This post comes to you on the heels of International Holocaust Remembrance Day—a day when the world comes together to acknowledge the vicious state-sponsored genocidal extermination of an estimated six million Jews and millions more “racially inferior” and politically dissident Europeans and Soviets POWs. Typically, providing a citation for that claim would be unnecessary, as these facts are deeply rooted into our collective historical memory, and yet, there are some who doubt them.
For this growing minority, modern tributes to the victims of the Holocaust do not serve to help heal old wounds or learn from the past; rather they mark a grand institutionalized manipulation reaching across all social, academic, and political spheres. According to these self-described “Holocaust Revisionists,” the world has fallen pray to a malicious and highly elaborate lie. Holocaust Denial—as it is more commonly called—is the belief that the Holocaust never really happened, or that the “facts” of the Holocaust are deeply flawed. Through decades of “research,” this political subculture has collected a vast library of information around which they view a legitimate field of study has been established. They are quick to assert what they see as an objective basis to their viewpoint, not an ideology or belief system, but an indisputable scientific reality to which the rest of the world is naively unaware.
I started my quest to pinpoint the social, psychological, and religious backstory to this belief system a few weeks ago. A close friend (let’s call him “Rick”) expressed the he had been dealing with a great deal of emotional distress and insomnia following a disturbing revelation from a childhood friend (whom let’s call “Paul”). During a heated conversation about politics, Paul confessed that he did not believe the Holocaust happened. Rick said he was in shock, and wasn’t really sure how to respond. He asked his longtime friend for more details about how he came to this conclusion. Paul told him that he had been researching it for many months; he had read information on the Internet, including sitting through hours of YouTube videos, and he had come to the conclusion that the Holocaust narrative as we know it is a complete hoax.
That same day, an article was published by the Guardian, titled, “New online generation takes up Holocaust denial.” The piece reports on research by historian Dr. Nicholas Terry, the UK’s “foremost academic on the subject” of Holocaust denial. Dr. Terry claims that denial is currently enjoying a period of growth thanks to “‘gateway’ conspiracy theories,” confusion stemming from a thriving divergent news market, anti-Semitism, and the Internet “free-for-all” that naturally gravitates users toward far right ideas.
I decided this couldn’t be a coincidence. Rick’s story seemed to confirm Dr. Terry’s claim that Holocaust denial was on the rise, and based on the online origins of Paul’s “evidence,” and what I know of Paul’s online presence prior to his introduction to Holocaust Revisionism (he’s a heavy 4chan user), I decided that there must be something to this theory. After all, I routinely forage the dark depths of the Internet for xenophobic lies to debunk. In its ability to bring together like-minded people in complete anonymity, I have come to view the web as the ultimate emboldening instrument for hateful ideologies.
I ended up posting a question on a forum for the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH), which was founded in 1990 by Bradley Smith, known as a “principal architect” of American Holocaust denial. As of today, I have received replies from eight different individuals sharing their experiences with and motivations for entering into this belief, and how it has impacted other lives. In the commentary that follows, I will quote these individuals to provide some insight into how this movement recruits and sustains its membership.
This post is another deviation from fact checking; instead, I’ll be profiling a group of political extremists, whose dismissal of the historical trauma of an entire religious community represents its own odd system of belief. From a purely socio-psychological perspective, Holocaust Revisionism and post-World War II Judaism offer their adherents similar rewards. Both provide members with a solid community foundation, a bond that is strengthened by a feeling of collective persecution.
Primary Belief: The Holocaust never happened, or, the “facts” of the Holocaust are profoundly inaccurate, indicative of a global cabal bent on controlling the historical narrative of World War II and Nazi Germany
Sources: The Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH); Institute for Historical Review (IHR); http://www.ww2truth.net/; Authors such as David Irving, Ernst Zundel, Bradley Smith, Michael Hoffman II, Fred Leuchter, Wolfgang Frolich, Germar Rudolf, Carlo Mattogno and others; YouTube, and unfortunately, much much more.
Analysis: First, I’d like to make it clear that Holocaust Revisionism is by no means a unified “field.” There appear to be varying degrees of overt anti-Semitism and a fair amount of debate on the finer points of who died and what happened. Various sub-factions representing a spectrum of belief from fringe curiosity to cold-blooded hate all seem to rally behind the idea that intellectual independence and freedom of speech are being suppressed by refusing to allow “open debate” on this subject. One defender defines it as the following,
“Holocaust revisionism primarily challenges the facts of the Holocaust narrative, usually focusing on death totals and techniques of extermination. Holocaust revisionism is a completely legitimate field of historical inquiry, simply because all historical narratives are subject to revision.”
