For as long as there have been reports of Nazi crimes there have been people determined to deny and undermine them. The Nazis themselves were the first deniers, seeking to destroy the evidence of their crimes and deny them to the world.
For most people the notion that the Holocaust was an enormous hoax is nonsensical. How is it possible to see the newsreels from barbed wire-encircled camps with emaciated and withered bodies in piles or mass graves and not be filled with horror and sympathy? With such definitive evidence how can one still not believe? How do some people remain unmoved by the horrifying revelations of the Holocaust? How after news of Belsen, Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Buchenwald and Chełmno do so many still not believe?
It is likely that many who deny the Holocaust publicly think differently in private. They do so as biased revisionism and denial was or is politically expedient and vital to their attempts to rehabilitate the doctrine with which they identify, namely fascism. Nazi atrocities have of course become inextricably linked to the doctrine of fascism, and any attempt to relaunch the ideology requires either the separation of one from the other or denial that the atrocities had happened at all.
Holocaust deniers have traditionally relied on a number of arguments to try and disprove the Holocaust. These include: Hitler and the Nazis were not responsible for the outbreak of the Second World War; there was no Nazi plan for genocide; that all evidence of extermination camps is faked; that gas chambers were erected after the war; that Zyklon B, the gas used to murder Jews, was merely a delousing agent; that Jews and others who died in concentration camps died from diseases like typhus; that the Holocaust was invented to force Germany to pay for the establishment of the state of Israel; that the Holocaust is a Jewish conspiracy. These arguments have all been around since the end of the Holocaust itself but, in the digital age, there has been a shift in the nature of Holocaust denial and the ease with which it can be accessed that has given some deniers a sense of optimism. As an article on the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer from October 2020 put it: There is no way to allow people to openly discuss the Holocaust and also have them come to the conclusion that it actually happened. You could do that before the internet, when the only way for people to spread information was through newsletters mailed to their mailboxes that they had to sign up for. In the modern age, anyone who tries to talk about the Holocaust is going to get spammed with facts that ultimately prove that [it did not happen]. This recognition by the far right that the internet has created opportunities for them to spread their Holocasut denial is deeply worrying. However, before exploring how far-right denial has been changed by the online spaces in which it is now spread, it is necessary to explore denial propagated by individuals and groups beyond the far right.
Different types of Holocaust denial
Today the Holocaust is not only denied by the far right but also by people from across the political spectrum and by people of all races and religions. In addition to the far right, the most likely places to find contemporary Holocaust denial is from the far left of the political spectrum and from within Muslim communities around the world.
Denial by the left wing and within Muslim communities
Left wing motivations for denial and diminishment are often different to the extreme right, driven not by a will to resurrect fascism but often the result of a fundamentally left-wing reading of history, rooted in class, materialist logic and an opposition to imperialism. Outright denial of the Holocaust remains extremely rare on the left, as a belief in egalitarianism and a history of opposition to racism and fascism do not easily fit with the denial of the Nazis’ planned extermination of the Jews. More prevalent is the diminishment of the Holocaust, relativising it or excusing denial, deniers and antisemitism in the interest of alternative political objectives.
For small elements of the more ideologically dogmatic far left, the fact that the Holocaust was perpetrated by people from all class backgrounds sits uneasily with their own worldview; it cannot be explained in totality by materialist logic. How can the working classes of Europe simultaneously be victims of fascist oppression and often perpetrators of the Holocaust? Fascism is something “practiced upon the working class”, rather than practiced by it according to them.
Another form of Holocaust denial that emanates from within left-wing politics is what is often called ‘false equivalency’, namely the false comparison of the oppressive actions of the Israeli government against the Palestinians with the mechanised extermination plan of the Nazis against the Jews. This form of Holocaust revisionism or diminishment is also propagated by Holocaust deniers in the Muslim world and diaspora. Middle Eastern denial was born independently from its European counterparts, developing not as a means to resurrect fascism but rather as a means to undermine the creation and development of a Jewish State in the region. A core tenet of this type of denial is the idea that the Holocaust has either been completely manufactured, or at least extensively exaggerated, with a view to legitimising Israel and creating an ideological bulwark and justification for the Zionist project.
