How Holocaust Denial Works

What motivates some people to reject the overwhelming historical evidence and claim the Holocaust never occurred?

Published April 14, 2017

Updated Jan. 27, 2022
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The Holocaust happened.

It is a fact that some six million European Jews were systematically murdered by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1941 and 1945 in a state-sponsored program of genocide.

The National Socialists came to power in part by convincing Germans that many of the country's problems were caused by its Jewish minority, whom they labeled an "inferior race" and depicted as depraved and animal-like in anti-Semitic propaganda. Their implementation of a plan to exterminate the Jews — the "Final Solution," they called it — has been well documented, starting with the 3,000 tons of confiscated Third Reich paperwork presented in evidence at the Nuremberg trials immediately after the war.

Yet, despite universal agreement among historians about all of the above ("No serious historian questions that the Holocaust took place," the American Historical Association affirmed in a 1991 statement), there exists a tiny but vocal group of naysayers — conspiracy theorists, actually, given that they claim that "Jewish-controlled" academic and media institutions "invented" the Holocaust — whose mission it is to sow doubt that the genocide of European Jews ever happened. They are known (to everyone but themselves) as Holocaust deniers.

Here are some basic tenets of Holocaust denialism (via the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum):

"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.

The deniers aren't known for their subtlety. "I don't see any reason to be tasteful about Auschwitz," said author, anti-Semite, and Holocaust denier David Irving in 1991. He continued:

It's baloney, it's a legend. Once we admit the fact that it was a brutal slave labor camp and large numbers of people did die, as large numbers of innocent people died elsewhere in the War, why believe the rest of the baloney?

I say quite tastelessly, in fact, that more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz.

At a 2006 conference of Holocaust deniers in Iran hosted by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the country's former interior minister said, without irony, "All the studies and research carried out so far have proven that there is no reason to believe that the Holocaust ever occurred and that it is only a tale."

Others at the conference admitted the killings took place, but claimed the numbers were inflated: 

Frederick Toben, an Australian who in 1999 served jail time in Germany for his Holocaust views, told the conference in no uncertain terms that the number of Jews killed in Nazi death camps — an estimated 6 million — is a myth.

''The number of victims at the Auschwitz concentration camp could be about 2,007,'' Toben said. ''The railroad to the camp did not have enough capacity to transfer large numbers of Jews."

Don't mistake these for sincere historical quibbles. They are direct misstatements of the evidentiary record — a record whose existence, again, we owe in large part to the Nazis themselves.

"Extermination, we're doing it"

Both propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and SS chief Heinrich Himmler, for example, admitted there was an official plan to exterminate the Jewish population. "The Jews have deserved the catastrophe that has now overtaken them," Goebbels wrote in his diary in 1942. "Not much will remain of the Jews. On the whole it can be said that about 60 percent of them will have to be liquidated whereas only 40 percent can be used for forced labor."

Chillingly, Himmler said this in a 1943 speech in Posen, Poland:

I refer now to the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people. This is one of those things that is easily said: "the Jewish people are being exterminated," says every Party member, "quite true, it's part of our plans, the elimination of the Jews, extermination, we're doing it."

No one left behind a ledger sheet tallying the precise number of Jews "exterminated" but that doesn't mean the figure can't be accurately estimated based on existing evidence such as census reports and other government records that survived Nazi efforts to destroy them at the end of the war:

No personnel were available or inclined to count Jewish deaths until the very end of World War II and the Nazi regime. Hence, total estimates are calculated only after the end of the war and are based on demographic loss data and the documents of the perpetrators. Though fragmentary, these sources provide essential figures from which to make calculations. 

Rooted in anti-Semitism

Some Holocaust deniers are self-styled "historical revisionists" — meaning they present themselves as earnest re-interpreters of real historical data whose goal is simply to reveal the whole truth — but it's a misnomer. Scratch the surface of your typical Holocaust denier and you will find an anti-Semite. The notion, widespread among deniers, that Jews "invented" or "exaggerated" the Holocaust to further their own interests hearkens back to a centuries-old conspiracy theory positing a secret "cabal" of wealthy Jewish bankers seeking absolute world domination.

"The Holocaust is the device used as the pillar of Zionist imperialism, Zionist aggression, Zionist terror and Zionist murder," former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke has said (while dismissing the claim that the Nazis used gas chambers to kill Jews as a "myth").

In 2013, England's most infamous Holocaust denier, David Irving (quoted above saying more people died in Ted Kennedy's car than at Auschwitz), was asked if it weren't true that Jews "run the world":

Irving, who strongly denies being anti-semitic, replies: "Well sometimes people stand up and fight back."

He says Jews in America control all media, banks and that "they dare not appoint any leading person in the White House to ministerial positions involving money without him being a Jew. Look where that got them in Germany in 1933. And they will not learn the lesson, they all think it won't happen again.

"Then they ask why they are so hated."


Irving says he hears people say Jews are hated because they crucified Jesus Christ. "I say if you walk into a pub in Wapping and ask people why they don't like the Jews they don't mention Jesus. They mention other reasons. They're worried about their mortgages and the banks … that's the reason why the Jews get hated."

It's telling that Irving denies hating Jews while repeatedly observing that "Jews are hated," then blames them for it.

