Witness to the Holocaust: The Denial of First-person Testimony
by M. R.
A student essay from Dr. Elliot Neaman's History 210 class (historical methods - spring 1996)© Elliot Neaman / PHDNReproduction interdite par quelque moyen que ce soit / no reproduction allowed
Catastrophic. Horrific. Appalling. Ghastly. Many adjectives come to mind when one attempts to describe the Holocaust. "Controversial" is not usually one of them. Certainly "imaginary" is not. Yet the pseudo-historical school of "thought" known as Revisionism, or Holocaust Denial, has succeeded in bringing this nadir of twentieth-century history into the realm of the uncertain and the debated.
Holocaust Denial is not a recent phenomenon. It is not a product of the popularity of tabloid television and trashy magazines. Rather, this movement began immediately after the end of World War Two, starting with Friedrich Meinecke's The German Catastrophe, a short apologia for the German people. This earlier form of Holocaust Denial was practised in several countries, most notably the Soviet Union. It consists of simply ignoring the highly unpleasant events and repercussions of the Holocaust, as if refusing to address the issue would make it cease to exist. Lucy S. Dawidowicz, in her book The Holocaust and the Historians, calls this "Palimpsest History," where the unpalatable truth is scraped from the records, leaving a blank space which can be more easily ignored.
The form of Holocaust Denial which will be addressed in this paper, however, is considerably more active. These Deniers offer various arguments which attempt to minimize the significance of the Holocaust by challenging accepted scholarship on the subject. There are a number of main arguments which are frequently used by most prominent Denial movements, such as that the Reich never intended to annihilate the Jews, only to force their emigration; that no genocidal gas chambers never could or did exist, only crematoria; that if any Jews were killed, the number that can be proven is far lower than the accepted figure of six million; and that the testimonies given by witnesses to the Holocaust are unreliable and untrue. It is this last on which this paper will focus.
In short, Deniers claim that the Holocaust is a myth and a hoax. Their fondness for the term "hoax," which Arthur Butz uses repeatedly in his book The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, is particularly telling, for it is indicative of their theories as to why such a supposedly untrue account of the events which took place in the German concentration camps has been so perfidiously perpetuated upon the unsuspecting public. The Deniers offer several reasons why such a hoax might be perpetrated. Foremost is the claim that the media, and perhaps the government as well, is controlled by an insidious conspiracy which prominent Denier Austin J. App calls "World Jewry." Although the widely-read Protocols of the Elders of Zion was long ago shown to be false, a large-scale conspiracy like the one it describes is used as the basis for many Denier arguments. The supposed conspirators have worked to create the Holocaust myth with the goal of using the sympathy of the Allied nations to gain support for Israel, extract reparations from Germany, and prevent any criticism of the Jews from being voiced. This implausible theory is intended to give a semblance of rationality to the Deniers' arguments and to cast the Deniers themselves in the role of White Knights, defending the truth against the evil "Yid villains"-- an image that the Nazis made frequent use of in their own propaganda.
More reputable historians who have subjected themselves to examining the Deniers arguments offer other theories. Several groups of differing political standpoints are involved in Holocaust Denial, and each has its own reasons for wanting to convince the world that the Holocaust was not the atrocity it is seen to be. The most obvious motive is that of German patriots, such as Meinecke, who wish to eradicate the guilty stain on their nation's history. Other groups have more subtle motives. Fascists, for instance, may feel a need to improve the image of the original fascists, the Nazis, who have been vilified in the eyes of the world for their crimes against humanity. Other ant-Semitic movements fear that the Holocaust has gained too much sympathy for the Jews as a paople and wish to disprove it for that reason. The Soviets, the Poles, the Ukrainians, and other peoples whose own roles in the fate of the Jews was something less than admirable wish to distract examiners from this fact, and to minimize the consequences of their actions, as Lucy S. Dawidowicz explains in The Holocaust and Historians.
All in all, the issue of Holocaust Denial creates a complex and confusing web of double-talk, self-contradiction, and irrationality. One of the greatest difficulties in refuting the Deniers' claims is the inherent trouble of arguing with anyone who has no regard for truth, accuracy, reason, or even common courtesy. The Deniers quibble, use ad hominem arguments, twist the facts, and ignore evidence which contradicts their claims. At the same time, they accuse those whose work they are attacking of the very faults of which they themselves are guilty.