In addition to depicting the Holocaust as a hoax manufactured as a means of justification for a Jewish state, there is the tactic of diminishing the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust via relativisation. Another device used, again as a means to delegitimise Israel, is to exaggerate the occurrence of collaboration between Zionists and the Nazis during the 1930s.
The rise and fall of traditional far-right denial
However, while Holocaust denial is propagated by people across the political spectrum and from all religious and ethnic backgrounds, it has often been the fascist and far-right Holocaust deniers at the forefront of the development and propagation of denial. Throughout the postwar period a number of major figures dominated the Holocaust denial scene; David Irving, Ernst Zündel, Fred Leuchter and Robert Faurisson amongst others.
This group sought academic credibility and mainstream acceptance through the publication of pseudo-academic and pseudo-scientific books as a way to spread their denial theories. Many within this scene used bogus academic titles, scientific status and false descriptions to gain recognition and to give their views respectability and credibility. At its peak some of these deniers sold worryingly large numbers of books and filled large lecture theatres around the world.
However, the traditional far-right Holocaust denial movement slowed down significantly in the second decade of the 2000s. The ageing movement struggled to rejuvenate itself while many of its most prominent activists have become less active due to old age or have passed away. Among these are Tony Hancock in 2012, the founder of the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH), Bradley Smith in 2016, Ernst Zündel in 2017 and Robert Faurisson in 2018. Even those organisations that remain, such as the US based Institute for Historical Review (IHR), no longer hold the sway they once did. The exceptions to this are the conferences organised by the Iranian government and marches and events in Eastern Europe.
With the birth of the internet the traditional Holocaust deniers were fast adopters, quickly understanding the potential to reach new and bigger audiences than before. Modern technology especially has had a profound impact, not just on the ability of the denial community to spread their ideas, but more fundamentally on the idea of, and motivation for, Holocaust denial itself. Recognising the internet’s potential for reaching people at an unprecedented scale, deniers have had some success in gaining a wider audience. In an attempt to stay relevant, some organisations and individuals from the traditional scene have modified their rhetoric in a struggle to stay up-to-date with an increasingly online and digitally literate far right.
However, generally, the traditional denial community that migrated online has struggled to take full advantage of the emergence of newer platforms and the traditional movement as a whole seems to have remained largely outside of social media. As a great deal of far-right content has flourished on social media, one would expect Holocaust denial ideas to spread just as easily online. The issue for traditional deniers, however, is that their material has not translated well into this new arena. The web has democratised denial output, making the expressions of openly violent and extreme antisemitism accessible alongside “serious” denial tomes and videos of lengthy “scholarly” presentations. Social media algorithms often favour the most sensationalistic content, which has encouraged a shift in the tone of denial messages online away from longform pseudo-scientific argumentation.
Holocaust denial in the digital age
While the decline of the traditional scene is welcome, a newer form of Holocaust denial has emerged in the digital age that reflects the nature of the toxic online environments from which it has emerged. In many ways, the message is the same – that the Holocaust did not happen – but the tone of the message and the way in which it is disseminated has changed.
In 1946, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre published Anti-Semite & Jew, in which he explored, in particular, the causes of antisemitism, at a time when the historical, political and moral significance of the Holocaust was not lost to many. Discussing the way in which antisemitism, like all forms of hate, is a matter of placing one’s faith in a hateful passion, borne of insecurity and which necessitates the rejection of reason, Sartre gives a warning to those who fall for the knowing irrationality of the antisemite: Never believe that [they] are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play.
They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past. For much of the contemporary far right who have grown up with an internet culture that has cultivated an extreme, contrarian attitude against liberal conventions and social taboos – this event of unique and tremendous historical, moral and political significance has become a mere object of their once “trolling” ridicule and now, increasingly, hateful vitriol, and its main victims – the Jewish people – their fundamental target.
Yet, in their casualised, throw-away engagement with the Holocaust, there is also an indication – evidenced, not least, by their overall detachment from the traditional denial community (even online) – that they have less interest in giving the “ridiculous reasons” Sartre suggests an antisemite might try to offer. These simultaneous deniers and celebrators of the Holocaust have little interest in attempting to feign “seriousness” as many traditional deniers did (which is not to suggest that this was anything but a thin veil for antisemitism). Rather, this generation truly “delight[s] in acting in bad faith”.
