Essay: The Holocaust Denial Movement

By Heidi Beirich

Holocaust deniers argue that the genocide of Jews during World War II either did not occur or was much less horrific than historians say. But their work is much more than a simple re-interpretation of the historical evidence. Holocaust denial is a political movement that is inherently anti-Semitic, meant, for the most part, to make national socialism more palatable — how many people, after all, want to support an ideology responsible for the industrialized murder of several million Jews? Many deniers cloak their hatred in academic language, seeking to give the appearance that they are honest, if skeptical, students of history. They prefer to call themselves “Holocaust revisionists,” a phrase hijacked from “historical revisionism,” a school of credible historians who offered new interpretations for the origins of World War I.

Deniers usually argue that the number of Nazi victims is far smaller than the toll calculated by historians of the era and was the result of disease far more often than of deliberate murder on the part of the Nazis. In particular, they take issue with the commonly cited number of 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust. Many deniers also assert that the ovens used by the Nazi regime in extermination camps in Poland were not capable of incinerating nearly as many bodies as the Allies said were destroyed in them. Some claim there were no gas chambers at all.

Some revisionists even extend their claims in an attempt to debunk Jews who seem sympathetic to most human beings. A case in point is the argument by certain deniers that the diary of teenager Anne Frank is a fraud because it had alterations made with a postwar ballpoint pen (they didn’t mention that the marks were made later by Frank’s father). They have lied about the qualities of the Zyklon B gas used to kill Jews, the operation of the Einsatzgruppen (the mobile killing squads that shot more than 1 million Jews on the Eastern Front), and hundreds of other facts.

Holocaust denial began with the original Nazis, who tried to carry out their murderous program in secret and obscured it with misleading terminology in their official records. But it was after the war that the movement blossomed. European and American neo-fascists came to understand that a national socialist revival would be possible only if the accusation of a Nazi genocide of the Jews — an accusation backed by mountains of evidence and testimony — was undermined.

Americans were prominent in early, postwar denial circles. One of them, Austin J. App, was an English professor at the University of Scranton who had defended Germany during World War II. He claimed that Germany didn’t desire to “dominate” Europe but rather was legitimately attempting to get raw materials. Once the war ended, App energetically denied German atrocities. 

More significant was Harry Elmer Barnes, an American isolationist. In a 1962 pamphlet called Blasting the Historical Blackout, he claimed that the ethnic Germans who were expelled from Czechoslovakia and Poland after the war suffered a fate “obviously far more hideous and prolonged than those of the Jews said to have been exterminated in great numbers by the Nazis.” Four years later, Barnes produced Revisionism: A Key to Peace, a book alleging that “it is alarmingly easy to demonstrate that the atrocities of the Allies in the same period were more numerous as to victims and were carried out for the most part by methods more brutal and painful than alleged extermination in gas ovens.” (A prominent contemporary Holocaust denial publication, The Barnes Review, is named after Barnes.)

The most important denier in American post-war history arguably was George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party (ANP). Rockwell, who named the ANP’s canine mascot “gas chamber” as a sign of his contempt for Jewish claims of Nazi gassings, understood early on that Nazism would never experience a renaissance anywhere if the stain of the genocide could not be expunged. An enthusiastic denier, Rockwell in 1966 told Playboy that it was “self-defense” for people to kill Jews. “Are you implying that Hitler was justified in exterminating 6 million European Jews?” Playboy interviewer Alex Haley asked. “I don’t believe for one minute that any 6 million Jews were exterminated,” Rockwell replied. “It never happened. You want me to prove it?” Rockwell then offered up statistics purporting to show that there were more Jews alive after the war than before it. 

Rockwell’s acolytes would carry on his denial campaign after his assassination by a disgruntled follower in 1967. For example, National Socialist Party of America leader Frank Collin enthusiastically embraced denial, saying, “There was no Holocaust, but they deserve one — and will get it.” 

In 1976, another American, Arthur R. Butz, wrote The Hoax of the Twentieth Century. A professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University, Butz in his book conceded that Jews were persecuted but denied they were exterminated. Any gas chambers were for delousing, and not for mass murder, he claimed. There would be others, too, including Gary “Gerhard” Lauck, a Nebraskan Hitler enthusiast who wrote, published and helped smuggle illegal denial literature into Germany and other European countries in the 1980s and early 1990s.

But Americans have done much more than merely contribute to the storehouse of Holocaust denial literature. They have institutionalized the enterprise. In 1978, Willis Carto — founder and head of the now defunct anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby, based in Washington, D.C. — spun off a new organization called the Institute for Historical Review (IHR). IHR presented itself as a legitimate historical research group but in fact was peopled by white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

The institute’s mission was the same as Rockwell’s: Erase the Holocaust by any means at its disposal, including distortion, misquotation and outright falsification. IHR’s first annual conference was held in 1979. As in subsequent meetings, deniers from around the world attended and helped to introduce some key American extremists to Holocaust denial. David Duke, the neo-Nazi who was then the national leader of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was so taken with the idea that he followed up the conference with an issue of his Crusader newspaper that he dubbed the “Special Holocaust Edition.”

IHR’s annual conferences quickly became key events on the radical right that offered networking opportunities for neo-Nazis and anti-Semites from around the world. A critical contribution by IHR was its attempt to encourage anti-Semites to avoid blatant Jew-hatred in their discussions of the war and instead to couch their venom in academic-sounding distortions of history and science. Though the theories that resulted were ahistorical, they had at least a thin veneer of legitimacy, as did the Journal of Historical Review that the IHR published for years.

IHR began to falter after control of the group was wrested from Carto by staffer Mark Weber in 1995 after a long legal battle. Weber’s tenure since that time has been less than successful. The group’s last regular annual conference was in 1994, and since then only small gatherings have been held. In 2002, Weber stopped publishing the Journal of Historical Review because of a “lack of staff and funding.” IHR now has been reduced to little more than publishing Web commentary and various posts from Weber, who also gives a few speeches each year.

In 2009, Weber became the object of extreme ire in the denial world after writing an essay that asked, “How Relevant Is Holocaust Revisionism?” Weber’s conclusion? Not very. His essay argued that the decades-long revisionist effort had been “as much a hindrance as a help” in fighting what Weber has now decided is the real enemy – “Jewish-Zionist power.” He advocated a shift in the movement toward “the real world struggle” against Jewish power. For Weber, debating the existence of the World War II Holocaust of European Jewry has become a waste of time.

Weber’s views were roundly condemned by his fellow deniers, many of whom publicly — and furiously — called for his ouster.

The year after he lost control of IHR, Carto established a publication to compete with the IHR’s journal, calling it The Barnes Review.  The Review also holds regular Holocaust denial conferences, filling the void left by IHR.

To this day, U.S. groups such as the neo-Nazi National Alliance publish and sell Holocaust denial material. To most of them, Jews intentionally made up the “Holohoax” as part of a nefarious plan to extract war reparations from Germany to help found the state of Israel, and to win the world’s sympathy. Many Europeans also have played an important part in this enterprise, but they have been hampered by laws that punish denial and other statements seen as inciting racial hatred. This has left the Americans, with their speech protected by the First Amendment, in a unique and important position to disseminate denial materials worldwide.

 

Heidi Beirich is the director of research and special projects for the Southern Poverty Law Center.