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Pioneer deniers: British fascists' reactions

The denial of Nazi crimes by British fascists predated the war and can be found throughout the 1930s and during the war years. As some socialists turned a blind eye to the terrors of Stalinism, so Britain’s fascists did the same with the reports coming out of Germany. Prominent British far-right activists visited Germany and returned keen to dispel the ‘myth’ of German brutality. Following a spell in Germany in 1937 to recover from his alcoholism, A.K. Chesterton, writing in Blackshirt, the organ of the British Union of Fascists, stated,

the concentration camps which the gullible British people imagines to be crammed with people who cannot accept National Socialist principles do not exist. Nobody in Germany has been punished because of his opinions -that is since Hitler came to power.35

Major General J.F.C. Fuller, also a member of the British Union of Fascists, similarly set out to challenge the narrative of an oppressive regime operating inhumane camps.

Fuller visited the Oranienburg concentration camp just before the outbreak of war and penned an apologia for the camp in the right-wing magazine Truth, in which he praised its cleanliness and order. When discussing the Jewish inmates he claimed that he had ‘never before seen so many degenerates collected together’ and concluded that, ‘whether these concentration camps are barbarous or not, a civilisation which produces such creatures is one to be fought against rather than to be fought for’.36 Such views were commonplace among Britain’s extreme right wing before the war and were not dispelled by the increasing evidence of barbarism emanating from the continent.37

As the war progressed and increasingly solid evidence emerged of Nazi atrocities, elements of the British far-right were quick to challenge their authenticity. One such example was the 1942 pamphlet Propaganda for Proper Geese, written by the Duke of Bedford, a leading far-right activist. It questioned the validity of the emerging stories about Nazi atrocities and brazenly dismissed the pictorial evidence as fake. While accepting that many Jews had been ‘extremely harshly treated’, Bedford went on to state that ‘In regards to the infliction upon Jews of actual physical brutality, it appears certain that this has happened on many occasions, but it may be deemed equally certain that the extent of the abuse has been greatly exaggerated by propaganda’.38 In answer to the question, ‘Is it understandable that Hitler should have a prejudice against Jews?’, he answers with a definitive, ‘Yes, very’.39 According to Bedford, the newspapers were inflating the atrocity stories to keep happy the Jewish firms that advertised in them.

Another early contribution was Alexander Ratcliffe’s The Truth about the Jews, published in 1943. Ratcliffe, a militant Protestant and founder of the Scottish Protestant League was a religious fundamentalist and extreme antisemite.40 The pamphlet argued:

The various press reports about Hitler’s terrible persecution of the Jews mostly are written up by Jews and circulated by Jews. Mostly such reports are the invention of the Jewish mind. For the historian immediately after the war will prove that 95% of the Jew “atrocity” stories and “photographs” of such atrocities appearing in the press, magazines and journals are mere invention.41

He went as far as to make the remarkable claim that, ‘There is not a single authentic case on record of a single Jew having been massacred or unlawfully put to death under the Hitler regime’.42 He asserted:

Only an idiot (there is no other term for it) would place any confidence in the ridiculous stories of the “Atrocities” committed under Hitler towards the Jews. Some of these stories, and especially the “photographs” (probably faked in the Jew Cinema studios) are enough to make a cat laugh. They are so crude, and their falsity is so evident, that only a half-wit would place any reliability on them.43

His claim that the pictorial evidence of Nazi atrocities was being faked refutes Lip-stadt’s assertion that the first to do so was the French denier Maurice Bardéche.44 Unsurprisingly such claims were met with anger and derision by the Jewish Chronicle, which described The Truth About the Jews as ‘the vilest anti-Semitic pamphlet yet produced in Britain, and it is pure - or rather impure - Streicher from beginning to end’.4’ While the pamphlet was the best known of his antisemitic tracts published during the war, Ratcliffe regularly packed his magazine, Protestant Vanguard, with similar sentiments. Two especially noteworthy editions were published in 1945, both dedicated to denying and excusing Nazi crimes - though with markedly different tactics. The April edition’s front page declared ‘Atrocities Not German’with the accompanying article arguing that

the people who accept the reports of German atrocities in this war are fools. . . . Once this war is over, folks will snigger at the German “atrocity” yarns. They will actually wonder how they could be so easily deluded, especially they will wonder how they could swallow the silly yarns about the wholesale massacre of millions of Jews. A shock is coming to the people, and no doubt they will ultimately discover that the actual real atrocity that did take place was in 1939, when the country was tricked by interested financiers to declare war against Protestant Germany.46

