Holocaust denial is the act of denying the genocide of Jews in the Holocaust during World War II. Holocaust denial often includes the following claims: that Nazi Germany's Final Solution was aimed only at deporting Jews from the Reich, but that it did not include the extermination of Jews; that Nazi authorities did not use extermination camps and gas chambers to mass murder Jews; or that the actual number of Jews killed was significantly lower than the historically accepted figure of 5 to 6 million, typically around a tenth of that figure.
Scholars use the term "denial" to describe the views and methodology of Holocaust deniers in order to distinguish them from legitimate historical revisionists, who challenge orthodox interpretations of history using established historical methodologies. Holocaust deniers generally do not accept the term denial as an appropriate description of their activities, and use the euphemism revisionism instead. The methodologies of Holocaust deniers are often based on a predetermined conclusion that ignores overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary.
Most Holocaust deniers claim, either explicitly or implicitly, that the Holocaust is a hoax – or at best an exaggeration – arising from a deliberate Jewish conspiracy designed to advance the interest of Jews at the expense of other people. For this reason, Holocaust denial is generally considered to be an antisemiticconspiracy theory.
Holocaust denial is illegal in several countries.
Terminology and etymology
Holocaust deniers prefer to refer to their work as historical revisionism, and object to being referred to as "deniers". Scholars consider this misleading, since the methods of Holocaust denial differ from those of legitimate historical revision. Legitimate historical revisionism is explained in a resolution adopted by the Duke University History Department, November 8, 1991, and reprinted in Duke Chronicle, November 13, 1991 in response to an advertisement produced by Bradley R Smith's Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust:
That historians are constantly engaged in historical revision is certainly correct; however, what historians do is very different from this advertisement. Historical revision of major events ... is not concerned with the actuality of these events; rather, it concerns their historical interpretation – their causes and consequences generally.
In 1992 Donald L. Niewyk gave some examples of how legitimate historical revisionism—the re-examination of accepted history and its updating with newly discovered, more accurate, or less-biased information—may be applied to the study of the Holocaust as new facts emerge to change the historical understanding of it:
With the main features of the Holocaust clearly visible to all but the willfully blind, historians have turned their attention to aspects of the story for which the evidence is incomplete or ambiguous. These are not minor matters by any means, but turn on such issues as Hitler's role in the event, Jewish responses to persecution, and reactions by onlookers both inside and outside Nazi-controlled Europe.
In contrast, the Holocaust denial movement bases its approach on the predetermined idea that the Holocaust, as understood by mainstream historiography, did not occur. Sometimes referred to as "negationism", from the French term négationnisme introduced by Henry Rousso, Holocaust deniers attempt to rewrite history by minimizing, denying or simply ignoring essential facts. Koenraad Elst writes:
Negationism means the denial of historical crimes against humanity. It is not a reinterpretation of known facts, but the denial of known facts. The term negationism has gained currency as the name of a movement to deny a specific crime against humanity, the Nazi genocide on the Jews in 1941–45, also known as the holocaust (Greek: complete burning) or the Shoah (Hebrew: disaster). Negationism is mostly identified with the effort at re-writing history in such a way that the fact of the Holocaust is omitted.
Background: staking a claim on post-war Holocaust historiography
Efforts to conceal the historical record
See also: Sonderaktion 1005 and Posen speeches
While the Second World War was still underway, the Nazis had already formed a contingency plan that in case of defeat they would carry out the total destruction of German records.
