A Brief History of Holocaust Denial and Distortion
Holocaust denial and Holocaust distortion are not new. Knowing the history of Holocaust denial and distortion—from the Nazi era to today—can help us better recognise when these tactics are being employed. This can help prevent us from believing and spreading such disinformation, which harms democracies and threatens open, pluralistic societies.¹
The origins of Holocaust denial and distortion
Attempts to deny or distort the Holocaust began with the Holocaust itself.
Nazi doublespeak, euphemisms, and coded descriptions sugar-coated and disguised the Nazis’ policies of annihilation. The Nazis used the term, “special treatment” (Sonderbehandlung) of Jews to hide what was in fact the murder of Jewish people by the Nazis and their collaborators. The term “Final Solution” (Endlösung) actually referred to the systematic mass murder of Jews.
The Nazis and their collaborators actively destroyed evidence of the Holocaust during the war. The Nazis forced Jewish prisoners to exhume mass graves and destroy the corpses of victims. The Nazis referred to this operation in coded language, as Aktion 1005. The Nazis later murdered the same Jewish prisoners they had forced to conceal the Nazi atrocities.
The Nazis also presented a false or misleading picture of their crimes to keep international critics at bay. In some ways, these efforts succeeded. An example of the success of the Nazi efforts to hide the true nature of their crimes is the Nazi propaganda that misled the Danish and International Red Cross on their visit to the Theresienstadt ghetto in 1944. The representatives accepted the Nazis’ falsified presentation of the ghetto, which had been “beautified” shortly before the visit. The Nazis took care to disguise the ghetto’s distressing living conditions behind a veneer of normalcy and the Red Cross’ representatives ignored the few signs of distress they were able to catch a glimpse of.
The marginalisation of Jewish victims after the war
In the years immediately following the Second World War, the Holocaust rarely featured as a topic of concern among the general public.²
In communist East and Central Europe, official narratives positioned communists as the principal victims of the Nazis and their collaborators. The official narratives did not include the specific role that antisemitism played in the Nazis’ policies and in the genocide of the Jewish people. This neglect also contributed to continued antisemitism in the region, which was often coupled with accusations of Jewish imperialist conspiracy myths.³
In many countries, a broad silence reigned among the political level, nearly all academic researchers, and the general public concerning the crimes committed by the Nazis and their collaborators. The lack of public interest in the Holocaust was reinforced by continued antisemitism among the general public after the war until the 1960s. Post-war communists government officials rather advanced heroic myths exaggerating the level of involvement and impact of national resistance movements.⁴
The rise of Holocaust denial networks
Throughout the immediate post-war period, networks of Holocaust deniers grew.⁵ In France, where such networks originated, denialist writers questioned the veracity of the murders of the Holocaust. In Germany and Austria, antisemitic authors were also trying to whitewash the crimes of the National Socialist regime and rehabilitate its leading figures. Publishing houses dedicated to distributing antisemitic denialist and distortive texts sprung up.
In 1978, an international network of Holocaust deniers posing as experts established the Institute of Historical Review (IHR). By the 1990s, this network of deniers, through the IHR, published extensively. Their publications relied on circular reasoning, sources taken out of context, and unscholarly interpretations of those sources. Today, these texts, in addition to videos, continue to be spread online, posing as serious works of scholarship.
These materials have, however, been thoroughly discredited, both by academics and in the court of law. In the seminal case of Irving v Penguin Books Ltd, Holocaust denier David Irving lost his libel case against historian Deborah Lipstadt. Judge Charles Gray ruled that Irving “misrepresented and distorted the evidence which was available to him” and was "an active Holocaust denier; that he was antisemitic and racist and that he associated with right-wing extremists who promoted neo-Nazism.”⁶
From Holocaust denial to Holocaust distortion today
Although Holocaust denial can still be found on the internet, the Holocaust is rarely denied in mainstream circles. Rather, the history of the Holocaust is often distorted. Over the past decade, as social media platforms have spurred polarising echo chambers and as dangerous forms of nationalism have surged, Holocaust distortion has intensified. With tech companies ill-equipped to respond effectively to distortion, the digital world has made it easier for Holocaust distortion to be spread through mis- and disinformation.
Holocaust distortion exists at all levels of society and in many different contexts. Some knowingly distort the Holocaust to advance an anti-democratic political agenda or to legitimise a difficult national history. Others do so unintentionally, because they do not know enough about the Holocaust. Holocaust distortion can be seen for example, in national legislation that seeks to absolve nations of responsibility, expressions of public opinion supporting such legal measures, legal decisions that overturn criminal convictions of Nazi collaborators, rhetoric that employs historically inappropriate comparisons, and online disinformation.
Distortion may not necessarily be intended as an expression of antisemitism. Whatever the motivation, however, Holocaust distortion contributes to supremacist narratives embraced by antisemites. Such ideologies threaten pluralistic, open societies, the animating spirit behind thriving democracies. They pose a danger to everyone.
We share a responsibility to stop the spread of Holocaust distortion, to learn about the Holocaust from reliable sources, and to encourage others to #ProtectTheFacts on social media.
Together, we can build a world that says no to distortion.
Learn more about the history of Holocaust denial and distortion.
- Key dates in the history of Holocaust denial – USHMM
- What was the Holocaust? Overview – How Vast was the Crime – Yad Vashem
- History of the concentration and death camp Auschwitz – Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau
- Professor Yehuda Bauer speaks on Holocaust denial and distortion – Yad Vashem
- This text is abridged from "Historical and Geographical Contexts," in Brigitte Bailer, Juliane Wetzel and Robert Williams (eds.), Understanding Holocaust Distortion: Contexts and Examples. Manuscript in preparation, 2021.
- This is not to say that evidence of the Holocaust was not available to the public. The post-war trials, which presented extensive amounts of evidence and received significant media coverage, still did not spur public debate on the topic of the Holocaust. For an introduction to the post-war trials, explore the USHMM’s Holocaust Encyclopedia articles on the subject. Likewise, efforts to collect survivor testimony on antisemitism and the persecution of Jews also existed. The Wiener Library, led by Head of Research Dr. Eva Reichmann, collected 1,300 reports in seven different languages over a seven-year period in the mid-1950s. This project came just as other early efforts to gather testimony drew to a close. This collection is now available online.
- See, for example, the 1952 Slánský trial in Czechoslovakia, an antisemitic show trial, which marked all Czechoslovak Jews as possible traitors and Western agents.
- For example, on the Dutch case, see Saskia Hansen and Julia Zarankin, “A Founding Myth for the Netherlands: The Second World War and the Victimization of Dutch Jews,” in Reflections on the Holocaust, ed. Julia Zarankin (New York: Humanity in Action, Inc. and authors, 2011), 106-117.
- For a detailed overview of the development of these networks and the mainstreaming of Holocaust denial literature, see Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).
- For the full text of the judgement, see: https://phdn.org/archives/www.david-irving.de/docs/irvingjudgment.pdf.
The views expressed by the individual contributors to the blog do not necessarily reflect those of the European Commission, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the United Nations, UNESCO, or officials of Member States of the European Commission, IHRA, the United Nations and UNESCO.