Musings on the 60th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz: How I discovered Holocaust denial
They do not want to do it because it would show that at Auschwitz Nazis were conducting ETHICAL medicine and they want to keep the myths of the Holocaust alive!
They do not want to do it because it would show that at Auschwitz Nazis were conducting ETHICAL medicine and they want to keep the myths of the Holocaust alive!
"Ethical" medicine? At Auschwitz-Birkenau? Could he possibly be referring to the same Auschwitz where well over 1 million people had been killed either by gassing, starvation, disease, or even twisted "medical" experiments? The same Auschwitz, where untold thousands were subjected to starvation, overwork, and disease, with the intent of getting as much work as possible out of them before they died, while expending as little as possible in the way of food and other resources?
"Ethical medicine"? At Auschwitz, the very place where doctors--my profession, to our eternal shame!--did not merely passively acquiesce to the horrors of the camp. No, physicians were integral cogs in the machinery of death. At Auschwitz, doctors, who had taken an oath to preserve life, greeted each new transport of Jews and other prisoners and oversaw the brutal process of selection. They would take a perfunctory look at each new inmate and immediately decide his fate based on how "healthy"--and thus able to work--he appeared. These doctors directed babies, children, the old, the sick, and infirm to one line leading straight to the gas chambers at Birkenau and the young and healthy to another line leading to the camp. Those who were chosen for the concentration camp (Auschwitz) would be subjected to brutal overwork and starvation until they either succumbed or became too debilitated to work and thus candidates for the gas chambers. No doubt some of them came to envy those who went straight to the gas.
"Ethical medicine"? I had to remind myself that this was the very same place where doctors like Josef Mengele and like-minded doctors (Drs. Weber, Schumann, Wirth, and Kremer) performed cruel and scientifically useless experiments on the hapless prisoners, examples of which included (among many others):
- Subjecting prisoners to low pressure chambers designed to simulate high altitude until they developed pulmonary edema and died
- Immersing prisoners in ice-cold water to simulate the conditions that downed Nazi pilots encountered in the North Sea
- Irradiating women's pelvises in order to sterilize them, leading to horrific complications of radiation enteritis, leading to bowel obstructions and fistulae
- Killing and dissecting of prisoners for anatomic experiments to determine the effects of starvation and the "biologic basis" of racial differences
- Injecting various chemicals into prisoner's eyes to change their color (this was one of Dr. Mengele's special interests, along with his studies of twins), leading to infection and sometimes blindness
- Performed "euthanasia" of ill patients by direct injection of phenol into their hearts (because injecting it into peripheral veins took too long to kill the prisoner)
Sixty years ago today, the Red Army entered Auschwitz-Birkenau, liberating it from the Nazis and at the same time revealing for the world to see the dark heart of the Holocaust, the camp that has come to symbolize the Nazis' homicidal hatred and fear of the Jews. Only around 7,000 thousand pathetic souls remained, a mere fraction of the number that used to be imprisoned there, all starving, many diseased, many dying. The Soviets also discovered hundreds of thousands of women's coats and dresses and men's suits, and tons of human hair; that, and piles upon piles of rotting corpses. Over the month of January, seeing the rapid advance of the Soviet Army west through Poland, the SS at Auschwitz-Birkenau had come to realize that the war was lost and the Soviets would soon be at their very gates. They had scrambled to hide the evidence of their crimes and escape to Germany. They had burned files and destroyed the gas chambers. Nine days before, they had begun removing as many prisoners as they could, forcing them to march west, to Germany and to other camps. Tens of thousands of prisoners were forced to march on foot in brutal winter weather, without adequate clothing, food, or shelter. Those who were too weak to march or who committed any infraction during the forced march were shot and left at the side of the road. Those not taken on the march were left to die. Seven days earlier, guards shot 4,200 of the remaining camp survivors.
As I thought about what to write today, it occurred to me that, although I have written about my interest in the Holocaust and Holocaust denial right from the blog's beginning (and again more recently), I had not yet written about how that interest began. Today, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the epicenter of the Holocaust, Auschwitz-Birkenau, is the perfect day to do so. You may think the example I described above is extreme, and so it is. However, sadly, the beliefs of many Holocaust deniers are not all that far removed from a belief in the "ethical medicine" of Auschwitz. I first learned that nearly eight years ago.
