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Van Pelt was an expert witness for the defence in the 2000 Libel Action DJC Irving v Penguin Books Ltd and Deborah Lipstadt
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Robert Jan van Pelt: The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial

Indiana UP, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 2002

Reviewed by "Samuel Crowell" (pseudonym, an academic in Prennsylvania)

1. Introduction

Van PeltWhen the British historian David Irving brought Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books to court for libel in early 2000, the defense submitted a number of expert opinions by historians in order to buttress the claim that Irving was a "Holocaust denier." Christopher Browning wrote a brief but very professional discussion of the Reinhardt camps, and Robert Jan van Pelt, of the University of Canada at Waterloo, contributed a huge and diffuse opus concerning the Auschwitz concentration camp. The present book is a revised version of that text.

It must be admitted that in the revision Professor van Pelt's book has been much improved. Gone are the "geometric progressions" of epistemology, gone too are the quotations from "Penguin Island" and "Alice and Wonderland" that gave us an Auschwitz embellished with whimsy. The most famous passages, concerning the "moral certainty" of his opinion, along with the assertion that the holes in the roof of the basement of Crematorium II had been filled in prior to being blown up, are now hard to find.

Nevertheless, while we might point to various changes in the successive drafts, it must be granted that this is an important book. First, because this book represents the first serious attempt to discuss the arguments of revisionists, and second, because the arguments, while incomplete, are thorough, handled with civility, and touch upon the writings of a number of authors, including Faurisson, Butz, Staeglich, Rudolf, and even myself. Indeed, the only significant omission is Carlo Mattogno, perhaps due to the fact that Mattogno's authoritative analyses of crematoria operation are not easily refuted.

Since van Pelt indicates that he structured his original report on the basis of my "Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes", (p. 138) and since that structure is largely intact, I will take the opportunity to phrase my review of van Pelt's book in terms of the issues of particular importance to me, recognizing that others will find their own points of departure.


2. Background

Notwithstanding the fact that van Pelt considers my work to have "raised negationist discourse to a new level" (140), it must be said at the outset that the aim of my longish essay was not by any means to offer a comprehensive rebuttal of the mass gassing claim, but rather merely provide a synoptic review of the problem.

In fact, the main purpose "The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes" was to attempt to write a brief polemic that would attempt to show that the revisionist interpretation was possible, and since possible, an unworthy candidate for censorship. Indeed, developing strategies for overcoming the taboo surrounding the Holocaust as well as the existing censorship laws has been the unspoken hallmark of all my revisionist writings.

Although "Sherlock" began as a brief polemic, I can accept the charge that it became more substantial as it grew in size, although errors still remain. Even so, while it may be a decent survey of the problem, it makes no claims to comprehensiveness and cannot be legitimately criticized on that account. Indeed, many features still indicate its primarily polemical and rhetorical origin. Its fanciful title was chosen to attract a British audience, at a time when censorship beckoned there. It was deliberately plotted to surprise the reader. And it was constructed to provide support to the two main revisionist conceptions that must be true if there were no homicidal gassings in World War Two. First, that the manifold testimonies can be shown to be interconnected and to go back to rumors and propaganda, and second, that the documentary evidence that appears to discuss mass gassings is in fact about other things.

Hence, the two main parts of van Pelt's book depends on the issues of testimony and material evidence, and I will discuss each of these in turn.


3. Testimonies

The nature of the Holocaust gassing claim is unusual in that it is comprised of much testimonial evidence, and a rather small sheaf of documentary evidence that is suggestive but never explicit. That is the core problem.

The basic rule for evaluating testimonies, and indeed any historical evidence, is that it be as near as possible to the events described; it becomes distinctly less valuable the farther from the event. There are two main reasons for this: first, because there is a natural tendency to embroider and embellish memory, and, second, the possibility of cross-pollination increases with the passage of time.

Therefore, the first thing that has to be done in order to examine eyewitness claims concerning mass gassings is to arrange them chronologically. The next step requires the identification of some elements in the claims that might constitute evidence of such cross-pollination. I identified several, of which the shower-gas-burning sequence was the most pervasive.

The shower-gas-burning sequence is the core of the narrative: if it can be shown to reflect reality by other means, then the revisionists are wrong, and the point must be given. But if the claim does not reflect reality, the story must have evolved somehow, and then the question is where and by what means. Originally, I could think of two possible sources: disinfection procedures, which involved simultaneous gassings of things and showers for people, and the general anxiety from the 1930's concerning the possibilities of gas warfare. I was surprised to find in the course of my research that the pedigree for both sources stretched back to the beginning of the 20th century if not earlier.

However, if these might be the source of the stories, that did not solve the problem of dissemination. There were undoubtedly many rumors about gassings in Europe during World War Two, but one needed to cite specific contemporary evidence. On following this train of thought, I found several hints that suggested that mass gassing stories were widely reported and discussed throughout the war.

