What is Holocaust Denial?
The Holocaust is one of the best-documented events in history. “Holocaust denial” describes attempts to negate the established facts of the Nazi genocide of European Jewry. Common denial assertions are: that the murder of six million Jews during World War II never occurred; that the Nazis had no official policy or intention to exterminate the Jews; and that the poison gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp never existed.
A newer trend is the distortion of the facts of the Holocaust. Common distortions include, for example, assertions that: the figure of six million Jewish deaths is an exaggeration; deaths in the concentration camps were the results of disease or starvation but not policy; and that the diary of Anne Frank is a forgery.
Holocaust denial and distortion are generally motivated by hatred of Jews and build on an accusation that the Holocaust was invented or exaggerated by Jews as part of a plot to advance Jewish interests. This view perpetuates long-standing antisemitic stereotypes by accusing Jews of conspiracy and world domination, hateful charges that were instrumental in laying the groundwork for the Holocaust.
The United States Constitution ensures freedom of speech. Therefore, in the United States denying the Holocaust or engaging in antisemitic hate speech is not illegal, except when there is an imminent threat of violence. Many other countries, particularly in Europe where the Holocaust occurred, have laws criminalizing Holocaust denial and hate speech.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a multinational organization with 31 members including the United States, has adopted a Working Definition of Holocaust Denial and Distortion.
This timeline lists some key events in the evolution of Holocaust denial.
1942–1944: To conceal the evidence of their annihilation of Europe’s Jews, Germans and their collaborators destroy evidence of mass graves at the Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka killing centers, and at thousands of sites of mass shooting operations throughout German-occupied Poland, the German-occupied Soviet Union, and Serbia, including Babi Yar, in an operation code-named Aktion 1005.
1943: In a speech to SS Generals at Poznan, Heinrich Himmler, Reich Leader (Reichsführer) of the SS (Schutzstaffel; Protection Squadrons), remarks that the mass murder of the European Jews will be kept secret, never to be recorded.
1955: Willis Carto founds an influential, far-right group based in Washington, DC, that eventually comes to be known as the Liberty Lobby. Led by Carto until its bankruptcy in 2001, the Liberty Lobby advocates a “racially pure” United States and blames Jews for problems facing the US and the world. The Liberty Lobby begins to publish Holocaust denial literature in 1969.
1959: American clergyman Gerald L. K. Smith’s antisemitic publication, Cross and the Flag, claims that six million Jews were not killed during the Holocaust but immigrated to the United States during World War II.
1964: Paul Rassinier, a French Communist who had been interned by the Nazis, publishes The Drama of European Jewry, in which he claims that gas chambers were an invention of a “Zionist establishment.”
1966–67: American historian Harry Elmer Barnes publishes articles in the Libertarian periodical Rampart Journal claiming that the Allies overstated the extent of Nazi atrocities in order to justify a war of aggression against the Axis powers.
1969: Noontide Press, a subsidiary of the Liberty Lobby, publishes a book entitled The Myth of the Six Million.
1973: Austin J. App, professor of English literature at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, publishes a pamphlet: The Six Million Swindle: Blackmailing the German People for Hard Marks with Fabricated Corpses. The pamphlet becomes a foundation for future claims by Holocaust deniers.
1976: Northwestern University engineering professor Arthur R. Butz publishes The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry. Butz was the first Holocaust denier to use the pretense of academic rigor to disguise his falsehoods. Northwestern responds by declaring Butz’s statements an “embarrassment” to the university.
1977: Ernst Zündel, a German citizen living in Canada, establishes Samisdat Publishers, which issues neo-Nazi literature that includes Holocaust denial. In 1985 the Canadian government prosecuted Zündel for distributing information he knew to be false.
1977: David Irving publishes Hitler’s War, arguing that Hitler neither ordered nor condoned the Nazi policy of the genocide of the European Jews. Irving distorts historical evidence and scholarly methods to lend legitimacy to his thesis.
1978: William David McCalden (also known as Lewis Brandon) and Willis Carto found the Institute for Historical Review (IHR) in California, which publishes material and sponsors conferences denying the Holocaust. The IHR masks its hateful, racist messages under the guise of valid academic inquiry.