The year was 1997. I had recently rediscovered the joys of the mass of online squabbling that is known as Usenet after an absence of four years, during which time the rigors of residency had kept me from any online activity more involved than perfunctory responses to e-mail. While perusing the political newsgroups, I had come across a rather bizarre post referring to the "Holohoax," which had been crossposted to several other newsgroups, including alt.revisionism. I didn't know it at the time, but alt.revisionism is the newsgroup dedicated to the discussion of Holocaust "revisionism" (which, in actuality, is almost always Holocaust denial). I lurked there for several weeks, hardly believing what I was reading. Over that time, I learned some of the techniques deniers used to downplay the Holocaust, deflect blame from its perpetrators, or portray "exaggeration" of the Holocaust as a Jewish plot. I also learned that, without exception (at least, without any exception I've yet seen), Holocaust denial derived from anti-Semitism and/or an admiration for the fascist regime of Adolf Hitler.
My move from lurking to more active involvement in debunking Holocaust denial started, oddly enough, with an admittedly arrogant eagerness to flaunt my medical knowledge. I did not know it at the time, but this precipitous leap into a discussion thread full of Holocaust denial was the beginning of my odyssey. A man who posted under the name Joe Pawlikowski, claiming to represent a group called the Polish Historical Society, had been making the claim that all the dead at Auschwitz were due not to intentional killing, to the gas chambers, but rather to starvation and diarrhea. I had recently learned that this was a standard canard of Holocaust deniers. Not wanting to admit that the Nazis had indeed intentionally sent millions to the gas chambers, Holocaust deniers will concede that there were thousands upon thousands dead in the camps, but will then claim the deaths were due to starvation and disease, not to intentional killing or gassing. They would then claim that the starvation was due to disruption of the supply lines by Allied bombing (never mind that the guards and the people in the nearby towns showed no evidence of deprivation when the Soviets arrived and that it was the explicit policy in the camps to underfeed the inmates and get as much work as possible out of them before they died of starvation). The specific bizarre claims that Pawlikowski was making, to my mind, demanded medical debunking, and, in my hubris, I thought that I could provide knowledge that none of the other debunkers of Holocaust denial could.
What were those claims? Besides the standard claims I mentioned above, which were actually better debunked by those more knowledgeable in Holocaust history than I, Pawlikowski claimed (spelling errors left intact to give you the full flavor of his ranting):
If an occasional prisoner developed oncotic edema (because SS administration was selling meat on the black market), while overfed them with patatos, they would immediately pull off the prisoner from the work detail and send him/her to Lazaret where he/she would be FORCED to drink one gallon of milk (4L) over the next two days and on the third day such survivors reported that they were ready for work with no trace of edema.
None of these arguments affected Pawlikowski in the least. The argument went back and forth over several days. I calmly stated the medical facts that made his claims ridiculous. He then shifted gears, and the discussion moved towards typhus and his claims that typhus (which he seemed to be confusing with typhoid), not gas chambers, had caused most of the deaths. In Pawlikowski's world, there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the crematoria there existed only for hygienic purposes, to dispose of corpses and prevent the spread of epidemic disease. His responses got longer and longer. And, then, buried in one of his rants:
They do not want to do it because it would show that at Auschwitz Nazis were conducting ETHICAL medicine and they want to keep the myths of the Holocaust alive!At that point, I hit the wall. I remember going off on him. I remember going on and on about the crimes committed by doctors at Auschwitz. He started harping on my name, asking me insistently if I were Jewish. Eventually I gave up. There was no point. A few weeks later, he reappeared. He even e-mailed me. I made the mistake of replying. He posted my e-mail to Usenet, teaching me an important lesson: Never reply to a Holocaust denier with anything I do not wish to be publicized. I even gave him the opportunity to renounce his previous claim that the Nazis practiced "ethical" medicine. His response:
I confirm that Nazis practiced ethical medicine at Auschwitz. I repeat that stories about Mengele are fantasmagoric.But enough of Pawlikowski. Even now, thinking about him disgusts me.