In fact, during the Irving trial, Eric A. Johnson published a book, "Nazi Terror", which indicated that he had successfully located the long lost BBC broadcast transcripts from the war years.

These, along with other contemporary evidence, proved conclusively that radio broadcasts concerning gassings were beamed back to Germany, Poland, and other parts of occupied Europe throughout the war beginning in the summer of 1942, and that rumors of gassings in general were rife from the fall of 1940.

In researching these ideas I was generally following by my own route a path that had been trailed by Butz, Faurisson, and Berg years ago. I had no pre-conceived theory of delusion, nor did I take Elaine Showalter as my inspiration, as van Pelt claims. On the contrary, I sought out Showalter near the end because I was looking for some contemporary discussion of hysterical symptoms that would match the drift of my own thoughts.

In any case such attributions of influence do not discount the basic idea: The priority of propaganda and rumor to any non-anonymous account of mass gassing simply means that we cannot exclude the possibility that all eyewitnesses subsequent are simply repeating the omnipresent rumor.

Naturally, this premise can be wrong. It may be that the eyewitnesses are entirely truthful, and that the disseminated propaganda and rumor reflected that truth. But in that case, first, one would have to prove by other means the veracity of the gassing claims in order to show that the rumors and propaganda did not cause the later accounts. Second, one would have to explain how the gassing program was purportedly carried out with stealth and cunning under the full glare of Allied publicity. In short, I concluded that the priority of rumor and propaganda, while not disproving the mass gassing claim, justifies revisionist skepticism.

Since this is my basic argument for evaluating testimony, van Pelt attempts to work around it. In the earlier version of his book, he claimed that I had failed to show any evidence of media influence, and specifically, radio broadcasts. However, I did reference some, and in the intervening three years since his original report was composed more has come to light, including Johnson's discovery, and including the second volume of Viktor Klemperer's wartime diary. In any case, van Pelt's challenge is no longer there.

Instead, van Pelt falls back on two other arguments. One, which was repeated from the original report, was that the Allies had no need to engage in propaganda because there was a willingness to fight, and a "resolve" that was not present in the First World War (134). In other words, the argument is that lying about one's enemy is directly correlative to the extent to which popular support is lacking for war. However, this argument strikes us as at once far too wide-reaching -- it is the kind of argument that would require a separate study to argue successfully -- and furthermore seems to stand the relationship of the two wars on their head. If anything, the first World War was fought with greater gusto and idealism by all the combatants, while the second was characterized more by resignation and a lack of enthusiasm throughout Europe, including in Nazi Germany.

Van Pelt's other argument involves the claim, repeated whenever a new testimony is introduced, that it "independently confirms" the content of someone else's testimony. But there is no evidence for the independence of these testimonies, only the assertion. Furthermore, the thesis of independent confirmation would require that the former inmates and German prisoners were not only oblivious to the news, broadcasts, and rumors circulating around them during the war, but even after the war, when such claims were universally trumpeted as evidence of the depravity of the Nazi regime. In addition, such a thesis would require that the postwar interrogators and judges were similarly oblivious to these reports and had absolutely no expectations in the course of their questionings.

Then we have to turn to the substance of the testimonies that van Pelt considers most accurate. In general, van Pelt's approach is to leave out the elements that tend to rebut a witness, or to explain such elements away. For example, when discussing the testimony of Ada Bimko, van Pelt's explanation of her notorious assertion that the poison gas at Auschwitz came in big round tanks is that Bimko misunderstood what she was shown. (234) Similarly, while discussing the diary entries of Dr. Kremer, and after discussing Faurisson's deconstruction of these texts, van Pelt makes the surprising assertion that if Dr. Kremer were alive, he would contradict Faurisson's reading. (290)

Even if we were to grant that van Pelt's explanations are possible, it should be clear that he is allowing a high degree of interpretative intervention into these texts. As a result, he cannot legitimately claim that less invasive alternative explanations are not possible.

Of course, anti-revisionists are quick to complain about revisionist techniques of text criticism. And these critics have a point: just because a witness makes unlikely claims elsewhere, or even appears to deliberately lie, that does not by itself mean that the witness is necessarily making things up when they speak of gassings. On the other hand, if a witness says untrue things, or, perhaps better to say, is deposed as having said untrue things, then the question arises as to the motivation of such false statements. The conclusion that one must then come to is that the testimony may be doubted.

No one can read the testimonies without concluding that something terrible was going on in these camps. To be frank, some of the testimonies van Pelt cites seem more probable than others, for example, the statements attributed to Kurt Aumeier, and the brief comments of Josef Klehr and Hans Muench in recent decades. But again, the revisionist challenge is whether, when evaluating testimonies on their own, one is entitled to doubt, because of the circumstances under which they were first generated. That proposition stands.


