Holocaust Denial, a Definition
by Andrew E. Mathis
The Nazi Holocaust is one of the events of history that has received the greatest scrutiny. While historians disagree on different aspects of this phenomenon, it is basically agreed on that the Holocaust may be correctly defined as follows: (1) the Holocaust was the intentional murder of European Jews by the Nazi government of Germany during World War II as a matter of state policy; (2) this mass murder employed gas chambers, among other methods, as a method of killing; and (3) the death toll of European Jews by the end of World War II was roughly 6 million. Not surprisingly, with a group of historical events as laboriously studied as the Holocaust, conspiracy theories about this period abound. However, the most prominent U.S. conspiracy theory regarding the Holocaust is its denial.
Before discussing how Holocaust denial constitutes a conspiracy theory, and how the theory is distinctly American, it is important to understand what is meant by the term "Holocaust denial." Holocaust deniers, or "revisionists," as they call themselves, question all three major points of definition of the Nazi Holocaust. First, they contend that, while mass murders of Jews did occur (although they dispute both the intentionality of such murders as well as the supposed deservedness of these killings), there was no official Nazi policy to murder Jews. Second, and perhaps most prominently, they contend that there were no homicidal gas chambers, particularly at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where mainstream historians believe over 1 million Jews were murdered, primarily in gas chambers. And third, Holocaust deniers contend that the death toll of European Jews during World War II was well below 6 million. Deniers float numbers anywhere between 300,000 and 1.5 million, as a general rule.
While Holocaust denial began as a German and French conspiracy theory, its antecedents are both specifically American and an encapsulation of 2,000 years of European antisemitism. Addressing the latter point first, the conspiracy theory that Jews have manipulated non-Jews in many ways, shapes, and forms is nearly as old as Judaism itself. According to antisemites, Jews (not just the ruling Jewish elite of the first century, but all Jews) killed Jesus, poisoned wells, spread the Black Death, murdered Christian children to make Passover matzohs with their blood, and were the prime movers behind the Communist movement in Eastern Europe. If a single text encapsulates European antisemitism, it is the anonymous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, the purported minutes of a meeting of leaders of international Jewry in which the destruction of non-Jewish culture is discussed. Originating in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Protocols were, in fact, an altered plagiarism of Maurice Joly's Dialogue aux Enfers entre Montesquieu et Machiavel (A Dialogue in Hell between Montesquieu and Machiavelli), written in the 1860s as an attack against Louis Napoleon III (Ridgeway, 5002).
Oddly, despite the present connections between some Holocaust deniers and violent extremists, it was via the anti-war movement of World War I that the seeds of Holocaust denial were planted in the United States. This process was twofold. First, the antisemitic U.S. industrialist Henry Ford brought the Protocols to the United States after a visit to Europe during World War I designed to promote a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Ford read them and became convinced that the "Jewish industrialists" were primarily responsible for the war. The introduction of this document to a nation where Ku Klux Klan membership was on the rise added antisemitism to the current nativist, racist, anti-Catholic sentiment. Ford published the Protocols in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, over a seven-year period between the two world wars, giving legitimacy to a conspiracy of a Jewish cabal that sought to propagate war as a moneymaking operation.
At the same time, antiwar historians, notably Harry Elmer Barnes, began to suggest conspiratorial motivations on the part of the major powers at war. As historian Deborah Lipstadt has noted, Barnes and his colleagues were correct in many of their assumptions, for example, Germany was not solely at fault for the war (Serbia had, after all, fired the opening salvo); much anti-German propaganda spread during and after the war was, in fact, false; and there were war profiteers who made fortunes on the slaughter of the war (Lipstadt, (33-34)01). However, this did not change the essentially imperial nature of the war itself. Nevertheless, with the doubts of Barnes and his cohorts borne out through historical method, reports of German atrocities committed during World War II (this time true) would be treated with even greater skepticism. Barnes, who lived into the late 1960s, was among the first Americans to embrace Holocaust denial.
Aside from the obvious denial of Nazi atrocities by the perpetrators themselves, the Frenchman Paul Rassinier, a leftist who had been interned at Buchenwald and Dora, first promoted Holocaust denial most vociferously. (Rassinier's influence on the culture of Holocaust denial is still felt today, with his disciple Robert Faurisson leading the denial movement in France.) It did not take denial long to reach the United States, however. The first major Holocaust denier was Austin App, a Pennsylvania-based literary scholar. Beginning almost immediately after the war, App began a media campaign to expose what he believed were exaggerations in the Nazi treatment of Jews. While his own German ethnicity was likely a prime attraction for him to denial, App's own antisemitism and susceptibility to conspiracy theories informed much of his writing. For instance, App frequently used any combination of the terms "Talmudist," "Bolshevik," and "Zionist" in his writings as indicators that Jews were behind what he deemed a hoax that the Nazis had murdered 6 million Jews. In this way, he was able to imply that religious Jews, atheistic Communist Jews, and nationalist Jews were all conspiring together to spread belief in a mass murder against Jews. Furthermore, App blamed Jewish media control for the continued belief in this hoax (Lipstadt, 94-96)01, and this continues to be a theme in antisemitic and denial writings. If, as John Zimmerman and other observers have noted, the aim of Holocaust denial is to rehabilitate National Socialism, then it is fitting that App et al. would reiterate most of Hitler's own antisemitic themes in their writings (Zimmerman, 119)04.
