In the preceding series, I discussed conceptions of the Nazis as occultists, suggesting that some such depictions of them may have been exaggerated while others were mostly accurate, and I further explored Nazi views on history, which gave credence to an assortment of myths and legends. Now, I am obliged to confront a modern myth that both falsifies history and attempts to revise our conception of the Nazis. I am speaking, of course, of Holocaust denial, a term that has become standard among academics discussing the phenomenon despite the purveyors of such pseudohistory preferring the more innocuous term “Holocaust revisionism,” as it presents them more as legitimate academics engaged in genuine historical revision. While the history of Holocaust denial stretches all the way back to the time of the Nuremberg trials, with the advent of mass media and especially the Internet, it seems to have gone…perhaps not viral, but bacterial, growing slowly and in secret until simple measures are useless at eradicating it. Like other denialist claims symptomatic of the so-called Post-Truth Era—like those of anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, creationists, climate change deniers, and a host of other conspiracy theorists—Holocaust denial has built up a body of supportive literature and talking points that encourage believers—or rather, deniers—to continue doubting empirical historiography and consensus history no matter how conclusive the evidence presented to them. That, however, does not mean we should give up on them, or that the topic should be anathema. As I’ve argued before, no claims, however absurd or fringe or downright disgusting, should be considered beneath critical consideration. Indeed, those are the claims that most require critical response.
One may argue that only the willfully obtuse, or those with ulterior motives, make or believe such claims about the Holocaust, our shorthand label for the systematic extermination of Jews by the Nazis in World War II. After all, this is taught in every school’s history class, is featured prominently in every textbook that covers that period, and has entered the popular imagination through well-known books and films. Therefore, why would one waste breath dignifying a view that only a misguided minority credit. The truth is that some studies indicate people are far more open to notions associated with Holocaust denial than one might think. In 1993, the Roper Organization released the results of a poll it had conducted to examine American knowledge of and views on the Holocaust. Shockingly, they concluded that about one-fifth of Americans were open to the idea that the Holocaust never happened (Smith 269-270). Now, these results have been strongly challenged due to some awkward phrasing in the survey questions that may have caused confusion. Nevertheless, the poll stands as evidence of a general openness among many to the plausibility of Holocaust denial claims, and psychological studies have tended to indicate that Holocaust denier propaganda is quite effective at persuading such undecided minds (Yelland and Stone). And so, perhaps a little reluctantly, I will address the claims, and I will detail them so that they lack any mystique or ambiguity, but in no way is my intention to dignify them.
In order to refute a claim, one must first understand it precisely, for raising up and then knocking down a straw man is itself a waste of effort. Surprising to some is the fact that these so-called revisionists do not deny the mistreatment of Jews under the Third Reich or even the fact that many died as a result of this treatment, nor for the most part do they reject, at least explicitly, that such mistreatment was wrong or even evil. Some have even conceded that it could justifiably be called a holocaust. Holocaust denial literature and rhetoric stands firmly on three cornerstones: 1) the estimate of six million Jews being murdered is an exaggeration, and a more accurate accounting would be 1 or 2 million or even as few as 300,000; 2) these deaths resulted through mere unfortunate circumstances and were never intended by Nazi leadership; and 3) the circumstances that caused these deaths in concentration camps were starvation and disease, which can be blamed on the Allied powers cutting off German supplies. Crematoria were used only to burn the dead, and Gas chambers either didn’t exist or were used only delouse blankets and clothes. I will rebut all three of these false and insidious claims in due course. But before coming to grips with the claims of Holocaust deniers, we should first understand who they are and what agendas lie obscured beneath their claims, for knowing this, their claims lose the tinge of genuine revisionism and take on the smack of racist propaganda.
