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Insult to Injury

DENYING HISTORY Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? By Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman; University of California Press: 312 pp., $27.50

THE HOLOCAUST INDUSTRY Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering By Norman Finkelstein; Verso: 160 pp., $23

November 05, 2000|ADAM BRESNICK | Adam Bresnick writes for several publications, including the (London) Times Literary Supplement

Holocaust historiography has reached a strange moment in the United States. On the one hand, with the popular success of such films as "Schindler's List" and "Life Is Beautiful" and the establishment of the American Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., the fact of Hitler's campaign of industrial murder against the Jews is well established in the minds of most Americans. On the other hand, Holocaust deniers continue to peddle pernicious untruths with the help of the Internet, which allows for the endless exfoliation of misinformation and raw anti-Semitism. In the wake of Peter Novick's scrupulously researched 1999 study, "The Holocaust in American Life," debate rages about the significance of the Nazi genocide for contemporary American culture and, more particularly, for American Jews. How has the Holocaust functioned in American political discourse? Was the Holocaust, as Elie Wiesel and others have argued, a unique event in human history, the summa of human evil? Or must it be treated as one among other examples of unimaginable human cruelty, such as the Armenian, Cambodian and Rwandan catastrophes? Given the mainstreaming of the Holocaust, has there arisen, as Norman Finkelstein scandalously claims, a "Holocaust Industry" that exploits the memory of Auschwitz for ideological reasons? So it is that we find ourselves in a curious spot, for despite the relentless archival work of historians, the facts of the Holocaust must be reiterated against the claims of the deniers, just as the significance of these facts remains a matter of apparently endless contention.

Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman's "Denying History" shows in convincing detail how Holocaust deniers wrest sinister untruths from the documentary evidence of the Nazi extermination campaign against the Jews. Holocaust denial propounds three phony claims: that the number of Jews who perished in the camps was far less than the currently accepted 6 million, that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau and that Hitler did not intentionally set out to exterminate European Jewry. Against these claims, Shermer and Grobman's book affirms that the Holocaust, which they define as "the systematic bureaucratically administered destruction by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War of an estimated six million Jews based on racial ideology," is a demonstrable historical event. The book presents the controversies of Holocaust denial as well as the leading figures in the movement, like David Irving and Robert Faurisson, and it marshals a formidable amount of empirical evidence for Hitler's Final Solution. Equally important, Shermer and Grobman offer an account of history as "practical hermeneutics" for, as they see it, any historian worthy of the name must test his theories against the evidence and interpretations at hand to produce more and more accurate accounts of past events. In addition to hoisting Holocaust deniers on their own petard, Shermer and Grobman defend the honor of historiography from the depredations of relativism.

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