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Holocaust Denial:
A Brief History

by Ben S. Austin


Holocaust Denial: Table of Contents | Refuting Denial | Denial on Campus


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This essay will attempt to provide a brief historical review of Holocaust denial. For an in-depth treatment of this question, the reader is referred to two major works on the subject: Lucy S. Dawidowicz,Historians and the Holocaust and Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. The material in the present essay draws heavily from these two excellent works. Here I am concerned with the historical background and origins of the movement. Primary attention will be given to Paul Rassinier, Harry Elmer Barnes and Austin J. App.

The very first Holocaust deniers were the Nazis themselves. As it became increasingly obvious that the war was not going well, Himmler instructed his camp commandants to destroy records, crematoria and other sign of mass destruction of human beings. He was especially adamant with regard to those Jews still alive who could testify regarding their experiences in the camps. In April, 1945, he signed an official order (which still exists in his own handwriting) that the camps would not be surrendered and that no prisoner "fall into the hands of the enemies alive." Apparently Himmler knew that the "Final Solution" would be viewed as a moral outrage by the rest of the world.

Historian Kenneth Stern (1993:6) suggests that many top SS leaders left Germany at the end of the war and began immediately the process of using their propaganda skills to rewrite history. Shortly after the war, denial materials began to appear. One of the first was Friedrich Meinecke's The German Catastrophe, (1950) in which he offered a brief defense for the German people by blaming industrialists, bureaucrats and the Pan-German League (an essentially antisemitic organization begun by von Schoerner in Vienna prior to young Adolf Hitler's arrival there) for the outbreak of World War I and Hitler's rise to power. Meinecke was openly antisemitic; nonetheless he was a respected historian.

There is a fairly clear historical development of contemporary Holocaust denial. Surprisingly, its roots extend far beyond the Holocaust itself and may be found in the work of historical revisionists in Europe, principally France, and in the United States who set out to absolve Germany of responsibility for World War I.

Paul Rassinier, formerly a "political" prisoner at Buchenwald, was one of the first European writers to come to the defense of the Nazi regime with regard to their "extermination" policy. In 1945, Rassinier was elected as a Socialist member of the French National Assembly, a position which he held for less than two years before resigning for health reasons. Shortly after the war he began reading reports of extermination in Nazi death camps by means of gas chambers and crematoria. His response was, essentially, "I was there and there were no gas chambers." It should be remembered that he was confined to Buchenwald, the first major concentration camp created by the Hitler regime (1937) and that it was located in Germany. Buchenwald was not primarily a "death camp" and there were no gas chambers there. He was arrested and incarcerated in 1943. By that time the focus of the "Final Solution" had long since shifted to the Generalgouvernement of Poland. Rassinier used his own experience as a basis for denying the existence of gas chambers and mass extermination at other camps. Given his experience and his antisemitism, he embarked upon a writing career which, over the next 30 years, would place him at the center of Holocaust denial. In 1948 he published Le Passage de la Ligne, Crossing the Line, and, in 1950, The Holocaust Story and the Lie of Ulysses. In these early works he attempted to make two main arguments: first, while some atrocities were committed by the Germans, they have been greatly exaggerated and, second, that the Germans were not the perpetrators of these atrocities -- the inmates who ran the camps instigated them. In 1964 he published The Drama of European Jewry, a work committed to debunking what he called "the genocide myth." The major focus of this book was the denial of the gas chambers in the concentration camps, the denial of the widely accepted figure of 6 million Jews exterminated and the discounting of the testimony of the perpetrators following the war. These three have emerged in recent years as central tenets of Holocaust denial. While none of these arguments were new, Rassinier did introduce a new twist to Holocaust denial. Having argued that the genocidal extermination of 6 million Jews is a myth, he asks: Who perpetrated the myth, and for what purpose. His answer: the Zionists as part of a massive Jewish/Soviet/Allied conspiricay to "swindle" Germany out of billions of dollars in reparations. This is a theme which would later be taken up by Austin J. App and by the current crop of Holocaust deniers.

In 1977, the above works by Rassinier were re-published by the Noontide Press under the title, Debunking the Genocide Myth. The Noontide Press is the primary outlet for the Institute of Historical Review. Toward the end of his life he wrote two additional pieces, one on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem (held in 1961) and one on the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt. Both of these were translated by American historian, and admirer of Rassinier, Harry Elmer Barnes. These materials have been published by Steppingstones Publishing and are regularly advertised for sale by the Institute For Historical Review. Thus, the work of Rassinier takes its place in contemporary denial literature.

The claims of Rassinier can be easily refuted and have received full treatment by Deborah Lipstadt and other reputable historians. Briefly, however, Rassinier offers little evidence for most of his claims, he totally disregards any documentary evidence that would contradict his claims and attempts to explain away the testimony of survivors as"emotional" exaggeration and the testimony of accused war criminals as the result of "coercion." For instance, he completely ignores Hitler's stated agenda in Mein Kampf (1923) and his famous and oft-quoted speech of 1939 before the German Reichstag:

Today I want to be a prophet once more: If international finance Jewry inside and outside of Europe should succeed once more in plunging nations into another world war, the consequence will not be the Bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.

Similarly, he disregards the speeches of Himmler, such as the address given to the leaders of the SS in 1943:

I also want to talk with you, quite frankly, on a very grave matter. Among yourselves it should be mentioned quite frankly, and yet we will never speak of it publicly....I mean the clearing out of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish race. (Quoted in Jackson Speilvogel, Hitler and Nazi Germany, 3rd ed., 1996:282).

Similarly, he disregards the Wansee Protocol which stands as clear evidence of an official Nazi policy of extermination.

