Holocaust denial: Historical view
This section deals with the historical development of Holocaust denial after World War II. Among the topics are: the difference between ‘denial’ and legitimate ‘revisionism’, the years immediately after World War II, the start-up of real ‘Holocaust denial’, and modern forms of denial.
From legitimate revisionism to denial
Holocaust denial, which is also termed ’Holocaust revisionism' or more misleadingly simply as 'revisionism', is inspired from several sides:
- legitimate, critical, historical tradition,
- ancient ideas of conspiracy,
- extreme and frequently unscholarly criticism of historical phenomena, and
- anti-Semitism, racism, Nazism.
Holocaust deniers, who would never characterise themselves as such, see themselves as the natural heirs to the ’revisionists’.
The Revisionists is the name for a group of scholarly competent and well-respected American historians who, in the early 1920’s, were very critical of America’s role in World War I. Their interest typically centred on the poor treatment of Germany following the war, the falsifications of British propaganda, and the need to revise the public opinion of Germany in the United States – thus the name ‘revisionists’. They did use correct historical methodology, which is certainly not the case with the Holocaust deniers.
One of the most vocal revisionists, Harry Elmer Barnes, constitutes the link between the legitimate revisionism and the illegitimate Holocaust denial. He was one of the first to question the Holocaust following World War II.
The years after World War II
Immediately following World War II revisionists began to understate or refute Nazi Germany’s responsibility for the war. This was done, among other things, by portraying Hitler as a sympathetic “man of peace” and by portraying the advance of the Allies as being just as cruel as the atrocities of the Nazis. In 1949 the American historian, Freda Utley, wrote of World War II:
'There is no crime that the Nazis committed that we or our allies did not also commit ourselves'.
From: Freda Utley, High Cost of Vengeance (Chicago, 1949), p. 183.
German neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists put forward many of the same claims, trying to portray the war as a result of British-American aggression. In the first years after the war, however, only few decidedly denied the existence of the Holocaust – and this is exactly what separates revisionists from deniers.
After the end of World War II Nazism and Fascism were seen as illegitimate ideologies. Nazism’s close ties to the extermination of around 6 million people rendered the recognition of this ideology absolutely impossible. In order to revive Nazism as a respectable ideology, it has since then been necessary for its political supporters to “get rid of” the Holocaust.
Only a few years after World War II, different people began to question the correctness of the Holocaust. The tactics of these early deniers have since then been repeated within the denier movement.
The denier movement gained some of its first supporters in France. One of these, Maurice Bardèche, presented on of the deniers’ fundamental arguments, namely that the Holocaust was caused by the Jews themselves. The Jews were the enemies of Germany and were treated accordingly. Bardèche was also one of the first to question the authenticity of the source material. For instance, he strongly doubted that the gas chambers at Auschwitz had been used to kill people. Instead, he advanced the proposition that they had been used for disinfecting clothes – since then one of the deniers’ most persistent allegations.
In 1948, another of the denier movement’s father figures, Paul Rassinier, published the first of a series of books in which he tried to show that the survivors from concentration- and extermination camps were all lying.
A common characteristic for the early deniers, for instance Bardèche and Rassinier, is that they do not definitely deny that there was a Holocaust. Instead, they try to defend and justify in actions of the Nazis in order to play down the importance of the Holocaust. In short, they believe that ‘the Jews got what they deserved’.
Modern Holocaust denial
From the 1970’s the Holocaust deniers changed their general tactics. At this point they began to completely deny the genocide against 6 million Jews. One of the first men behind this new trend was the American Austin J. App, who in 1973 published a book called “The Six Million Swindle”. In this book he presented eight reasons why the Holocaust is a hoax. App’s reasons have since then been used by many Holocaust deniers, although they are obviously completely wrong.
> Austin J. App's eight claims
The publication of American university professor Arthur R. Butz’s book, “The Hoax of the Twentieth Century” (1976), became a landmark event for Holocaust denial. The book was in many ways a showdown with earlier tactics, as Butz tried to present his work as a piece of serious scholarship. With this he had opened the way for goal of the modern denier movement: to turn Holocaust denial – or ‘revisionism’, as they call it – into a legitimate historical project.
Butz’s book distinguished itself from earlier publications by observing ‘academic etiquette’ – that is, including footnotes, bibliography, etc. The book also dealt with new aspects of the Holocaust, unlike earlier works, and presented itself as scholarly objective.
However, all this was pure wrapping. All evidence for the existence of the Holocaust were rejected by Butz as ‘obvious lies’, ‘hysterical’, ‘absurd’, ‘crazy’, ‘nonsense’, etc. According to Butz, the ‘Zionists’ had forged an enormous amount of documents in order to create the basis for the biggest hoax of the 20th century: the Holocaust.
In his book, Butz made use of a number of methods, which today are classics within the denier movement:
- All eyewitness accounts, or any accounts that support the existence of the Holocaust, are rejected as lies.
- Witness statements are rejected as unimportant compared to documents. For instance, Butz claims that a number of Nazi war criminals only declared themselves guilty for tactical reasons.
- All documents that support the existence of the Holocaust are rejected as forgeries or as politically coloured. All documents that in the slightest way support Butz’s own claims are said to be definitively true.
- If there is just one demonstrable mistake in for instance a witness statement, the whole statement is rejected as a forgery.
Butz’s argumentation technique is, in other words, selective. This is not in accordance with proper scholarly methodology.
In spite of all its methodological flaws, Butz’s book has become a standard reference work within the modern Holocaust denial movement.
Institute for Historical Review
The Institute for Historical Review (IHR) was founded in 1979. Today, it is the centre of the international denier movement.
The real purpose of the IHR is to make Holocaust denial respectable, and thus rehabilitate Nazism, further anti-Semitism and racism, and combat democracy. IHR is, in other words, a camouflage organisation.
From an historian’s point of view the IHR presents a big problem: the name of the institution sounds very respectable and scholarly serious. The IHR publishes the Journal of Historical Review, which is remarkably similar to the American Historical Review (one of the world’s leading historical journals, published by the American Historical Association). If you have no knowledge of the true purpose of the IHR – which is of course not so much as mentioned on their web site – it can be difficult to figure out that the IHR is really the world’s leading Holocaust denial organisation.
The IHR is currently the best known of those organisations that work to disseminate Holocaust denial, and the institution is obviously best known in the United States. No such well-organised institution is known in Europe, although there exist a large number of Holocaust denial web sites.
Want to know more?
> The deniers' 66 claims - with a refutation
> Holocaust denial
> For Teachers - suggestions for teaching (including source material)
> 4 specific suggestions for teaching about denial (including source material)
The most well known introduction to the subject of Holocaust denial is Deborah Lipstadt’s
Denying the Holocaust: the growing assault on truth and memory (New York, 1993). Another good
introduction, with a partially different view than Lipstadt’s, is Michael Shermer and Alex
Grobman, Denying history : who says the Holocaust never happened and why do they say it
(Berkeley, 2000). Also, see John C. Zimmerman,
Holocaust denial: demographics, testimonies, and ideologies (Lanham, MD, 2000).