Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

What is Holocaust denial and distortion?

Holocaust denial is an attempt to negate the established facts of the Nazi genocide of European Jewry. Key denial assertions are: that the murder of approximately 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; the 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.

Distinct from denial and distortion is misuse of the Holocaust. Misuse occurs when aspects of the Holocaust are compared to events, situations, or people where there is no genocide or genocidal intent. Examples of Holocaust misuse include: claiming that Israeli-government actions are equivalent to those of the Nazis; equating the treatment of animals with the treatment of Jews and other victims during the Holocaust; labeling political opponents as Nazis; or misusing the terminology of the Holocaust to assert that particular actions are the same as actions undertaken by the Nazis.

Holocaust denial, distortion, and misuse all undermine the understanding of history. Denial and distortion of the Holocaust almost always reflect antisemitism.

Display of Holocaust denial at a demonstration in Tehran, Iran. 2006. United Press International

Display of Holocaust denial at a demonstration in Tehran, Iran. 2006. United Press International

How are Holocaust denial and distortion related to antisemitism?

The Holocaust is one of the most well-documented events in history. Holocaust denial and distortion are generally motivated by hatred of Jews, and build on the claim 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.

Why do people deny, distort, or misuse the Holocaust?

Like all forms of propaganda, Holocaust denial, distortion, and misuse are strategies to achieve objectives, including:

  • To reduce perceived public sympathy to Jews,
  • To undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel, which some believe was created as compensation for Jewish suffering during the Holocaust,
  • To plant seeds of doubt about Jews and the Holocaust, and
  • To draw attention to particular issues or viewpoints.

How do I recognize Holocaust denial and distortion?

Holocaust denial and distortion are motivated by agendas that are neither about the Holocaust nor about greater understanding of a documented historical event. Some Holocaust deniers, so-called “revisionists,” claim to be authentic scholars, when instead they manipulate facts to support a particular ideological position. Hiding their antisemitic intent under the guise of free speech, they claim to offer an alternate version of Holocaust history. Because legitimate scholars do not doubt that the Holocaust happened, Holocaust denial plays no role in legitimate historical debate. To evaluate if a claim falls within the spectrum of Holocaust denial and distortion, consider the following:

  • Is the source reliable? Has the source made other historical claims that were exaggerated or false?
  • Does the source present selected facts to support the claim?
  • Does the source follow accepted methods of historical inquiry?
  • Does the source reveal a particular ideology or belief?
  • Does the claim fit within the generally accepted history of the Holocaust?
  • What does the source want you to believe after exposure to the information?
Stacks of German documents collected by war crimes investigators as evidence. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD

Stacks of German documents collected by war crimes investigators as evidence. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD

Is it illegal to deny 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. These different legal frameworks impede a comprehensive global approach to combating Holocaust denial.

Where are Holocaust denial and distortion prevalent?

The Internet—because of its ease of access and dissemination, seeming anonymity, and perceived authority—is now the chief conduit of Holocaust denial.

Why is it important for me to care about Holocaust denial and distortion?

The denial or distortion of history is an assault on truth and understanding. Comprehension and memory of the past are crucial to how we understand ourselves, our society, and our goals for the future. Intentionally denying or distorting the historical record threatens communal understanding of how to safeguard democracy and individual rights.

The Nazi persecution of the Jews began with hateful words, escalated to discrimination and dehumanization, and culminated in genocide. The consequences for Jews were horrific, but suffering and death was not limited to them. Millions of others were victimized, displaced, forced into slave labor, and murdered. The Holocaust shows that when one group is targeted, all people are vulnerable. Today, in a world witnessing rising antisemitism, awareness of this fact is critical. A society that tolerates antisemitism is susceptible to other forms of racism, hatred, and oppression.

What can I do to combat Holocaust denial?

Explore the resources below to learn about the history and the continuing problem of antisemitism and Holocaust denial and distortion.

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