The Deniers' attack on the validity of witnesses' testimony is a milestone in the history of historical Revisionism. Their claim that all the internees of the camps had it wrong, the liberating Allied soldiers, the camp staff, the bureaucrats giving the orders, all wrong. Disregarding thousands of first-person accounts from a wide variety of sources, the Deniers make the astounding claim that they know more about the Holocaust than the people who actually lived through it.
The Holocaust Deniers' Arguments
For every type of witness, the Deniers have ready a different argument to show why that witness' account is invalid. The internees, they say, gave false accounts out of a desire to be revenged on their captors. The Nazi officers' and camp staff's testimonies were coerced from them with threat from the Allied victors. In any event, the witnesses were not trained historians, so they did not really know how to observe and interpret the events around them. They magnify tiny descrepencies between various accounts so that they can claim that any account with some error in it is largely or even completely untrue.
One technique the Deniers use on witness testimonies, especially those of the internees, is to use the word "subjective" as if it were synonymous with "biased" or "untrue." Paul Rassinier remarks in his The Holocaust Story and the Lie of Ulysses that "it was impossible to discern any statement of objectivity" (page 109) in the reports made by the internees from Belfort. In his preface to this book, Robert Countess describes the author as a "trained historian and thoughtful observer," (page viii) and quotes Rassinier as saying of the other producers of Holocaust literature "I had found no historians, at least none worthy of the name" (page 115). Interestingly, Rassinier distinguishes between "those intellectually incapable of providing accurate testimony" and "those biased by subjective considerations" (page viii). Presumably, the first grouping is a polite way of saying "they're too stupid to know what they're talking about," while the second refers to those purposefully distort their accounts to serve some personal desire.
Rassinier has an explanation for this second category. Angry over their imprisonment in the camps, the liberated internees used horror stories about their experiences to simultaneously relieve pent-up emotions and to get revenge on their jailors. Countess describes witnesses' accounts and camp memoirs as "without exception subjective outpourings of inmates who are chiefly concerned with venting their spleen over their internment by the enemy" (page viii). Rassinier agrees whole-heartedly with this description, referring to "the hate-filled and distorted stories of the camp veterans" (page 109).
In regards to more specific witness accounts, especially those relating to the gas chambers, the Deniers use the curious argument that if there had been gas chambers, why are the witnesses not dead in them? Since the witnesses are alive to give their accounts, the Deniers argue, it follows that there could not have been any such extermination chambers. Wilhelm Staeglich uses this argument in his attack on Teufel und Verdammte [in English, Devil and Damned], which is the memoir of Auschwitz survivor Benedikt Kautsky. Staeglich points out rather bluntly in his book Auschwitz: A Judge Looks At the Evidence that Kautsky "failed to give a convincing explanation of why he, a Volljude[full-blooded Jew], was not 'gassed'" (page 117). Staeglich holds that this question applies to "most 'witnesses' to the alleged 'gassing of the Jews'" (page 22).
As well as denying the validity of the testimonies given by concentration camp internees, Holocaust Deniers also dispute the truthfulness of the accounts given after the war by camp staff and Nazi Party officials involved in the making of policy for the camps. The most commonly used Denial argument for the invalidity of these accounts is the claim that they were coerced from the Nazi witnesses with threats and even torture by the victorious allies, who wanted to force the Nazis to condemn themselves at various war crimes trials, especially the most famous one at Nuremberg. Richard Harwood uses this argument extensively in Nuremberg and Other War Crimes Trials, in which he states that "confessions were extracted from the prisoners by the use of torture and brutality" (page 48). In support of this thesis, Harwood gives the example of SS Captain Josef Kramer, whose story is also told by Arthur Butz in The Hoax of the Twentieth Century. Kramer "denied that there had ever been 'extermination chambers' at Auschwitz-Birkenau where he had previously been camp commander... However, after Kramer had been further interrogated, he changed his tune, and was now willing to admit that there had in fact been a gas chamber at Auschwitz, but that he had not been responsible for it" (Harwood, page 11). Harwood implies that Kramer changed his story due to threats, as did other "Nuremberg defendants, who were prepared to admit that 'gas-chambers-existed-but-they-had-nothing-to-do-with-it'- just to placate the court and endeavor to extricate themselves from a very difficult situation" (page 11). Harwood claims that fear of receiving a heavier sentence if they denied the existence of the gas chambers prompted defendants to admit to crimes of which they were innocent.
