Holocaust denial grabbed headlines recently over plans by notorious denier David Irving to lead a tour of Nazi historical sites in Poland, including visits to the sites of Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor and Majdanek death camps. A similar trip took place in 2013 and was used to promote Irving’s agenda.
The British-born Irving, who has been convicted of Holocaust denial in several countries, including Austria where he served time behind bars, has insisted that the existence of gas-chambers and mass murder of Jews at Auschwitz are “exaggerations, baloney.”
In 2011 Irving visited Majdanek, describing the crematorium building as “a fake, put up in post-war years.” He said he had told visiting schoolgirls that “skepticism” was needed while they were being taught about the gas chambers by their teacher.
He added: “To suggest that a modicum of fakery and exaggeration has been done is not to deny the atrocities, merely to question their true scale and the methods used.” This is vintage Irving, alleging that fully documented events are fraudulent and hinting at a Jewish conspiracy, while insisting in the same breath he is not a Holocaust denier.
The Israeli government called on Poland to deny entry to Irving. “Given his record,” said Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennet, “it’s clear he intends to use this opportunity to further spread falsehood and vitriolic narratives… in addition to stoking the already raging fire of hatred and anti-Semitism we are witnessing around the world today.”
Jewish groups were quick to add their support to Bennet’s protest. Karen Pollock of the Holocaust Educational Trust said, “David Irving is a proven Holocaust denier. Holocaust denial is simply anti-Semitism dressed up as academic debate. His forthcoming “tour” can serve no purpose other than to insult the memory of Holocaust victims and survivors. “
The Auschwitz Memorial Museum said, “Holocaust denial is a mendacious conspiracy theory… a dangerous carrier of anti-Semitism and hatred. We hope the visit won’t happen.”
Like Nailing Jelly to The Wall
Irving rose to international attention in 2000 when he sued renowned Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt for libel, saying she had maligned his reputation as a historian. In her 1993 book, The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory that exposed political agendas that fuel Holocaust denial, Lipstadt had called Irving a “dangerous spokesman” for a movement that seeks the resurgence of Nazism.
The suit was filed in Britain where libel laws favor the plaintiff; the burden of proof was on Lipstadt to prove her allegations against Irving were justified. She not only had to prove that Irving consistently distorted the facts about the Holocaust in his writings and speeches, but that he was intentionally lying and misleading the public, not merely a victim of ignorance.
Jews the world over watched the London trial tensely as it played out over two months, knowing that a victory for Irving would give Holocaust denial –and the anti-Semitism that feeds it—a massive boost. Deborah Lipstadt once commented that arguing with a Holocaust denier was “like trying to nail jelly to the wall.” During the trial, this bizarre sensation was on display as Irving, unable to defend the distortions and lies in his written works, took refuge in a sweeping dismissal of the defense’s compelling evidence. The documents might have been forged, Irving said. The photographs might be doctored. One could not be absolutely sure of the numbers, the facts or the truth of anything.
Like trying to nail jelly to the wall. Or smoke.
In the end, the Holocaust denier suffered a resounding defeat. “My conclusion,” wrote Judge Charles Gray, “is that Irving displays all the characteristics of a Holocaust denier. He repeatedly makes assertions about the Holocaust which are… contrary to the historical record.”
Gray ruled that Irving “persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist and that he associates with right wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.”
Poland Says Irving Not Welcome
Irving’s career was set back by his humiliating, globally publicized defeat, yet the next two decades saw him make several attempts at a comeback, encouraged by the fact that Holocaust denial – and anti-Semitism more widely – were on the rise. Both are very much present today in platforms espoused by the modern far right (as well as the left), and are central to the international movement known as the alt-right.
Almost 20 years later, the disgraced Irving is now in the process of collecting deposits for another “Nazi-history” tour in Poland, costing $3650 per participant, with the tour brochure citing the death camps as “controversial” and touting Irving as a foremost “Hitler expert.”
He faces opposition not only from Jewish groups and from Israel but from critics in Poland. Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said at a news conference that Irving is not welcome to visit Poland.
“British Holocaust denier David Irving probably will not be able to enter Poland due to the fact that his opinions are unacceptable from the point of view of Polish law,” Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said at a recent news conference, adding that the Polish government had “already taken some steps” to prevent Irving from entering the country.
Anti-Semitism: The Flip Side to Holocaust Denial
Deniers of the Holocaust either deny that genocide took place or minimize its extent. The net effect is to trivialize and whitewash the monstrous crimes of the Third Reich in the hope of rehabilitating the Nazi regime.
