Hidden in Plain View: The Changing Face of Holocaust Denial

Daniel Adamson is a PhD student in the History Department of Durham University, researching educational portrayals of the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust.

Twitter: @DanielEAdamson

In February 2020, in tandem with a host of other programmes to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, the BBC aired a documentary entitled Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel. Its presenter, the comedian David Baddiel, explored the titular blight which continues to afflict twenty-first century society. The broadcast was a skilful production, and nimbly handled the challenging juggling act of engaging with Holocaust denial whilst limiting the oxygen of exposure that can fan the flames of hateful opinions.

It goes without saying that the content of the Holocaust denial materials encountered by Baddiel were disturbing. However, equally striking was the seeming ease with which Baddiel was able to access published content which propagated prejudiced viewpoints. Primarily through social media platforms, Baddiel could reach webpages containing Holocaust-denial content in just a few clicks of a computer mouse.

Centrally, Confronting Holocaust Denial gives rise to a pressing issue: the changing face of Holocaust denial. It is alarming that Holocaust denial is so openly accessible to the general public, and begs the question of what more can be done to prevent such blatant airing of malicious interpretations of the past. Increasingly, it appears that Holocaust denial is finding camouflage cover within the saturated digital landscape of the internet age. 

Changing landscapes of Holocaust denial

Traditionally, Holocaust denial has lived a somewhat seedy existence. Notorious publications such as Richard Verrall’s Did Six Million Really Die? (1974) commonly were produced under pseudonyms, and distributed in slapdash pamphlet form by small independent publishing houses run by the likes of neo-Nazi propagandist Ernst Zündel.  Later, in the 1990s, the now-disgraced historian David Irving embarked upon various circuits of relatively small gatherings of right-wing fanatics. At such rallies, somewhat optimistically branded ‘lectures’ by Irving himself, audiences were afforded exposure to various theories which purported to revise established Holocaust narratives.

In other words, seditious opinions – and their covert perpetuation – for many years formed a symbiotic relationship. Whilst undeniably distasteful, the subliminal existence of Holocaust denial at least appeared to convey an intrinsic understanding – between deniers and the general populace alike – that such subject matter was unsuitable for public exhibition. Holocaust denial was a movement that found its greatest strength underground.  

The advent of the digital age has altered the dynamics of this relationship. The internet facilitates more straightforward transnational sharing of Holocaust denial material, and indeed has largely rendered redundant the necessity of Holocaust deniers to congregate in person. However, this diffusion of information is a dangerous trend. Whilst it might encourage less concentrated physical communities of Holocaust denial, it nonetheless allows for the spread of spiteful material on a far greater global scale. 

A particular concern arises in relation to the transition of Holocaust denial from clandestine forums to public platforms. There is a tangible risk that the existence of Holocaust denial in public settings can become – in a distorted way – a mechanism of validation. The emergence of Holocaust denial from an underground to overground movement has the potential, by extension, to be accompanied by an increase in public perception of its validity. Herein lies the crux of the ‘fake news’ crisis which has developed in recent years. For much of the general public, it is difficult to distinguish between truth and lie when both viewpoints are afforded publicity through ‘established’ channels such as social media. In reality, the public existence of a historical viewpoint cannot be equated with the veracity of such interpretations.

A quotation from the author G.K Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories appears particularly salient: 

‘Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest? He grows a forest to hide it in.’[1]

Holocaust denial has embraced the new digital environment within which it has found itself in. Hidden amongst the vast swathes of internet material created on a daily basis, Holocaust denial has become embedded in surroundings within which it can escape critical attention and project a false sense of authority. 

The ramifications of such developments are very real. In recent years, social media has not only been used as mediator of hate speech, but also as a primary vehicle of violence. Particularly haunting was the use of Facebook livestream to broadcast an attack on the Christchurch mosque in New Zealand by its white supremacist proponent in March 2019. Action must be taken in order to ensure that similar crimes connected to Holocaust denial are not allowed to take place in future. In intelligence parlance, open-source (OS) material has become arguably the foremost stimulus for public violence in modern society.