Published in April but with no exact date given, it is difficult to know whether the liberation of Bergen-Belsen on 15 April by the British predated publication of the article, though it seems unlikely as no reference to it is made. Importantly, within this short article lay two arguments that became staples for the postwar Holocaust denial movement. First, it attempted to relativise and thus diminish any crimes that did occur by referencing Allied atrocities. Second it referenced the false stories of German atrocities during World War I.47 The latter was a tactic he had long used. The Truth about the Jews had also mentioned the ‘ “Atrocity” business of the last War’. In reference to a book that debunked World War I atrocity propaganda he stated:

And so in this War history is repeating itself, and when the war is over we will have another “Falsehood in Wartime,” with the press commending it, and denouncing the very lying photographs which they themselves published in regard to Hitler’s “Atrocities” against the Jews!411

Radcliffe was not alone in pointing to the unreliable nature of wartime propaganda in 1914—1918 as the cause of their scepticism. The initial cynicism and partial denial of fellow fascists A.K. Chesterton and John Beckett were also influenced by memories of First World War atrocity propaganda.49 David Baker, Chestertons biographer, argues that he ‘carried a legacy from the past which helped still further to dim his critical faculties’.50 Chesterton pointed to the ‘notorious lie about German “corpse factories” for obtaining grease’.51 Inaccurate World War I atrocity propaganda was also sighted by Americans such as Willis Carto, founder of the Liberty Lobby and one of America’s leading far-right Holocaust deniers and racial theorists. He also justified his denial by saying, ‘I think people are generally aware of this story of Germans [during World War I| throwing babies in the air and catching them with their bayonets. And cutting their arms off. After the war people learned that that was a big lie’.52 There is no doubt that World War I propaganda did lie about German corpse-rendering factories and baby killing and thus many fascists’ first reaction to the news of Nazi death camps was sceptical disbelief. They argued that the government fabricated stories as a post facto justification for intervention against Germany, meaning falsified propaganda from World War I was both a cause of disbelief and a means by which antisemites tried to undermine the validity of German atrocities during World War II.

The second Ratcliffe article of note in Protestant Vanguard was ‘The Truth about the German Atrocities’, which appeared in July 1945, well after the liberation of the camps and the cinema newsreels had shown the ‘ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people’.53 As such Ratcliffe was forced to change tack and deploy a different form of denial. In a complete volte-face from the absolute denial displayed in The Truth About the Jews and the ‘Atrocities Not German’ article published just three months previous, Ratcliffe accepted the images emanating from the camps as real stating that, ‘there have been such atrocities none need dare seek to deny’.54 However, he poses the question, ‘How did these bodies come to be lifeless?’ His answer: ‘These bodies were starved to death! And why were these bodies starved to death? Because there was no food for these bodies! And who were to blame for that? Directly, or indirectly, the Allies’.” Thus, Ratcliffe attributed the piles of dead bodies to starvation brought about by the Allied blockade of Germany. Laying the blame for the atrocities at the feet of the Allies, sometimes blaming starvation or sometimes diseases such as typhoid, became a popular defence for those on the far right not willing to adopt all-out denial. Once again Ratcliffe was a pioneer of this new form of antisemitism.

Importantly, as Colin Holmes has correctly argued, these are not the claims of an isolated and ignored fanatic but rather those of‘an important carrier ofideologi-cal antisemitism’. The work of Ratcliffe was well known in right-wing, circles and the second edition of The Truth About the Jews was published by the Right Review Press of Count Potocki de Montalk and sold by Edward Godfrey’s Essential Books. It even travelled across the Atlantic, being republished in America by the Sons of Liberty as late as 1979.56 It is for this reason that Holmes correctly labels Ratcliffe a ‘pioneer revisionist’,57 a label that, as has been shown earlier, could also be attached to the Duke of Bedford, A.K. Chesterton and J. EC. Fuller among others on Britain’s far right. Importantly, as will be shown later, these deniers were not merely the first in Britain to advance a whole new form of antisemitism - namely Holocaust denial - but were among, were perhaps even the first, to propagate it anywhere.

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