The sanitization of uncomfortable history
By Carly Smith
You might laugh if I told you that history changes, and more often than you would think. Even though the events that occurred cannot be changed, our understanding of those events does change. Revisionist historians take on this task of reinterpreting history as they discover new documents. However, we stray toward trouble when we start to confuse revisionism with blatant denial.
Not all revisionists give the public the truth. In reality, they present us with pseudohistory. Michael Shermer, Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic magazine, writes in Denying History, “the rewriting of the past for present personal or political purposes.” Usually people write pseudohistory for money, fame, nationalism, religion, the idea of a romantic past or mental instability.
Pseudohistory is fairly easy to find in the corners of the media in the states. You can stumble across pamphlets claiming to tell the “real truth” of the Holocaust when the content is completely false. The author blatantly disregards the truth so that he can further his own agenda, whether it be of hate, lies, or erroneous sympathy.
One such author is historian David Irving. He maintains a daily newsletter called Action Report Online; his books are also published through the Journal of Historical Review, a non-peer reviewed journal with a focus on Holocaust denial. Lacking factual basis in his claims, Irving’s writings are clearly biased.
Irving argues for moral equivalency, Rebecca Lesses, Ithaca College Associate Professor and Jewish Studies Coordinator, said. He wants to shine a better light on the Nazi regime, so he attempts to draw a parallel between the killings the Nazis carried out and the Allies’ attacks – specifically the Bombing of Dresden, a military bombing that occurred in the final months of World War II.
He claims hundreds of thousands died in the attack and his readers take that number seriously, even though the actual number is closer to 25,000, Lesses said.
This kind of denial is nothing new. “It began as soon as [World War II] was over,” Lesses said. “It begins with perpetrators saying it wasn’t as bad as we think it was.”
The first deniers were those sentenced to the death penalty during the Nuremburg Trials. In the past, their agenda was to keep themselves alive. Today, they distort history for an incorrect retelling of the past.
Holocaust deniers believe people were relocated to concentration camps; they deny the systematic killing, the racial intention to commit genocide and the six million murdered Jews. They insist that most people died of disease and starvation in the camps and that they were sent to the camps for rehabilitation, according to Shemer’s book.
However, Shermer also points out that the Nazis believed in biological determinism. There is no debate that their intention was genocide.
With the evidence clearly proving that the deniers’ do not have a factual foundation in their declarations, engaging them in a debate would accomplish nothing. However, their false claims can weaken a person’s understanding of the true facts. In History On Trial historian Deborah Lipstadt writes about her time in court with Irving over a libel suit.
“Unless their fallacious claims were exposed, they could ultimately pose a more substantial danger,” she said. “More sophisticated deniers, such as David Irving, had the ability to sow seeds of confusion about the Holocaust.”
In the end, Lipstadt won the trial because her team proved that her accusations of Holocaust denial toward Irving were true. They also proved that Irving distorted history in his books.
“The fact that they’re lying— and their lack of any historical basis—should be pointed out,” Lesses said of offenders. “They’re not doing historical research. They’re not searching for new documents.”
While Irving’s texts, as well as those of other deniers, cannot be substantiated, they are still published. Any person who agrees with them needs only to find their website.
“The Internet, like the printing press, is a two-edged sword,” Shermer said. “It’s good for freedom of speech, but anyone can say anything.”
People uncritically accept something if it is in print. Shermer describes this problem in his book. “Where anyone can speak the past, no one can,” he writes. If simply anyone without knowledge of the facts can dictate history, then history cannot be recorded accurately.
Fortunately, historians measure the validity of evidence so that each opinion is not equal. Shermer calls it the “comparative method.”
Historians cannot run scientific experiments, but they can study the effects of events and apply what they observed to what they know.
“Eyewitness accounts, for example, are notoriously unreliable,” he said.
“People have unreliable memories…In corroboration with other forms of evidence, they can become valuable. You have to weigh the evidence carefully.”
Revisionists, therefore, find new evidence and verify it before redrafting history. Deniers instead choose to ignore the fact that their published books have not been confirmed to be true.
Holocaust denial is banned in Germany and seen as an incitement of hatred. Teachers and students in Germany cover the Holocaust seriously. It is a compulsory subject that all students discuss multiple times. They visit concentration camp sites, and textbooks make no attempt to “clean up” what happened. They instead focus on the lessons they can learn from past mistakes.
With freedom of speech, Holocaust deniers can try to change history. But historians are also just as free to demonstrate how the deniers’ attempts at revisionism are far fetched denials with an ulterior motive.
Despite their right to free speech, Lesses still takes issue with deniers’ consistency in distorting the facts. She points out their contradictory mission, saying, “They claim to search for the truth, but they ignore the truth in front of their eyes.”
Carly Smith is a sophomore journalism major who promises to never distort your facts. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.