Historians have documented evidence that as Germany's defeat became imminent and Nazi leaders realized they would most likely be captured and brought to trial, great effort was made to destroy all evidence of mass extermination. Heinrich Himmler instructed his camp commandants to destroy records, crematoria, and other signs of mass extermination. As one of many examples, the bodies of the 25,000 mostly Latvian Jews whom Friedrich Jeckeln and the soldiers under his command had shot at Rumbula (near Riga) in late 1941 were dug up and burned in 1943. Similar operations were undertaken at Belzec, Treblinka and other death camps. In the infamous Posen speeches of October 1943 such as the one on October 4, Himmler explicitly referred to the extermination of the Jews of Europe and further stated that the genocide must be permanently kept secret:
I also want to refer here very frankly to a very difficult matter. We can now very openly talk about this among ourselves, and yet we will never discuss this publicly. Just as we did not hesitate on June 30, 1934, to perform our duty as ordered and put comrades who had failed up against the wall and execute them, we also never spoke about it, nor will we ever speak about it. Let us thank God that we had within us enough self-evident fortitude never to discuss it among us, and we never talked about it. Every one of us was horrified, and yet every one clearly understood that we would do it next time, when the order is given and when it becomes necessary.
I am now referring to the evacuation of the Jews, to the extermination of the Jewish people.
French collaboration in archive destruction
In occupied France, the situation with respect to preserving war records was not much better, partly as a result of French state secrecy rules dating back to well before the war aimed at protecting the French government and the state from embarrassing revelations, and partly to avoid culpability. For example, at Liberation, the Prefecture of Police destroyed nearly all of the massive archive of Jewish arrest and deportation.
Efforts to preserve the historical record
During the war
One of the earliest efforts to save historical record of the Holocaust occurred during the war, in France, where Drancy internment camp records were carefully preserved and turned over to the new French Bureau of Veterans and War Victims[fr]; however, the bureau then held them in secret, refusing to release copies later, even to the Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation (CDJC).
In 1943, Isaac Schneersohn, anticipating the need for a center to document and preserve the memory of the persecution for historical reasons and also support claims post-war, gathered together 40 representatives from Jewish organizations in Grenoble which was under Italian occupation at the time in order to form a centre de documentation. Exposure meant the death penalty, and as a result little actually happened before liberation. Serious work began after the center moved to Paris in late 1944 and was renamed the CDJC.
Immediate post-war period
In 1945, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, anticipated that someday an attempt would be made to recharacterize the documentation of Nazi crimes as propaganda and took steps against it:
The same day I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha. I have never been able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain however, that I have never at any time experienced an equal sense of shock.
I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that "the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda". Some members of the visiting party were unable to go through with the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to Patton's headquarters that evening I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and the British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.
Eisenhower, upon finding the victims of the death camps, ordered all possible photographs to be taken, and for the German people from surrounding villages to be ushered through the camps and even made to bury the dead. He wrote the following to General George Marshall after visiting a German internment camp near Gotha, Germany:
The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they [there] were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to "propaganda".
The Nuremberg trials took place in Germany after the war in 1945–1946. The stated aim was to dispense justice in retribution for atrocities of the German government. This Allied intention to administer justice post-war was first announced in 1943 in the Declaration on German Atrocities in Occupied Europe and reiterated at the Yalta Conference and at Berlin in 1945. While the intention was not specifically to preserve the historical record of the Holocaust, some of the core documents required to prosecute the cases were provided to them by the CDJC, and much of the huge trove of archives were then transferred to the CDJC after the trials and became the core of future Holocaust historiography.
The Nuremberg trials were important historically, but the events were still very recent, television was in its infancy and not present, and there was little public impact. There were isolated moments of limited public awareness from Hollywood films such as The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) or the 1961 Judgment at Nuremberg which had some newsreel footage of actual scenes from liberated Nazi concentration camps including scenes of piles of naked corpses laid out in rows and bulldozed into large pits, which was considered exceptionally graphic for the time. Public awareness changed when the Eichmann trial riveted the world's attention fifteen years later.
Trial of Adolf Eichmann
In 1961, the Israeli government captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and brought him to Israel to stand trial for war crimes. Chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner's intentions were not only to demonstrate Eichmann's guilt personally but to present material about the entire Holocaust, thus producing a comprehensive record.
