How do you begin to comprehend a denial of atrocity? How does one reconcile a genocide with, as scholar Deborah Lipstadt says, “the dubious distinction of being the best-documented genocide in the world” (TED & Lipstadt 2017) with the fact that there are individuals who discount every shred in the mountain of evidence? This is an understanding that I and every other Jewish individual must live with. Though we often feel that such beliefs are too crazy to be dangerous, I hope to help it be seen that these beliefs are far from innocuous.
We can define Holocaust Denial as an antisemitic belief that denies or manipulates, in part or whole, the reality of the Holocaust. (ADL 2019) Some common permutations of this include a rejection of the deaths of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Axis, a refutation of the method of any deaths which did occur, or assertions that the whole Holocaust is a hoax perpetuated by Jewish people to gain sympathy, money and the creation of Israel. (ADL 2019) All of these we can look into more deeply when we examine their evidence.
Yet “Deniers” come in many shapes and forms and may not always appear as you think. Surely, there are the usual suspects – skin-heads and those who explicitly call themselves Nazis or do not hide behind pretense (Southern Poverty Law Center 2017, Daily Stormer 2019). But they are also academics, politicians, neighbors (Austin 2019). As of January 2019, recently polling found that 1 in 20 Britons or 2,739,500 people do not believe the holocaust happened (Sherwood 2019). As recent as 2018, many individuals in Europe and the United States were unable to name even basic facts about the Holocaust – including 66% of millennials being unaware of what Auschwitz is (Gstalter 2018). Now, this is not to say that ignorance is tantamount to denial, but it certainly forms a fertile bed for those who would seek to lie to and reshape the uninformed.
This belief is extraordinary because it actively denies a plethora of accounts, stories, documents and other evidence both from the victims and the perpetrators (TED & Lipstadt 2017). It is a remarkably persistent belief, and it would not be surprising if its adherents are growing year by year right now. The Anti-Defamation League (an organization dedicated to combating antisemitism and racism) reported that antisemitic incidents grew by approximately 57% in 2017. (ADL 2018) Examples of public figures either directly supporting or tied to those who engage in Holocaust denial are present in both the left (Alice Walker, Jeremy Corbyn) and the right (Arthur Jones, Arthur King, David Icke, Benoît Loeuillet) in the US, UK, and France. (Grady 2018, Mendick 2017, Wilner 2018, Madhani 2018, Willsher 2017) Further and most alarmingly, a recent CNN survey of Europe found that 1/3 of Europeans believe that Jews use the Holocaust to advance their own position or goals. (CNN 2018, Dashefsky, Arnold, Ira 2017) Assuming this is representative, that’s approximately 93.2 million people, a figure which gets only starker when you compare it to the total World Jewish population – only 14.5 million in 2017. (CNN 2018, Dashefsky, Arnold Ira 2017) Education may not be able to change the minds of those who have already written off this atrocity. But, for those not yet there, perhaps there is hope in spreading an understanding of the horror, and empathy for our still wounded communities.
Holocaust deniers use a variety of points to support their claims. Many of their points are a result of cherry-picked data or blatant falsehoods. In an effort to be “balanced”, I will present the claim initially and respond to each as it is relevant. My list of denier “facts” is not exhaustive, for as a belief and form of antisemitism, it constantly shifts to include new “details” and “revisions”.
First, deniers believe that the Diary of Anne Frank is a forgery. The diary was the result of Anne Frank, a young Jewish woman, recording her experiences as she hid with her family from the Nazis. Deniers say that due to the multiple editions of the diary or even its original form, it’s fake. (Lipstadt 2011) Alternately, that the diary is written in green ballpoint pen, something that wouldn’t be available to Anne easily at the time. (Lipstadt 2011) Both aspects of this are demonstrably false. Claims of the diary being fake were so numerous near its publication, that the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation subjected the diary to many tests of its authenticity, showing that the handwriting, glue, paper, and ink of the diary were accurate both to the time period and to Anne herself. (Lipstadt 2011) Furthermore, that green writing was just on two pages, in the margins and never of the content itself. This brings into question whether the green writing was hers or an original editor but pulls it entirely away from the content. Finally, the reason for its multiple editions is due to Anne’s own rewrites and attempts at writing a novel based on her experiences. (Lipstadt 2011)
Another belief is that the death figures in the Holocaust have been inflated. The proof here is supposed to be of the World Almanac which in 1940 listed the Jewish population at 15,319,359, then listed the population in 1949 as 15,713,638. (Pilcher 2007) The listed population growth, therefore, throws into question how many people died in the holocaust if any. But that number came instead not from the actually listed number for the World Almanac: 11,266,600, but from an error-filled 1950 report. (Pilcher 2007) Another source of “inflation” pointed to is the plaque change that occurred at the Auschwitz state museum in which the memorial plaque listed 1 million deaths in 1991 but before this listed 4 million deaths. Interestingly, this actually was inflation, but not by Jewish people, by the Soviets. The Soviets increased the number of non-jews who died in the camp, the number of Jewish individuals remains. (Pilcher 2007) Another popular counterpoint beneath this heading is that Jews didn’t die, they simply fled to the USSR and US. This is oft touted by current tenured Northwestern University engineering professor Arthur Butz, who claims that the only reason Jews didn’t re-establish contact with their relatives is bad marriages. (Lipstadt 2011) No evidence truly supports this claim, but we do have extensive records of those who did die. Such as the use of Nazi gas buses, chambers and the actual admittance of murder by the perpetrators (Lipstadt 2011).
