Why 'Revisionism' Isn't

an essay by Gord McFee

Introduction

This essay describes, from a methodological perspective, some of the inherent flaws in the "revisionist" 1 approach to the history of the Holocaust. It is not intended as a polemic, nor does it attempt to ascribe motives. Rather, it seeks to explain the fundamental error in the "revisionist" approach, as well as why that approach of necessity leaves no other choice.

It concludes that "revisionism" is a misnomer because the facts do not accord with the position it puts forward and, more importantly, its methodology reverses the appropriate approach to historical investigation.

What Is the Historical Method?

History is the recorded narrative of past events, especially those concerning a particular period, nation, individual, etc. It recounts events with careful attention to their importance, their mutual relations, their causes and consequences, selecting and grouping events on the ground of their interest or importance. 2 It can be seen from this that history acknowledges the existence of events and facts and seeks to understand how they came about, what they resulted in, how they are interconnected and what they mean.

The distinctions need to be made among facts, analysis and interpretation. Facts are demonstrably empirical events whose occurrence can be proven using evidentiary methods. Analysis is the method of determining or describing the nature of a thing by resolving it into its parts. Interpretation is the attempt to give the meaning of something. It follows that facts lead to analysis which leads to interpretation. And it follows that each step in the process is more subjective than the preceding step.

In this context, history is inductive in its methodology, in that it accumulates the facts, tries to determine their nature and their connectivities and then attempts to weave them into an understandable and meaningful mosaic.

What is Legitimate Historical Revisionism?

On its basic level, revisionism is nothing more than than the advocacy of revision, which in itself is the act of revising, or modifying something that already exists. Applied to history, it means that historians challenge the accepted version of the causes or consequences of historical events. As such, it is an accepted and important part of historical endeavour for it serves the dual purpose of constantly re-examining the past while also improving our understanding of it. Indeed, if one accepts that history attempts to help us better understand today by better understanding how we got here, revisionism is essential.

Three examples of legitimate historical revisionism should suffice to illustrate this:

  1. A.J.P. Taylor has applied a very new interpretation to the events leading up to the Second World War. He minimizes Hitler's role in those events - the Anschluß with Austria, the annexation of the Sudetenland, the Danzig crisis, the role of the Allies, appeasement - compared to the standard interpretation, while portraying Nazi Germany as much less centralized and monolithic than the norm. 3

  2. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has challenged virtually all the usual interpretations of the reasons for the complicity of many Germans in the perpetration of the Holocaust, and has posited that ordinary Germans willingly involved themselves because of the existence of a deep-rooted, eliminationist antisemitism in Germans of that era. He downplays, if not outright dismisses, the influence of Hitler and the Nazi Party. 4

  3. German historian Christian Gerlach has interpreted a diary entry by Joseph Goebbels and a newly discovered one from Heinrich Himmler to mean that the date of the decision by Hitler to exterminate the Jews is in December 1941 rather than late spring or early summer as most have till now believed. 5

What Do "Revisionists" Do?

"Revisionists" depart from the conclusion that the Holocaust did not occur and work backwards through the facts to adapt them to that preordained conclusion. Put another way, they reverse the proper methodology described above, thus turning the proper historical method of investigation and analysis on its head. That is not to say that historians never depart from a preconceived or desired result; they often do. But in adhering rigorously to the correct methodology, they accept that the result of their investigation may not be what they envisaged at the beginning. They are prepared to adapt their theories to that reality. Indeed, they are often required to revise their conclusions based on the facts. To put it tritely, "revisionists" revise the facts based on their conclusion.

Since "revisionists" depart from the conclusion that the Holocaust did not happen, i.e., they deny its existence, they are often called "deniers". Rather than analyze historical events, facts, their causes and consequences, and their interactions with other events, they defend a conclusion, whether or not the facts support it.

Why they do this is not the subject of this piece, but a few examples of the distortions, evasions and denials that it forces on them will illustrate how intellectually dishonest it is. And it should be remembered that they are forced on them, since "revisionists" are denying a historical occurrence, then distorting the facts into accord with that denial.

The Conspiracy Theory

Since the facts are not in accord with the "revisionist" conclusion, they must find an all-encompassing way to dismiss them. This is not a simple task, since the facts converge in the result that the Nazis had a plan to exterminate European Jewry, succeeded in large part in accomplishing it, and left behind multitudinous evidence of the attempt. 6

Hence, "revisionists" must argue that there is a conspiracy to fabricate all that evidence - a conspiracy that must have begun its work before the end of the war - and one that continues to this day. "Organized Jewry" or several variants on "Zionists" are at the root of this conspiracy. The conspiracy theory manifests itself in the following contrived positions:

Falsus in Uno, Falsus in Omnibus

Since, as this list shows, the amount of empirical evidence for the Holocaust is so overwhelming, the "revisionists" must throw in another dismissal trick. This has been called the "falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus" condition (one thing mistaken equals all things mistaken). It means, for example, that if any single piece of survivor evidence can be shown to be wrong, all survivor evidence is wrong and is to be dismissed. If any Nazi official lied about an aspect of the Holocaust (on-topic or not), all Nazi officials lied, and anything Nazis said after the war is dismissed. If any Nazi can be shown to have been tortured or mistreated, they all were and anything they said is invalid.

Conclusion

"Revisionism" is obliged to deviate from the standard methodology of historical pursuit because it seeks to mold facts to fit a preconceived result, it denies events that have been objectively and empirically proved to have occurred, and because it works backward from the conclusion to the facts, thus necessitating the distortion and manipulation of those facts where they differ from the preordained conclusion (which they almost always do). In short, "revisionism" denies something that demonstrably happened, through methodological dishonesty.

Its ethical dishonesty and antisemitic motivation are topics for another day.


Notes

  1. The quotes around "revisionists" are not sneer quotes. They indicate that methodologically "revisionists" are not what they claim to be. This is explained in detail in the body of the essay.

  2. Funk & Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of the English Language, Volume 1, New York, 1973, p. 599.

  3. A.J.P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1964.

  4. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996.

  5. Die Zeit, edition of January 9, 1998. His findings are reported in Zeitschrift Werkstatt Geschichte, Heft 18/1997.

  6. See inter alia Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews; Gilbert, The Holocaust; Yahil, The Holocaust; Dawidowicz, The War Against the European Jews 1933-1945; Breitman, The Architect of Genocide; Less, Eichmann Interrogated; Fleming, Hitler and the Final Solution; Broszat et al., Anatomie des SS-Staates; and many more.


Suggested further reading: Pierre Vidal-Naquet's A Paper Eichmann: Anatomy of a Lie, in particular part 4, On the Revisionist Method.

Gordon McFee received his Master's degree in 1973, from the University of New Brunswick, Canada, and Albert Ludwigs Universität, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany (split studies), in history and German.