Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Exposing Holocaust Deniers’ Quote Mine of Historian Arno Mayer

It is quite fascinating how different groups of pseudoskeptics from vastly different fields, such as evolutionary biology and 20th century history, tend to apply the same type of deceptive debating tactics. For instance, creationists like to quote the distinguished paleontologist Stephen J. Gould and make it appear as if he is rejecting central concepts in evolutionary biology, when he is fact is merely debating the relative merits of different evolutionary mechanisms. Creationists are thus misrepresenting the internal scientific discussion about how common descent happens, roughly expressed as “punctualists versus gradualists” (although they are not incompatible), as if it was a discussion of whether common descent was true.

As it turns out, Holocaust deniers use the same tactic, although instead of misrepresenting the punctualist Stephen J. Gould, they try to exploit the Holocaust historian Arno Meyer. Similarly to the “punctualism versus gradualism” there is a similar, legitimate discussion within Holocaust history about the exact mechanisms. This debate is usually termed the intentionalist versus functionalist controversy and deals with questions such as “to what degree has the Holocaust planned in advance and to what extent was it a continent historical outcome?”. None of the historians in this discussion denies the Holocaust. They all accept that there was intentionality for genocide, that a highly technical extermination program was implemented using e. g. gas chambers and that roughly 5-6 million Jews where killed. So, in other words, Holocaust deniers misrepresent this legitimate historic discussion as if functionalist historians support Holocaust denial. They do not.

Let us check how Holocaust deniers, such as Germar Rudolf, quote historian Arno Mayer out of context. The quote that is usually presented is:

Sources for the study of the gas chambers are at once rare and unreliable.

It is from Arno Mayers book “Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?: The’Final Solution’ in History” from 1988. However, if we read the quote in context (pp. 362-363), it reads (my emphasis in bold):

Sources for the study of the gas chambers are at once rare and unreliable. Even though Hitler and the Nazis made no secret of their war on the Jews, the SS operatives dutifully eliminated all traces of their murderous activities and instruments. No written orders for gassing have turned up thus far.

The SS not only destroyed most camp records, which were in any case incomplete, but also razed nearly all killing and cremating installations well before the arrival of Soviet troops. Likewise, care was taken to dispose of the bones and ashes of the victims.

Most of what is known is based on the deposition of Nazi officials and executioners at postwar trials and on the memory of survivors and bystanders. This testimony must be screend carefully, since it can be influenced by subjective factors of great complexity.

Diaries are rare, and so are authentic documents about the making, transmission, and implementation of the extermination policy. But additional evidence may still come to light. Private journals and official papers are likely to surface. Since Auschwitz and Majdanek, as well as the four out-and-out killing centers, were liberated by the Red Army, the Soviet archives may well yield significant clues and evidence when they are opened. In addition, excavation at the killing sites and in their immediate environs may also bring forth new information.

In the meantime, there is no denying the many contradictions, ambiguities, and errors in the existing sources. These cannot be ignored, although it must be emphasized strongly that such defects are altogether insufficient to put in question the use of gas chambers in the mass murder of Jews at Auschwitz. Much the same is true for the conflicting estimates and extrapolations of the number of victims, since there are no reliable statistics to work with. Just as the fact of the Jewish ordeal at Auschwitz is not contingent on the use of gas chambers, so the crime of gassing does not turn upon the exact number of Jews gassed.

In other words, Mayer is trying to say the exact opposite of what Holocaust deniers try to pretend he does. He admits that history is complex and multifaceted, but strongly suggest that these problems are not evidence for the overarching thesis promoted by Holocaust deniers. This technique has even been coined by Mike Stein as “The Mayer Gambit”.

References and Further Reading:

Harrison, Jonathan. (2008). How Deniers Distort Quotes. Holocaust Controversies. Accessed: 2011-09-10.

Stein, Mike. (unknown date) The Mayer Gambit. The Nizkor Project. Accessed: 2011-09-10.

Mayer, Arno. (1988). Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?: The “Final Solution” in History. New York: Pantheon Publishers.


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