Worryingly, there is evidence that the insidious social manifestation of Holocaust denial – prompted by the increased public accessibility of the movement – has started to take hold. In January 2019, a report commissioned by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) estimated that 5% of UK adults did not believe in the existence of the Holocaust, and 8% believed the genocide to have been exaggerated.[2] Over the past decade, research by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education (CfHE) has similarly highlighted troubling misunderstandings amongst teachers and students alike.[3] Such findings are not conclusive, yet hint a concerning normalisation of Holocaust denial within Great Britain. Subconsciously or not, the exposure found by Holocaust denial through unfiltered digital platforms has quite possibly infused the social consciousness of the wider British public. 

Normalisation of extremist views is a dangerous trend, and is not without historical precedence. As recently as January 2020, the online retailer Amazon attracted criticism for selling copies of The Poisonous Mushroom, a children’s book published in 1938 under the auspices of the Nazi Julius Streicher.[4] The book contains several inciteful portrayals of Jews as ‘race defilers’ and ‘devils’. Above all, The Poisonous Mushroom provides a poignant example of the ability of seemingly harmless media (a children’s storybook) to propagate positively hostile worldviews. Social media is at severe risk of similar exploitation, despite itself not being designed as a vehicle of discrimination.

Online regulation: quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

In reaction to the findings of the aforementioned 2019 HMDT survey, Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), made the following observation: 

‘One person questioning the truth of the Holocaust is one too many, and so it is up to us to redouble our efforts to ensure future generations know that it did happen and become witnesses to one of the darkest episodes in our history.’[5]

Plainly, a certain degree of responsibility lies at the feet of social media companies to ensure that the flames Holocaust denial, where it exists, are either suppressed or extinguished. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter talk a good game. For example, the community standards provided by Facebook record: 

‘Facebook removes hate speech, which includes content that directly attacks people based on their: race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender or gender identity, or serious disabilities or diseases … We allow humour, satire or social commentary related to these topics’.[6]

However, in practice, enforcement of such a policy requires a highly nuanced understanding of phenomena such as Holocaust denial. If the dubious distinction between ‘hate speech’ and ‘satire’ is indeed to be made, it is logical to expect that Facebook’s team of nearly 8,000 content reviewers must have literacy in certain key characteristics of each genre. Put differently: quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Gatekeepers need instruction. As ever, it seems feasible that one solution lies in education. The resistance against online Holocaust denial would only be strengthened by collaboration between private companies and organisations better versed in issues related to the Holocaust (such as the HET and HMDT).

Overall, the BBC’s Confronting Holocaust Denial provided a stark indication of the ways in which Holocaust denial is occupying new spheres within public life. Acknowledgment of such a trend is an important first step in countering the creeping permeation of online hate speech in public consciousness. The internet continues to offer endless opportunities for social development. However, it also harbours a dark side: one which social media companies have a duty upon which to try and shine the rectifying light of education. Action is required to stem any tide of bile. 

Promotional photo, Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel (BBC, 2020). Accessed at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000fjqk

[1] Chesterton, G.K, The Delphi Works of G.K Chesterton (2013), p.1279.

[2] Sherwood, Harriet (January 27, 2019). “One in 20 Britons does not believe Holocaust took place, poll finds”The Guardian

[3] UCL CfHE, Research (2020), accessed at https://www.holocausteducation.org.uk/research/

[4] Joseph, Claudia (25 January, 2020), ‘Nazi propaganda books branding Jews ‘race defilers’ and ‘the devil in human form’ are on sale on Amazon in English’, Daily Mail

[5] Sherwood, Harriet (January 27, 2019). “One in 20 Britons does not believe Holocaust took place, poll finds”The Guardian

[6] Facebook, Community Standards (2019), accessed at https://www.facebook.com/communitystandards/