The Israeli government arranged for the trial to have prominent media coverage. Many major newspapers from all over the globe sent reporters and published front-page coverage of the story. Israelis had the opportunity to watch live television broadcasts of the proceedings, and videotape was flown daily to the United States for broadcast the following day.
History and development of Holocaust denial after World War II
See also: Category:Holocaust deniers.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, prior to the extensive documentation efforts by the allied forces, a sense of disbelief caused many to deny the initial reports of the Holocaust.[clarification needed] Compounding this disbelief was the memory of forged newspaper accounts of the German Corpse Factory, an anti-German atrocity propaganda campaign which was widely known to be false by 1945.
During the 1930s, the Nazi government used this propaganda against the British, claiming allegations of concentration camps were malicious lies put forward by the British government, and historians Joachim Neander and Randal Marlin note that this story "encouraged later disbelief when early reports circulated about the Holocaust under Hitler".Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, chairman of the British Joint Intelligence Committee, noted that these reports were similar to "stories of employment of human corpses during the last war for the manufacture of fat which was a grotesque lie"; likewise, The Christian Century commented that "The parallel between this story and the ‘corpse factory’ atrocity tale of the First World War is too striking to be overlooked." Neander notes that "There can be no doubt that the reported commercial use of the corpses of the murdered Jews undermined the credibility of the news coming from Poland and delayed action that might have rescued many Jewish lives."
Harry Elmer Barnes
Harry Elmer Barnes, at one time a mainstream American historian, assumed a Holocaust-denial stance in his later years. Between World War I and World War II, Barnes became an anti-war writer and a leader of the historical revisionism movement. Starting in 1924, Barnes worked closely with the Centre for the Study of the Causes of the War, a German government-funded think tank whose sole purpose was to disseminate the official government position that Germany was the victim of Allied aggression in 1914 and that the Versailles Treaty was morally invalid. Headed by Major Alfred von Wegerer, a völkisch activist, the organization portrayed itself as a scholarly society, but historians later described it as "a clearinghouse for officially desirable views on the outbreak of the war."
Following World War II, Barnes became convinced that allegations made against Germany and Japan, including the Holocaust, were wartime propaganda which had been used to justify the United States' involvement in World War II. Barnes claimed that there were two false claims made about World War II, namely that Germany started the war in 1939, and the Holocaust, which Barnes claimed did not happen.
In his 1962 pamphlet, Revisionism and Brainwashing, Barnes claimed that there was a "lack of any serious opposition or concerted challenge to the atrocity stories and other modes of defamation of German national character and conduct". Barnes argued that there was "a failure to point out the atrocities of the Allies were more brutal, painful, mortal and numerous than the most extreme allegations made against the Germans". He claimed that in order to justify the "horrors and evils of the Second World War", the Allies made the Nazis the "scapegoat" for their own misdeeds.
Barnes cited the French Holocaust denier Paul Rassinier, whom Barnes called a "distinguished French historian" who had exposed the "exaggerations of the atrocity stories". In a 1964 article, "Zionist Fraud", published in the American Mercury, Barnes wrote: "The courageous author [Rassinier] lays the chief blame for misrepresentation on those whom we must call the swindlers of the crematoria, the Israeli politicians who derive billions of marks from nonexistent, mythical and imaginary cadavers, whose numbers have been reckoned in an unusually distorted and dishonest manner." Using Rassinier as his source, Barnes claimed that Germany was the victim of aggression in both 1914 and 1939, and that reports of the Holocaust were propaganda to justify a war of aggression against Germany.