1980: The IHR promises a $50,000 reward to anyone who can prove that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. Survivor Mel Mermelstein submits an affidavit of his internment at Auschwitz and brings suit against the IHR when the institute refuses to pay. In October 1981, Superior Court Judge Thomas T. Johnson uses “judicial notice,” which allows courts to recognize as fact matters that are common knowledge, to issue a ruling that the Holocaust was fact and that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz.
1981: A French court convicts literature professor Robert Faurisson of inciting hatred and discrimination for calling the Holocaust a “historical lie.”
1984: In a landmark case, a Canadian court convicts public school teacher James Keegstra of “willfully promoting hatred against an identifiable group” for espousing Holocaust denial and other antisemitic views to his social studies students.
1986: On July 8, the Israeli parliament passes a law criminalizing denial of the Holocaust.
1987: California-based Bradley Smith founds the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust. During the early 1990s, Smith’s organization places full-page advertisements or editorial pieces in more than a dozen American college newspapers under the headline “The Holocaust Story: How Much is False? The Case for Open Debate.” Smith’s campaign helps to blur the line between hate-mongering and freedom of speech.
1987: Jean Marie Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front party, suggests that gas chambers were merely a “detail” of World War II. Le Pen runs for president in France in 1988 and comes in fourth.
1987: Moroccan-Swedish writer Ahmed Rami begins broadcasting on Radio Islam, based in Sweden. The station describes the Holocaust as a Zionist/Jewish claim. Radio Islam later posts The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf, and other antisemitic texts on its website.
1988: At the request of Ernst Zündel, Fred Leuchter (a self-proclaimed specialist in execution methods) travels to the site of the Auschwitz killing center. He later issues the Leuchter Report: An Engineering Report on the Alleged Execution Gas Chambers at Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Majdanek, Poland, which is cited by Holocaust deniers to cast doubt on the use of gas chambers for mass murder.
1989: David Duke, a white supremacist, wins a seat in the Louisiana State Legislature. Duke sells Holocaust denial literature from his legislative office.
1990: After Illinois becomes the first American state to mandate teaching about the Holocaust in public schools, parents Ingeborg and Safet Sarich publicly protest by pulling their 13-year-old daughter out of school. The Sariches also mail 6,000 letters to public officials, scholars, journalists, and Holocaust survivors attacking the historical record as “rumors and exaggerations.”
1990: The French government enacts the Gayssot Law which declares that questioning the scale or existence of crimes against humanity (as defined in the London Charter of 1945) is a criminal offense. This act marks the first European statute explicitly outlawing denial of the Holocaust.
1990: In the course of criminal proceedings brought against Fred Leuchter by the State of Massachusetts, it is revealed that Leuchter never actually earned an engineering degree or license. Leuchter admits that he has no training in biology, toxicology, or chemistry, all of which are crucial to the claims of the 1988 Leuchter Report, which is often cited to support claims made by Holocaust deniers.
1990: A Swedish court sentences Ahmed Rami to six months in jail for “hate speech” and revokes the broadcasting license of Radio Islam for one year.
1991: The American Historical Association, the oldest professional organization of historians, issues a statement: “No serious historian questions that the Holocaust took place.”
2000: A British court declares David Irving an “active Holocaust denier.” Irving had sued Emory University historian Deborah Lipstadt for libel following the publication of her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.
2000: The Czech Republic enacts a law criminalizing Holocaust denial. The law is reenacted in 2009.
2001: Slovakia criminalizes Holocaust denial.
2002: The Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-Up, a think tank of the League of Arab States based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), organizes a symposium on “Semitism.” At the symposium, the Holocaust is called a “false fable.” The government of the UAE closes the Zayed Center in August 2003 after external pressure about the Center’s anti-American and antisemitic publications and lectures.
2002: Romania passes an Emergency Ordinance criminalizing Holocaust denial in response to a growing movement to publically rehabilitate General Ion Antonescu, a pro-Fascist dictator who oversaw the deaths of 280,000 Jews and 11,000 Roma during World War II.
