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A brief narrative on the 2006-09 essays by Matthew Feldman

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  2006 - 2007

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The Department of History, University of Northampton & The Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team


[Please note that editorials posted in this section are the sole viewpoints of the individual author and do not necessarily
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Holocaust Denial: An unavoidable introduction?


Guest Publication by

Matthew Feldman

[photos added to enhance the text]


Deborah Lipstadt

This essay touches upon a subject that is no laughing matter, even if most of the proponents of Holocaust denial today are, upon inspection, pretty risible characters. At the same time, this is a highly sensitive issue and, it must be said, quite serious matter that has become increasingly visible in the public sphere – and nowhere more so than online.

In considering some of the motives of those who are, to quote the important study from 2000, Denying History: Who says the Holocaust didn’t Happen and Why do they say it?, Michael Sherman and Alex Grobman concluded that motivations for Holocaust denial are overwhelmingly advanced ‘for present political or ideological reasons’ (238), especially anti-Semitism and fascism.

For Richard Evans, a historian who testified at David Irving’s unsuccessful libel trial against Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, such deniers typically held the ‘minimum following beliefs’:

  1. The number of Jews killed by the Nazis was far less than 6 million; it amounted to only a few hundred thousands, and was thus similar to, or less than, the number of German civilians killed in Allied bombing raids.

  2. Gas chambers were not used to kill large numbers of Jews at any time.

  3. Neither Hitler nor the Nazi leadership in general had a program of exterminating Europe’s Jews; all they wished to do was to deport them to Eastern Europe.

  4. “The Holocaust” was a myth invented by Allied propaganda during the war and sustained since then by Jews who wishes to use it to gain political and financial support for the state of Israel or for themselves. The supposed evidence for the Nazis’ wartime mass murder of millions of Jews by gassing and other means was fabricated after the war. (Telling Lies about Hitler, 110).

Given the above, understandably, many feel passionately that there is no debate to have with deniers: the Holocaust took place; and therefore, spending even a moment on the subject of Holocaust denial is simply a waste of time. I agree with these first two points: there is indeed no benefit in debating whether the Holocaust ‘happened’ with those who think, against the mountains of evidence, that it did not. Yet it does not follow, for me at least, that simply ignoring this phenomenon altogether is the best way forward. While arguing with deniers themselves may be pointless, trying to understand their motives and arguments is not.

For either way, this needs to be recognized: Holocaust denial exists, it is growing exponentially, and ignoring the subject has, it seems, only allowed for Holocaust denial to grow unchecked – until the intervention less notably by historians and social scientists than by lawyers and judges in the 1990s, particularly in the cases of Holocaust deniers Ernst Zündel and later, more infamously, Irving.

It bears noting that the first to systematically deny the existence of this policy of genocide – the extermination of all of Europe’s Jews – was, in fact, Nazi Germany itself. Leading Third Reich functionaries and henchmen destroyed evidence ranging from documents to crematoria; they exhumed and burned already-desecrated corpses; they kept the existence of their so-called ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’ as great a secret as possible during the Second World War.

In tandem with the development of the historical Holocaust itself, then, Holocaust denial was employed by Holocaust perpetrators – that is, the Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War – and was done for self-serving, ideological and anti-Semitic reasons.

Nazism’s attempt to murder every European Jew under their control, and more relevantly here, their systematic attempt to conceal this unparalleled crime, were to be ultimately unsuccessful: millions of Jews survived the occupation of the Third Reich, and the Holocaust has since become the best-documented genocide – indeed perhaps the best documented series of causally-linked events – in the annals of history. Neither seems good enough, however, for Holocaust deniers.

In short, Holocaust deniers must contend with thousands of corresponding testimonies by perpetrators and victims alike; they must ignore literally tens of millions of pages of contemporaneous documents; and they must argue that both general understandings of history and generations of academic historians are deluded, deceitful or conspiratorial in their scholarship on the Holocaust.

Samuel Pepys

To throw this point into some relief, we have but a handful of authentic sources about the Norman Conquest, or the Spanish Armada, or even the Great Fire of London in 1666 – the latter for example, including less that a dozen accounts from that year, of which the ubiquitous diary by the parliamentarian Samuel Pepys is certainly the best known. Yet to my knowledge, no one has carbon-dated Samuel Pepys’ diaries for authenticity; forensically analyzed his handwriting for veracity; or produced a 250-page report on the diary’s legitimacy – as the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation felt compelled to do with the Anne Frank Diary in the 1980s.

This was as largely a result of systematic forgery claims by well-known deniers such as Richard Harwood (aka Richard Verrall of Britain’s National Front), Arthur Butz, Robert Faurisson and of course, the gold standard of these historical deceivers, David Irving, late of an Austrian prison cell for the espousal of Holocaust denial.

It may be noted that commonalities shared by Holocaust deniers from the Nazi period and today appear to feature several underpinnings: first, anti-Semitism; second, ideological or political motivations that are usually fascist or even neo-Nazi; and perhaps also third, what James Najarian has called a ‘rhetoric’ of denial. By this he points to the traditional academic tendency to present arguments in terms of interpretations that have two ‘sides’. Najarian then uses the concise analogy of believers in a ‘flat earth’, rightly arguing: ‘this does not make the rest of us round-earthers; we don’t need a name for ourselves’.