The rise of "soft denialism"

There is a relatively new form of Holocaust denialism — dubbed "soft denialism" because its adherents don't deny the Holocaust outright but attempt to trivialize it instead — whose rise seems to have followed the same curve as that of right-wing nationalist movements worldwide in recent years.

The most prevalent form of soft denialism revolves around the claim that the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany is given preferential treatment over the persecution of other minority groups by the same regime. But this is a moral deflection. It's a fact that the Reich persecuted and killed millions of others in the name of "Aryan superiority" — Roma ("gypsies"), Serbs, Poles, individuals with disabilities, individuals perceived as "homosexual," socialists, communists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, to name only some of the targeted minorities — but this is no justification for eliding Hitler's decades-long vendetta against the Jewish people in particular, a vendetta which very nearly ended in their complete eradication. 

In January 2017, President Trump was roundly criticized for issuing a statement "in the name of the perished" on Holocaust Remembrance Day, held on the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, that never once mentioned the Jewish victims of that tragedy:

January 27, 2017

Statement by the President on International Holocaust Remembrance Day

"It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.

"Yet, we know that in the darkest hours of humanity, light shines the brightest.‎ As we remember those who died, we are deeply grateful to those who risked their lives to save the innocent.

"In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good. Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world."

Harsh reactions to Trump's statement came from many quarters.

"This is not a political issue, this is a matter of not just sensitivity, it's a matter of historical fact," said Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League. "Six million Jews were slaughtered along with millions of other people. But the Holocaust was about this singular focus on the annihilation of the Jewish people. That's why we remember it. That's why there is a day, a sad day like this past Friday, to reflect upon it."

"The Nazis killed an astonishing number of people in monstrous ways and targeted certain groups — Gypsies, the mentally challenged, and open homosexuals, among others," wrote conservative commentator John Podhoretz. "But the Final Solution was aimed solely at the Jews. The Holocaust was about the Jews. ... To universalize it to 'all those who suffered' is to scrub the Holocaust of its meaning."

"The lack of a direct statement about the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust was an unfortunate omission," said Fred Brown, a spokesperson for the Republican Jewish Coalition. "History unambiguously shows the purpose of the Nazi's final solution was the extermination of the Jews of Europe. We hope, going forward, he conveys those feelings when speaking about the Holocaust."

The White House dismissed the criticisms, claiming they simply didn't want to leave any of the victims out. "Despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered," said spokesperson Hope Hicks.

If the Trump administration won't listen to their critics, they ought to at least take note of who applauded them for their Holocaust statement — the openly anti-Semitic "alt-right" leader Richard Spencer, for one, who hailed what he termed President Trump's "de-Judification of the Holocaust" in a blog post titled "Because Hitler." 

"[T]he kvetching came quickly" (yes, he used the Yiddish word) after Trump's statement was released, noted Spencer, and he was having none of it: 

Trump's statement on Holocaust Memorial Day is, on the surface, utterly defensible within the current moral paradigm: Hitler is depicted as quintessential evil, with modern society revolving around this dark center. But when viewed from the perspective of Jewish activists, Trump's statement becomes outrageous, as it dethrones Jews from a special position in the universe.

It seems unlikely that "dethroning Jews" was precisely what the Trump administration had in mind when they said their intent was "inclusiveness." That President Trump's Holocaust statement elicited such a response from an avowed white supremacist ought to give him pause before it comes time to issue the next one. 

Update: Trump's 2018 Holocaust Remembrance Day statement quite explicitly memorialized the millions of Jews who were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis. "We have a responsibility to convey the lessons of the Holocaust to future generations," he added, "and together as Americans, we have a moral obligation to combat antisemitism, confront hate, and prevent genocide. We must ensure that the history of the Holocaust remains forever relevant and that no people suffer these tragedies ever again."


Ben-Amots, Zach.   "The Rise of 'Soft' Holocaust Denial."    The Tower.   October 2016.

Dimsdale, Joel E., ed. Survivors, Victims, and Perpetrators: Essays on the Nazi Holocaust.    Milton Park, Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis, 1980.   ISBN 9780891163510   (p. 310).

Duiker, William J. and Jackson J Spielvogel.   The Essential World History.    Boston: Cengage Learning, 2016.   ISBN 9781305856486   (p. 702).

Isenstadt, Alex.   "Jewish Republicans Chide Trump on Holocaust Statement."    Politico.   29 January 2017.

Phillip, Abby.   "Facing Criticism, Trump Administration Has No Regrets About Leaving Out Jews in Holocaust Statement."    The Washington Post.   29 January 2017.

Spencer, Richard.   "Because Hitler ..."   29 January 2017.

Usborne, Simon.   "David Irving — The Hate that Dare Not Speak Its Name."    Independent.   30 August 2013.

The Holocaust History Project.   "Auschwitz — The Death Camp."    26 April 2009.

Perspectives on History.   "American Historical Association Statement on Holocaust Denial."    December 1991.

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.   "Holocaust Encyclopedia."    Accessed 14 April 2017.   "Statement by the President on International Holocaust Remembrance Day."    27 January 2017.


Update [Jan. 27, 2022]: Updated to report that then-President Trump's 2018 Holocaust Remembrance Day statement explicitly mentioned the persecution and murder of 6 million Jews.

David Emery is a West Coast-based writer and editor with 25 years of experience fact-checking rumors, hoaxes, and contemporary legends.