Crowell Samuel - The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes

Author : Crowell Samuel
Title : The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes An Attempt at a Literary Analysis of the Holocaust Gassing Claim
Year : 1999

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Introduction. A COMMON BELIEF is that in World War Two the National Socialist government of Germany carried out a secret policy of mass exterminations, chiefly using extermination gas chambers. The policy is said to have been ordered by Adolf Hitler, and involved the gassing of millions of human beings, who subsequently were burned either in crematoria or in huge pits so that scarcely a trace of their bodies remained. The claim of mass gas extermination has been questioned ever since the late 1940's, but only by a few people, and very much on the fringe of public discourse.2 In the early 1970's several new critics of the gas extermination claim emerged, and over the past two decades they have been joined by many others, so that now there are at least several dozen who have written on the subject.3 These researchers consider themselves heir to the tradition of those historians who sought in the 1920's to revise, and de-politicize, our understanding of the First World War, and so consider themselves historical revisionists. But the skepticism of these researchers towards mass gassing is usually accompanied by a desire to reevaluate the Holocaust in its entirety, and as a result they are more normally called "Holocaust revisionists" or "Holocaust deniers".4 The response of traditional historiography to the challenge of the revisionists has not been what one would expect. Normally, when someone challenges a historical orthodoxy, a minute analysis of the material and documentary record ensues, and the record is correspondingly revised. But nothing of the sort has happened here: instead, the arguments of the revisionists have been ignored and they have been reviled.5 In recent years, the expression of revisionist skepticism has been criminalized in several European countries, leading to heavy fines and prison terms, particularly in Germany and France.6 In Canada, two major trials have been held with the intention of silencing a gas chamber critic.7 Most recently the Prime Minister of Great Britain, during his candidacy, repeatedly promised to ban revisionist writings about the Holocaust.8 The further erosion of free speech on this matter must be considered intolerable to anyone who takes the intellectual life seriously. Therefore the purpose of this essay will be to deliberately review the gassing claim, with the object, not to prove that gassings did or did not take place, but rather to investigate whether there is a plausible basis for revisionist doubt. If we find that the traditional gassing narrative contains sufficient errors or lacunae to justify doubt, then we must allow doubt. On the other hand, if we find that the traditional gassing narrative has an irrefutable documentary or material base, then we must note this also. The result should be, in the first case, due recognition of revisionist contributions to the ongoing process of modern historiography, or, in the second case, a further marginalization of revisionist thinking, which should render their influence harmless and thus unobjectionable. But in any case we cannot continue the current situation where revisionists are dismissed as not serious even while many of them are punished with quite serious fines and prison terms. The method we shall use is largely determined by the inherent problems of the subject, specifically the problems concerning text and source criticism. Even if charitably inclined, anyone with minimal historical training cannot fail to notice how traditional Holocaust scholars take a generally uncritical, selective, and anachronistic position with regards to their evidence. From a mass of materials that support, or seem to support, their position, they simply select heavily edited excerpts here and there.9 Rarely is an attempt made to explain the theoretical underpinnings of the selection or verification process for testimonies or affidavits. Rarer still are attempts to place the frequently ambiguous evidence in a wider documentary context. When the original sources contain errors or data inconsistent with the traditional interpretation, no attempt is made to explain the source or significance of these errors and inconsistencies. Finally, traditional Holocaust scholars pay no attention to the chronological evolution or even the circumstances of gassing claims, even though it should be obvious that earlier statements, widely publicized, have a strong potential for influencing later permutations of a claim. This last is a particularly glaring omission, since the vast majority of Holocaust evidence is gleaned from testimonial or affidavit narratives. In short, the overall impression created by the traditional school's method is one of simply selecting data that supports what everyone already knows. The revisionist approach has its own strengths and weaknesses. Its greatest strength has been its willingness to subject the standard evidentiary texts to rigorous criticism. But even here, there has been a tendency to confuse debunking with historical explanation. It is not enough to say that this or that affidavit contains several errors and is therefore suspect, nor, for that matter, is it enough to carry out forensic studies and show the extreme unlikelihood of specific gassing claims. There have been enormous contributions in this latter area in the past decade, and the researches of Faurisson, Berg, Rudolf and Mattogno have gone a long way to define the physical limits against which testimonies and affidavits must be tested.10 Nevertheless, to show with a fair degree of probability that the mass gassings were impossible is not the same thing as explaining why everyone believes they took place. Therefore we begin at the beginning with the simple proposition that the gassing claims are either true or not true. If they are true, then the historian should be able to establish how the claims came to be known, and at what point the fugitive claims of wartime crossed the threshold of fact. On the other hand, if the claims are false it should be possible to explain how they emerged, how they were constituted, and why they were believed. In short, the problem requires a chronological method. In general the tendency in most writings on the Holocaust has been to ignore the difference between rumor and fact: the traditional school considers all rumors fact, the revisionists consider all facts rumor.11 It is precisely at this juncture, then, that we seem to have a promising point of departure, since all parties, traditional or revisionist, agree that the gassing claims began as vague, anonymous, and unverifiable reports, that is, as rumors. Fact is a reflection of empirical reality; but rumor expresses a reality all its own, however difficult it is to define, since the real world of rumor is simply that world of unspoken assumptions, associations, and projections that characterize a human culture at a specific moment of historic time. Attempts to describe the parameters and nature of that unspoken world, which in some ways is more real than the real world, at least in terms of determining our perception and our judgment, has been a main project among intellectual historians and literary critics at least since the early 1960's. By way of a simple example: in 1976 a literary detective named