As understanding of torture has shifted, some hold Nazi confessions were produced under torture and are false. Many deniers believe that there never was an intent to mass murder Jewish people. Confessions during the war crime trials were done under duress, they say. Why wouldn’t someone confess to anything if it might save them from death? (Lipstadt 2011) Yet, many admissions of guilt were recorded after the sentencing of the Nazis, who therefore have no reason to lie. (Lipstadt 2011) Many explicitly claim the deaths of these Jews, such as Otto Ohlendorf, Einsatzgruppen commander who killed 90,000, or Adolf Eichmann, explicitly using the words gassing the Jews. (Lipstadt 2011)
Another belief is that documents of Auschwitz are false, as are other documents of death squads. Auschwitz often sits as the crown jewel in the minds of deniers. Deniers claim that many chambers in Auschwitz were used for delousing or that instead they were used for Air raids. They also supposed that the burning of dead bodies was a form of disease control. (Lipstadt 2011) Others claim that there were no gas chambers at all, a view espoused by Frenchmen Paul Rassiner, once imprisoned by the Nazis (Austin 2019, Memorial And Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau. 2019). Yet this ignored the many records of the death camp and many admissions by those that work there. (Lipstadt 2011) The gas chambers themselves have locks from the outside in and specifically made parts that refer to gas. Further, were the dead burned for disease control, the monthly burn rate of 120,000 bodies would have to be the result of 4/5 of the camp population dying of typhus in 1 month. That isn’t possible in any epidemiological projection. (Lipstadt 2011) Finally, it again ignores the admissions of the killing method by Nazi Hans Stark, quoted by Deborah Lipstadt in her BBC article and again by me here:
“As early as autumn 1941 gassings were carried out in a room…[which] held 200 to 250 people, had a higher than average ceiling, no windows, only a specially insulated door with bolts like those of an airtight door [Luftschutzer]. The room had a flat roof, which allowed daylight in through the openings. It was through these openings that Zyklon B in granular form would be poured.” (Lipstadt 2011)
When we accept that people do believe in these falsehoods when they actively or passively deny the Holocaust, the next logical question is why. Some extraordinary beliefs may come across as relatively harmless, but Holocaust Denial has a real effect on the survivors of the atrocity. I propose there are several cognitive contributions toward this belief, of which one might assign varying degrees of responsibility and malice to the individual.
First among them may be the Just World Hypothesis, which an idea that posits that people have a hard time believing such horrors may have actually occurred in the world. The death of 6 million Jews, a 1/3 of our total population, certainly qualifies for that. Perhaps these people have family members that lived in Germany or are German. These people are not bad people, how could such a thing happen? It is much easier to think that Jewish people simply ran away from the country, or that we weren’t explicitly slated for extermination alongside Roma peoples. But the tattoos and records do not lie, they do not change.
Another possibility comes with the phenomenon of confirmation bias, in which one sees evidence and interprets it according to their own world view. In the libel trial of David Irving, (TED & Lipstadt 2017, Lipstadt 2011), the judge explicitly mentioned how the evidence provided by Irving were half-truths and misinformation. One may be able to look at a scattering of figures and pull out exactly what they want to see. Look – the Auschwitz plaque changed, the death figures were inflated, there are multiple editions of Anne Frank’s Journal! All part truths interpreted just enough to support a denier. In cases where evidence may be cherry picked, one might instead point to a logically fallacy in reasoning – The Texas Sharpshooter. Drawing lines around just the areas that one might consider supportive to their point, manipulating data and numbers to their benefit.
