What a holocaust denial taught me about history, collective memory, and archives

Still frame from Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999) © Universal Pictures

Still frame from Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999) © Universal Pictures

A colleague who worked as an archivist at the New York Public Library at the time of its release recently described to me the transformative effect that Ken Burns's The Civil War had on many laypeople's perceptions of the purpose of archives. Seeing the story told through sequences of primary documentary sources created by the combatants and first-hand witnesses apparently unlocked the doors to perception so effectively that it validated to them the whole enterprise of collecting, arranging, and describing these touchstones of collective memory in the first place.

I was surprised, but in fact I can remember my own epiphany about the role of archives in history and collective memory,  long before I considered any future role for myself in them, as an impressionable teenager watching Errol Morris's documentary film Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

Morris is taking his regular spin on the media's Lazy Susan right now because of the recent release of his newest film, The Unknown Known, about former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. At its center is the figurative blizzard of memos that Rumsfeld wrote during his tenure, the purposes that these documents might have served at the time that they were written, and their significance now as historical evidence of an especially peculiar kind. In this way, like so many of his films, The Unknown Known speaks to the very purpose of archives, and more specifically about the frequently problematic difference between knowing and remembering. The latter tension played an important role in Morris's breakout documentary The Thin Blue Line and reemerged throughout his career, in both the Oscar-winning The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure as well as his fantastic essays on photography, Believing is Seeing. But it's Mr. Death that I most often circle back to, and which I think most instructively crystallizes that tension for archivists in particular.

It does so in a manner both concrete and affective. In case you're lucky enough to never have witnessed them yourself, Laura Millar's 2003 Archivaria article "Touchstones: Considering the Relationship between Memory and Archives", introduces the revisionists who "seem to want to deny the legitimacy of, if not the actual existence of, the catastrophic events of World War II, by questioning the memories of survivors." Morris's film tells the story of one such man, Fred Leuchter, who sought to prove that there was no mass murder of European Jews during the war by way of his own failures to collect sufficiently empirical evidence from Auschwitz and other concentration camps of functional gassing facilities or residual cyanide.

In a pivotal sequence in the film, however, historian Robert Jan van Pelt reveals that the building archives at Auschwitz contain memoranda sent among the German officers then fitting and furnishing the camp's structures that includes references to its gas detectors, air-tight doors, air extraction systems, and even once its "Vergasungskeller" (literally "gassing cellar"). The latter word is underlined in red, while an accompanying marginal note suggests that a senior officer address the use of this word with the officer who wrote it. "There was a code," van Pelt explains, "words like 'gas chamber' would not be used...and it doesn't occur after that."

Still frame from Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999) © Universal Pictures

Still frame from Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999) © Universal Pictures

Not only does the document indicate an intention to operate a gas chamber at Auschwitz, then, in the context of reams of memos in the same archives that skirt such language it indicates an awareness among the Nazis that these documents would indeed someday serve as the  touchstones that Millar describes; depending greatly on their precise content, they either could or could not lead to the recollection of historical events.

Fifteen years before Millar, geographer Ken Foote described [PDF] the same revisionist danger to sites of violence so horrific that future generations would prefer to simply forget, calling for archives to serve as "a countervailing force to effacement." Given the ruinous conditions of the sites that Fred Leuchter visited, the dilution of evidence from which he attempted and failed to draw specific conclusions, it's hard to imagine a more weighty application of this countervailing force, or more effective a prescription of what Millar simply calls the "antidote to attempts to reinterpret history." 

I'm generally very sympathetic to the postmodern view of archives that questions archivists' credulous claims of custodianship rather than authorship of the historical record, but I'd argue that this little case study also quite succinctly demonstrates a continuing vitality to the positivist archivist's counterclaim. The power of the Auschwitz building archives lay in its collection of normative historical evidence. Critically, the social memory that had been built around the site could be validated with evidence from the content and function of an archival document. As survivors of the holocaust increasingly leave us, I can only imagine the power of this force against effacement growing. Still, I agree with Millar that our "level of 'trust' for the record is inextricably linked to the contextual information available: factual and emotional." It was the contextual knowledge that propelled the historian in the above example to search for proof in the archives after all, not the other way around. I think that Millar is right, then, to suggest that truth can only be found somewhere between and among the records and the memories (that the positivists and postmodernists just have to get along). "There is no shortcut to reality," Morris, the former private detective reminds us.

Modernist or postmodernist, artist or scientist, custodian or interventionist, archivists share some extremely important and complicated responsibilities to communicate the past to skeptical future generations. Mark Greene, one of my favorite thinkers on all topics archival, calls [PDF] these "higher stakes and weightier burdens than many of us signed up for when we became archivists" but I find them endlessly motivating, to say nothing of fascinating.