Najarian’s point is as simple as it might be unexpected: despite the frequency of anti-Semitism and radical right politics typically motivating Holocaust denial, ‘Holocaust deniers efface history by using some of the same linguistic channels that late twentieth-century intellectuals commonly use’ (76). These tactics include scholarly presentation, argumentation and deployment of evidence, even if highly selective and dubious. Over time, the more academically-minded Holocaust deniers thus attempted to establish a ‘revisionist’, yet seemingly sophisticated, ‘interpretation’ of history that posited the effective non-existence of the Third Reich’s genocidal ‘Final Solution’.

Strangely enough, perhaps the second half of the twentieth century can be considered ‘the good old days’, when scholars and publishers alike could simply disregard far more sporadic deniers of the Holocaust. Well-beyond the watershed date of 1979 – when the first pseudo-academic institution was established to feature Holocaust ‘revisionism’ in the United States, Willis Carto’s Institute for Historical Review – such figures were either mocked or ignored; they were rarely treated seriously or as a danger.

To cite Evans again, importantly, their writings were instead ‘mostly distributed by mail order’, and of a caliber that ‘seemed to belong in the world of sensational newspapers such as you could buy in American supermarkets, recounting the experiences of people who had been abducted by little green aliens or who had seen Elvis Presley still alive’ (107-8). In short, until about 20 years ago, Holocaust deniers were largely a subspecies of the tin-foil hat conspiracy brigade, and were dismissed out of hand by bemused, baffled or offended onlookers. But then again, this was prior to the rise of the internet.

A personal anecdote helps underscore this point. In researching this text, I entered the term ‘Holocaust Denial’ as a keyword search in one of England’s copyright library. Of the 70 book-length texts available on the subject ‘Holocaust Denial’, no less than half were works from this century. Broadly speaking, books before 2000 were overwhelmingly by deniers themselves, while the other half of texts to appear on the subject – those in the last decade – are largely works of proper scholarship on Holocaust denial by the likes of Evans, Shermer and Grobman, Lipstadt, Roger Eatwell, and more recently, Robert A. Kahn and Robert Eaglestone, amongst others.

So too with the 152 journal articles and peer-reviewed texts employing the keyword ‘Holocaust Denial’: fully 71 of these have been published in the last ten years alone, in contrast to zero listed prior to 1973 and only 2 across the 1970s, rising to 17 texts across the 1980s. While this is something of a rough and ready quantification, I think it is likely in keeping with other national contexts and academic agendas beyond Britain’s. Making sense of this, we might say that deniers published to deafening silence for fifty years after the Second World War, and only in the last decade, or perhaps two, has scholarship confronted this trend.

The concern evident in Israel W. Charny’s important 2003 article, “A classification of denials of the Holocaust and other genocides”, helps to makes this academic sea-change apparent:

There is an urgent need to for a concerted battle against denials which will penetrate the inner mind-structures and propaganda techniques of the deniers so as to combat their explicit and implicit strategies more effectively. The battle against denials can no longer be limited to reproving again and again the evidential proofs of a genocide, although one also must not cease from continuing to marshal the historical data. Effective combating of denial will be possible only when based on a comprehensive model of different types of denial which successfully interprets the political purposes, cognitive structures and communications strategies of various types of denial. (11)


Israel W. Charny

Yet if denial is a slap in the face to the remembrance of the Holocaust – or better, its inverse: Holocaust denial is the trivialization and negation of accepted history – then it seems to me that a leading Holocaust website is as good a forum as any to confront it, to examine it, and to show it for what it is. Perhaps by familiarizing ourselves with the central arguments and postwar history of Holocaust denial, however nauseating and noxious they may be, it is possible to recognize the attempts by extremists to hide behind scholarly facades and seemingly intellectual arguments.


Particularly with the communication possibilities offered by the internet and related New Media technologies, recognizing these weavers of deception for what they are, and indeed always have been, has never been so important as it is today.

Long before the ubiquity of the ‘net, however, a similar view was by advanced Kenneth Stern’s 1993 book Holocaust Denial. This was at a time when most academics preferred to pass over Holocaust denial in silence, hoping that starving it of the oxygen of publicity would choke off the stream of increasingly frequent denier titles like David Hoggan’s The Myth of the 6 Million from 1969, Austin App’s Six Million Swindle in 1973 or, three years later, Arthur Butz’s infamous The Hoax of the 20th Century. Stern’s view bears reiterating here, if only because it outlines a context of political extremism and unchecked anti-Semitism that always has been, and remains today, the ideal breeding ground for Holocaust Denial:


Holocaust denial must be taken seriously […] combating it cannot be a matter of Holocaust education alone. Holocaust denial is not about historical truth. It is about anti-Jewish hatred as part of a political agenda – and must be confronted as such… genocide is always possible if people are complacent about hatred. (xi)

This is much the same conclusion reached by Deborah Lipstadt, in her watershed book of the same time, Denying the Holocaust. Given her refusal to be cowed by Holocaust deniers like David Irving, no less than her principled refusal to engage with their pseudo-intellectual shenanigans long before the problem of Holocaust denial manifested itself online, her final words there are no less appropriate as final words here and now, a generation later:

We must vigilantly stand watch against an increasingly nimble enemy … When we witness assaults on truth, our response must be strong, though neither polemical nor emotional. We must educate the broader public and academe about this threat and its historical and ideological roots. We must expose these people for what they are. The effort will not be pleasant …. We will remain ever vigilant so that the most precious tools of our and our society – truth and reason – can prevail. The still, small voice of millions cry out to us from the ground demanding that we do no less. (222)










Copyright: 2008 Matthew Feldman   H.E.A.R.T


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