On the Prehistory of Holocaust Denial


Skull on top of a book.

My very first blog post was this one. It was on the “softcore Holocaust denial” of one of the first actions of the then-new Trump administration: remembering the Holocaust without mentioning the genocide of European Jews. The guy I thought chiefly responsible for this statement was Sebastian Gorka who is no longer with the administration. He’s now landed a gig with an antisemitic website. The good news is that he’ll be in Canada so…..   Well, that really isn’t good news, is it? He’s still around being a racist jerk.

A year later, Holocaust denial is back in the news. Arthur Jones, bona fide neo-Nazi and denier is running, unopposed, for Congress in Illinois (I hate Illinois Nazis). In Poland, it is now illegal to claim that Poles were complicit in the Holocaust.  Holocaust denial, in its endless variety, is still out there. It is time, therefore, to take another look at it.

A picture of Death, The Grim Reaper

Outright Holocaust denial is usually embraced by antisemitic crackpots, Illinois Nazis and the the like. Much more dangerous, however, are the more subtle methods of of what Deborah Lipstadt calls “softcore denial.” In this version of denial, the Holocaust isn’t so much denied outright, but trivialized. In his study of Holocaust denial in Eastern Europe (of which Poland is only the most recent example), Dovid Katz uses the term “obfuscation:”

Moreover, the term ‘Holocaust Obfuscation is proposed as a cover term for a newly energized European movement to confuse, recombine or equalize phenomena that are empirically and conceptually unequal, in service of the effort to obscure, relativize, minimize or delete entirely ‘the Holocaust as such’ from European history and consciousness.

My idea is that this obfuscation was at play in the years immediately following World War II. It arose out of a group of different arguments put forth by pre-war isolationists who continued to maintain, even after the war, that the American entry into World War II was unnecessary and mistaken. While none of these arguments were themselves denying the Holocaust, they created the conceptual space for Holocaust obfuscation. These arguments were:

  • No vital US interests were at stake in World War II. We should have let Europeans and Asians fight their own battles, we would have been fine no matter who won.
  • FDR’s New Deal was destroying the country and he brought us into the war in order to save his political career.
  • FDR knew about the impending attack on Pearl Harbor. He either tricked the Japanese into attacking or he, at a minimum, allowed it to happen, in order to get the country into war.
  • By allying ourselves with the Soviets, we allowed Communism to descend on Eastern Europe. This is as bad, or perhaps worse, than the Nazi rule over Europe would have been.
  • The postwar Nuremberg Trials in which the Allies tried Nazis as war criminals was a travesty of justice: creating post facto laws for non-existent “crimes.”
  • War is Hell. The savagery of the Allies, especially the Soviets, was as bad or worse than that of the Nazis. This is especially true of the evacuation of Germans from Eastern Europe after World War II.

Along with the occasional liberal, such as Charles Beard, and apostate liberals, like John Flynn, these arguments were fully developed in books published by American rightwing publishers especially Regnery and Devin-Adair.  A partial chronological list of such publications is:

  • Flynn, John T. 1945. The Truth about Pearl Harbour. Strickland Press: Glasgow. 
  • Bullis, G. P. 1946. Face the Facts on War Guilt. Ferriday, La.: G.P. Bullis. 
  • Morgenstern, George. 1947. Pearl Harbor: The Story of the Secret War. New York: Devin-Adair.
  • Beard, Charles A. 1948. President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: A Study in Appearances and Realities. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. 
  • Flynn, John T. 1948. The Roosevelt Myth. New York: Devin-Adair Co.
  • Belgion, Montgomery. 1949. Victor’s Justice: A Letter Intended to Have Been Sent to a Friend Recently in Germany. Hinsdale: Illinois, Henry Regnery. 
  • Chamberlin, William Henry. 1950. America’s Second Crusade. Chicago: Regnery.
  • Barnes, Harry Elmer. 1951. The Struggle against the Historical Blackout. Place of publication not identified: The author. 
  • Tansill, Charles Callan. 1952. Back Door to War: The Roosevelt Foreign Policy 1933-1941. Chicago: Henry Regnery. 
  • Barnes, Harry Elmer, ed. 1953. Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace; a Critical Examination of the Foreign Policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Its Aftermath. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers.
  • Grenfell, Russell. 1953. Unconditional Hatred; German War Guilt and the Future of Europe. New York: Devin-Adair.
  • Veale, F. J. P. 1953. Advance to Barbarism: How the Reversion to Barbarism in Warfare and War-Trials Menaces Our Future. Appleton, Wis.: C.C. Nelson Pub. Co.  
  • Theobald, Robert A. 1954. The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor; the Washington Contribution to the Japanese Attack. New York: Devin-Adair.
  • Wormser, René A. 1954. The Myth of the Good and Bad Nations. Chicago: H. Regnery Co.

That’s a lot of books, and you’ll note that the list pretty much stops in the mid-1950s. The Cold War was in full swing by then and conservatives and liberals alike began embracing the national security state, foreign entanglements and all, in order to fight back the Commies. So this decade after World War II is a unique period when the old, isolationist right and a few apostate liberals we able to mount a case that we should never have entered the war at all.