4. Documents

Of course, the eyewitness testimonies only have value if they can be correlated with the material and documentary reality of the camp. In this respect, revisionists have made important contributions in the past 25 years or so, based largely on Dr. Faurisson's on-site investigations, which in turn have led to the forensic studies of Leuchter, Rudolf, Carlo Mattogno, and many others. The importance of the revisionist work is that the testimonies can now be evaluated in terms of the limits of the actual physical layout of the camps, as well as the scientific limits of Zyklon B usage and crematoria operation. Hence, eyewitness testimonies that claim that the downstairs gas chambers were accessible to gigantic dump trucks, or which describe clouds of blue or yellow poison gas, or which maintain that the dimensions of the undressing room was the length of two football fields, can all be safely set aside as being based on hearsay, or imagination, but not on reality.

However, the other aspect of the material approach concerns the documentary record of the camp, as it pertains to the operation of the crematoria as "factories of death." In this respect, van Pelt relies largely on his by now well-known analyses of a few key documents. Thus: the "Vergasungskeller" note was actually written by Kirschneck for Bischoff's signature, Bischoff caught that Kirschneck had used a forbidden word and therefore underlined the word and sent it back to Kirschneck with his name written on it. Or: "Sonderbehandlung" in a document concerning electrical consumption must have had something to do with ventilating the gas chambers after a gassing, because "Sonderbehandlung" always means killing.

At this point I found myself becoming dissatisfied with Professor van Pelt's treatment, since his interpretations seemed superficial. With respect to the "Vergasungskeller" note, I published a monograph shortly after the Irving trial ("Bomb Shelters in Birkenau") that reproduced several documents with Kirschneck's name scrawled on the top. According to van Pelt, this must have meant that Kirschneck was continually being upbraided by his superiors, although of course the more likely explanation was that Kirschneck's name was simply written on his copies. As for the "simultaneous cremation and special treatment" in the electrician's memo, I can only repeat my argument that the alleged 20 minute ventilation time of the gas chamber would be meaningless within the time frame of a mass burning that would have taken at least two days. My dissatisfaction turned to disappointment when I encountered van Pelt's thoroughly revised discussion of bomb shelters.


5. Bomb shelters

Over the past five years I have written three long monographs on the subject of bomb shelters. The purpose of these articles has been to promote the idea that German civil defense features, including gastight doors with peepholes, are a sufficient explanation for at least some of these fixtures as found at Auschwitz and other concentration camps.

However, it may surprise Professor van Pelt to know that the issue of bomb shelters had no place in the original scheme of "Sherlock" and was raised separately for a very specific purpose, namely, to force the establishment to credit a revisionist contribution to Holocaust historiography. Thus, even here, I was pursuing an anti-censorship agenda: for if the establishment was forced to concede the point, then the drive for censorship would be defeated, since the interdependence of the two positions would have been demonstrated.

Indeed, I frankly expected in 1997 that the establishment and other revisionists would concede that the gastight doors with peepholes found at Auschwitz were bomb shelter doors, but that they were instead used for other purposes, say, disinfection chambers or homicidal gas chambers. That would have been fine, and then the discussion could have continued from there. Yet even this concession has not been forthcoming. Of course, recognizing the civil defense origin of these doors opens some other metaphorical doors as well, so perhaps this explains what I can only consider a most obtuse refusal to face reality.

Van Pelt's approach to the issue of bomb shelters is to be just as constrained as my revisionist critics. Thus, since the first document concerning the construction of dedicated bomb shelters comes only from November, 1943, there could not have been any provision for civil defense, or civil defense gastight fixtures, before then. In the same way, van Pelt follows my revisionist critics in arguing that evidence for bomb shelters in 1944 is completely irrelevant, since this comes a year after the crematoriums were constructed and equipped.

Yet I must say that these lines of argument are unnaturally refined. In the first place, van Pelt ignores the sizable amount of evidence that indicates an awareness and intention to implement civil air defense in existing buildings at Auschwitz and other points further east in Occupied Poland beginning in the summer of 1942. It is true that we do not have any document proving that the gas tight doors from the spring of 1943 were put in place to fulfill civil defense requirements. But we don't have any documents indicating that these doors were put in place to gas things or gas people either.

Furthermore, by ignoring the later documentation, van Pelt and my revisionist critics are able to ignore the fact that the gastight doors described from March, 1944, are indistinguishable from the doors installed at the crematoria the previous spring. Further, that these same doors, designed for the splinter trenches for the guards, the workers, and even the prisoners, are supposed to have been used for homicidal purposes not only simultaneously, but at the time when the floodtide of Auschwitz gas exterminations was supposed to have taken place.

