The Holocaust ended less than 70 years ago, on the day in 1945 when Germany signed an unconditional surrender to the Allies. Not only have tens of thousands of survivors, witnesses and even participants of the Nazis’ genocidal campaign given written, filmed and legal testimony about the events that made up the Holocaust, but the German perpetrators left behind detailed records documenting their crimes.
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Much evidence survived despite a rush to destroy it as the war came to its inevitable end.
Nonetheless, despite the vast amount of documentation and the extensive efforts made by professional historians and dozens of research institutions such as Yad Vashem, in Israel, the International Tracing Service, in Germany, or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum, in Washington, D.C., to piece together as many details of the Holocaust as humanly possible while first-hand witnesses are still alive - there has been a small but stubborn chorus of naysayers who deny its magnitude, and even its very nature.
“Holocaust denial” – as the phenomenon is generally called – may be dressed up in pseudo-scientific language. But the methodology is similar to many other examples of conspiracy theories, in that the desired conclusions dictate the nature of both the evidence that is taken into account, and the inconvenient facts that will be ignored or distorted so as to accommodate the demands of the theory.
Deniers typically ignore statements of intent by Nazis, including even as public a statement as Adolf Hitler’s 1939 speech before the Reichstag, in which he threatened “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” In fact, as early as 1923, in his manifesto “Mein Kampf,” Hitler declared: "It is the inexorable Jew who struggles for his domination over the nations. No nation can remove this hand from its throat except by the sword.”
Holocaust denial is not a professional disagreement over the interpretation of known facts, or even over the admissibility of one type of evidence or another. Historians who question the conventional wisdom, but are guided by the evidence and by the standard tools of their profession, can be termed “revisionists.” Holocaust denial is not revisionism, although some of its practitioners refer to themselves as such. Rather, it is an attempt to deny the very essence of the crime: to prove that the Third Reich did not have a plan to murder all the Jews of Europe; to cast doubt on the magnitude of the estimate of five to six million as the number of Jewish victims in order to downplay the horrific nature of the act; or even to suggest that most of the Jews who died were simply victims of disease and other unfortunate conditions of war.
Generally, deniers claim that the idea of an event called "the Holocaust" is a Jewish invention, designed to extort payment of reparations and other compensation from the governments and corporations accused of a role in the events. Others claim that the goal of the invention is to nourish international guilt and pity vis-à-vis the Jews, so as to provide justification for the creation of the State of Israel, which is otherwise a usurper state with no real historical or moral basis for existence.
Denial on trial
“Holocaust Denial on Trial,” a website overseen by Emory University’s Tam Institute of Jewish Studies, describes it concisely: “The goal of Holocaust deniers in the West is political -- they want to rehabilitate Nazism and fascism in general and Adolf Hitler in particular -- and to promote anti-Semitism and, at times, anti-Israel sentiment.”
In the Arab and Muslim world, the website continues, denial “seems to be driven primarily by the goal of undermining what is perceived to be a powerful justification for Israel's existence.”
Holocaust denial began almost immediately after the end of World War II, both in Germany and in places like France, before spreading to the United States. Its early practitioners were people like French writer Paul Rassinier, himself a veteran of the Buchenwald concentration camp, who denied the German use of gas chambers.
Some of the more prominent proponents of denial have included the American Harry Elmer Barnes, shortly after the war, and his successor Willis Carto, who founded the Institute for Historical Review in 1978. That organization has published a number of different Holocaust-denying writers, although its website claims that it does “not deny the Holocaust.”
One writer long associated with the IHT is David Irving, the British historical writer most notorious for having sued historian Deborah Lipstadt, from Emory University, who in her book “Denying the Holocaust,” referred to him as a denier and falsifier. Irving lost that case, which went to trial in London in 2000. It ended with Irving going into bankruptcy after he was ordered to pay the legal costs, estimated at more than $3 million, of Lipstadt’s publisher, which had assumed responsibility for her defense.
Holocaust denial is illegal in 17 countries, including Germany, Israel, Canada and France, where most famously, literature professor Robert Faurisson, wrote a book in 1978 suggesting that Anne Frank’s diary was a forgery, among other things. He was convicted of the crime of denial, and dismissed from his post at the University of Lyon in 1990. Faurisson, who has had numerous other run-ins with the law, was also a participant in the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust, held in Tehran in 2006, with the participation of such other personalities as David Duke, a former KKK leader in the United States, and Aharon Cohen, of the anti-Zionist Hasidic sect Neturei Karta, who traveled to Tehran from Jerusalem.