As Lipstadt observes, the primary link between these early revisionists and modern deniers was the U.S. historian, Harry Elmer Barnes,the first American historian to take up the theme of Holocaust denial. During World War I he was an outspoken, even vitriolic, supporter of the Allied effort. After the war, however, he became highly pro-German and seemed intent on defending the German people against any responsibility for the war. While he blamed France and Russia for starting the war, he stopped short, in his early work, of blaming the Jews, as Kaiser Wilhelm had done. Barnes early work was fairly respectable historical analysis despite the fact that his agenda was a clear denunciation of U.S. foreign policy during World War I. These themes appear strongly in his, The Genesis of the Great War, 1926, In Quest of Truth and Justice, 1928 and World Politics in Modern Civilization, 1930. His two-volume The History of Western Civilization was widely adopted at prestigious schools throughout the United States. It was not until the late 1950s that his analysis extended to the issue of atrocities against Jews. This shift in his agenda coincides with his discovery of French popular historian, Paul Rassinier, and the American revisionist, David Leslie Hoggan.

Hoggan's dissertation at Harvard was a revisionist work in which he blamed Britain for World War II and presented Hitler as a victim of Allied manipulation. Throughout the work, Hitler is presented as conciliatory, reasonable and sincere in his attempts to avoid war. Barnes encouraged Hoggan to have the work published. After extensive re-writing, it was published, in Germany in 1961, under the title, The Forced War. The title reveals the thrust of the book -- World War II was forced upon Hitler. An important concern of the book was to downplay Nazi atrocities against Jews.

As historian, Deborah Lipstadt, observes:

Hoggan's book, on which Barnes heaped accolades, is full of such misrepresentations in relation to British and Polish foreign policy and concerning Germany's treatment of the Jews. His dissertation contains few such observations. Barnes read the dissertation before it was turned into a book and was in contact with Hoggan for a full six years before the book was published. Barnes helped get it published and provided a blurb for its jacket, obviously playing a significant role in turning this "solid conscientious piece of work" into a Nazi apoligia. (Denying the Holocaust,1993:73)

It was Barnes' discovery of Rassinier that seems to have been the pivotal point in his thinking. He began by arguing that the atrocity stories were exaggerated and slowly worked his way to the conclusion that they were fabrications. Stopping short of denying the Holocaust, Barnes attempted to connect the "exaggerated" atrocities with German reparations to Israel. Following the earlier lead of Rassinier, Barnes attempted to leave the impression that the size of the reparations were determined by the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust when actually the size of the reparations wad determined by the estimated cost of resettling Jews from Germany and occupied territories to Israel.

Finally, Barnes attempted to raise doubts about the Holocaust in general by raising doubts regarding the existence of gas chambers as a means of extermination....The existence and implementation of gas chambers for extermination purposes is a matter of special concern to deniers since they symbolize more dramatically than anything else the rational, systematic and impersonal nature of the killing machine. Every Holocaust denier feels compelled to make this issue central the argument. Barnes' contention was that the gas chambers were post-war inventions Surely Barnes was aware of the extensive testimony provided to the British as early as 1944 by Auschwitz escapee, Rudolph Vrba (see Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz And The Allies, 1981:190-198).

App's major contribution to Holocaust denial lies in his codification of denial into eight fundamental tenets (The following are adapted from Deborah Lipstadt, 1994:99-100):

  1. Emigration, not extermination was the Nazi plan for dealing with Germany's "Jewish problem." His main evidence for this assertion is that if Germany had planned total extermination, no Jews would have survived.
  2. No Jews were gassed in any German camps and probably not at Auschwitz either. He argued that the crematoria were designed to cremate those who died from other causes -- natural illness, etc.
  3. Jews who disappeared during the years of WWII and have not been accounted for did so in territories under Soviet, rather than German, control.
  4. The majority of Jews who were killed by the Nazis were people whom the Nazis had every right to "execute" as subversives, spies, and criminals.
  5. If the Holocaust claims have any truth, Israel would have opened its archives to historians. Instead, he claims, they have preferred to continue perpetuating the Holocaust "hoax" by utilizing the charge of "antisemitism" against anyone who questions it.
  6. All evidence to support the Holocaust "hoax" of 6 million dead rests upon misquotes of Nazis and Nazi documents.
  7. Burden of proof argument. It is incumbent upon the accusers to prove the 6 million figure. Instead, App argues, Germany has been forced to prove that the 6 million is incorrect. This argument rests upon App's (and others') assertion that reparations paid to Israel by Germany are based on the 6 million figure. He consistently refers to the reparations as a Zionist "swindle."
  8. Jewish historians and other scholars have great discrepancies in their calculations of the number of victims. App takes this as evidence that the claims are unverified.

The above assertions stand as the fundamental tenets of contemporary Holocaust denial.

Holocaust denial is rooted in the isolationism and historical revision of the WWI, post-War, WWII and Cold War periods. By the mid to late 1960s, all the ingredients of contemporary Holocaust denial were in place. Some of this background does, in fact, represent legitimate historical revision. Other parts of it, however, depart from the academic standards of historical analysis and move clearly in the direction of politically and ideologically motivated historical denial. One overarching characteristic of all deniers, the one characteristic which binds them all together, is antisemitism. Regardless of the language used to clothe their attacks upon memory and truth, it is the language of hate and fear. Regardless of pretensions of scholarship and even underlying traces of real scholarship, deniers ultimately come to rely upon the least respectable of all strategies -- stereotyping. The works of Rassinier, Barnes, Hoggan and App consistently fall back upon stereotypic images of the Jewish people which have been perpetuated for centuries and which show little sign of diminishing with the current crop of deniers.


Sources: The Holocaust\Shoah Page

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