There is another consequence that comes from ignoring the 1944 documentation: it shows that the crematorium in the base camp, during its air raid shelter conversion, was to be equipped with gastight shutters, 60 cm x 80 cm. The design of these shutters is identical to the wooden shutters found there by Pressac some years ago, and which he has claimed for Crematoriums IV and V. Pressac gave the measurements of their doors alone as 43 cm x 52 cm, corresponding to the specifications for the air raid shelter shutters, arguing that the original openings on the drawings were enlarged. Van Pelt, however, who describes handling the shutters, nevertheless persists in claiming that the shutters are 30 cm x 40 cm, that is, half the size of what they appear to be, and in flat contradiction to Pressac. He also omits the fact that according to the relevant work order they were made of sheet metal, rather than wood. I must confess my perplexity here.


6. Convergent remains

The balance of van Pelt's book turns on other types of evidence at his disposal which he claims converge on a gassing interpretation and cannot be explained otherwise. These include a discussion of cyanide traces, the resulting discussions between Rudolf and Green having rendered the point moot, since cyanide was widely used at the camp for non-homicidal purposes.

Van Pelt also devotes quite a bit of discussion to the "insertion devices" [Drahtnetzeinschiebe-Vorrichtungen] whereby the poison gas would have been introduced into the gas chambers. Yet these devices, whose existence is supported solely by postwar depositions, are nowhere to be found. In the same way, there is no trace of these objects either in the work orders or in any of the architectural drawings, except via a contentious reading of an inventory. Since these are the sole elements that would unambiguously point to the homicidal use of the crematoria basements, the absence of this evidence is quite important, even though by way of compensation van Pelt provides numerous drawings of what these things must have looked like. Nor, in promoting the existence of these complicated wire mesh contraptions for two of the crematoria, does van Pelt ever explain why there is no indication of there ever having been such devices in the two above-ground crematoria, which, according to van Pelt, were purpose built for killing.

The obverse of the claim for the wire-mesh insertion devices would be the traces of the holes in the roof of the basement in which van Pelt maintains a half million people were murdered. It was on this point that Irving famously challenged van Pelt in court. To this charge, van Pelt describes first the advice Sir Martin Gilbert over tea to change the subject (465), and second an amateur report of recent date that claims to have found three of the four holes. However, on this point, while van Pelt seems convinced a priori of the existence of the holes, his gestures on this topic seem diffident and less than authoritative.


7. Conclusions

Professor van Pelt wrote this book as a historian, but when he testified at the Irving trial, he spoke not merely as a historian but as a man, a Dutch Jew who lost several family members to Nazi persecution, and for whom testifying was a way to bear witness to their memory. The anguish of Van Pelt and the other members of the defense team also comes through from time to time in the pages of this book, as though revisionist criticism of the standard interpretation of what occurred at Auschwitz negates the cruelty and injustice of what the Jewish people experienced there. This attitude, in my opinion, should be respected by revisionists, because it is a very important part of how Jews regard the Nazi persecution, and I believe that a rapprochement between traditional and revisionist interpretations cannot succeed otherwise.

Regardless of its defects, I believe that van Pelt's book is deserving of some praise, even though it reaches conclusions that almost all revisionists will reject. This is due not only to his willingness to reject offensive nomenclature (thus, "negationist" in place of "denier") as well as ad hominem arguments, but also his willingness to look again at the evidence and debate the issues with the revisionists point by point. To be sure, as I have indicated, there are many points where I felt that van Pelt stopped short and could have gone much farther with the evidence available. But the truth will not come all at once, especially concerning events, whatever the facts and whatever the dimensions, are still a source of incalculable grief in the Jewish community.

In this respect I can accept the criticism for my temerity in recent times in advocating the revisionist position. But my modest efforts would not have been necessary if there had not been a foolish effort to suppress, by blacklisting, prison terms, and harassment, individuals who dared to offer an alternative version of Nazi history. After all, I had successfully avoided the topic for a period of 15 years, and if not for the taboo I probably never would have returned to it.

It is to be hoped that van Pelt's book will give rise to much comment, and that his various interpretations will be subjected to a variety of critical responses by revisionists. If these commentaries, in turn, are couched in an objective and collegial spirit, as van Pelt's book generally is, then we might anticipate further development in Professor van Pelt's thinking and writing as time goes on. In that case, at least, my original aim, so long frustrated, will have been achieved: for nothing serves as a greater bulwark to censorship than respectful dialogue.


Related files on this website:

Index to Van Pelt
Van Pelt testifies on oath Jan 25, 2000 that he has no plans to publish his Report as a book
Indiana University Press announcement of Van Pelt's new book
First section of Van Pelt's book, posted for research purposes only