In a sense, therefore, denial as it exists for many who have emerged from the young online far right today is a full embrace of the flagrant and abhorrent unseriousness which has always been part of the denial of the Holocaust. And if this emerging group moves readily between denial and celebration, therefore, we must also now fight – in addition to sincere denial of the event – just as hard the belief Sartre suggests the antisemite relies on: the right to “play” with a memory of such grave importance.
In the past decade we have seen the emergence of far-right groups, networks and movements that are primarily focused on the internet. Movements such as the so-called alt-right, for example, emerged on social media and in modern forums, such as Reddit and, especially, the /pol/ discussion board on 4chan, the latter of which is particularly akin to a social network in its frenetic stream of content. Within these online spaces, an existing online behaviour, trolling – the act of being deliberately offensive or provocative with the aim of provoking a hostile, negative or outraged reaction, often with the stated aim of ‘merely’ engaging in humorous ridicule – developed a distinctly extreme, antagonistic and taboo-breaking style. Whilst not entirely new – the similar notion of ‘flaming’ others online predates trolling, and USENET groups dedicated to flaming Jews and many other groups existed well before the likes of 4chan – the particular style of trolling found in these modern online spaces has aided the normalisation of extreme antisemitism, including with regard to the Holocaust, and is now documented to have catalysed many towards accepting far-right beliefs. Notably, Andrew Anglin, founder of the alt-right neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer, who has stated that he is “at heart a troll”, has claimed that it was through 4chan in 2010 that he “got into Hitler”. Similarly, Mike Peinovich (AKA Mike Enoch), host of ‘The Daily Shoah’ podcast and founder of the alt-right website TheRightStuff.biz highlights this when describing his site’s origins: „We started trolling, that’s how we started The Right Stuff, that’s where it came from. Literally, we wanted to bother liberals… We loved to trigger them. We loved to go in and just hit them on all their points and through this sort of opposition to that we actually developed some kind of coherent worldview, and that worldview centred around race politics.“ Stories like this, where ridicule gives way to the acceptance of extreme ideas, are prevalent across those areas of the contemporary far right which have emerged online.
Mocking and ‚humour‘
A style guide for contributors to The Daily Stormer, leaked in December 2017, reveals how this route has become weaponised by the far right. The “prime directive” of the site, the guide details, is to “Always Blame the Jews for Everything”, not for the purposes of building a movement but with a view to insidiously spreading “the message of nationalism and anti-Semitism to the masses.” Citing a propaganda doctrine from Mein Kampf as inspiration, Anglin explained that: „The goal is to continually repeat the same points, over and over and over and over again. The reader is at first drawn in by curiosity or the naughty humor, and is slowly awakened to reality by repeatedly reading the same points.“ The “naughty humor” referred to is openly stated by Anglin as a means to normalise extreme antisemitism and “the acceptance of violence” by readers, whilst avoiding the legal repercussions of actually promoting violence. He admits that this tone “is obviously a ploy” as he does “actually want to gas kikes”. This tone is likewise employed in the site’s regular Holocaust denial, much of which covers the recent actions of traditional deniers and links to videos expressing their views (as well as in their occasional interviews with deniers, including Nicholas Kollerstrom in 2013).
Indeed, there is evidence that the site’s forum has allowed for some interaction between the traditional denial community and those newer to such attitudes.Users have shared links to traditional Holocaust denial literature on the forum’s “Online Library” and expressed their support for traditional deniers. Following the death of Ernst Zündel in 2017, a user called ‘7x13_28 Stereotypical Badger’ stated in a forum thread that “I am heartened by what he did for all of us, and the correspondence he and I shared 2008-2009”. Recognising the changing dynamics of communicating denial in the social media age, a thread entitled “How would you debunk the Holocaust in 140 characters or less?”, was started by a user named ‘Hadding’ in July 2017. The same user stated in the thread in December 2017 that they had “just finished an article for CODOH” and that “The article has been reviewed by [established denier] Germar Rudolf; so, it’s good. Maybe somebody would like to use this as material for memes”.