Samuel Rosenberg wrote a book entitled Naked is the Best Disguise: The Death and Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes. Rosenberg closely analyzed the Holmes stories in order to argue that Conan Doyle was expressing in his work a great number of late Victorian concerns: Evolution, Nietzsche's theories, German secret societies and bellicose nationalism, the White Man's Burden, and so forth. While we can debate his success is mapping out Conan Doyle's specific intellectual concerns, his book did succeed in placing the stories firmly within a specific cultural context, thus helping to explain their content. We want to pursue a similar path here, and hence propose a literary analysis in a chronological format. That is, while skeptical of the gassing claims, we are not setting as our primary objective to prove or disprove any specific gassing claim. Instead we will have a simple narration of the gassing claims, from the spring of 1942 through the end of the Nuremberg and Auschwitz Trials in 1947. The analysis shall be "literary" because it will focus on the themes, motifs, tropes, and story elements that comprise the gassing claims. To put it another way, the gassing claims will be laid out, viewed as narratives or as "texts", arranged in order, and analyzed separately and in combination. Literary analyses usually involve several different steps. One is simply the breakdown of a text into its parts along with a discussion of these. In the present case this will involve the isolation and tracking of some of the gassing claim story elements. A second step involves a textual analysis, in which the text is arrayed with similar texts that may have influenced it or which may have been influenced by it. Precisely for this reason, judgment on the veracity of claims will be suspended, in favor of investigating whether a given narrative shows textual links with prior or later texts. A third approach places the text in a broader social and cultural context, in order to see how it relates to, or expresses, its culture. In the present case the emerging story elements will be placed in the context of known historical and cultural crosscurrents, most of which have been undervalued or ignored by traditional historians of this subject. By putting these materials in context, it will be possible to see the extent to which the gassing claim was, or was not, peculiar to its time. After discussing the various story elements of the emerging gassing claim three facts should become clear. First, the mass gassing narratives have a strong family resemblance among them and even to texts that predated the supposed gas exterminations by 20 years or more. Second, the unique characteristics of the gassing process can be traced, in the broader context of European social and cultural history, to completely ordinary procedures, albeit procedures which were the source of significant social and cultural anxiety. Finally, it should become plain that there is no documentary or material evidence that unambiguously supports the mass gassing claim: those documents that are said to bear even remotely on the gassing claim are, in context, completely benign, and for the most part refer back to the anxiety-producing procedures just discussed. These conclusions will not prove that there were no mass gassings. They will, however, vindicate revisionist doubt. It will of course be impossible to indefinitely withhold a final judgment on the source or character of the gassing claims. But we can take guidance from two cautionary remarks of Conan Doyle's Baker Street sage. "How often have I said to you that when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?" said Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in The Sign of Four. To be sure, the historian must always be willing to face uncomfortable truths. "I should have more faith," Holmes remarked in A Study in Scarlet, "I ought to know by this time that when a fact appears opposed to a long train of deductions it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretation." Indeed, it is precisely to the reasonable possibility of "some other interpretation" that all historical investigation must be dedicated. Yet no one can authoritatively deny the existence of something that most everyone else accepts as true. Therefore categorical denials of mass gassing are not possible. One can, however, try to explain how the gassing claim could have arisen quite naturally given the characteristics and concerns of early 20th Century social and cultural life. It will be shown that the gassing claim, as a form of the more general extermination claim, comprises elements of specific concern to East European Jews since the early 19th Century. It will also be shown that the traditional extermination scenario, featuring a shower-gas-burning sequence, is rooted in profound European and American concerns over disease and disease prevention, the use of poison gas and other mysterious weapons of mass destruction, and finally anxiety and fear over the recent reappearance of cremation as a means of disposal of the dead. In short, it will be possible to see that the generation of a delusion of mass gas extermination did not require a conspiracy, or a hoax, nor much conscious effort at all, but only a social and cultural climate that would facilitate the generation of such claims, at a time of war, hatred, and social anomie. We will see that such claims, facilitated here and there by a little helpful fraud, but above all by a simple willingness to believe the worst about one's enemies, would allow these rumors to be stated as fact and become themselves part of that social and cultural landscape of which we are only halfconsciously aware. A few caveats are probably in order. Many people still feel that to question the mass gassing claim, or for that matter, any other aspect of the Holocaust, is tantamount to dismissing the enormous suffering and loss of life experienced by the Jewish people in World War Two, and that it is even "wicked" to pose questions that may cause survivors any further suffering.12 As to the first point, it is only because of the emphases of recent historiography that the mass gassing claim has come to be so exclusively associated with the Jewish people and the Holocaust. In 1945, it was commonly claimed that ten million or more had been exterminated at the same half dozen camps where today three million Jews alone are said to have been gassed,13 the implication is clear that at the time it was believed that more non-Jews than Jews had in fact been exterminated with poison gas.14 Moreover, mass gassing has been reconstructed as having been applied first to insane and disabled non-Jewish Germans in the course of the Euthanasia campaign. Therefore, skepticism of the mass gassing claim intersects, but does not embrace, the totality of the Holocaust. As to the second point: the argument that we must spare the feelings of survivors is essentially an appeal to compassion. For many years, we were swayed, and even troubled, by this argument, but we have seen in recent times that this compassion has been invoked to justify persecution and censorship. So now the value of compassion has been placed at odds to the free reason of the individual. But in fact all compassion, and all human action, can only flow from the reasoned choice of free human beings. We conclude, therefore, that the most positive end is served by insisting on the right of free people to speak their minds. ...

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