Over the next seven years, I made hundreds, perhaps thousands, of posts to alt.revisionism. I learned a great deal about the Holocaust. I learned about how Holocaust deniers misrepresent legitimate debates among historians over the origins and evolution of the Holocaust as "proof" that there was never a plan to exterminate European Jewry. They would claim that there was never a written order from Hitler to exterminate the Jews, neglecting the fact that Hitler was well known to avoid giving written orders, preferring to make his wishes known to his henchmen and let them compete with each other to carry his wishes out and win his favor. I learned the difference between genuine historical revisionism (a legitimate pursuit of historians, who reexamine history in light of new evidence or reinterpretation of old evidence to come to new conclusions about it) and Holocaust denial, which is not, although Holocaust deniers like to call themselves "revisionists" in order to falsely claim the mantle of academic rigor. Although I did not believe it at first, over time I also reluctantly came to the conclusion that every Holocaust denier is an anti-Semite at heart and that the real purpose of Holocaust revisionism is to "make National Socialism an acceptable political alternative again."
Eventually, my crude efforts drew the attention of a like-minded group of people who were doing the same, most of whom are much more knowledgeable than I. I found out about how much some of them had sacrificed for their efforts. Harry Mazal, for instance, makes great sacrifices in time and money to maintain the Holocaust History Project, even in the face of distributed denial of service attacks, and Ken McVay runs the other premier Holocaust education site, Nizkor. One woman in particular, Sara Salzman, suffered serious harassment over several years as a result of her efforts. Her case was the subject of a Hatewatch report, and has been discussed at international meetings on online hate. In time, I suffered a very mild version of what they suffered, when my name was circulated around Usenet as part a list of others who combat Holocaust denial falsely labeled as pedophiles (a standard smear). Fortunately, nothing has ever come of it (although that list still resurfaces from time to time, even years later, a testament to the longevity of Internet smears.) My paltry efforts and sacrifices pale in comparison to theirs.
As I reflect upon the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the horrors that occurred there over nearly five years, I now realize that it was this initial experience with Holocaust denial that sparked my overall interest in rationalism and skepticism, leading me to do my small part to combat the pseudohistory that is Holocaust denial. The offensiveness of a group of people seeking to deny or minimize the deaths of 6,000,000 Jews and millions of others in order to make the world conform to their anti-Semitism or to whitewash the ideology that committed those murders was the spark that shocked me from my complacency. Before that encounter, I had little interest in promoting evidence-based thinking outside of my own surgical practice and laboratory. I rarely openly questioned pseudohistorical or pseudoscientific claims, even though privately I may have considered them a load of garbage. I now realize that pseudoscience and pseudohistory can contribute to making such atrocities possible, particularly when they fused to despicable ideological belief systems like Nazi-ism. For example, the "science" of racial hygiene (in actuality a perversion of Darwin's theory) touted by Nazi scientists and doctors, served to justify their exaggeration and misrepresentation of racial differences and the classification of races as "superior" or "inferior." Coupled to racial hygiene and pseudohistory (the myth of the "stab-in-the-back" by Communists and Jews leading to Germany's defeat in World War I, of a "time of greatness" 50 years earlier during Bismarck's reign, and of a pan-Aryan culture that needed to be reunited and protected from the Jews), the romantic evocation of Volk and the belief that a lost time of greatness could be reclaimed if certain enemies were defeated, provided a potent ideological brew that the Nazis used to justify their genocidal policies: the exclusion of Jews from political life (the Nuremberg Laws); the relentless expansionism of the Reich in search of Lebensraum in the East; the gassing of the mentally ill and retarded ("life unworthy of life" or "worthless eaters," as Nazi propaganda characterized them); the forcible expulsion of Jews (often compared by Nazi propaganda to "bacilli" or "cancers" that must be cut out) from territory controlled by the Reich; and their later conclusion that expulsion wasn't enough, that they must be exterminated; and, finally, the construction of camps in which to do it, like Auschwitz.
So, today, as memorials to the murdered are held and speeches made, I urge everyone to take a moment and reflect upon the evil that humans are capable of. But, more importantly, reflect upon what each of us might do to prevent it from happening again, particularly since the march of time will soon lead to the disappearance of those who were there, still remember, and can remind us of what happened. One way that I choose to honor the memory of the dead is by doing what little I can to refute those who would, for their own racist or ideological reasons, deny the crimes of those who killed them. To that end, from time to time, I will post articles here refuting specific distortions and lies of Holocaust deniers and doing my small part to help out the Holocaust History Project. In the grand scheme of things, it is not that much. But it is what I can do.
ADDENDUM (01/31/05): Deborah Lipstadt, Ph.D., Director of the Rabbi Donal A. Tam Institute of Jewish Studies and Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University, has written an excellent online primer on some of the more common techniques of Holocaust denial. I urge you to read it.