Perhaps the first denier of the Holocaust was a Scottish anti-Catholic firebrand named Alexander Ratcliffe, who, while serving as a Glasgow councilor in 1945, the year the Nuremberg Trials began, wrote in his magazine Vanguard that the concentration camps had been dreamed up by Jews, who had even faked newsreel footage. It is incomprehensible that even so soon after the atrocities of the Nazis came to light, such conspiracy theories sprang up, but perhaps expected when looking at the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories he had already publicly subscribed to and promoted. He appeared to be a believer in the old Protocols of the Elders of Zion hoax, that long discredited lie of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, and indeed, one finds this to be a rotten vein running through most organizations that publish Holocaust denial literature, for the fact that all of mainstream, legitimate historiography stands opposed to your claims is much easier to explain away if all historians are under the thrall of the Jewish cabal that holds sway over everything. Beyond Ratcliffe, Holocaust denial claims did not really appear until the late ‘60s with some German books like Franz Scheidl’s History of the Ostracism of Germany and Emil Aretz’s Witches’ Multiplication of a Lie. The early 1970s saw further German works establish the cornerstone argument that gas chambers weren’t used for execution, including Thies Christophersen’s Auschwitz Lie and Wilhelm Stäglich’s Auschwitz Myth. Then throughout the 1970s appeared further books, outside of Germany, with titles that clearly indicate their contents, like Did Six Million Really Die?, Six Million Swindle, Hoax of the Twentieth Century, and Debunking the Genocide Myth. The notion of a “Holohoax,” as some called it, was beginning to take shape, and in an effort to establish their literature as credible historiography, they began dissociating themselves from the fringe and the anti-Semitic and cultivating an image of academic legitimacy. Thus, in the late 1970s, the Institute for Historical Review was born, as was its Journal for Historical Review.
The IHR is a curious organization. Obviously its members yearn for their academic credentials to be recognized and for their institute to be accepted into the ranks of other scholarly associations, but they simultaneously must appeal to a base comprised of far right extremists, neo-Nazis, and bigoted conspiracy theorists in order to keep their coffers full of fresh donations. This wasn’t always the case, though. Toward the beginning of their existence, they enjoyed generous funding from, of all places, the estate of Thomas Edison, but the $15 million that Edison’s granddaughter bequeathed them was quickly squandered and lost. Now it appears they keep themselves in money solely through the publication of their literature and through donations from like-minded individuals, which are tax-deductible because the IRS recognizes them as a 501(c)(3) group, a not-for-profit operating in the public interest. In fact, like true ghouls, their About Us page ends with the unusually forward suggestion that their supporters “[p]lease also consider a bequest in your will.” They describe themselves as a publisher and “an independent educational center,” an odd characterization considering they have kept their headquarters’ physical address a secret ever since their offices were firebombed in 1984. The IHR has become, essentially, the point of the spear for the holocaust denial movement, its undeniably clever and learned researchers, such as Mark Weber and David Irving, providing a great many talking points for deniers the world over through articles in the Institute’s journal and lectures at their annual conference.
The Institute has gone to great pains to try to divorce itself from white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups, but their beginnings make their agenda evident. It was founded by Willis Carto, a known anti-Semite and far right political booster of George Wallace’s presidential campaign who went on to found the Populist Party, which ran Ku Klux Klan members for office, like David Duke whom they nominated for president in 1988. Then there was the Institute’s co-founder and first director, William McCalden, a man with a long list of known aliases who had been a leading figure in Britain’s neo-Nazi political movements, the National Front and the National Party. While it is true the Institute has broken with Carto and McCalden, a simple perusal of the literature they peddle is sufficient to indicate that the organization’s stock-in-trade is still anti-Semitic conspiracy trash; their website’s front page is peppered with an array of articles whose titles indicate “The Danger and Challenge of Jewish-Zionist Power” and promise “Straight Talk About Zionism” and revelations on “What Christians Don’t Know About Israel” and the “Tactics of Organized Jewry,” a phrase that hearkens clearly to the old Jewish world conspiracy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Members and contributors to the IHR may use a variety of terms, from those as overt as “Zionists” and “the Jewish Cabal” to more circumspect and coded phrases like “the traditional enemy,” but it is abundantly clear, read between the lines of all their literature, that they believe, or at least choose to spread the notion, that the “Holohoax,” as they sometimes call it, was perpetrated by an international Jewish conspiracy that now actively works to destroy them for daring to question it.
But of course, their claims have been soundly disproven, their objections addressed and shown to be groundless, and not just in history books but in courts of law. Numerous times, holocaust deniers have had the three cornerstones of their ideology overturned by witnesses and experts in legal settings. One of the first was in 1981, after the IHR offered a $50,000 award to the public for evidence of Jews being gassed at Auschwitz, and after one Mel Mermelstein came forward with evidence in the form of numerous survivor testimonies, the IHR refused to pay and Mermelstein sued. A judge found the evidence convincing and forced the IHR to pay the promised sum as well as further damages. Another came in 1996, when the aforementioned David Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books for libeling him by calling him a Holocaust denier. English law placed the burden of proof on the defendants to prove the claims in Lipstadt’s book had been accurate and therefore not libelous, and so, essentially, the Holocaust was put on trial, with the defense endeavoring to show Irving’s connection to white supremacist groups, demonstrate how he had knowingly distorted and falsified the historical record, and finally present evidence on the Holocaust directly to prove that Irving was not a reasonable or fair-minded historian. This they did, with gusto, and the judge found in their favor. Some of the best evidence to refute Holocaust deniers can now be found collected in the numerous books written about this trial, some of which were composed by the expert witnesses themselves, such as Richard Evans’s Lying About Hitler and Robert Jan van Pelt’s The Case for Auschwitz.
