Holocaust denial is a modern form of anti-Semitism, an intense hatred of Jews, that is intended to distort, misuse, and deny strategies meant to elicit public sympathy for the enormity of crimes committed against Jews and others during World War II and “to undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel . . . which some believe was created as compensation for Jewish suffering during the Holocaust—to plant seeds of doubt about Jews and the Holocaust, and to draw attention to particular issues or viewpoints” (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum). Through the Internet and the ease with which individuals and groups can access information, both real and fabricated, Holocaust denial can be conducted in anonymity or with seeming authoritative credentials. Key Holocaust denial assertions include
that the murder of approximately six million Jews during World War II never occurred, that the Nazis had no official policy or intention to exterminate the Jews, and that the poison gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp never existed. Common distortions include, for example, assertions that the figure of six million Jewish deaths is an exaggeration and that the diary of Anne Frank is a forgery. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Scholars use the term “denial” to distinguish the views and methodologies of those who contend the Holocaust never happened “from legitimate historical revisionists who challenge orthodox interpretations of history using established historical methodologies” (McFee). Holocaust deniers don’t usually identify themselves as deniers (just as terrorists rarely identify themselves as terrorists). Rather, they prefer to be known as revisionists, though revisionism is the reinterpretation of known and accepted facts. Holocaust deniers generally fall into the category of “negationism,” in that “they attempt to rewrite history by minimizing, denying, or simply ignoring widely documented and accepted facts”:
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. ( Elst 2014 )
Harry Elmer Barnes (1889–1968) epitomizes Holocaust denial in the post–World War II era. Barnes, once considered a legitimate historian, “became convinced that Page 154 | Top of Articleallegations made against Germany and Japan, including the Holocaust, were fabrications used as wartime propaganda to justify U.S. involvement in World War II” ( Shah 2012 ). Several protégés of Barnes began to follow up on this theme and constructed elaborate theories and alternative explanations to the widely accepted facts associated with the Holocaust. The publication of Arthur Butz’s The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry (1976) and David Irving’s Hitler’s War (1977) “brought other Holocaust deniers into the fold” ( Lipstadt 1994 ).
In 1996, Irving defended himself against accusations of Holocaust denial by filing a libel lawsuit against Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher after the publication of her book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. The trial, held in Great Britain, featured several witnesses for the defense who provided compelling evidence of the reality of the Holocaust. Moreover, the witnesses were able to demonstrate that Irving had misrepresented and mischaracterized factual information in his writings “as well as knowingly using forged documents as source material. The judge in the case ultimately delivered a verdict in favor of Lipstadt and referred to Irving as a ‘Holocaust denier’ and ‘right-wing pro-Nazi polemicist’” ( Lipstadt 2006 ).
In 1978, Willis Carto, another well-known Holocaust denier, founded the Institute for Historical Review (IHR). Though critics of the organization designate the IHR as engaged in Holocaust denial, the IHR contends that it “does not ‘deny’ the Holocaust. Indeed, the IHR as such has no ‘position’ on any specific event or chapter of history, except to promote greater awareness and understanding, and to encourage more objective investigation” (IHR). Despite the IHR’s protestations, a careful reading of its mission reveals that it wished to “provide factual information” and “sound perspective” on “the Jewish-Zionist role in cultural and political life” (IHR). In 1980, the IHR offered $50,000 for definitive proof that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. When individuals came forward with the requested proof, including eyewitnesses who had lost family members in the camp, IHR refused to pay the amount. Lawsuits were instigated against IHR, and a judgment against it in the amount of $90,000 ruled that “the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz was common knowledge” and therefore did not require evidence that gas chambers, in fact, existed (Nizkor Project). The judge in the case ruled that in addition to the monetary judgment, IHR had “to issue a letter of apology to the plaintiff, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald, and all other survivors of Auschwitz for ‘pain, anguish and suffering’ caused to them” (Nizkor Project).
Despite the rebuke, IHR continued to propagate Holocaust denial. In 1989, IHR published a piece by Lutheran pastor Herman Otten in which he wrote,
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There is no dispute over the fact that large numbers of Jews were deported to concentration camps and ghettos, or that many Jews died or were killed during World War II. Revisionist scholars have presented evidence, which Exterminationists have not been able to refute, showing that there was no German program to exterminate Europe’s Jews and that the estimate of six million Jewish wartime dead is an irresponsible exaggeration.
The Holocaust, the alleged extermination of some six million Jews (most of them by gassing) is a hoax and should be recognized as such by Christians and all informed, honest and truthful men everywhere.