However, this somewhat postmodern interpretation is not the universally accepted definition; others take a more fundamentalist position. The broad Revisionist label includes a medley of “low-commitment” Internet junkies, relatively PC (at least on the surface) “academic” groups such as CODOH or the Institute for Historical Review (IHR),, unapologetic opponents of the “Jew World Order,” and outright White Supremacists. The rhetoric of these subsets varies substantially in tone and intensity.
In 2014, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published a report on the current state of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism worldwide. The conclusions were staggering: 26% of the world’s population harbors anti-Semitic sentiments. That number is significantly smaller in the US alone, only 10% in the updated 2015 report. Notably, however, that was up one percent from the previous year.
Only 54% of the global population has heard of the events of the Holocaust. Of that group, 32% of survey respondents answered that the Holocaust was either a complete “myth” or that the number of Jews who died has been “greatly exaggerated by history.” In the US, this number is also much lower (around 6%), but in Western Europe, where 24% of the population (approximately 79,000,00 people) hold anti-Semitic attitudes, 10% of the population believe that the number of Jewish victims is “greatly exaggerated by history.” The ADL report also found that while older people were more likely to have heard about the Holocaust, younger people who were aware of the genocide were more likely to deny the standard historical narrative.
Unfortunately, the ADL report does not provide survey data on previous years, so it is unknown whether or not this is a growing trend, however the number of reported anti-Jewish hate crimes in Germany, France, across Europe, and elsewhere suggest that anti-Semitism may be on the rise.
For the most part, the users responding to my inquiry on the CODOH forum are not overtly racist. Most took offense from my use of the words “belief” and “views” in describing Holocaust Revisionism, taking the more literalist interpretation of their “research.” As one member puts it,
“Do you want to know how other people feel about this topic? From what I’ve gathered, most people around the world can’t stand being lied to, especially not on a massive scale, because being truthful is a fundamental human value. That is also true on this forum. I don’t like the word believe, because my revisionist views are not a dogma or an ideology, they’re based on (non-existent) evidence, documents and logic, to some extent they’re guesswork. Bizarre ‘survivor’ stories and court records provide continued inspiration.”
Or as another eager defender explains,
“The holocaust is a belief because it requires a leap of faith to buy into it. This is because it cannot be proven by evidence and indeed has been substantially disproved by lack of evidence in its favour and monumental scientific evidence against it.”
Another respondent takes a different position, more in line with moderate Revisionists, where they argue that Revisionism is not a belief because it is more of a principled means to question our historical narratives, not necessarily to disregard them as false.
“Revisionism is not a belief. It is a method of research. Not believing in revisionism amounts to believing that there is no point in re-examining things and that no new discoveries can come from new research. Dismissing revisionism is the mark of a faith and its worried worshipers, the rejection of a quest for additional knowledge on a specific topic. Religious fanatics are always opposed to any serious [re-]examination of the foundations of their faith.”
However, in order for Holocaust Revisionism to be a legitimate field of research, it must adhere to certain universally recognized standards modeled after the historical method for evaluating evidence and coming to unbiased conclusions. Especially in navigating an Internet saturated with “fake news” and conspiracies theories, it is crucial to develop the skills to critically assess our sources of information for any subjective biases (including outright malicious intent), inadequate qualification, or any other inaccuracies. The major issue with my last statement is that I can imagine a Holocaust denier would agree wholeheartedly with my point.
The appearance of subjective facts has caused some to worn that we may be heading towards a “Post-Truth World.” In fact, the Oxford Dictionary recently chose “post-truth” as its 2016 word of the year, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Even the truth of the Holocaust that so many of us have come to regard as fixed in stone, is being doubted. In a world where amateur YouTube videos and bogus, anti-Semitic “research” are valued on the same level as the collective knowledge of the world’s most studied Holocaust scholars, something is certainly wrong.
In light of these issues, I will not try to refute the “evidence” presented by Holocaust Revisionists. In a world where knowledge is a matter of preference, such efforts are not worthwhile. I am more curious about what makes these individuals chose to pursue this taboo viewpoint. After all, in a post-truth world, our opinions and comprehension of current and past events can reveal so much about who we are as individuals.