2002: Swedish courts sentence neo-Nazi Fredrik Sandberg to six months in prison for re-publishing the Third Reich-era pamphlet, The Jewish Question.
2003: Wolfgang Froelich is arrested in Vienna and sentenced to three years in jail following his 2001 publication of a book entitled Die Gaskammaer League (The gas chamber lie). He is released after one year. In the years following, Froelich is re-arrested or has his sentences extended a number of times for continued instances of Holocaust denial, including in 2015 for writing to the Austrian chancellor claiming that the Holocaust could not have occurred.
2003: The Romanian government establishes an international commission on the Holocaust in Romania, headed by Elie Wiesel. It consists of 30 Romanian and foreign historians. The objective of the commission is to examine the history of the Holocaust in Romania to identify the facts that took place and to disseminate the research results in the country and abroad. The organization of the commission follows public statements made earlier in 2003 by then President Ion Iliescu who minimized the Holocaust in Romania, and by former Information Minister Vasile Dincu who denied the Holocaust in Romania.
2005: In a speech broadcast on live television on December 14, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls the Holocaust a “myth.”
2005: The Japanese magazine Marco Polo features an article written by freelance author Masanori Nishioka entitled “There Were No Nazi Gas Chambers.” In the article, Nishioka claims that the Holocaust never happened and that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were created by the Polish Communist government after the war.
2006: Iran’s government sponsors a meeting of Holocaust deniers in Tehran cloaked as an academic conference called “Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision.” In the same year, Farid Mortazavi, graphics editor of the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri, announces a Holocaust cartoon contest with gold and cash prizes for the winners. There are nearly 1,200 submissions from over 60 countries, including cartoons denying or minimizing the Holocaust. Later in the year, the Saba Art and Cultural Institute in Tehran opens an exhibition, sponsored by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of a selection of 200 cartoons from the contest.
2007: On January 26, the United Nations adopts a resolution condemning denial of the Holocaust. The General Assembly declares that denial is “tantamount to approval of genocide in all its forms.”
2008: The European Union adopts a Framework Decision on combating racism and xenophobia (2008/913/JHA). It requires EU member states to punish—through their criminal law—publicly condoning, denying, or grossly trivializing instances of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, including those committed by the Nazis, when such conduct is intended to incite violence or hatred against a specific religious, ethnic, or another group.
2009: English-born Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson denies the existence of gas chambers and minimizes the extent of killing during the Holocaust. The Vatican eventually calls on Williamson to retract his statements.
2009: David Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, is arrested by Czech authorities for denying the Holocaust and inciting hate. He had been invited to speak at Charles University by the Národní Odpor (National Resistance) group. The Czech government orders Duke to leave the country the following day. The State Prosecutor’s Office in Prague later dismisses the charges due to lack of evidence.
2010: Hungary criminalizes Holocaust denial.
2010: Bradley Smith places his first online Holocaust denial advertisement, which appears on the website of the University of Wisconsin’s Badger Herald in February. The Internet—because of its ease of access and dissemination, seeming anonymity, and perceived authority—is now the chief conduit of Holocaust denial.
2010: The Dutch appeals court fines the Arab European League (AEL) 2,500 € for publishing a cartoon on its website in 2006 that suggested the Holocaust was made up or exaggerated by Jews. According to the AEL, the organization published the cartoon to highlight double standards in free speech after a Danish newspaper published a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad. The court also imposes a 2-year probation period on the AEL.
2010: Lithuania criminalizes Holocaust denial. Later in the same year, the Lithuanian magazine Veidas publishes an article entitled “[The] Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal – The Greatest Legal Farce in History” by Petras Stankeras, a Lithuanian historian who also served in the Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Lithuania. In the article, Stankeras highlights the application of double standards towards the Nazis and criticizes the International Military Tribunal. He also describes the Holocaust as a “legend” lacking substantiation for the killing of six million Jews. After international pressure, Stankeras steps down from his post in the Ministry of the Interior. The Vilnius County Prosecutor’s Office initiates a pre-trial investigation of the article, but closes the investigation in February 2011 without pressing any charges against Stankeras.
