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Did the Holocaust Exist?
Of all the questions AnswerMan! gets, this is no doubt the most common, usually phrased as "Did the Holocaust happen?" or, in a more accusatory tone, "Are you trying to say that the Holocaust didn't happen?"
Relax. The simplest answer to this question is that, of course, the Holocaust "happened." What's at issue here is what happened under the sub-heading of Holocaust, and why, and what it means, and how much it should mean.
Let's just start with the name, "Holocaust." Now, in a real sense, we could say that the "Holocaust" didn't happen because this name is just a convention, if not a thought cliché, imposed on a great number of events. It's not as though at some point in the 1930's, or after 1939, someone said, "Oh, no, here comes the Holocaust," just as no one said in 1945, "Whew! I'm sure glad the Holocaust is over." The name is something that came later — much later — and was imposed on the events.
We should explore this a little more. In history we have all kinds of names: "The Dark Ages", "The Middle Ages", "The Enlightenment", "The Great Depression", "The Civil War", and "World War One." All of these names were developed later and were imposed retrospectively on a congeries of events, thus reducing the narration of the events to a name, a concept, or a thought cliché.
For example, in the 1700's, when there was an explosion of learning and applied technology particularly in Western Europe, there was a tendency for the learned folk of that time to look down on the previous thousand years since the end of the Roman Empire. If you called that period "The Dark Ages", you were comparing that previous period to your own invidiously: after all, you were living in a period of learning, coffee shops and book publishing, and Reason with a capital "R", what would come to called "The Enlightenment." Or you might want to say that your period of time was the pinnacle of human development: Greece and Rome were Stage 1, you were Stage 3, everything in between was — you guessed it — "The Middle" as in "The Middle Ages."
It should be obvious so far that such names are just constructions imposed on past events to tie them together arbitrarily and also such names have a tendency to impose value judgments.
That is even more clear when we look at the war in the United States, between 1861-1865. We usually call this "The Civil War" although it was called a variety of names while it was going on. As you may recall, the war had to do with the fact that some states (mostly slave holding states) wished to exercise their state's rights and secede from the Union. The Northern states, on the other hand, said, "You can't do that" and so a fight ensued.
To use the term "Civil War" contains a value judgment in this way: it suggests that the Confederate states never did secede from the Union, because they had no right to do so, and therefore the war was an internal war within the United States, and therefore, a "civil war." On the other hand, a lot of Southerners even to this day refuse to grant that they did not have the right to secede, that they did in fact secede, and that therefore the Northern invasion was a foreign invasion. Therefore, using their own value judgment, they tend to call "The Civil War" either "The War of Northern Aggression" or more usually "The War Between The States."
Now the fact that you can have two or even three names to describe the same event should tip off the thoughtful person that the names we apply to past events are arbitrary, and are colored by our own interpretations and values. The same should go for "The Holocaust", and, provided we don't accept the arbitrary usage of the term, or disagree with the value judgments inherent in that term, we could quite realistically say that there was "no Holocaust."
Okay, so let's step back and see if we can come up with a minimum statement of what the Holocaust was, or whatever it was that we tend to call Holocaust. We know that the East European Jewish communities had been whittled down for 150 years before World War Two began. We know that the Jews were persecuted, encouraged to assimilate, and that pressure to assimilate usually called on them to forsake their Jewish faith and ways.
We know that in response to this an ideology gathered momentum in the last quarter of the 19th Century calling for the Jews to found their own nation where they might foster their Jewishness: we call this ideology "Zionism." After World War One, when large parts of the traditional Jewish pale of settlement in Eastern Europe had been taken over either by atheistic communism or by anti-Jewish and proto-fascist governments, the Zionist movement encouraged emigration to the British Protectorate of Palestine, and hundreds of thousands of Eastern Jews fled to all points of the globe.
