A Jewish invention? The birth of Holocaust denial
The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was liberated on 15 April 1945.
Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which. . . . The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them.1
Despite the first news of the Nazis’ Final Solution reaching Britain in the summer of 1942,2 the haunting scenes reported by Richard Dimbleby from a newly liberated Belsen were so inconceivable that the BBC in London hesitated in broadcasting them until they could be verified by newspaper accounts.3 However, newsreels followed, and as Dan Stone states, ‘The famous images of British bulldozers moving mounds of corpses at Belsen were seared into people’s consciousness in 1945’4 meaning that for most, any remaining scepticism and disbelief turned to horror. However, for Hitlers heirs it was clear that before a successful resurrection of fascism could happen, ‘this blot must be removed’.’ Rather than distancing themselves from their antisemitic past, many British fascists remained shockingly unmoved.
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. However, historians of Holocaust denial have bestowed the ignoble distinction of being the first person to maliciously deny the validity and uniqueness of Nazi war crimes on numerous different candidates. Deborah Lipstadt, in her respected book Denying the Holocaust, has stated that the prominent French fascist Maurice Bardeche was ‘the first to contend that the pictorial and documentary evidence of the murder process in the camps had actually been falsified’.6 A close runner up was his compatriot Paul Rassinier who, as Samuel Moyn has shown, was believed by many on the extreme right to be ‘the original source of “negationism”’.7 Remarkably, a camp inmate himself at Buchenwald, Rassinier published Le Mensonge d’Ulysse in 1950, which harshly scrutinised survivor testimony from the camps. He then began to question the existence of gas chambers arguing that any that did exist were built at the behest of rogue madmen and were by no means part of a systematic programme aimed at liquidating Jews. By the 1960s he began to talk about the ‘myth of the Holocaust’ as a fallacy created to legitimate Zionism and the State of Israel.8 Such views led to his ‘canonization by the extreme right’.9
However, in Holocaust Denial in France, Pierre Vidal-Naquet and Limor Yagil name Professor René Fabre as the first French negationist for his 1945 study, which questioned the use of gas for exterminations.1" Kenneth Stern’s informative work Holocaust Denial posits that it emerged from 1944 onward, produced by exiled Nazis hiding in Sweden, Arab states and South America, though again attention is drawn to Rassinier as ‘one of the earliest’.11 Others also note early Swedes such as Einar Àberg, who was the key individual who kept the flame of antisemitism alive in postwar Sweden. During the war he formed Sveriges Antijudiska Kampfbrbund [Sweden’s Anti-Semitic Battlefront/Fighting Alliance], Soon realising the obstacle that the Holocaust presented for those peddling antisemitic politics, Âberg began denying Nazi crimes from 1944 onward, making him among the first to do so. As such Kaplan and Weinberg have dubbed him ‘the father of Holocaust denial’.12 Alternatively, Meir Litvak and Esther Webman state that denial’s ‘earliest propagators were extreme right-wingers, isolationists and antisemites in the US’.13 Fascinatingly, Henry Feingold explains how the ‘denial of the Holocaust finds its roots in Allied information strategy during the Second World War’, which downplayed Jewish suffering.14
While there is no solid consensus among historians as to who was the first true Holocaust denier, all these accounts do have a commonality, namely they either ignore or overlook early British deniers. One exception is Denying History by Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman, which is the first work to draw any attention to early British denial, pointing to Alexander Ratcliffe as possibly ‘the first person to deny the Holocaust’.15 However, while this unique example of attention being paid to early British Holocaust denial is most welcome, it stretches to just one short paragraph before reverting to the historiographical norm of citing Paul Rassinier as the ‘first influential Holocaust “revisionist”’.16 It is not until decades later that British denial is seriously dealt with by the historiography. The section on Britain in Stephen E. Atkins’ Holocaust Denial as an International Movement is a perfect example. After briefly mentioning the attention drawn to Ratcliffe by Shermer and Grobman, he writes off early British denial in the period from 1945 until 1980 as a ‘pale reflection of French Holocaust denial’ suggesting that there was little impulse among the British to rehabilitate Hitler and the Nazis and that the ‘British neo-Nazis were fragmented and busy fighting among themselves’.17 As such he cites Richard Verrall (alias Richard Harwood) as ‘the most prominent early British Holocaust Denier’ despite the fact that he was not born until 1948
and didn’t publish his famous work of denial, 'Did Six Million Really Die?’ until 1974.18 It then proceeds to cover the heavyweights of British Holocaust denial in the 1970s and 1980s such as Michael McLaughlin and David Irving. Atkins is in no way unique in overlooking early British denial. Similarly, Sterns Holocaust Denial doesn’t start the section on Britain until the 1970s, and the same is true of Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust, in which the chapter titled hi the Shadow of World War II makes no mention of Britain at all.19 More recently, a section on Holocaust denial in a book specifically regarding The Postwar Anglo-American Far-right makes the same mistake of not starting until the mid 1970s.2<) Strangely Richard Thurlow incorrectly argued that,
the chief survivors of the British fascist generation believed that Hitler had committed foul crimes against European Jewry. ... It was only through the smokescreen of hindsight that later apologists for Hitler in the NF | National Front] and BM ¡British Movement] felt bold enough to promote a cover-up.21
In fact, the truth is that Holocaust denial in its traditional form began not in France or America - as most have argued - but actually in Britain.
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? The answers to these questions are complex and important and hold contemporary relevance. It is of course likely that many who denied the Holocaust publicly thought differently in private. They did so as biased revisionism, and denial was politically expedient and vital to their attempts to rehabilitate the doctrine with which they identified and which they were attempting to revive. Nazi atrocities had of course become inextricably linked to the doctrine of fascism, and any attempt to relaunch the ideology required either the separation of one from the other or denial that the atrocities had happened at all.
However, for those British fascists who truly believed that the genocide of the Jews had not occurred one must look at their existing views about the Jews. Since the Judeo-Christian battles for religious hegemony over the Hellenistic world in the 3rd and 4th centuries, the myth that the Jewish diaspora was endowed with sinister and secret power has endured. The idea of a Jewish world conspiracy, as outlined in the infamous Russian forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, claims that a clandestine cabal of powerful Jews, exploiting their position as a diaspora and their supposed domination of the world’s press and financial systems, manipulates world events, with the aim of creating a Jewish world government. Thus, when reacting to the news of mass Jewish extermination at the hands of the Nazis, fervent antisemites were faced with the paradoxical situation whereby an all-powerful race had ‘allowed’ itself to be destroyed. For many on Britain’s far right the options for surmounting this logical contradiction were stark; either Jews were not all-powerful and did not rule the world or they had not been destroyed and the Holocaust was a lie. The latter position required the least revision of their often deeply ingrained illogical prejudice and thus proved a popular conclusion. So, when seeking to answer the question - How can there still be antisemitism after the Holocaust? -the answer of many antisemites was: what Holocaust?
However, there are degrees of Holocaust denial ranging from outright rejection of all atrocities to more moderate attempts to reduce the number of victims or to relativise Nazi crimes by comparing them to allied actions and thereby negating the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Many historians use the term ‘revisionists’ and ‘revisionism’ when discussing this topic, which is the terminology adopted by the deniers themselves. However, while it is important to distinguish between the various forms in which denial is manifest and to explore the different tactics used, all are degrees of the same untruth, thus all are, to varying degrees, denial. As such this chapter will avoid the term ‘revisionism’, which is a perfectly legitimate and normal historical tool.