What Is Holocaust Denial?

What are the origins of the movement to deny the Nazi genocide? – a political movement? Or an expression of anti-Semitism?

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Holocaust denial is based on the idea that the genocide of European Jewry carried out by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II either never happened or occurred on a much smaller scale than actually was the case.

Also called Holocaust revisionism by many proponents – a term which implies a serious scholarly quest to reexamine history to better understand what really happened – this is not considered a serious academic movement. Instead it is viewed as a sometimes subtle and largely failed effort by anti-Semites to undermine sympathy for what the Jews endured during World War II.

The proposition put forth by Holocaust deniers is that the Holocaust is a fraud perpetrated by Jews. In the process, the deniers also serve to reinforce anti-Semitic stereotypes such as the dishonesty and the inordinate power of the Jews.

Holocaust denial as an organized movement in the United States got its start in the late 1970s, when leading anti-Semitic propagandist Willis Carto founded the Institute for Historical Review, which, as reflected by its name, aimed to clothe its goals in the respectability of a quest for academic truth. The California-based group ultimately broke ranks with Carto due to a personal dispute unrelated to his anti-Semitic views. A bruising court battle between the two sides followed.

The founding of the IHR was preceded by books such as “The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry,” by electrical engineering professor Arthur Butz of Northwestern University in Illinois (1976), and British historian David Irving’s “Hitler’s War” (1977), in which he wrote about World War II as it would have been viewed by the Fuhrer himself. In France at around the same time, in the newspaper Le Monde, Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson questioned the existence of the Nazi gas chambers.

Decades later, America’s Anti-Defamation League cited Faurisson’s comments in Britain’s Guardian newspaper as an example of his venomously anti-Semitic views. “The alleged Hitlerian gas chambers and the alleged genocide of the Jews form one and the same historical lie, which permitted a gigantic financial swindle whose chief beneficiaries have been the State of Israel and international Zionism, and whose main victims have been the German people and the Palestinian people as a whole,” Faurisson was quoted as saying.

Some Holocaust deniers have sought rather creative ways to gain a public following. In 1987, Bradley Smith founded his Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust, which gained notoriety for attempting to place Holocaust denial advertisements in American university campus newspapers. The seemingly reasonable name that Smith chose for his organization implies, however, that the very occurrence of the Holocaust is a matter that is open to debate. Smith’s advertising efforts on some campuses sparked heated controversy that only drew further attention to his cause.

Exceptional among so-called Holocaust revisionists is Britain’s David Irving, the author of “Hitler’s War.” Earlier in his career, before his strident ideology came to the fore, he had even gained a certain mainstream following with his voluminous writing on World War II history. Irving gained particular notoriety, however, in 1996 when he sued Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, for calling him a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth & Memory.”

A British court found in favor of Lipstadt and her British publisher, concluding that Irving was indeed a Holocaust denier and anti-Semite. Irving was ordered to pay the other side’s legal fees, which were reportedly in the millions of dollars. In 2006, Irving was charged with Holocaust denial in Austria, where such an act is a crime. He pleaded guilty.

Holocaust denial has also surfaced in the Muslim world, where the most prominent personality to question openly the occurrence of genocide against the Jews was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In an effort to educate the Muslim world about the Holocaust, the website of Israel’s official Holocaust remembrance authority, Yad Vashem, features background information in both Arabic and Farsi, the dominant language of Iran.

Anti-Semitism has existed in various forms for most of the past two millennia, rooted in history and theology, and Jews' "otherness" and minority status. But anti-Semitism is also a form of prejudice that one might have expected to have been thoroughly discredited by its embrace by the Nazi regime. In a sense, therefore, Holocaust denial can be seen as a way to boost the case of the anti-Semite, if it can be shown that the Nazis never did what they were accused of.

The response to denial of the Holocaust varies. In an effort to show that it is an incontrovertible fact, some experts go to great lengths to survey extensive testimony and documentation from the Holocaust along with the postwar admission by German citizens and the German government of the enormity of the genocide the Nazi regime committed. Others argue that responding by proving that the Holocaust happened confers credibility upon a movement that by all reasonable accounts is simply trying to sow anti-Semitic hatred.

In “Denying the Holocaust,” the same book that prompted David Irving’s lawsuit, Deborah Lipstadt discusses the issue and recounts an occasion on which she was asked to go on national television in the United States to debate a Holocaust denier. According to her account, when she declined to appear, the television producer responded: “I certainly don’t agree with them, but don’t you think our viewers should hear the other side?”

Doing so, Lipstadt wrote, “would give them a legitimacy and a stature that they in no way deserve. It would elevate their anti-Semitic ideology – which is what Holocaust denial is – to the level of responsible historiography – which it is not.”

International Tracing Service, the world's biggest Holocaust archive, in the central German town of Bad Arolsen.Credit: REUTERS/Alex Grimm
Convicted Holocaust denier and discredited British historian David Irving arrives at the High Court in London Tuesday, April 11, 2000 Credit: AP

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