Holocaust denial is not just a phenomenon among Western deniers. Denials of the Holocaust “have been publicly perpetrated by various Middle Eastern figures and media” ( Havardi 2012 ). In 1983, Mahmoud Abbas, cofounder of Fatah and president of the Palestinian National Authority, published a book entitled The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism based on his dissertation. Abbas “denied that six million Jews had died in the Holocaust; dismissing it as a ‘myth’ and a ‘fantastic lie.’ At most, he wrote, 890,000 Jews were killed by the Germans” ( Havardi 2012 ). Organized Holocaust denial institutes have also been identified in Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia ( Satloff 2006 ). Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is also a frequent Holocaust denier, formally questioning the wealth of widely accepted facts related to the Holocaust. In December 2005, Ahmadinejad stated,
They have fabricated a legend, under the name of the Massacre of the Jews, and they hold it higher than God himself, religion itself and the prophets themselves. . . . If somebody in their country questions God, nobody says anything, but if somebody denies the myth of the massacre of Jews, the Zionist loudspeakers and the governments in the pay of Zionism will start to scream.
Holocaust denial “is explicitly or implicitly illegal in 17 countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, and Switzerland” (Bazyler). In January 2007, “the United Nations General Assembly condemned without reservation any denial of the Holocaust, though Iran disassociated itself from the resolution” (UN).
As noted by author Deborah Lipstadt (2006) , “Holocaust denial is a virulent form of anti-Semitism. But it is not only that. It is also an attack on reasoned inquiry and inconvenient history. If this history can be denied any history can be denied.” Lipstadt (2011) goes on to say that,
Holocaust deniers have, thus far, been decidedly unsuccessful in convincing the broader public of their claims—although many people worry that after the last of the Holocaust survivors has died (most are now in their 80s) deniers will achieve greater success. However, historians, carefully relying on a broad array of documentary and material evidence . . . can and already have demonstrated that Holocaust denial is a tissue of lies.
Al Jazeera. December 14, 2005. “Ahmadinejad: Holocaust a Myth.” http://www.aljazeera.com/archive/2005/12/200849154418141136.html (Accessed June 2, 2017).
Anti-Defamation League. “The Holocaust—Global Awareness and Denial.” Anti-Defamation League—Global 100. http://global100.adl.org/info/holocaust_info (Accessed June 2, 2017).
Bazyler, Michael J. “Holocaust Denial Law and Other Legislation Criminalizing Promotion of Nazism.” Yad Vashem. http://www.yadvashem.org/holocaust/holocaust-antisemitism/articles/holocaust-denial-laws (Accessed June 2, 2017).
Elst, Koenraad. 2014. Negationism in India: Concealing the Record of Islam. Voice of India.
Green, Emma. May 14, 2014. “The World Is Full of Holocaust Deniers.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/05/the-world-is-full-of-holocaust-deniers/370870/ (Accessed June 2, 2017).
Havardi, Jeremy. August 14, 2012. “Holocaust Denial Undermines the Palestinian Cause.” The Commentator. http://www.thecommentator.com/article/1524/holocaust_denial_undermines_the_palestinian_cause (Accessed June 2, 2017).
Institute for Historical Review. “About the IHR: Our Mission and Record.” http://www.ihr.org/main/about.shtml (Accessed June 2, 2017).
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Lipstadt, Deborah. 1994. Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Plume.
Lipstadt, Deborah. 2006. History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier. Harper Perennial.
Lipstadt, Deborah. February 17, 2011. “Denying the Holocaust.” BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/genocide/deniers_01.shtml (Accessed June 2, 2017).
McFee, Gord. “Why Revisionism Isn’t.” PHDN.org . http://phdn.org/archives/holocaust-history.org/revisionism-isnt/ (Accessed June 2, 2017).
Nizkor Project. “Shofar FTP Archive File: people/m/mermelstein.mel//mermelstein.order.072285.” http://www.nizkor.org/ftp.cgi/people/m/mermelstein.mel/ftp.py?people/m/mermelstein.mel//mermelstein.order.072285 (Accessed June 2, 2017).
Otten, Herman. “Christianity, Truth and Fantasy: The Holocaust, Historical Revisionism and Christians Today.” Institute for Historical Review. http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v09/v09p321_otten.html (Accessed June 2, 2017).
Satloff, Robert. October 8, 2006. “The Holocaust Arab Heroes.” The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/06/AR2006100601417.html (Accessed June 2, 2017).
Shah, Zia H. September 18, 2012. “Holocaust Denial—Limits of Free Speech?” The Muslim Times. https://themuslimtimes.info/2012/09/18/holocaust-denial-limits-of-free-speech/ (Accessed July 27, 2017).
Southern Poverty Law Center. “Holocaust Denial.” https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/holocaust-denial (Accessed June 2, 2017).
UN. “UN General Assembly Condemns Holocaust Denial by Consensus; Iran Disassociates Itself.” UN News Centre. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=21355&Cr=holocaust&Cr1#.WTGTWNy1vRY (Accessed June 2, 2017).
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Holocaust Denial and Distortion.” https://www.ushmm.org/confront-antisemitism/holocaust-denial-and-distortion (Accessed June 2, 2017).