Adolf Who?

What makes someone a Holocaust denier?

Picture taken in 1942 shows Jewish deportees. Click image to expand.
Jewish deportees in a transit camp, their last stop before the concentration camps

Ultraconservative Catholic bishop Richard Williamson apologized to the pope this week for his “imprudent remarks” concerning the Holocaust but did not recant. The bishop accepts that some Jews died in concentration camps but claims that fewer than 300,000 were killed, rather than 6 million, and he denies that the Nazis used gas chambers. To be a Holocaust denier, do you have to deny the whole thing?

No. There’s no single definition of Holocaust denial or “revisionism,” but scholars generally agree that it means claiming that the Nazis had no official policy to exterminate Jews, that the gas chambers are a myth, or that the figure of 6 million murdered Jews is a gross exaggeration. At the extreme, denial can mean hiding or suppressing evidence of the Holocaust by destroying gas chambers, as the Nazis did at the end of World War II, or by burning documents. But denial can also take the form of relativization—saying that, yes, the Nazis killed Jews, but the killings of Gypsies, Poles, and Jehovah’s Witnesses were just as extensive. *

That said, there are plenty of aspects of the Holocaust that are still hotly debated by historians without charges of denial being tossed around. One is the exact number of Jews killed. Most historians agree it was somewhere between 5 million and 7 million. (Solid documentary evidence exists for about 5.3 million deaths.) But the numbers vary because of the circumstances under which some of the killings occurred. For example, no one knows precisely how many Jews were evacuated when the Soviet army retreated from the western regions of the USSR under German attack, or whether they were killed. Legitimate debate also continues over how widespread Jewish resistance was against the Nazis.

The closest thing to a codified definition of Holocaust denial is found in European law. Thirteen countries have laws banning Holocaust denial, including Austria, Germany, France, Israel, and Switzerland. (Other countries, like Canada, prohibit hate speech against any “identifiable group,” including Jews, but don’t refer specifically to the Holocaust.) Most of the laws are broad, like the Czech Republic’s law punishing the “person who publicly denies, puts in doubt, approves or tries to justify Nazi or Communist genocide or other crimes of Nazis or Communists.” In Israel, any published statement of “praise or sympathy for or identification with” the Nazis is a crime. Germany requires that the statement be part of a “public incitement.” Those found guilty of Holocaust denial might get jail time—from six months to five years—or a hefty fine.

Anti-denial laws have resulted in some high-profile trials. In 2006, British historian David Irving was sentenced by an Austrian court to three years in prison for denying the existence of gas chambers in a 1989 speech. (He pleaded guilty and told the court he had changed his views.) In 2007, denier Ernst Zundel was convicted on 14 counts in Germany and sentenced to five years in jail. German neo-Nazi Horst Mahler was sentenced to prison in 2006 for denying the Holocaust. He gave a Sieg Heil upon arriving at the prison, for which he was put on a trial again in 2007. He also gave an interview to Vanity Fair in which he said “the systematic extermination of Jews in Auschwitz is a lie.” The German interviewer brought charges.

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Explainer thanks Debórah Dwork of Clark University, Douglas Greenberg of Rutgers University, and Paul Shapiro of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Clarification, Feb. 10, 2008: This article originally stated that it’s relativizing the Holocaust to say that the killing of other groups by the Nazis was “just as bad.” By “bad,” we meant “extensive.” The phrasing has been changed to be less ambiguous. (Return to the clarified sentence.)