So let us examine the evidence refuting Holocaust deniers’ claims, in outline and broad strokes only, for to raise each point they make in detail and offer a comprehensive rebuttal, I would have to write a lengthy volume or two, as several historians have done already. First, let us address the claim that the number of Jewish victims, six million, is inflated. Holocaust deniers will gleefully point to any revisions of the numbers of victims as evidence that this estimate is exaggerated, but they fail to take into account the fact that legitimate historians are engaged in a continuous academic debate and may revise the number of victims in one camp based on strong evidence while also taking into account further evidence of deaths elsewhere. So, for example, it has turned out that the number of those murdered in some death camps was exaggerated; the Department of Holocaust Studies at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum has revised the total number of victims at Auschwitz from 4 million all the way down to 1 million. However, the larger view of the Holocaust we now have also takes into account the vast numbers of Jews and Slavic peoples exterminated by the Einsatzgruppen during and after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. While some tallies have been lowered, others have been added, and the estimate of six million remains the same. Nor do we limit our accounting to only those who were gassed in camps or shot by the Einsatzgruppen, for any reasonable tally of the murdered includes those who died from starvation and disease in the ghettos. There are a wealth of sources corroborating these atrocities and the numbers of the dead, including census data, Nazi records, and eyewitness testimony not only from the victims but from the perpetrators themselves. Through these overlapping proofs can be discerned a stark and horrifying truth that no real historian can ignore. Regardless of how the numbers are revised one way or another, give or take some tens of thousands of murdered people, the vast contours of this atrocity cannot be reasonably denied.
The further claim of Holocaust deniers that Hitler and others in the Nazi leadership were unaware of the extermination going on, that rather than a systematic genocide it was just a result of the unfortunate conditions of war and the zealous actions of the rank and file, can also be clearly refuted with a conscientious examination of the historical record. First, it should be conceded that, as Holocaust deniers are fond of pointing out, the actual order for the Final Solution, signed by Hitler, does not exist in the historical record. But it should also be pointed out that the Nazis went to great lengths to destroy evidence of their crimes against humanity, especially when it appeared the world would soon be holding them to account. Nevertheless, in speech after speech and document after document, leading Nazi figures implicate their guilt. Holocaust deniers will claim the Final Solution was actually referring to deportation, but consider the following quotation from Heinrich Himmler to the commandant of Auschwitz, indicating that Hitler had directly ordered the Final Solution: “You have to maintain the strictest silence about this order, even to your superiors. The Jews are the eternal enemies of the German people and must be exterminated. All Jews we can reach now, during the war, are to be exterminated without exception.” This certainly doesn’t sound like a deportation order. Then consider Himmler’s speech to the SS in Poznan, 1943: “I am now referring to the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jews. This is something that is easily said: “The Jewish people will be exterminated”…Most of you here know what it means when 100 corpses lie next to each other, when 500 lie there or when 1,000 are lined up.” Himmler directly refers to the grisly reality of the Final Solution here, praising the executioners of Jews as being hard and honorable for taking on the task. Again, it is hard to mistake this for a reference to deportation. Nor was Himmler alone in making such references. Joseph Geobbels, the Reich minister of propaganda, wrote in his diary in 1941 of the “liquidation” of Jews, and even wrote after a visit with Hitler in 1942 that “The Führer again voices his determination to remorselessly cleanse Europe of its Jews. There can be no sentimental feelings here. The Jews have deserved the catastrophe that they are now experiencing. They shall experience their own annihilation together with the destruction of our enemies. We must accelerate the process with cold brutality,” a clear indication of the systematic and calculating nature of the Final Solution. Indeed, the words translated as “extermination” and “annihilation” were used multiple times by Hitler himself, in speeches at the Reichstag and elsewhere, for Hitler had always maintained, in what he called a prophecy but what should more accurately be called a threat, that if Germany became embroiled in an international world war—apparently even if he provoked it himself—it would result in the destruction of European Jewry. No sane historian can read the words of these men, in conjunction with the evidence of how many Jews were murdered, and maintain that because the paper order hasn’t been found, most likely because it was destroyed, that means they didn’t know what was happening under their auspices.
