logical of the two even before the book begins, which could make for a highly uninteresting work. But the authors avoid falling into the boredom trap through their examination of alternate aspects of Holocaust revisionism.
For example, one of the most interesting and original sections of "Denying History" deals with the psychology of extremists -- from neo-Nazis and Stalin to Mahatma Gandhi and Betty Friedan. And while they seem to be strange bedfellows, these opposing ends of the political spectrum share a certain conviction in their beliefs that defines them as ideologues. As the authors write, "The 'true beliefs' of extremist ideological thinking are often so amorphous and so ambiguous that it is difficult to refute them. Further, when these beliefs form the basis of group cohesion, when they create in their followers a passionate, almost obsessional attachment to them, that is another sign of extremism."
Chapters such as this provide the fascinating insight into the ideological mind. Other detours -- such as the free speech issue and biographies of the main figures in denier literature -- are sprinkled like sugar throughout "Denying History," holding our interest while we wait for the inevitable conclusion.
The points made in "Denying History" are valid, sometimes ridiculously so. There are no new arguments, no shocking insights, no fascinating turns of logic. But sometimes restating the obvious is a necessary task in the face of those who create unfounded alternate realities. It is a thankless mission which Grobman and Shermer accomplish admirably.
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