One thing I’ve been doing is reading this literature with an eye toward their views of the Nazi genocide of the Jews. These were years when American were having difficulty coming to grips with what they discovered when the camps were liberated. Deborah Lipstadt shows us that:

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the search was not for a name but for a language to describe what had happened….  Even those who had access to the broadest array of evidence found it hard to comprehend the extent of the tragedy.

Even the word “genocide” was brand-new, coined by jurist Raphael Lemkin in 1944 in his book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.  The task of those seeking to fully understand what happened under Nazi rule, their task was not made easier who’s interests were to show that the United States should never have entered the war at all. That Hitler posed no unique threat to United States interests or that Europe would have been better off under Hitler’s rule than under Stalin’s. Let me simply cut one book out of the herd to demonstrate how “softcore” Holocaust denial was in play in these years.  That book is Montgomery’s Belgion’s Victor’s Justice: A Letter Intended to Have Been Sent to a Friend Recently in Germany

A few years ago, there was a kerfuffle in the literary world over the whether or not the renowned poet, T.S. Elliot was antisemitic. One piece of evidence advance to support that idea was an unsigned book review that appeared in Elliot’s journal The Criterion in 1936.  The review was of The Yellow Spot, one of the first books to detail the treatments of Jews under the Nazi Regime. The review declared the book an act of “sensationalism” especially the “chapter devoted to the ill-treatment of Jews in German concentration camps.” While no one would want to be Jew under Hitler, life was tough for a a lot of people in the world, why worry about the Jews in particular? The charge that this review was authored by T.S. Elliot roused his widow to explain that the review was not written by her late husband, but by Montgomery Belgion, who regularly reviewed for the journal.

Belgion expanded on his views about the Nazi’s treatment of Jews in his 1949 book which he claimed was a critique of the Nuremberg Trials. His central claim was that any crimes committed by the Nazis were also committed by Allies, particularly the Soviets but also the Americans and the British. In making his case, he offered what have become standard Holocaust denial arguments. Some examples:

  1. Nazi policy toward the Jews was emigration, not extermination.

In fact, however, the international military tribunal at Nuremberg, in its Judgement, did not pronounce any of the accused guilty of being responsible for the deaths of German Jews. The Jews who were stated to have been killed were from occupied territories. From Germany under Hitler, most if not all Jews who could afford it were up to the outbreak of war allowed to emigrate. (p. 126)

Nazi policies toward the Jews were justified because Jews had committed crimes against the Nazi regime.

I would remind you too that the ‘persecution of Jews’ did not take place without a pretext either. It was alleged that in the years from 1918 to 1933 certain Jews — many of them immigrants from the East — took advantage of the vicissitudes with which Germany was afflicted, that they waxed rich at the expense of the people in general and obtained in the economic life of the nation a preponderance excessive in respect of their number. Thus, the case for ‘denazification’ had been preceded by a case for persecuting Jews. (p. 127)

3.  Allied crimes exceeded those of the Nazis.

The treatment called ‘denazification’ to which so many Germans were subjected after the unconditional surrender is the equivalent of ‘persecution of Jews’ by the German National Socialists in the twelve years be fore. ‘Denazification’ was the wholesale arrest, internment, proscription, and frequently sentence of former members of the German National Socialist party. It was carried out in part by each of the four occupying powers, in part by the Germans themselves (of course Germans who had not belonged to the party). But that is a distinction without a difference. The occupying powers were ruling Germany. Germans acted only at their bidding and with their acquiescence.  (p. 125)

Nearly all reviewers of Belgion’s book recognized, in the words of one reviewer, that any historian who was worried more about the Allies treatment of the guards of the Bergen-Belson concentration camp rather than the tens of thousands “who perished there has lost all sense of proportion.” Another noted that “the publication of this book shows a strong lack of good taste, to say the least, perhaps equal to that of the publication of the French book…by Maurice Bardèche.”  (As Lipstadt documented, Maurice Bardèche was one of the very first of those who denied the Holocaust, and is still admired by many in the alt right). On the other hand, in Frank Chodorov’s analysis, keeper of the libertarian/isolationist fire, the book received a glowing review:

By quoting well-authenticated instances from British, American, Russian, and other Allied sources, Mr. Belgion indisputably that identical crimes had been perpetrated many times over by the Allies themselves.

Belgion was probably antisemtic but it was probably an “everyday” antisemitism rather than the kind of eliminationist antisemtism that it took to be in Hitler’s SS. Undoubtedly many in the American isolationist camp were antisemitic, but not all of them were. But, a commitment to maintaining the isolationist position regarding World War II, even after the horrors of the camps were known meant that those horrors must be minimized or, at the very least, be made equivalent to the crimes of the Nazis. As we seem to be entering into another round of Holocaust denial, it is important to be on guard against those who, for whatever reason, will endorse and spread denial for their own purposes. Antisemites are easier to spot than those who aid and abet them for “good” reasons.

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