The National Socialist regime of Germany, starting in 1933, was hostile to Jews. Part of this had to do with the involvement of Eastern European Jews in communism, which the National Socialists loathed, part of it had to do with assimilation problems, for example, in Poland 90% of the Jews still spoke Yiddish as their mother tongue, and part of it had to do with the fact that hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews, who had fled persecution in the East over the previous decades, had not yet completely assimilated in their Western homelands, and seemed different, acted different, looked different, and therefore were easy scapegoats during troubled economic times.
So the National Socialists persecuted them, treated them as second class citizens the same way the United States was treating its citizens of African ancestry at the same time. They encouraged the Jews to emigrate, tried to make plans for a future Jewish homeland (Madagascar was one bruited about possibility), and in general made life very unpleasant for them.
After the German invasion of Russia, June 21, 1941, the persecution intensified, as the Germans now found themselves moving through the traditional center of gravity for Ashkenazy Jews. The plan for forced emigration was abandoned, and now there was a plan to confine all of the Jewish people of Europe to areas in the East, or to put them to work in concentration and labor camps, with a view to sending them out of Europe when the war was over. Starting in the late Fall of 1941, the first trainloads of Jews started being sent either to work or to ghettoes in the East.
The problem is that at the same time this was going on the Einsatzgruppen, German police units, and local militias were shooting thousands of Jews under various pretexts, either as reprisals for partisan activity, to control epidemics, or because they were incapable of working. It is still unclear how many were killed in this way, but it appears that hundreds of thousands were done to death one way or the other. When the war was over, there were thousands of dead, including thousands of Jewish dead, on display in a number of Western concentration camps, there were large numbers of Jews (numbered in the tens of thousands to low hundreds of thousands) who were presumed dead because they never returned to their homes in Western Europe, and it was also evident that the Jewish communities of Poland, the Baltics, Russia, and also Hungary were pretty much destroyed.
Now so far what we have here is a narrative of Jewish persecution which everyone agrees about. The Jewish communities in a number of European countries were destroyed, to a large extent between 1933 to 1945, or at least 1938-1945, and we could certainly subscribe to the idea that this destruction, so severe to the traditional Jewish presence particularly in Eastern Europe, could be called a "Holocaust."
The problem is that this is not what the name "Holocaust" means. In fact, unique among the names we use to describe events, the "Holocaust" is one concept where it is demanded that certain facts be attached to the name. According to Michael Shermer, in his Why People Believe Weird Things, and others, the central facts that must be considered part of the concept or overall name are:
1. State sponsored attempt to physically kill all members of a target group (the Jewish people) according to a plan,
2. Use of industrial, high technology means to effect this total killing (gas chambers),
3. Six million dead.
Now stepping away from this definition we begin to see just how odd it really is. No other event in history is so characterized. If we speak of the "Dark Ages" we don't insist on the plans or lack of plans in the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire. When speaking of the "Civil War", we don't insist on how many people perished during Sherman's "March to the Sea", or how many died at Gettysburg. When speaking of "World War One", we don't insist on casualty figures for battles like the Somme, which have been revised in recent decades, nor do we insist on German guilt, nor do we insist on demanding precisely calibrated figures as to how many died of poison gas, versus shrapnel, versus machine guns. Indeed, it is precisely these kinds of details that historians traditionally argue about all the time.
Yet, for the Holocaust, unique among all of the event-names we have discussed, an irreducible set of facts is supposed to be accepted as axiomatic from the start. In this way, the "Holocaust" is no longer a name, or a concept, it is an arbitrary set of facts that we must not question.
Yet it is precisely these three "facts" that revisionists most strongly question. There is no documentary evidence that the Germans had a plan to kill all Jews and there is no evidence that the Germans in fact even tried to kill all Jews: the fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews were liberated from German camps after the war, where they were involved in very important war related work, is a sufficient refutation of this claim.
Second, revisionists question the use of homicidal "gas chambers." Again, there is no documentary, material, or forensic evidence to support their use. Indeed, as a number of revisionists have pointed out in the past 22 years, beginning with Arthur Butz and Robert Faurisson and leading right up to the most recent work by Samuel Crowell, all of the supposed documentary and material evidence for gas chambers is simply evidence of delousing facilities or gas-tight bomb shelters. Someone should have a red face about this, but not revisionists.