2011: The vice chairman of Egypt’s Wafd Party tells the Washington Times in an interview that the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Holocaust, and Anne Frank’s diary are all historical fabrications. “The Holocaust is a lie,” says Ahmed Ezz El-Arab. He continues, “the Jews under German occupation were 2.4 million. So if they were all exterminated, where does the remaining 3.6 million come from?”
2012: Nikolaos Michaloliakos, the head of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn party, denies the existence of gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. “There were no ovens, no gas chambers, it’s a lie,” he states during an interview aired on television.
2012: Saudi cleric Salman al-Odeh tells Rotana Khalijiya TV that “The Holocaust has a historical basis. Many stories about it are documented and well-founded. The problem lies, first of all, in the exaggeration of the Holocaust. It has been turned into a myth of tremendous proportions… For thousands of years, the Jews were subject to persecution, deportation, killings, and accusations. Maybe much of this stemmed from their moral values, their treacherous nature, their schemes, and the ploys, which made other nations be wary of them.”
2012: Corneliu Vadim Tudor, a Romanian member of the European Parliament and leader of the nationalist Greater Romania Party, denies the Holocaust on the talk show “Romania a la Raport.” Tudor states, “In Romania, there was never a Holocaust… I will deny it until I die because I love my people.”
2013: On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Fathi Shihab-Eddim, an aide to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, claims that the 6 million Jews who were killed by the Nazis actually relocated to the United States. “U.S. intelligence agencies, in cooperation with their counterparts in Allied nations during World War II, created it [the Holocaust] to destroy the image of their opponents in Germany, and to justify war and massive destruction against military and civilian facilities of the Axis powers, and especially to hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the atomic bomb,” states Shihab-Eddim.
2013: Gyorgy Nagy becomes the first Hungarian to be convicted of Holocaust denial. Nagy carried a sign during a 2011 demonstration in Budapest which read “the Holocaust never happened” in Hebrew. The Court sentences him to 18 months in prison and probation. Part of his sentence is also to visit either Budapest’s Holocaust memorial museum, Auschwitz, or Yad Vashem.
2014: Udo Voigt, the former leader of Germany’s National Democratic Party (NDP) is appointed to the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs Committee. While the leader of the NDP, which espouses Neo-Nazi views, Voigt had praised Adolf Hitler and claimed that far fewer than six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. He was convicted of “incitement of the people.”
2014: In his official 2014 Nowruz address, Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remarks: “The Holocaust is an event whose reality is uncertain and if it has happened, it’s uncertain how it has happened.”
2014: Russia criminalizes Holocaust denial.
2014: Greece criminalizes Holocaust denial.
2015: Two government-sponsored Iranian cultural organizations, Owj Media & Art Institute and the Sarcheshmeh Cultural Complex, announce a second Holocaust cartoon contest, expecting to receive entries from cartoonists in dozens of countries.
2015: A German court finds Ursula Haverbeck guilty of sedition after she wrote a letter to the Mayor of Detmold, stating that it was “clearly recognizable” that Auschwitz was nothing more than a labor camp. She sent her message when the Detmold court was trying Reinhold Hanning, a former guard at the Auschwitz camp. In 2014, she had been on trial for saying that the Holocaust was “the biggest and longest-lasting lie in history.”
2016: On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei releases a video entitled “Holocaust: Are the Dark Ages Over?” on his website, which includes his 2014 comments questioning the Nazi mass slaughter of six million Jews during World War II.
2016: An amendment adopted in Italy criminalizes Holocaust denial.
2016: An exhibition displaying 150 Holocaust cartoons from the 11th Tehran International Cartoon Biennial opens in Tehran in the art section of the Islamic Propaganda Organization. Two weeks later, an awards ceremony is held for the winners of the Holocaust cartoon contest. Majid Mollanoroozi, the director of Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the Head of the Graphic Arts section of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, takes part in the awards ceremony. Prizes reportedly total $50,000.
2016: The Polish cabinet approves a bill imposing prison terms on anyone convicted of referring to death camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland as “Polish.” Claiming that the Poles collaborated with the Nazis in exterminating the Jews would also be considered a criminal offense.