Holocaust denial, based in antisemitic conspiratorial thinking, is the active attempt to create pseudoscientific materials denying the Nazi German programme to exterminate European Jewry. While old-school Holocaust denial has declined, obfuscation and distortion of the antisemitic killings in WW2 has increased, especially in Eastern Europe. This corresponds with the rise of ultranationalist and far right parties.
Professor Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust scholar, was sued by Nazi apologist and white supremacist writer David Irving in the late 1990s. Irving, a long time Holocaust denier, sued Lipstadt and Penguin Books for libel. Lipstadt wrote a comprehensive book – published back in 1993 – called Denying the Holocaust: the growing assault on truth and memory. In that book, Lipstadt traced the origins and trajectory of Holocaust denial from the ruins of WW2, through the works of white supremacists and Nazi apologists, including Irving.
The trial of Irving versus Lipstadt and Penguin Publishers, dramatised in the 2016 film Denial, was decided in 2000 in favour of Lipstadt and Penguin books. Irving was comprehensively defeated in a legal action he initiated. Holocaust denial suffered a terrible blow, but it was not defeated.
Irving was following in the footsteps of previous generations of Holocaust deniers, which Lipstadt detailed in her book. Intending to exculpate Nazi Germany and its collaborators of the main crime – the extermination of European Jewry – Holocaust deniers and ultranationalist writers of all stripes were keen on rehabilitating white supremacy.
German nationalists, American racists and white European Nazi apologists found Holocaust denial to be the ideological cement glueing together their respective parallel agendas. Deniers and antisemites cast doubt on the existence of the gas chambers, and produce pseudoscientific materials in order to gain academic respectability for their cause. For instance, the denialist 1974 pamphlet Did Six Million Really Die?, written by an English white supremacist and neo-Nazi, attacked the war crimes trials at Nuremberg, criticising the objectivity of the judges and the veracity of the evidence presented.
The Institute for Historical Review, a think tank established by Holocaust deniers and antisemites in 1978 in California, churns out racist materials with a veneer of academic credibility. While reaching a high point in the 1980s and 90s, its activities have declined somewhat since then. Hiding behind a facade of free speech and scholarly enquiry, the IHR’s mission is to promote an updated white supremacy and recycle Holocaust denial.
Numerous books have been written rebutting the nefarious claims of Holocaust deniers. Richard Evans’ book, Telling Lies About Hitler is one such book; Michael Shermer’s Denying History: Who says the Holocaust never happened and why do they say it? is another. These books, and other multimedia materials, are indispensable in combating Holocaust denial.
However, we cannot be complacent – with the growth of social media, Holocaust denial has found a new arena in which to grow. From the very first days of the internet, antisemites and racists have utilised the new technologies to disseminate their views far and wide. The old school denialism has been superseded in many ways; no longer is it necessary to submit paper manuscripts for publication. Irving and other Holocaust deniers have either grown old, reduced their activities or passed away.
Holocaust obfuscation received a boost from the early 1990s onwards, and the reasons for that can be found in the politically tectonic shifts which occurred in Eastern European nations in 1989-91. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and its allied Eastern bloc paved the way for a resurgence of pre-Communist era ultranationalism, particularly in the Baltic states. With Communist ideology now discarded, the Eastern European states harked back to the ostensibly ‘good old days’ of the 1920s-1940s.
Investigating the Soviet period, and examining Moscow’s crimes is one thing; downplaying the culpability of Baltic, Ukrainian and Eastern European ultranationalism is quite another. Baltic and Eastern European collaboration with Nazism, and the crucial role these ultrarightist ideologies played in helping to massacre Jewish populations, had to be obscured. Today’s Eastern European ultranationalist Right intends to obscure its antisemitic actions in the past.
The Baltic states, prior to their occupation by Soviet forces, enthusiastically collaborated in antisemitic purges; the Ukrainian nationalist army, while theoretically independent of Nazi Germany, recycled antisemitic conspiracy theories, blamed ‘Muscovy-Communism’ on the Jews, and massacred Jewish communities. The ‘double genocide’ theory, which explicitly ties Soviet conduct to Nazi war crimes, turns the Jews from victims into perpetrators.
These political developments have created a climate conducive to the spread of Holocaust obfuscation, intended to exculpate Baltic and Eastern European ultranationalist parties of the crimes of antisemitism and ethnic cleansing. No, David Irving is not gaining a wide audience in Eastern Europe, however, the denial of European Jewry’s suffering at the hands of Baltic and Ukrainian ultranationalism is gaining a hearing.
When Baltic Waffen SS veterans are honoured as heroes in public parades, the doctrines that motivated them to murder Jews also receive credibility. Holocaust deniers, longing for oxygen for their views, begin obtaining coverage in the mainstream. Each national ideology can remember history the way they like. But ultranationalism must not be allowed to get away with pseudoscientific attempts to minimise or escape the guilt of its crimes, or repudiate the suffering of its victims.