False Witnesses

By David Irving

The world of medical science has produced another stunning book about the phenomenon first identified as "Holocaust Survivor Syndrome" – the manner in which groups of people genuinely and honestly come to believe over the years that they have witnessed episodes which are, in fact, largely products of trauma and fantasy: Prof. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, The Myth of Repressed Memory (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1994, 290 pp.).

"It is possible," writes Elizabeth Loftus, then a psychologist at the University of Washington, in what Newsweek magazine calls a disturbing new book, "to create an entire memory for a traumatic event that never happened."

According to her some of the best neuro-scientific brains are trying to find out how this can happen: this may throw light on the current bitter debate about "recovered memory," which ranges across cases of Satanism, childhood sexual abuse, and UFO abductions; and, as may fairly be pointed out, otherwise inexplicable and unsubstantiated Holocaust eye-witness survivor stories – the kind that were nearly the nemesis of Cleveland auto worker John Demjanjuk.

Summary: hundreds of experiments have shown that people easily slip false details (from a TV report for example) into their recollection of an event they witnessed. "They even ‘remember’ events they have only heard about," wrote Newsweek, reviewing the 290-page Loftus book.

In May 1994, Harvard Medical School hosted a conference on the neurological bases of false memories. James McClelland, of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition at Pittsburgh, provided one explanation; Michael Nash, of the University of Tennessee, another.

Nash calls it chilling that "there may be no structural difference" between a true memory of an event and a false one. The problem is similar to distinguishing a remembered dream from a recollected factual event: some people, says Daniel Schacter of Harvard, cannot distinguish:

"You could be remembering a dream, a fear, or something someone talked about. What gives the memory a feeling of authenticity is that authentic parts are included."

Only one person in four appears, from Loftus’ studies, prone to this disorder. But others can be conditioned by events. "Severe emotional stress overcomes internal checks on plausibility," states neuro-scientist Marsel Mesulam of Northwestern University, "and you are left with a false ‘memory.’"

In the United States a False Memory Syndrome Foundation has been set up to represent the interests of the victims of such retrieved "memories;" some people have been sentenced to forty years in jail on this evidential basis alone. Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman is however angry:

"Scientists have no business using the term false memory."


First published in Action Report, no. 11. Dec. 18, 1996


Source: The Revisionist 1(4) (2003), pp. 459f.


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