It may also be possible the idea of a True Believer factors into Holocaust denial. The social context for these types of beliefs are important, and our recent polling shows that deniers may find themselves in good company, at all aspects and levels of society as previously described. Furthermore, when one comes out as a denier, it is nearly impossible to change, it is difficult to undo. Deniers then retreat to their own scientific journals, their own community to support themselves. Whenever they are challenged by the events of reality, the horrors suffered by Jewish people and others, they discount it. It’s much easier to simply stay within their areas of belief.
Finally, and most insidiously, are those who are themselves racist by the application of stereotyping heuristics. In these cases, many deniers know that what they are doing is false. Lipstadt speaks much to this often as she did in her talk and in her trial with denier David Irving (TED & Lipstadt 2017, Lipstadt 2011). They attempt to spread their falsehoods to make Nazism more acceptable, a sentiment supported by the Nazis themselves (Pilcher 2007). These people believe that Jews are conniving, sneaky, that we are doing this to get our own state, to get money (Pilcher 2007). David Irving himself once asked a survivor how much money she received for the tattoo on her arm (TED & Lipstadt 2017). The loudest in this category are often the easiest to spot, but the quiet ones are just as bad. In the hearts of these people, they believe that Jews will always be this way– an enemy, an otherworldly evil to be exterminated.
To the horrors of the Holocaust, we Jewish people have coined the words “Never again.”, but the truth of the matter is those outside of our group seem to be forgetting. Many Holocaust survivors are well past 80 years old, and a battery of psychological and cognitive faculties support the denial of our plight. People believe that a just world would never allow this, they think that their evidence supports them, and all else is a lie. Many have gone too far and now are True Believers, unable to turn back from what they have held before. Finally, more still ascribe to a racist heuristic, and will use Holocaust denial not out of belief, but as a weapon against Jews. In these cases, I write not for them, but for the others who have yet to be converted or are for some reason unsure. The only way that we can ensure this genocide does not repeat itself, is for the world to listen to us, hear us, and deny the deniers.
ADL. (2018). 2017 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents. Retrieved from https://www.adl.org/resources/reports/2017-audit-of-anti-semitic-incidents
ADL. (2019). Holocaust Denial. Retrieved from https://www.adl.org/resources/glossary-terms/holocaust-denial
Austin, B. S. (2019). Holocaust Denial: A Brief History. Retrieved from https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/a-brief-history-of-holocaust-denial
CNN. (2018). A Shadow Over Europe. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2018/11/europe/antisemitism-poll-2018-intl/
DailyStormer. (2019). Tag Archives: Holocaust. Retrieved from https://dailystormer.name/tag/holocaust/
Dashefsky, Arnold/Sheskin, & Ira. (2017). Vital Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jewish-population-of-the-world
Grady, C. (2018, December 20). The Alice Walker anti-Semitism controversy, explained. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/12/20/18146628/alice-walker-david-icke-anti-semitic-new-york-times
Gstalter, M. (2018, April 12). Poll: Majority of Americans say something like the Holocaust could happen again. Retrieved from https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/382843-poll-majority-of-americans-say-something-like-the-holocaust
Lipstadt, D. (2011, February 17). History – World Wars: Denying the Holocaust. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/genocide/deniers_01.shtml
Madhani, A. (2018, November 07). 56,000 voters in Illinois House district preferred Holocaust denier to moderate Democrat. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2018/11/07/holocaust-denier-neo-nazi-arthur-jones-chicago-illinois-dan-lipinski/1918933002/
Memorial And Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau. (2019). Auschwitz-Birkenau. Retrieved from http://auschwitz.org/en/history/holocaust-denial/denial-forms/
Mendick, R. (2017, May 20). Jeremy Corbyn’s 10-year association with group which denies the Holocaust. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/20/jeremy-corbyns-10-year-association-group-denies-holocaust/
Pilcher, B. R. (2007, November 19). Holocaust Denial. Retrieved from https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/holocaust-denial/
Sherwood, H. (2019, January 27). One in 20 Britons ‘does not believe’ Holocaust took place, poll finds. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/27/one-in-20-britons-does-not-believe-holocaust-happened
Southern Poverty Law Center. (2017). Holocaust Denial. Retrieved from https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/holocaust-denial
TED, & Lipstadt, D. (2017, May 23). Behind the lies of Holocaust denial | Deborah Lipstadt. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ztdofPc8Rw
Willsher, K. (2017, March 15). France’s Front National suspends party official over Holocaust denial. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/15/benoit-loeuillet-france-front-national-holocaust-denial
Wilner, M. (2018, October 27). U.S. Rep. King after Auschwitz visit: “Bring pride back to Germany again”. Retrieved from https://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/US-Rep-King-after-Auschwitz-visit-Bring-pride-back-to-Germany-again-570398