The title of App's major work on the Holocaust, The Six Million Swindle, is informative because it implies on its very own the existence of a conspiracy of Jews to perpetrate a hoax against non-Jews for monetary gain. This monetary gain, specifically, would be reparations paid by West Germany for crimes committed against Jews during the war. What App and later deniers fail to address is a simple fact: reparations have been paid out since the 1950s based not on the number of deaths of Jews during World War II, but rather on the number of Jews who survived and whose costs of being settled elsewhere (primarily Israel) needed to be paid. Historian Michael Shermer has pointed out that, were the Holocaust truly a hoax designed by Zionists to gain cash for the fledgling state of Israel, then Zionists would have inflated the number of survivors and not the number of dead (Shermer and Grobman, 106)03.
Nevertheless, the Zionist angle of the conspiracy continued to be played by deniers and continues to this day. After App, U.S. Holocaust denial was carried on by Arthur Butz, a professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University outside Chicago. In his 1976 book The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, Butz reiterates the notion that the Holocaust is a consciously perpetrated falsification of history. While Butz is more subtle than App in blaming Jews for this hoax (he does not attack the Jewish religion in the manner of App, nor does he depict all Jews as Communists), he does target Zionists specifically as the hoaxsters, along with the governments of the Allies (particularly the Soviet Union), refugee and survivor organizations, and even the International Committee of the Red Cross (Lipstadt, 12601).
What Butz and other deniers fail to realize is the relative weakness of the Zionist movement before, during, and even after World War II. Zionism was considered heretical by most Jewish religious movements, and those Jews that did settle in Palestine before the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 were largely refugees with nowhere else to go, rather than political ideologues bent on creating a Jewish state in Palestine. Indeed, much recent research from Israel on the Holocaust has shown that some major figures in the Zionist movement cared very little about the dire situation of Jews in Europe during World War II. For instance, Menachem Begin, prime minister of Israel from 1977 to 1983, was jailed by Soviet authorities for Zionist activities until the Nazi invasion in 1941. However, rather than stay in Europe to fight the Nazis, Begin left for Palestine, where he waged guerrilla war for five years in the name of Zionism. Begin was not alone in his decision to fight for Zionism rather than the survival of European Jews.
Notably, the antisemitism of most deniers leads them to denounce Begin's choice while, at the same time, choosing to continue to believe that this fractious movement called Zionism could perpetrate a worldwide hoax. Nearly all major deniers, in fact, share a dual obsession with the Holocaust and with Zionism and the State of Israel. The chief purveyor of denier propaganda in the United States is the California-based Institute for Historical Review (IHR), which sells not only Holocaust denial books and pamphlets but also critiques of Zionism and religious Judaism. Willis Carto, head of the Liberty Lobby, an anti-Israel political action group based in Washington, D.C., founded the IHR. While there has been much internecine fighting over the last two decades at the IHR over money, Carto's views and those of the present directors (who include Mark Weber, a formerly overtly neo-Nazi propagandist) are not far from each other. In another twist, over the course of his battle with the current IHR leaders, Carto conspiratorially accused Weber of being a Zionist agent.
Weber also bangs the drum of equating Jews with the Bolshevik Revolution, a practice begun by App among U.S. deniers but going back to the revolution itself among observers in both Europe and the United States. While Weber is able to seize on certain truths about the Bolshevik Party that can tie it, at least on the surface, to Jews (such as that many prominent Bolshevik leaders, including Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, and Grigori Zinoviev, were Jewish by birth), Zimmerman has pointed out that the average Russian Jew was more attracted to Jewish nationalist, Zionist, or democratic socialist parties (Zimmerman, 128) than to Communist radicals such as the Bolsheviks. Weber also repeats App's error of equating Zionism and communism. While there did exist Marxist-Zionist parties, particularly in the early days of the Israeli state, the backing of the Soviet Union for countries hostile to Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war was a coup de grâce for any alliance between two ideologies that are, by nature, diametrically opposed (Zionism is a form of nationalism, while communism is international in its aims).
It can thus be seen that Holocaust denial is a conspiracy theory that seeks to place Jews behind an international movement to promote a falsehood for monetary gain. In this way, Holocaust denial is no different than many other previous forms of antisemitism, which imputed to Jews monetary greed as well as a conspiratorial air. Besides the haphazard manner in which deniers have chosen to lump all Jews together, regardless of religious or political orientation, as perpetrators of this "hoax," deniers also engage in efforts at pseudoscience to try to prove their point of view regarding the Holocaust. To date, none of their efforts has made any lasting impression on Holocaust historiography. While the rational observer will conclude that this is a testament to the truth of the history of the Holocaust, for the Holocaust deniers, it is merely one more piece of evidence of a conspiracy to quash what they believe to be the "real truth" about the fate of Jews during World War II.
Last modified: July 2, 2004
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