Assessing Holocaust Denial in Western and Arab Contexts
Assessing Holocaust Denial in Western and Arab Contexts
Gilbert Achcar
Palestinian Israel


Assessing Holocaust Denial in Western and Arab Contexts    


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By Gilbert Achcar
The specificity of the type of Holocaust denial on the rise in Arab countries since the 1980s is explored in contradistinction to Western Holocaust denial. The latter, rooted in anti-Semitism, is a substitute for open hatred of the Jews in countries where this hatred has not been tolerated since World War II. Holocaust denial in Arab countries, on the other hand, finds its roots in Israel’s exploitation of the Holocaust for political purposes. It also serves as a simplistic explanation for Western support of the Zionist state and as an outlet for frustrations created by Israel’s oppressive supremacy.

THE PHRASE “Holocaust denial” has been given different meanings and used in various ways over the years. It needs therefore to be carefully defined before any discussion of the phenomenon. Basically, as the phrase indicates, Holocaust denial designates a variety of attitudes disputing established facts related to the genocide of European Jews perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II.

The most extreme form of Holocaust denial is, of course, the straightforward denial that any mass murder of Jews by the Nazis took place, the genocide being described accordingly as a “hoax,” a “big lie,” or a “swindle.” The most widespread form, however, does not dispute that a large number of Jews perished during the war, but rather attempts to reduce that number from the generally acknowledged range of 5–6 million to 1 million or fewer. Moreover, Holocaust deniers often dispute the very nature of the massacre as an intentional genocide of Jews perpetrated by the Nazis. In such Holocaust denial theories, the massive death of Jews in Nazi concentration camps was but the “natural” result of diseases such as typhus. These claims are in complete contradiction of the accounts of the genocide common to scholarly historiography.

or “technical” issues related to the genocide instead of denying it head on. Such attitudes may touch on a range of topics, from Adolf Hitler’s personal responsibility to the specific techniques used by the Nazis in mass-murdering the Jews, the gas chambers in particular.

The Emergence of Holocaust Denial in the West

Early attempts to cast doubt on the truth of the Nazi mass extermination of Jews emerged during the genocide itself. In a sense, one could say that the first Holocaust deniers were the Nazis themselves, insofar as they took care to hide the genocide as they were committing it, and later to delete its traces. Nazi efforts in this regard facilitated Holocaust denial in the early postwar years.

The liberation of the camps by the Allies at the end of the war proved beyond rational dispute the reality of what many voices had denounced during the war. In November 1945, during the Nuremberg Trials of major Nazi war criminals, Austrian SS officer and historian Wilhelm H?ttl reported a conversation he had with Adolf Eichmann, the infamous engineer of the mass deportation of European Jews to Nazi concentration and extermination camps. Eichmann told H?ttl about a report he had sent to Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, who wanted to know the exact number of Jews killed by the Nazis. The figures in Eichmann’s report, according to H?ttl, were approximately 4 million Jews murdered in the various death camps and an additional 2 million killed in other ways, most of them shot by the Einsatzgruppen (“special-operation units,” i.e., mobile killing units) during the campaign against the Soviet Union.

Hottl’s testimony is the key source for the 6 million figure that has since become the most quoted estimate of the number of Jews who perished at Nazi hands during World War II. It was also the starting point for countless publications of all kinds pointing to apparent contradictions in diverse estimates of the number of Jews in Europe before and after the war. This type of sophistry was solidly refuted by the publication in 1961 of Raul Hilberg’s magisterial The Destruction of European Jews. Hilberg’s thorough and meticulously documented investigation established that the number of victims of the Jewish genocide was at least 5.1 million, an estimate deemed too conservative by other researchers whose approximations are closer to the 6 million announced at the end of the war. Since then, there has been an abundance of scholarly research and publications on various aspects of the Jewish genocide, to the point that the Holocaust is certainly the best documented mass-scale murder in history

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GILBERT ACHCAR is a professor of development studies and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. This article is partly based on two previous papers, one written for a campaign against antiSemitism organized by the UK University and College Union, and another presented at the Eleventh Biennial Lessons and Legacies Conference: Expanding Perspectives on the Holocaust in a Changing World organized by the Holocaust Educational Foundation at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, 4–7 November 2010.