Finally, there is no justification for the "six million" claim, which can be easily shown to have legendary roots and which even such traditional Holocaust authors as Reitlinger and Hilberg have conceded is too high.
Therefore it should be clear that, whatever "Holocaust" was, it did not entail the three points that are nowadays insisted on as being intrinsic to the concept. It is for this reason, and this reason only, that revisionists are called "deniers", the suggestion being that, since we reject three facts, we reject the totality of facts concerning Jewish persecution and loss of life in World War Two.
This kind of argument is only possible because of this tendency to make certain "facts" inherent in the concept of Holocaust. It would be equivalent to something like the following: There is a class name that we call "Apples" comprising all members of the well known fruit family. Now someone comes along and says, yes, that is what "Apples" means, but it also means that Joe next door has six purple apples in his refrigerator. Therefore, if you deny that Joe has six purple apples in his refrigerator, you must also be denying that there are such things as "Apples." Of course, this attempt to use a general concept to prove the truth of particular facts is completely senseless and under normal conditions we would expect a careful empirical proof. But sadly nothing of the kind happens in the field of Holocaust studies.
Now there is one other element about the Holocaust that we must handle, and this has to do with the accuracy or utility of the concept or name. Use of the term "Holocaust", especially when someone insists on the "three facts" outlined above, tends to create the impression that it was somehow unique in 20th Century history, and that it was even unique in all of human history. Quite a bit of ink has been slung over this notion.
Revisionists question this definition because they believe it fundamentally distorts the history of 20th Century Europe, and furthermore, with a view to fairness and reconciliation, it tends to be chauvinistic, dismissive, and small-minded. Focusing on the Holocaust, for example, to the exclusion of all else, tends to ignore or minimize the suffering and loss of life among the 14 million German expellees who were cruelly and unjustly treated in the last days of the war and for years thereafter with the official sanction of all of the Allies, including the United States and Britain.
Focusing on the Holocaust ignores the suffering and loss of life among the Germans who had lived in Ukraine or along the Volga, done to death at Stalin's orders. It ignores the loss of life and the suffering of Latvians, Lithuanians, Georgians, Poles, Ukrainians, Czechs, Cossacks, Hungarians, and many others who tried as best they could to maintain and assert their national identity during and after World War Two and ended up with repressive communist governments instead. And such a focus ignores the cruel treatment the Allies meted out to the German people, during the war through the ruthless bombardment of German cities, and after, through the systematic humiliation, starvation, and pillage of the German nation.
It is the revisionist belief that all of these events should be looked at as one, and that, instead of focusing on one tragedy to the exclusion of others, we should condemn what David Irving has called the "Innocenticide" of the first half of the 20th Century, rather than the purported "genocide" of single groups.
To be sure, the Jewish people are entitled to memorialize their tragic suffering and loss of life in World War Two, and we respect and honor their desire to regard the "Holocaust" as their special and unique travail. But at the same time they should have no quibble with others, who, seeing themselves as part of another group, or who, by raising their sights beyond all groups, try to see it and interpret it differently.
In sum, therefore, the reality of the Holocaust is as certain as the persecution and loss of life among the European Jewish populations in World War Two. But revisionists will continue to insist on the right of free men and women to question, investigate, and debate what we consider to be grievous errors in the historical record, and we will continue to try to foster a perception of 20th Century history in which the sufferings — and heroism — of all peoples will have been recognized and reconciled with each other. It is in this way that we believe it would be best possible to ensure that there will never be another holocaust: either among Jews, or among any of the other silent victims of the 20th Century whose sufferings and achievements have hitherto gone unrecognized.
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|Title||Did the Holocaust Exist?|
|Dates||published: 1998-01-01, first posted on CODOH: June 29, 1998, 7 p.m., last revision: n/a|