An automatic corollary of this position invokes toxic stereotypes of a sinister Jewish global conspiracy to hoodwink the world, and Jews inventing tales of mass atrocities and genocide to exploit the world and advance their political and financial goals.
Using deliberately falsified evidence and outright lies as Irving did, and posing as seekers of historical truth, deniers challenge the authenticity of eyewitness testimonies as well as mounds of documents captured by the Allies before the Germans had a chance to destroy them.
These include orders from Hitler’s deputies to annihilate Jewish communities in Poland, and detailed reports of mass shootings and gassings. They include captured Nazi footage of SS troops perpetrating slaughters, captured “death registries” at Auschwitz, blueprints of the crematoria that match those in existence, orders for Zyklon B cyanide gas, photos of gassed inmates and other evidence that historians have determined to be authentic.
Horrifying films and photos of killing operations and their aftermath can only begin to give a picture of the extent of Nazi bestiality; as do the reports, photos and films taken by the liberators.
All of this was reinforced by the testimony of the perpetrators themselves at the 1946 Nuremberg Trials, where not one of 20 top-ranking Nazis denied the crime of genocide. Their defense was only that they were not responsible for it; they were just following orders or not directly involved in the murders.
Most Holocaust deniers know all this but believe they can deceive the public nonetheless. Their aims are usually two-fold and feed into one another: Deniers seek to wash away the stain of Nazism in an attempt to make Nazism an acceptable political alternative today. This isn’t possible unless they distance Nazism from the evils it perpetrated.
That is why discrediting the Holocaust by casting Jews as liars and frauds is an important tool for these haters, and why Jew-hatred is the flip side to Holocaust denial.
One white supremacist and leader of the National Socialist White People’s Party, quoted in a report by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, explained the Jew-haters’ powerful need to undermine the truth of the Holocaust.
“Take away the Holocaust and what do you have left? Without their precious Holocaust, what are the Jews? Just a grubby little bunch of international bandits and squatters who have perpetrated the most massive, cynical fraud in human history…”
Infringement on Freedom of Speech?
The brouhaha over the planned Irving tour highlights the slippery slope of whether prosecuting individuals for Holocaust denial deters or encourages the growth of their ranks, by turning deniers into martyrs and forcing the denial movement underground.
The uproar over the Irving tour also raises the question of whether laws against Holocaust denial infringe on freedom of speech, and more fundamentally, whether these laws could lead to encroachment of benign, non-threatening activities.
What would happen, for example, if the current cultural taboos in liberal western society against criticizing certain minority groups, such as those who practice a deviant lifestyle, were incorporated into legal taboos?
Poland, Germany, Austria, Belgium, France and other European countries, including the European Union, have laws outlawing Holocaust denial and the use of Nazi symbols such as the swastika.
As a result of the enormous suffering inflicted upon Europe by the Nazi regime, these countries enacted laws criminalizing both the denial of the Holocaust and the promotion of Nazi ideology. Their aim is to prevent the resurrection of Nazism and its horrors by stamping out any public reemergence of its doctrines.
Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and Switzerland all have laws prohibiting Holocaust denial. Germany and Austria vigilantly prosecute offenders; others, like Lithuania and Romania, take a more lenient approach in enforcement.
Britain, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries, by contrast, allow promotion of neo-Nazi ideology, prioritizing freedom of the press and freedom of speech over the potential fallout from hate speech.
First Amendment Protects Holocaust Denial
Broad interpretation by the U.S. Supreme Court of the First Amendment has made denial of the Holocaust, promotion of Nazi ideology and dissemination of racist and anti-Semitic speech completely legal under American law.
The only limitations on such speech, according to the Supreme Court, are calls for violence or promoting dangerous behavior (as in shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater).
As a result, most of the Internet websites with neo-Nazi content originate in the United States but are available to anyone in the world with access to the Internet. Since the First Amendment allows neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers to freely disseminate their views, notorious deniers have found safe refuge in the United States.
Proponents of vigorous prosecution of neo-Nazis, racist and Holocaust deniers argue that laws criminalizing Holocaust denial and their strict enforcement are necessary to prevent the reemergence of Nazism, which has particular appeal in countries where unemployment and social unrest is high. Neo-Nazism in these countries is rampant.
Opponents argue that such laws are incompatible with a democratic society. The hallmark of a true democracy, they argue, is not just protection of speech one agrees with but speech that is hateful and despicable.
At the end of the day, they say, a government that has the power to punish lies also has the power to punish truth. And granting the government that power can let the evil genie out of the bottle.