Beginnings of the modern denial movement
In 1961, a protégé of Barnes, David Hoggan, published Der erzwungene Krieg (The Forced War) in West Germany, which claimed that Germany had been the victim of an Anglo-Polish conspiracy in 1939. Though Der erzwungene Krieg was primarily concerned with the origins of World War II, it also down-played or justified the effects of Nazi antisemitic measures in the pre-1939 period. For example, Hoggan justified the huge one billion Reich-mark fine imposed on the entire Jewish community in Germany after the 1938 Kristallnacht as a reasonable measure to prevent what he called "Jewish profiteering" at the expense of German insurance companies and alleged that no Jews were killed in the Kristallnacht (in fact, 91 German Jews were killed in the Kristallnacht). Subsequently, Hoggan explicitly denied the Holocaust in 1969 in a book entitled The Myth of the Six Million, which was published by the Noontide Press, a small Los Angeles publisher specializing in antisemitic literature.
In 1964, Paul Rassinier published The Drama of the European Jews. Rassinier was himself a concentration camp survivor (he was held in Buchenwald for having helped French Jews escape the Nazis), and modern-day deniers continue to cite his works as scholarly research that questions the accepted facts of the Holocaust. Critics argued that Rassinier did not cite evidence for his claims and ignored information that contradicted his assertions; he nevertheless remains influential in Holocaust denial circles for being one of the first deniers to propose that a vast Zionist/Allied/Soviet conspiracy faked the Holocaust, a theme that would be picked up in later years by other authors.
Austin App, a La Salle University medieval English literature professor, is considered the first major mainstream American holocaust denier. App defended the Germans and Nazi Germany during World War II. He published numerous articles, letters, and books on Holocaust denial, quickly building a loyal following. App’s work inspired the Institute for Historical Review, a California center founded in 1978 whose sole task is the denial of the holocaust.
The publication of Arthur Butz's The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The case against the presumed extermination of European Jewry in 1976; and David Irving's Hitler's War in 1977 brought other similarly inclined individuals into the fold. Butz was a tenured associate professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University. In December 1978 and January 1979, Robert Faurisson, a French professor of literature at the University of Lyon, wrote two letters to Le Monde claiming that the gas chambers used by the Nazis to exterminate the Jews did not exist. A colleague of Faurisson, Jean-Claude Pressac, who initially shared Faurisson's views, later became convinced of the Holocaust's evidence while investigating documents at Auschwitz in 1979. He published his conclusions along with much of the underlying evidence in his 1989 book, Auschwitz: Technique and operation of the gas chambers.
Henry Bienen, the former president of Northwestern University, has described Arthur Butz's view of the Holocaust as an "embarrassment to Northwestern". In 2006, sixty of Butz's colleagues from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science faculty signed a censure describing Butz's Holocaust denial as "an affront to our humanity and our standards as scholars". The letter also called for Butz to "leave our Department and our University and stop trading on our reputation for academic excellence".
Institute for Historical Review
In 1978 Willis Carto founded the Institute for Historical Review (IHR), an organization dedicated to publicly challenging the commonly accepted history of the Holocaust. The IHR's founding was inspired by Austin App, a La Salle professor of medieval English literature and considered the first major American holocaust denier. The IHR sought from the beginning to establish itself within the broad tradition of historical revisionism, by soliciting token supporters who were not from a neo-Nazi background such as James J. Martin and Samuel Edward Konkin III, and by promoting the writings of French socialist Paul Rassinier and American anti-war historian Harry Elmer Barnes, in an attempt to show that Holocaust denial had a base of support beyond neo-Nazis. The IHR republished most of Barnes's writings, which had been out of print since his death. While it included articles on other topics and sold books by mainstream historians, the majority of material published and distributed by IHR was devoted to questioning the facts surrounding the Holocaust.
In 1980, the IHR promised a $50,000 reward to anyone who could prove that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. Mel Mermelstein wrote a letter to the editors of the LA Times and others including
Nazi policy did a great deal to facilitate denial of the Holocaust even as the killing operation unfolded across German-occupied Europe during World War II.