Nor were the Allies content with coercing false testimonies from the Nuremberg defendants. In addition, the Deniers claim, they created fraudulent documents, confessions, and diaries to condemn the Nazi. Harwood blames the Communists of Poland and the Soviet Union especially for this practice, of which he suggests the diaries of Rudolf Hoss are probably an example. Butz thinks that the Gerstein Statement is another example, although it could just as easily be a forced confession. Butz writes: "I have no idea what connection, if any, Gerstein actually had with this document. He might have, at the command of his captors, cooperated in its manufacture, or he may have had nothing to do with it" (page 256).
The Deniers use two additional techniques to strengthen their attack on witness validity. One is the ad hominem argument. Harwood's description of Budd Schulberg is an instance of this: "He was O.S.S. officer in charge of photographic and film 'evidence' at Nuremberg and a well-known dramatist and sensationalist film-producer -- rather an appropriate occupation, considering the origins of much of the Nuremberg 'evidence'" (page 10). This kind of argument is also applied to many internees, to show that they were uneducated, overimaginative, or in some other way unreliable as witnesses.
The second technique which the Deniers favor in their attack on witnesses' accuracy is to point out the inconsistencies which exist in the varying accounts. They point out the differences in numbers of casualties, dates, locations, distances, and other details given in specific accounts of the same event or experiences. They claim that these inconsistencies reveal the accounts to be bases on hearsay, rather than true first-hand experience, or even to be fabrications.
The Deniers, by refusing to accept the validity of witnesses testimony, cut away the heart of all historical awareness of the Holocaust experience. The dry, factual bones can be learned from examinations of the camp sites, or from technical plans and progress reports, but the flesh of the Holocaust is made of the personal experiences of those who lived through it, and it is this reality that the Deniers repudiate.
The Evidence Against The Deniers
A careful examination of the Holocaust Deniers arguments swiftly reveals that they are largely based on half-truths, pseudo-intellectual doubletalk, and an extremely poor understanding of historical methodology. These arguments proceed not from a genuine concern for the truth, which motivates legitimate Revisionism, but rather from a desire to gain support for the causes which they espouse. They display no qualms about twisting the truth in order to convince their readers. Taken in order and examined in a rational fashion, the Deniers' arguments can easily be refuted by any person with even a passing familiarity with Holocaust history.
The Deniers' attempt to discredit the testimony of witnesses to the Holocaust is essential to their claims, as it is very difficult to successfully propound a view diametrically opposed to the attestations of actual witnesses without offering some convincing counter proofs to those attestations, or, in this case, discrediting them in some way. This is what the Deniers are trying to accomplish with their arguments. Their accusation that the internees accounts are subjective completely redundant in regards to real historical study. All personal accounts are by definition subjective; this does not make them untrue. Rassinier and Countess ignore the fact that the term "objective" is only applicable to truths which admit no possible disagreements between persons; for example, that two plus two equals four cannot be argued in any rational sense of the word. Any attempt to relate truths pertaining to the human condition and experience, however, is by definition subjective. This word should by no means be used as a term of opprobrium. In The Modern Researcher, Jacques Barzun explains that "'subjective' and 'objective' properly apply not to persons and opinion but to sensations and judgments. Every person, that is, every living subject, is necessarily subjective in all his sensations... objects themselves are known only by subjects- persons- so the distinction is not clear cut, much less a test of reality. If this reasoning strains the ordinary faculties, get rid of the jargon use of 'objective' and 'subjective' as synonyms for 'true' and 'false'" (page 175).
Even within the context of this argument, the Deniers contradict themselves. After all their talk about the "subjectivity" and unreliable nature of witnesses testimonies, Countess bases Rassinier's authority on the fact that "Professor Rassinier's own personal experiences in the harsh, brutal camps of Buchenwald and Dora alone should bring the highest credibility to his writings" (page ix). This is not much of a credential if one accepts the Deniers' simultaneous assertion, in Staeglich's words, that "No responsible historian would regard personal accounts alone as proof, least of all of the extermination thesis. Unless the could be verified from authentic sources, he would not even take them into consideration as evidence" (page 22).
This argument is, in any case, irrelevant, as a plenitude of "authentic sources" exist to verify the above mentioned accounts. Thanks in large part to the Germans bureaucratic obsession with detailed records and forms-in-triplicate, there is ample record of the Nazi intentions toward their prisoners, as well as the manner in which they were carried out. The Deniers' struggle to find an alternate interpretation for these documents, most of which are quite clearly written, is an exercise in futility, and the interpretations which result are ludicrously far-fetched. In addition, there are numerous photographs taken by the Allied forces at the time of their liberation of the camps. Therefore, the Deniers' contention that no reliable source material exists is utterly without basis in reality.