Internet Fuels Explosive Growth
As the last Holocaust survivors pass from the scene and the atrocities they witnessed and can testify to recede into history, advocates of Holocaust denial laws contend that government regulation is more needed than ever.
The views of the denial community are becoming more mainstream as time goes on, proponents of laws against Holocaust denial point out. They call for laws to criminalize dissemination through the internet, noting that the reach of neo-Nazism and Holocaust denial in our era of globalization has increased exponentially.
Recognizing the internet’s potential for reaching people at an unprecedented scale, Holocaust deniers were from the earliest adopters of online platforms, some as early as the 1980s. And social media’s arrival in the 2000s has vastly broadened the ability of the denial community to spread its dogma.
A younger generation of online, far-right activists patronize neo-Nazi websites. For this group, the Holocaust, diminished by the passage of time, has been stripped of the iconic significance it held for their parents’ generation.
Today, the style of communication among online deniers has morphed from sober, pseudo-academic debate into cynical Holocaust “humor” – joking about and heaping ridicule on established Holocaust truths.
As a sign of the changing dynamics of communicating Holocaust denial in the social media age, a thread on a neo-Nazi website’s forum called, “How would you debunk the Holocaust in 140 characters or less?” was started by a user last year.
Social Media Sites Criticized for Allowing Holocaust-Denying Posts
Experts studying trends in anti-Semitism have noted that recent surges of anti-Semitism on the internet correspond with the escalation in the membership of the online Holocaust denial community. The privacy and freedom from legal regulation enjoyed by cyberspace forums have enabled the mushrooming of hate sites and exponential growth of their readership.
“Jews are bloodthirsty; the Holocaust is a myth; only a half a million Jews died in World War II, mostly from a typhus plague.” Posts of this sort remained on the popular Facebook social media site long after being reported to the company, an article in The British Times asserted in July, 2018.
The web giant has guidelines that eschew anti-Semitic posts as forms of hate speech, but does not view Holocaust denial in the same light, the article reported.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg rationalized not deleting these posts by saying that he believed Holocaust deniers were making nothing more than “an honest mistake.” “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong,” he said, drawing ridicule and criticism from several quarters.
Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the Home Affairs Select Committee in Britain’s parliament, slammed the online forum, saying, “Facebook is providing people with a huge global platform to incite racial hatred and to deliberately spread lies that fuel anti-Semitism.”
“They can’t just shrug their shoulders and pretend it has nothing to do with them,” Cooper continued. “What is the point of them even pretending to have community standards or social responsibility if they turn a blind eye to the promotion of violence and extremism?”
Almost a year later, little has changed. Holocaust denial material designed to incite hatred and violence against Jews still gets posted on the social media forum.
Last month, an online article quoted a Facebook representative who said the company will not alter its policy regarding Holocaust denial. It will continue to view Holocaust denial as “misinformation” (which is allowed on the platform) as opposed to hate speech or calls for violence.
Social media forums must understand that any attempt to make Nazism palatable is a call for violence, say critics. Six million victims prove that.
Because Holocaust deniers want and need a platform to reach their goal of respectability, it is imperative to deny it to them, whether as an institution, a newspaper, an internet search engine or a social media forum.
Critics have singled out Google, the internet’s leading “search engine,” for similar moral lapses. A controversy erupted in 2017 when it was brought to light in a Guardian op-ed that Google’s search results were recommending anti-Semitic, white nationalist and Holocaust denier websites for first responses to the question, “Did the Holocaust happen?
“Our failure – the failure of our politicians and the mainstream press – to [demand accountability] makes us an accessory to the crime. Unless we act, we are colluding with this search engine in broadcasting hate speech and lies,” the op-ed exhorted.
“The far right with its hatreds is on the rise in many places and that includes on the internet. It has changed both the questions being asked – such as, did the Holocaust actually happen? Are Jews evil? – And the questions being answered.
Google, with all its money and resources, is being hijacked by hate sites who control much of its search results,” the article charged. “It is in the process of rewriting history, rewiring minds, changing the conversation, reframing the questions and answers.”
Interestingly, in the aftermath of this withering critique and the long-running uproar it generated, Google’s presentation underwent significant changes. Holocaust denial sites no longer appear as frontline responses to questions regarding the truth of the Holocaust. Reputable historical content, for the most part, has replaced them.
A small but noteworthy success. One that should inspire similar efforts at curbing Holocaust denial and establishing truth and memory for a largely uninformed public.