Similarly, a February 2018 article on The Daily Stormer epitomises the clashing of the old and new visions of Holocaust deniers. The article addressed the criminal investigation of denier Michèle Renouf after claims she made at a neo-Nazi rally in Dresden, Germany that same month. The article ends with an embedded video of denier Fred Leuchter speaking at a Holocaust “revisionist” conference in the early 1990s. Leuchter, who claimed to be an engineer though he had no relevant qualifications, declared in the speech that: „I am an engineer and a scientist, not a revisionist […] but because of what I have seen […] I have a responsibility to the truth […] because of this responsibility I am calling for […] an international commission of scientists, historians and scholars.“ Including content from these traditional deniers and their pretensions to seriousness would give the reader the impression that The Daily Stormer takes a similar approach to Holocaust denial.
Yet, the site’s leaked style guide focuses on the importance of “lulz” (i.e. on being humorous) and discourages writers from using an intellectual tone (no “college words”, it declares). The article on Renouf itself is entitled “Germany: British Woman Investigated for Denying Kooky Fake Shower Room Hoax”. Despite recent crackdowns Alt-right neo-nazi site The Daily Stormer by tech companies, modern search algorithms and social media have unquestionably had a long-term effect on the accessibility of offensive, hateful and false information available to users online, much of which is often embedded within, or at least slowly normalised by, taboo-subverting internet ‘humour’.
In addition to a shift in tone towards a more mocking or comical style is the emergence of a more celebratory stance on the Holocaust, sometime born out of this ‘trolling’ culture. Some antisemitic engagement with the Holocaust by the young far right online today is celebratory, or at least casual and (ostensibly) for the purposes of juvenile, subversive ‘humour’. Whilst some will still have descended down the path to celebrating this horrific event through straightforward radicalisation by extreme, traditional antisemitic ideologies, others have taken the more unconventional route of coming to believe the extreme politics they first were attracted to as a taboo and engaged with for subversive, ‘humourous’ effect.
Another factor influencing the readiness of some young far-right activists to deny, mock or celebrate the Holocaust is the historicisation of the event. For many young deniers, the Holocaust feels like a removed and distant historical event in a way that would seem impossible to postwar generations. Some younger users who engage antisemitically with the Holocaust, potentially lack not just a sense of the event’s moral significance, but moreover a declining sense of its historical and continued political significance and uniqueness. The result is a situation wherein the young who engage antisemitically with the Holocaust may use their awareness of the event’s significance for others, and their own disinterestedness towards it, to switch between denial, belief and all stages in between depending on the degree to which they wish to attack others, more or less with regard to who they are (in the case of Jewish people) or for their sensibilities (in the case of the mainstream liberal-left). Demonstrating these shifts, the aforementioned Peinovich tweeted on the UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day in 2018 that: „Even if you think it happened despite lack of any real evidence, you should disregard the holocaust. It is used as a propaganda tool and moral blackmail against whites that want to stand up for their own interests. No more. #HolocaustMemorialDay“. On the same day he also tweeted: „Here’s the thing Jews. Real or fake, I don’t give a fuck about the holocaust, mmmkay. #HolocaustMemorialDay“.
Rather than previous generations of the far right that often obsessed over the Holocaust, there is a growing group who argue that the best approach is simply to ignore it. For example, an article from The Daily Stormer in April 2021 argued: „We’re headed towards a century since the supposed Holocaust allegedly took place. The war ended 76 years ago. So rather than “did it happen?”, it seems we should be asking “why are we still talking about this all the time?” Here we see a perfect storm emerge where something that for some young people holds little significance but also allows for maximum offence to be caused through its denial, ridicule or celebration.
There was a time when far-right antisemites dedicated their entire lives to disproving the Holocaust, increasingly today, in the digital age, younger far-right activists seek to dismiss it, ridicule and mock it or semi-ironically celebrate it. This shift can perhaps be explained by the wider democratisation of online debate, which has reduced the need for Holocaust denial to seek academic credibility, but also to the growing distance in time between the present and the horrors of the Holocaust. As collective memory of the Holocaust fades and the number of living survivors grows ever smaller, antisemites may no longer perceive the need to deny its existence and can now focus their efforts on relativising, diminishing or mocking it instead.
This text ist an excerpt and can be read with illustrations and footnotes in:
Antisemitism in the Digital Age
Online Antisemitic Hate, Holocaust Denial, Conspiracy Ideologies and Terrorism in Europe
A Collaborative Research Report by Amadeu Antonio Foundation, Expo Foundation and HOPE not hate