It is quite likely that the camp survivors were indeed "hate-filled," as Rassinier says (page 109), but this is entirely understandable in light of the atrocities which they experienced. This, however, does not prove that their accounts were especially inaccurate, or that they were purposefully distorted with the object of vengeance in mind. Supported as they are by so much external evidence, most particularly that provided by their captors, the testimonies of the camp veterans cannot be dismissed as hate-mongering or character assassination.
The Holocaust Deniers' skepticism in regards to the honesty of the Nazis' confessions at Nuremberg and other war crimes trials has somewhat more validity than the majority of their arguments. It is true that many of them testified unwillingly, and perhaps they were threatened with reprisals if they refused to speak. That, however, is the general among all courts in the world. As the Nazis' statements largely confirmed with the evidence previously gathered by Allied observers and with the stories of the witnesses, it appears to be true and cannot by dismissed as analogous to the confessions obtained by European or early American witch hunters.
The Deniers' attempt to dismiss the testimonies of both the internees and the Nazis on the grounds that it is contradictory appear very weak to anyone who has ever read a variety of historical accounts- or, for that matter, a newspaper. Any policeman or reporter who has ever attempted to obtain from several witnesses an account of an automobile accident or liquor-store hold-up can testify that each account is liable to differ on several points, even if taken within minutes after the event. Thus it is hardly surprising that witnesses to such a complex, drawn-out, and devastating period of time as the Holocaust should not achieve one-hundred-percent unanimity in their recollections. It would, in fact, be far more suspicious if thousands of people failed to differ even slightly in their accounts of a singularly horrible and overwhelming event. What is important is that they general correspond as to the major and most important facets of their statements. The Deniers' accusation that the recorded testimonies at Yad Vashem, for instance, are forgeries is especially unconvincing for the reason that the scholars there, if their goal was to perpetrate a hoax, could just as easily have forged a much greater number of documents, and made sure none of them differed on any point; this is not the case.
The argument that the existence of survivors disproves that of the extermination chambers is singularly illogical in its circular nature. The Nazis attempted to kill as many of the Jews as they could, but only so many could be gassed at once. If the Allies had not defeated the Germans when they did and liberated the camps, it is quite likely that the Nazis would have succeeded. Also, many of the more able prisoners were detailed for forced labor and would not have been killed until their usefulness was exhausted. The Deniers demand that the survivors explain their own continued existence, in addition to being highly offensive, is reminiscent of the joke about the judge who refused to find the murder suspect guilty unless the victim could positively identify him. An irrational argument, to say the least.
The ad hominem argument is little better. Condemned by rhetors and logicians for over two thousand years, it is a typical illustration of the Deniers true goal. This class of argument can only be used in an attempt to sway an audience, never in a reasoned and valid debate. The ad hominem argument is necessarily meaningless, as it offers no actual challenge to a person's or group's arguments, only an attack on his personal character, which proves nothing in regards to the argument itself.
In conclusion, the Holocaust Deniers' arguments consistently show themselves to be based on fallacy and self-delusion. When examined with any degree of care, they immediately collapse, revealing themselves to be empty of substance. With very little effort, anyone can discover the truth about the story of the Holocaust survivors and their captors.
The True Picture
Indeed, the truth is by an large very close to what is stated by the camp veterans and by the Nazis who imprisoned them. It is this very fact which causes the Holocaust Deniers to declaim so vehemently against the validity of these witnesses' testimonies as evidence.
The tragedy of the Nazi concentration camps must be one of the most widely recorded of all human experiences. Hundreds, if not thousands, of accounts have been published by survivors of the Holocaust. These accounts are not, as the Deniers claim, the "subjective" accounts of an angry and uneducated mass. Camp internees came from all walks of life, and were imprisoned for a variety of reasons. Rassinier's claims to the contrary, many of them were quite well educated.
In the period beginning in 1933, when the concentration camps were first established, to their liberation in 1945, an estimated eleven to twelve million people died in them. This figure includes not only those who were murdered directly in the gas chambers, by lethal injection, or before a firing squad, but also those who died from starvation, overwork, and other forms of abuse.