The Holocaust was a state secret in Nazi Germany. The Germans wrote down as little as possible. Most of the killing orders were verbal, particularly at the highest levels. Hitler's order to kill Jews was issued only on a need-to-know basis. The Nazi leaders generally avoided detailed planning of killing operations, preferring to proceed in a systematic but often improvised manner. The Germans destroyed most documentation that did exist before the end of the war. The documents that survived and related directly to the killing program were virtually all classified and stamped “Geheime Reichssache” (Top Secret), requiring special handling and destruction to prevent capture by the enemy. Heinrich Himmler, Reich Leader of the SS and Chief of the German Police, said in a secret speech to SS generals in Posen in 1943 that the mass murder of the European Jews was a secret, never to be recorded.
In order to hide the killing operation as much as possible from the uninitiated, Hitler ordered that the killings not be spoken of directly in German documentation or in public statements. Instead, the Germans used codenames and neutral-sounding terms for the killing process. In Nazi parlance, for example, “action” (Aktion) referred to a violent operation against Jewish (or other) civilians by German security forces; “resettlement to the East” (Umsiedlung nach dem Osten) referred to the forced deportation of Jewish civilians to killing centers in German-occupied Poland; and “special treatment” (Sonderbehandlung) meant killing.
Both at the time and later, such euphemisms impeded a clear understanding of what the Nazis were doing. This was partly to facilitate the killing process by keeping the victims in the dark about their fate as long as possible. Widespread Jewish resistance was only possible once Jews understood that Nazi policy was to kill all of them. Furthermore, Hitler could not just assume that almost no one would protest the killing of Jews. Even within his own party there were those who agreed with the campaign of persecution against Jews but who occasionally balked at systematic murder. For example, Wilhelm Kube, the German civilian administrator of occupied Belarus, fully supported the murder of the Belarusian Jews, but protested when the SS deported German Jews to Minsk and shot them there.
Hitler had reason to fear possible unfavorable reaction should all the details of the Holocaust become public. Euphemistic language aided secrecy since only those who knew the “real” meaning of the words would understand the deeper meaning of public statements or accurately interpret the documentary record.
In addition to the use of coded language, Heinrich Himmler sought to destroy the physical remains of the victims of killing operations to hide the killing process from advancing Allied armies. He assigned SS officer Paul Blobel to command Operation (Aktion) 1005, the code name for German plans to destroy the forensic evidence at mass murder sites. The SS forced prisoners to reopen mass graves at both the killing centers in German-occupied Poland and at the open air killing sites in the former Soviet territory and to cremate the bodies, thereby removing evidence of mass murder. For example, at Babi Yar in Kiev in the summer of 1943, at Belzec in late 1942, and at Sobibor and Treblinka in the fall of 1943, the mass graves were reopened and the bodies burned to ashes. In this way, the Germans and their collaborators destroyed much—but by no means all—of the forensic evidence of mass murder before advancing Soviet armies overran the scenes of these crimes.
Late in the war, after word of the Holocaust had reached Britain and the United States, the Nazi leadership sought to counter Allied condemnation of Nazi policies toward Jews with a coordinated campaign of disinformation. On June 23, 1944, the Nazis permitted an International Red Cross commission visit to the Theresienstadt ghetto in occupied Bohemia in what is today the Czech Republic. They hoped to mask Nazi killing operations in the occupied eastern territories by showcasing good conditions for Jews in Theresienstadt. The Red Cross commission consisted of two Danish officials and one Swiss representative and the visit lasted only six hours. It was an elaborate hoax. The SS authorities intensified deportations of Jews from the ghetto to alleviate overcrowding and spruced up the ghetto by planting gardens, painting houses, opening cafes and theaters and the like in preparation for the visit. They even instructed the prisoners how to behave during the inspection and to give positive reports about conditions in the ghetto. Once the visit ended, however, the SS authorities resumed deportations of Jews, overwhelmingly to the Auschwitz killing center in German-occupied Poland. The visit had served its purpose: to confuse international public opinion about the true nature of Nazi policies towards Jews.
