Holocaust denial is the rejection or refusal to accept elements of the Holocaust. The extent of Holocaust denial can vary. Some deny certain aspects of the Holocaust or claim the Holocaust was not as deadly or as centrally organised as claimed. Some go so far as to claim the Holocaust did not occur at all but is a fiction invented for political purposes.
All events of historical significance invite a measure of debate and disagreement among historians. While the vast majority of historians accept that the orchestrated mass killing of Jews during World War II occurred, this has been challenged by a handful of individual historians, writers and political figures. These alternative theories are broadly described as ‘Holocaust denial’.
Some Holocaust deniers contend that the mass killings of the 1940s have been grossly exaggerated, either accidentally or wilfully. Others claim that while Jews were killed in large numbers, there was no systematic or deliberate program to exterminate them.
Holocaust denial is generally associated with modern far-right-wing and anti-Semitic groups, such as neo-Nazi organisations or the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). There are also denialist historians and writers who adopt a similar position but have no apparent affiliations with these groups.
Perhaps the best-known exponent of Holocaust denial is David Irving. A British historian with a record of questionable views and statements, Irving does not deny the Holocaust occurred but argues that it was not a deliberate policy of the Nazi government.
In his 1977 book Hitler’s War, a sympathetic account of Adolf Hitler’s political and military leadership, Irving claimed Adolf Hitler had no direct knowledge of the Holocaust. Instead, he suggested the mass murder of European Jews was conducted by “nameless criminals”, a group including rogue elements of the Schutzstaffel (SS), hostile civilians and, in a few cases, Allied soldiers.
Irving’s subsequent books grew more strongly denialist and at times lurched into anti-Semitism. His 1981 book Uprising, for example, suggested that Jewish conspirators were behind the brutal communist regime in 1950s Hungary.
Among other claims made by Irving in the 1980s were that the Holocaust was a series of spontaneous and unconnected atrocities, rather than a national policy; and that some Jewish bodies photographed in liberated death camps had in fact been killed by the Allies.
Some of the specific claims and arguments advanced by Holocaust deniers include:
Lack of a systematic policy. Perhaps the most frequent claim made by Holocaust deniers is that the Nazis had no systematic policy for exterminating Jews. Deniers argue that examination of surviving documentary evidence, such as written orders and directives, fails to clearly demonstrate genocidal intent on the part of the Nazi government. They admit many Jews were undoubtedly murdered but claim this was the work of zealous or bloodthirsty officers and soldiers, rather than official policy.
Hitler was not involved. Some denialist theories emphasise the lack of written orders signed or approved by Hitler. As a consequence, they allege that Hitler issued no direct orders for the extermination of Jews and may have had no knowledge of it. Anti-Jewish killings were carried out by Hitler’s subordinates, possibly because they believed it was what he wanted or expected – but was not ordered or approved by him. The question of Hitler’s culpability for the Holocaust has been explored and debated by many historians.
Exaggerated death toll. Another common argument relates to outcomes. Many Holocaust deniers refute the accepted Jewish death toll of six million people. They argue that in the breakdown of order that followed World War II, it was impossible to keep accurate figures about civilian movement, resettlement, deaths from disease and malnutrition and so forth. The figure of six million deaths is an estimate derived from the available evidence – but many deniers claim it has been grossly exaggerated, either by accident or design.
Flawed evidence. Holocaust deniers commonly claim existing evidence of the Holocaust has been fabricated or altered. Documents have been forged; photographs of buildings and facilities manipulated to give the impression of gas chambers and crematoria; oral testimonies have either been concocted or distorted. These claims are an attempt to undermine, discredit or refute existing understanding about the Holocaust.
The ‘Holohoax’. The most bizarre claim made by denialists, usually from radical anti-Semitic groups, is that the entire Holocaust is a myth. The ‘Holohoax’, they claim, was a public relations exercise of massive proportions, engineered by Jewish conspirators and fabricated by pro-Jewish governments and media outlets. Its function was to generate sympathy for the Jewish people, to suppress awareness of their ‘global control’ and encourage international support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland.
Seeds of denial
Holocaust deniers frequently refer to or exploit certain conditions and historical factors. One of their usual focal points is the ‘scorched earth’ policy employed by Nazi forces as they retreated from Western Europe in late 1944.
During this period, SS officers received orders from Himmler that no evidence of the Final Solution was to be left behind to fall into Allied or Soviet hands. As a consequence, retreating SS troops engaged in widespread destruction: burning paperwork, tearing down buildings, destroying extermination facilities and crematoria. The bodies of Jews and other civilians shot by the einsatzgruppen years before were exhumed and incinerated.
