The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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Subject: Proving the Holocaust: The Restoration of History (13 of 15)
Summary: Dr. Michael Shermer's article on Holocaust revisionism,
         "Proving the Holocaust: The Refutation of Revisionism & the 
         Restoration of History," _Skeptic_, Vol. 2, No. 4, Altadena, 
         California, June, 1994. Published by the Skeptics Society, 
         2761 N. Marengo Ave., Altadena, CA 91001, (818) 794-3119.
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Part 13: The Restoration of History

Pseudohistory--the rewriting of the past for present personal or
political purposes--takes many forms, Holocaust revisionism being just
one. The question is, why now? Several answers are proffered by Lipstadt
and others. People associate fascism with the Nazis, and the Nazis with
mass murder. Disprove the Holocaust, and fascism loses this stigma.
Also, victims of inhumanity are granted a certain amount of moral
authority--strip them of that and you take away their power.

   There are other, deeper reasons, I believe, that underlie the
revisionist movement, having to do with the larger movements of
pseudoscience and pseudohistory. Reason and rationality, as skeptics
know too well, are under attack on all fronts. No claim, no matter how
absurd, is immune from belief by someone or some group. But beyond this
there is an intellectual current brought about by the philosophers of my
own profession--the historiographers. It began in 1935 when Charles A.
Beard delivered his now-famous lecture on "That Noble Dream" of
objectivity, that was quickly disappearing. Beard defined history as
"contemporary thought about the past" where he argued that "no historian
can describe the past as it actually was and that every historian's
work--that is, his selection of facts, his emphasis, his omissions, his
organization, his method of presentation--bears a relation to his own
personality and the age and circumstances in which he lives" (1972, pp.
315-328). This vision of historical relativity may be summarized in the
following enumeration:

   1. History exists only in the minds of historians.

   2. The past is constructed by historians, much as sculptors construct
figures out of marble.

   3. Historians can only know and describe the past through available
documentation, which itself covers only part of "what really happened."

   4. Historians can no more purge themselves of bias than anyone else,
including physicists and biologists.

   5. There is no complete causal structure of contingent events in the

   6. Historians construct a causal structure in their minds out of the
available documentation.

   7. Historians' job is to present this constructed past not as it
actually happened but as it might have happened in one interpretation

   The relativism of the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s returned in a
different covering cloth as literary criticism and deconstruction in the
late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It is a by-product of our egalitarian age:
if everyone and everyone's opinions are equal, then everyone's histories
are also equal. Just rewrite the past to fit present needs. History
empowers, so it is acceptable to deconstruct the history of those in
power, and reconstruct it for those who are not. African-Americans are
embracing their African heritage, but in the process some extremists are
now claiming all of Western civilization as their own--the Egyptians
were black, along with the Greeks and Romans, who stole their legacy
from the Africans. Native-Americans are also recapturing their past, but
in the process some are blaming the white European male for all that is
evil in the world.

   The solution to the problem of pseudohistory is not just in refuting
the claims of pseudohistorians. We must also treat history as a
scientific discipline, concerned not only with names, dates, and
narratives, but with analyses and methodologies. We saw that the
Holocaust is proved through a convergence of evidence--a concept taken
from a philosopher of science. But this is, in fact, how any historical
event is proved. There is a convergence of evidence that comes together
from different sources to tell a story. Whether the story is told in a
narrative form or an analysis is irrelevant, as long as the facts are
presented and the interpretations are made within the boundaries of the
evidence. If one practiced history as the revisionists do in trying to
challenge the Holocaust story, there would be no history. The past would
dissolve into a Rorschach-like blot in which observers see whatever they
like. For this reason we need now, more than ever, to make history a
science. If we do not, it could be the end of history.

[Continued in Part 15]

                            Work Cited

   Shermer, Michael. "Proving the Holocaust: The Refutation of
      Revisionism & the Restoration of History," _Skeptic_, Vol. 2,
      No. 4, Altadena, California, June, 1994. Published by the
      Skeptics Society, 2761 N. Marengo Ave., Altadena, CA 91001,
      (818) 794-3119.

_Skeptic_ magazine:

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