Finally, Holocaust deniers’ favorite claim has to do with the specific actions taken at Auschwitz. Sometimes called the Auschwitz Lüge, or Auschwitz lie, they claim that there were no killing centers at Auschwitz, that the gas chambers there were only used for destroying the lice in blankets and clothing, and the crematorium used only for burning those who had died from disease and starvation—essentially, like all other denier claims, an attempt to exonerate Nazis. The support most often cited comes from the 1989 Leuchter Report, a supposedly scientific engineering report that concluded the chambers could not have been used for gassing prisoners. These are the most insidious pieces of “evidence” cited by deniers, since they have a convincing veneer of scientific legitimacy that is hard to refute unless one is a scientist or has done the necessary research into other scientists’ findings. In short, deniers claim that traces of Zyklon-B, the hydrocyanic acid used to gas prisoners, were stronger in delousing chambers than in chambers that historians claimed were used to kill prisoners, and their claim is that if those chambers truly were used to gas millions of Jews and other prisoners, there would have been far higher traces and the walls would be stained a dark blue. In truth, it makes perfect sense for delousing chambers to have higher traces, since lice take longer to die from Zyklon-B exposure than people, who absorb it through their lungs. Their very testing for Zyklon-B traces, and therefore their findings, are also suspect, for the gas chambers at Auschwitz were reduced to rubble long ago, and the undressing rooms and gas chambers that do stand are partially reconstructed and not reliable for testing. Then there is the fact that deniers have been caught making false or disingenuous claims, such as Fred Leuchter, author of the Leuchter Report, who asserted that Nazi officers dropping the Zyklon-B pellets down through the roof into the chambers would have been committing suicide. Later, he admitted, during yet another Holocaust denier’s trial, that this was not true at all, and that the gas would have taken several minutes to reach them on the roof, by which time they would have closed the hatch through which they’d dropped it and left the area, all while probably wearing a gas mask for protection. Then there was a further claim that the gas being used near a crematorium would have caused an explosion, when in fact crematoria were well-sealed, and the amount of Zyklon-B used to murder prisoners would have been too small to cause an explosion. These flaws and misrepresentations, as well as links between Leuchter and other Holocaust deniers that prove he was no impartial scientific authority on the matter, taken together discredit the Leuchter Report as well as other supporters of the “Auschwitz Lie” conspiracy theory.
Scientific rebuttals and logical counterarguments aside, as with the other claims of deniers, there exists a wealth of further convincing evidence to prove them wrong. One piece alone cannot be relied on to prove or disprove the Holocaust. Instead, one must see the forest for the trees. There are eyewitness accounts of Nazis marching their prisoners into the gas chambers and burning their bodies afterward, but if you doubt survivors’ testimonies, there exist photographs as well, taken secretly by a Greek Jew in Auschwitz. If these you still find dubious, there are the confessions of the camp’s guards, who corroborated all of it. Some Holocaust deniers point to aerial photographs taken by Allied reconnaissance to suggest that since no smoke is seen emerging from smokestacks, the Holocaust must be a hoax, for in order to kill so many, they would have had to be gassing and burning them 24 hours a day. First off, the underlying assumption here is false, for the total killed, as previously stated, includes millions shot and starved elsewhere, and second, we have camp records that were entered as evidence in the trials of Nazis that can verify that, on the days when aerial photos were taken, there happened to be no gassings. Of course, Holocaust deniers go on denying, finding or inventing details to quibble over and reject, all while the great mass of evidence stares them in the face. They put on blinders, focusing only on the bits they think they might be able to cast doubt on and ignoring all that they cannot.
Evans, Richard J. Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial. Basic Books, 2002.
Petropoulos, Jonathan. “Confronting the ‘Holocaust as Hoax’ Phenomenon as Teachers.” The History Teacher, vol. 28, no. 4, 1995, pp. 523–539. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/494640.
Shermer, Michael, and Alex Grobman. Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened, and Why Do They Say It? University of California Press, 2000.
Smith, Tom W. “A Review: The Holocaust Denial Controversy.” The Public Opinion Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 2, 1995, pp. 269–295. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2749705.
Van Pelt, Robert Jan. The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial. Indiana University Press, 2002.
Yelland, Linda M., and William F. Stone. “Belief in the Holocaust: Effects of Personality and Propaganda.” Political Psychology, vol. 17, no. 3, 1996, pp. 551–562. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3791968.