I see Holocaust Revisionism as functioning more like an alluring sect, offering a home for conspiracy theorist, provocateurs, and yes, anti-Semites and White Supremacists to feel that their extreme social beliefs are validated through evidence and scholarship. Consider these quotes from some enthusiastic correspondents,
“I would ask you two things; firstly what is your gut feel when you read holocaust revisionist thinking and evidence as furthered at this site and second what do you feel when the jews claim that six million of their own were murdered in the holocaust? Don’t think too hard about these questions, just go with your instinct.”
And that comes from the same individual who testified to the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting Holocaust denial. They profess a concern for objectivity above all else, and yet, they immediately turn to appeal to some emotional “gut feeling” that they assume I will share with them (I don’t). They then advise to ignore rational judgment and instead trust my emotions, revealing the honest foundation of their belief: an inexplicable, deep-seated animosity toward Jews. They end with a brief warning,
“There’s plenty to get stuck into here but please don’t get sidetracked by a feeling that we must be neo nazi anti semites, that’s all rubbish and completely irrelevant to the subject.”
Another respondent reported feeling “scared” when they began researching Holocaust Revisionism in their senior year of high school. They later found a sort of thrill in the taboo, or as they explain,
“I think what inspires me to believe in Holocaust revisionism is the stigma surrounding it, how the media portrays it, and how innocent people are going to prison for getting involved. I am honest about my beliefs with my parents and sister, but I’m afraid of what the rest of my family would think.”
Another Revisionist described their story as one of self-discovery, despite the social rejection they faced for their beliefs,
“I got started on the journey after 9/11, and discussions on a popular USA-based blog. I commented that if ‘people really meant Never Again when they said Never Again, then it was absolutely essential to discover exactly what happened the first time.’ Well sir. I was called an antisemite so many times I lost count. I stopped trying to defend my position when someone wrote, ‘Why do you hate Jews?’ My initial, gut reaction was, I DON’T! Then my research took a different direction: I tried to figure out what an ‘antisemite’ was. I talked with librarians, searched for books and papers, went to conferences, took courses in history of the Jews, history of Middle East, history of every related topic. Then I came upon the concept of Zionism.”
They go on to discuss Zionism in some depth, though they do not make an explicit connection to Holocaust denial, and list things that make them angry about the “dogmatized Holocaust narrative.” They end with this statement,
“It’s difficult to contain this anger and not let it become genuine ‘Jew hatred.’ It is a necessary intellectual discipline to contain that anger, if for no other reason than to be an effective advocate for Justice for Germans: you can’t be credible if you’re just spouting incoherent antisemitic rants. We have to be a million times as smart and disciplined because we have a thousand times less funding and access to publications and media. I pursue holocaust revisionism because justice demands it.”
Revisionists gain self-esteem from the belief that they have bested an unfair society by being intellectually and morally superior to a mass of foolish automatons. For its members, Revisionism represents a righteous political activist movement worthy of defense. they thrive off of this noble “band of misfits” mentality. In their mind, they are a supremely intelligent minority of freethinking outlaws, who have opted to “take the red pill” despite facing incredible adversity as a result.
Hardened Revisionists lure in lonely, vulnerable individuals, often already at the fringes of society, who find a sort of thrill in participating in one of society’s ultimate taboos, while also finding a place to belong. If they don’t come approach Revisionism through of a view of society as a persecuting force, controlled by a powerful, evil order that demands their submission, they certainly come to see it that way. Many don’t want to “come out” to their friends or family for fear of rebuke and further social isolation, but the further they journey into the depths of this malignant ideology for comfort and belonging, the more it becomes part of their identity, and the more difficult it is to let it go.
This was the case with Rick’s childhood friend Paul. It has been a few weeks now since Paul “came out” as a Holocaust Revisionist, and the two have since stopped speaking. Rick and I talked about if he could continue being Paul’s friend knowing that he holds so zealously to such a dangerous ideology. Ultimately however, Paul’s stubbornness was too draining, and Rick decided to end all communication with Paul. Rick also questioned whether or not he wanted to “out” Paul to his friends and family.
Personally, I am of the belief that that revealing Paul as a Holocaust denier without his consent might end up accelerating his process of radicalization, rather than shocking him out of his delusion. From what I know about Pail, I interpret his “journey” into Holocaust denial as a search for a place to fit in. Making him even more of a social outcast only serves to strengthen the ties he has formed with his fellow Revisionist, connecting over their shared sense of isolation and societal persecution.