Because of this campaign of destruction, Holocaust deniers cite a lack of physical evidence that concentration camps were actually used for slave labour and genocide.
Another complicating factor is that the true meaning of the Final Solution was rarely expressed in writing by Nazi leaders and bureaucrats. They tended to employ euphemisms, such as “resettlement” and “special treatment”, when referring to the mass killing of Jews and other ‘race enemies’.
Another sticking point is the absence of definitive written orders from Adolf Hitler. This is not proof that Hitler was unaware of the Final Solution, though it reflects his lax leadership style. Hitler was a strong and forceful orator but a lazy political operator who hated dealing with paperwork. His preferred method of leadership was to give broad verbal instructions to subordinates and let them worry about the detail.
If Hitler gave instructions to initiate the genocide of all European Jews, they were almost certainly verbal. If he did not, it is difficult to imagine how or why it could be carried out without his knowledge.
The weight of evidence
In reality, the evidence for the Holocaust is overwhelming, both in quantity and validity. There are millions of documents, statistical records, photographs and eyewitness testimonies which, taken together, verify consensus views about the Final Solution.
The ‘scorched earth’ policy employed by the Nazis in 1944-45 is offset by the fact they were fastidious record-keepers. So while an enormous amount of evidence was destroyed, enough documents remain to provide evidence of a systematic policy.
From written orders and memos issued to camp commandants and officers; to railway movement orders to deport Jews en masse; to orders and requisitions for Zyklon B gas; to plans and goods orders for the construction of crematoria, there is compelling documentary evidence of a policy of genocide.
Oral and eyewitness histories
The weight of oral testimony from camp survivors, relatives, German civilians, Allied soldiers and even former SS guards is also significant. Allied commanders who liberated the camps in 1945 had the foresight to collect as much evidence as they could.
United States General Dwight D. Eisenhower personally inspected several concentration and internment camps and sent for additional photographers and cinematographers to document what remained. When asked why Eisenhower purportedly said, “Because the day will come when some son of a bitch will say this never happened”.
Parliamentary and civilian delegations from several Allied nations also toured the death camps and saw first-hand evidence of what had occurred there.
Today, 15 European countries have laws prohibiting Holocaust denial, making the publication or circulation of denialist theories a criminal offence. These laws are themselves controversial became they limit free speech and may impede further research on the subject.
Austria was the first to outlaw Holocaust denial (1947) but other nations did not pass similar laws until the 1990s, to combat a surge of denialist theories and neo-Nazism. French author Roger Garaudy was one of the first prominent writers to be prosecuted, after repeating certain ‘myths’ about the Holocaust.
In 2005, David Irving was arrested and placed on trial in Austria, where he pleaded guilty to “trivialising and denying the Holocaust”. Irving was sentenced to three years’ in prison. He was released on probation after serving 13 months and banned from ever entering Austria again. Irving has also been deported from Canada and denied entry to Germany, Italy, Australia and New Zealand.
The harshest sentence given under these laws was in Austria in 2008, when right-wing extremist Wolfgang Frohlich was sent to prison for a cumulative six-year term. Frohlich had written letters to several politicians and leaders declaring the Holocaust “a Satanic lie”.
“Holocaust deniers deny well-established facts about the Holocaust. They assert that the murder of approximately six million Jews during World War II never occurred and that the Germans are victims of a Zionist plot to extort vast sums of money from them on the basis of a hoax… Under the guise of a reasonable person’s search for truth, Holocaust deniers spread falsehoods and misinformation that appears reasonable to the uninformed reader. Often times they claim the mantle of free-speech saying they are for “continued research” into a “complex” and “misrepresented” history; yet, their method is never truly historical. Deniers do not rely on artifactual and documentary evidence to create their hypotheses, instead, they develop a history of opinion in which any manipulation or distortion of history is acceptable as one’s personal belief.”
Deborah Lipstadt, historian
1. Holocaust denial involves arguing that the Holocaust or various components of it, such as the extent or the killing or Nazi government policies, did not exist.
2. Holocaust deniers employ several arguments, such as the lack of a clearly articulated Nazi government policy or the absence of other evidence.
3. The best-known Holocaust denialist is British author David Irving, who accepted that some mass killing occurred but that Hitler was not directly responsible for it.
4. Collective documentary and eyewitness evidence for the Holocaust is overwhelming, however, and denialist arguments are easily refuted.
5. Several countries have laws prohibiting Holocaust denial and providing for fines and prison sentences. These laws are controversial because they impede free speech and may stifle future research.