Even before the war in Europe had ended, stories of the atrocities being perpetrated in the camps had reached the Allied governments. Unfortunately, recalling the often fraudulent horror stories about the Germans which had been spread during the First World War, they choose to view these tales with skepticism. Indeed, the Deniers continue to claim that the accounts of World War II concentration camp horrors are in actuality on par with the "Belgian baby with no hands" genre of reports from World War I, which the British press had spread in order to rouse public sentiment against the Germans.
At the time of the camps' liberation in 1945, the Allied soldiers and officers were shocked at the conditions they observed. Many accounts of this experience have been recorded, and some published. Witnesses to the liberation of the camps include such well-known figures as American General George S. Patton, who was regarded in his own time as certainly not having any "axe to grind"; contrary to the Deniers' claims, it is extremely unlikely that Patton would have made up or exaggerated his account for the reasons they propose.
As well as the personal testimonies of the Allied soldiers, a great deal of photographs and film were made at the time of the camps' liberation. These reveal the situation in the camps at the time of the war's end, and the terrible state in which the internees were found. Information of this type was also kept on record by the Germans themselves. Those who supervised the camps made reports of the death count, among other facts, to their superiors.
After the war, a large number of Nazi military officers, political officials, and camp staff were tried by the Allies at the Nuremberg Trials for "crimes against humanity." Many of those on trial, and others in the witness stand, testified in regards to the Germans' treatment of their prisoners. However these confessions were obtained it cannot be denied that the information they contain corresponds to the statements and plans made about the Jews, homosexuals, Slavs, handicapped, and other undesirables by Hitler and his advisors before and during the war.
Such a wealth of evidence, both written and oral, is available on the subject of the Holocaust that there is little mystery about the events which took place during this infamous period. For this reason, the Holocaust Deniers' arguments would be ludicrous even if they were logical and well thought out, which they are not. The Holocaust is notable for its tragedy and for its long-term effects on Europe and on the Jewish population in particular, not for any mystery, vagueness, or uncertainty in its nature.
It is actually the concrete nature of Holocaust history that makes the Deniers' arguments so frightening. That any person, much less any sizeable and coordinated group, can so fervently disavow the existence of something that was witnessed by thousands at first hand is a disturbing testimony to the human capacity for self-deception. It is also a frightening example of the fragility of historical knowledge.
The Holocaust Deniers are as yet nowhere near accomplishing their desire, which is to convince the world that the Holocaust never took place. The majority of people are still aware of the reality of the Holocaust. This, however, may be due in large part to the living presence of so many Holocaust survivors. Peter Hayes, editor of Lessons and Legacies: The Meaning of the Holocaust in a Changing World, includes in his work an essay in which volunteer members of the Holocaust Educational Foundation, at the time of their starting a project videotaping survivors' testimonies, explain that "a critical factor in the transmission of this knowledge was the availability of authentic, first-hand testimonies of the Holocaust experience and those who survived it" (page 316). Their experiences, told in person, have a much greater emotional impact than all the factual documents in existence. For this reason, their testimony is invaluable in passing on awareness to the Holocaust. Many scholars who study this period fear that when all the survivors have died, the Deniers will have greater success in spreading their misinformation.
This fear is enhanced by the political agenda which the Deniers espouse. For the most part, they have strong fascist leanings, and are clearly anti-Semites; as Lipstadt points out in Denying the Holocaust, "As long as fascism could be linked with Nazism, and Nazism, in turn, could be linked with the horrors of the Final Solution, then both would remain thoroughly discredited... the only means of trying to revive them would be to separate them from the Holocaust and the multitude of atrocities that accompanied it" (page 49). It is for this very reason that the Deniers are so adamant in their efforts to contradict the accepted history of the Holocaust. The success they have so far enjoyed in disseminating their views, although not extensive, has been wide-spread. The political repercussions that might ensue from a large-scale acceptance of their brand of revisionism are very disquieting. Some historians fear that such an occurrence might lead to a repetition of the circumstances which lead up to that event which the Deniers are so vehement in refuting.
For this reason, it is preferable that true historians take great pains to reveal to all the invalidity of the Deniers' claims, as distasteful as such a subject may be. Although the Deniers' views have no true historical veracity nor intrinsic value, they nonetheless represent a dangerous trend. In the interest of preserving the truth, all possible pains should be taken to show how utterly without basis the phenomenon of Holocaust Denial is.
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