Despite Nazi efforts to keep secret the unfolding Holocaust, information did leak out. The perpetrators themselves talked about what they were doing. Occasionally, survivors of mass killing operations bore witness to the killing program. Both Jewish and Polish underground organizations made great efforts to let the outside world know what the Germans were doing in eastern Europe. The information was sometimes incomplete, contradictory, and inaccurate in some of the specific details, but the general policy and pattern of events were clear by the second half of 1942.
Yet the psychological barriers to accepting the existence of the Nazi killing program were considerable. The Holocaust was unprecedented and irrational. It was inconceivable that an advanced industrial nation would mobilize its resources to kill millions of peaceful civilians, including women and children, the elderly, and the very young. In doing so, the Nazis often acted contrary to German economic and military interests. For example, they intensified the killing operation, killing skilled Jewish laborers even while labor shortages threatened to undermine the German war effort.
All too many people responded to reports about German killings of Jewish civilians by comparing these reports to news stories about German atrocities in occupied Belgium and northern France during World War I. The British media in World War I charged that the German occupation was monstrous, that German soldiers committed many outrages against defenseless civilians in German-occupied Belgium. They charged that German soldiers bayoneted babies, disfigured women, and killed civilians with military-issued poison gas. It turned out after the war that the Allies had invented many of those stories in order to maximize popular support for the war effort. As a result of that experience, many people were skeptical of reports of mass murder operations during World War II. In this case, however, the reports turned out to be generally accurate.
While some people today are misled as a result of the Nazi policies described above into doubting the reality of the Holocaust, others deny the Holocaust for more overtly racist, political, or strategic reasons. These deniers begin with the premise that the Holocaust did not happen. This premise suits their broader purposes. They deny the Holocaust as an article of faith and no amount of rational argumentation can dissuade them. This denial is irrational, largely unrelated either to the facts of the history or to the enormity of the event. Some people deny the Holocaust because of innate antisemitism, irrational hated of Jews.
In fact, Holocaust denial has been called by some scholars the “new antisemitism” for it recycles many of the elements of pre-1945 antisemitism in a post-World War II context. Holocaust deniers argue that reports of the Holocaust are really part of a vast shadowy plot to make the white, western world feel guilty and to advance the interest of Jews. Even at the time of the Holocaust, some people in the United States thought reports of German massacres of Jewish civilians were actually propaganda reports designed to force the government to grant Jews special treatment and consideration.
Many people who deny the Holocaust argue that the supposed “hoax” served above all the interests of the State of Israel. Holocaust denial is, for these people, also an attack on the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Finally, others deny the Holocaust because they want to see a resurgence of Nazi racism. They insist that Nazism was a good political philosophy and that only “negative” press resulting from reports of the genocide the Nazis perpetrated prevent a revival of the Nazi movement today. They deny the Holocaust so that they can attract followers to a new Nazi movement.
Holocaust denial, then, unites a broad range of radical right-wing hate groups in the United States and elsewhere, ranging from Ku Klux Klan segregationists to skinheads seeking to revive Nazism to radical Muslim activists seeking to destroy Israel.
Holocaust deniers want to debate the very existence of the Holocaust as a historical event. They want above all to be seen as legitimate scholars arguing a historical point. They crave attention, a public platform to air what they refer to as “the other side of the issue.” Because legitimate scholars do not doubt that the Holocaust happened, such assertions play no role in historical debates. Although deniers insist that the idea of the Holocaust as myth is a reasonable topic of debate, it is clear, in light of the overwhelming weight of evidence that the Holocaust happened, that the debate the deniers proffer is more about antisemitism and hate politics than it is about history.
Evans, Richard J. Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
Gottfried, Ted. Deniers of the Holocaust: Who They Are, What They Do, Why They Do It. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2001.
Lipstadt, Deborah. Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. New York: Free Press, 1993.
Shermer, Michael, and Alex Grobman. Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Zimmerman, John C. Holocaust Denial: Demographics, Testimonies, and Ideologies. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000.
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