A short history of Holocaust denial in the United States


The Anti-Defamation League, Special To The Jewish Light

This content first appeared on ADL.org and is republished here with permission.

The movement to deny that the Nazis murdered approximately six million Jews during World War II — the historical event known as the Holocaust — emerged in the years immediately following the war. In the United States, the movement was spearheaded by American adherents of the Nazi cause, including Francis Parker Yockey and George Lincoln Rockwell.

Their early propaganda efforts to rehabilitate Adolf Hitler’s image, which would motivate generations of Holocaust deniers, evolved in the 1970s to incorporate a new pseudo-scientific element, as right-wing extremists began making methodologically flawed but technically sophisticated arguments to challenge the historical record.

This so-called “revisionist” effort was facilitated by Willis Carto, one of the most virulent antisemitic propagandists in the United States, who founded the Institute for Historical Review (IHR) in 1979. Although it focused on Holocaust denial and other conspiracy theories, IHR presented itself as a legitimate research institution, complete with a pseudo-academic journal and annual conferences where Holocaust deniers from around the world would present papers about their latest “research.”

Carto not only generated more technically “advanced” iterations of Holocaust denial — he also shared this content to a broader audience via more established antisemitic organizations like Liberty Lobby, which Carto founded in the late 1950s. He promoted Holocaust denial in The Spotlight, Liberty Lobby’s flagship weekly publication which at its peak in the early 1980s had a circulation of approximately 300,000. The magazine repeatedly shared claims that Anne Frank’s diary was a fabrication, that Hitler had noble intentions, that Zionists colluded with the Nazis and that lethal gas chambers at Auschwitz were an impossibility.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, IHR engaged in outreach campaigns to the mainstream U.S. media and general public. In 1991, Bradley Smith, a former IHR employee, created his own organization called the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH) to carry out this goal of broadcasting Holocaust denial to the masses, which included the placement of Holocaust denial advertisements in student-run college newspapers.

A Short History of Holocaust Denial in the United States

Example of an advertisement placed by Bradley Smith and CODOH in a college newspaper in 2009.

By the 2000s, Holocaust denial was an enterprise populated by a mix of self-styled technical “experts” and right-wing propagandists. The technical “experts” focused on topics like the toxicity of Zyklon B gas, whether the geography of Auschwitz-Birkenau could support open-air incineration of dead bodies and how quickly a crematorium could dispose of a corpse. Right-wing propagandists tried to popularize some of the more accessible elements of Holocaust denial with liberal doses of antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

Holocaust “revisionists” reveled in the controversy and attention sparked by mainstream media coverage of their arguments and publicity stunts — and were quick to claim persecution or censorship by Jews, Zionists or the “elite” when anyone questioned their lies.

During this time, western Holocaust deniers benefitted from relationships with people and institutions in Middle Eastern countries where Holocaust denial had been adopted by the media and promoted by religious and political leaders as a tool in their rhetorical war against Israel and its alleged global Zionist influence.

In late 2000, IHR announced that its 14th international conference would take place in Beirut, Lebanon; the resulting furor forced the Lebanese government to shut down the conference before it began. In December 2006, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad convened a global conference devoted to Holocaust denial and anti-Zionism in Tehran which attracted Holocaust deniers from around the world, including Americans Bradley Smith and white supremacist leader David Duke.

A Short History of Holocaust Denial in the United States

American white supremacist leader David Duke (center) attends the Holocaust denial conference convened by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran in December 2006. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

Shifting strategies
By 2010, the Holocaust denial movement had fallen on hard times and was hamstrung by infighting among its most prominent figures and institutions, including within IHR, which discontinued its flagship journal. Meanwhile, mainstream media and publishing companies had grown wise to the lies of Holocaust deniers, who were finding it increasingly difficult to share their message outside their own hateful circles.

Around this time, several prominent Holocaust deniers — including David Irving, Ernst Zundel and Germar Rudolf — lost important civil lawsuits or were convicted in criminal proceedings. (Although Holocaust denial in the U.S. is protected by the First Amendment, in many European countries certain elements of Holocaust denial rhetoric are illegal, including the promotion of racial hatred, and in Germany, the revitalization of National Socialism and defaming the memory of the dead). Some European countries denied visas to notable Holocaust deniers.

Holocaust denial was always grounded in antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jewish and Zionist power, but as the movement faced increasing setbacks, the theme of Jewish and Zionist power played an increasingly important role in the narrative and agenda.

In 2009, IHR director Mark Weber published an article lamenting that Holocaust denial was not having its intended effect of undermining “Jewish power.”

“Jewish-Zionist power is a palpable reality…[and] the task of exposing and countering this power is a crucially important one,” Weber wrote. But “in the real world struggle against Jewish-Zionist power, Holocaust revisionism has proved to be as much a hindrance as a help.”

In making this statement, a prominent Holocaust denier acknowledged the truth of the movement: Denying the Holocaust had become less about rehabilitating Hitler’s image or correcting the historical record, and more about defaming and attacking Jews and Zionists.

Recent trends in Holocaust denial
By the early 2010s, the burgeoning world of social media provided abundant opportunities for antisemites to spread their hatred of Jews and Zionists on platforms like Facebook. At the time, Facebook had policies which broadly prohibited hate speech but did not bar antisemitic attacks on the factual and historical validity of the Holocaust under the guise of debate.

Over time, Facebook did deplatform many Holocaust denial groups and propagandists for explicit antisemitism, but it wasn’t until late 2020 that Facebook enacted a specific policy ostensibly prohibiting Holocaust denial. Days later, Twitter announced that it would remove posts denying the Holocaust as well.  However, as of 2023, both Facebook and Twitter continue to host some of this content.

Other mainstream social media platforms have taken similar approaches: for years, YouTube’s policies prohibited general hate speech, which allowed for action on some of the more explicitly antisemitic expressions of Holocaust denial, but YouTube only explicitly banned Holocaust denial in 2019. Reddit claims that Holocaust denial was always prohibited under its policy against “violent content,” but in 2020 the platform clarified that Holocaust denial was covered by its broader rules against “hateful content.”

As of 2023, Holocaust denial content continues to exist on YouTube and Reddit, but Holocaust deniers can no longer act with impunity, and violative content is often removed when it is reported. (ADL conducts periodic assessments of how mainstream social media companies deal with Holocaust denial content; see our latest report card here.)

In spite of the steps taken by more mainstream social media platforms to curb this type of content, antisemitic and extremist trolls continue to drive Holocaust denial in highly visible mainstream spaces. Nick Fuentes, the white supremacist leader of the Groypers, demonstrated this trolling approach when he compared Jews murdered in the Holocaust to cookies burned in an oven; the video circulated on both alternative and mainstream platforms. Antisemites and white supremacists, including those affiliated with the Goyim Defense League (GDL) and the Daily Stormer Book Clubs (SBC), have promoted Holocaust denial in their nationwide on-the-ground antisemitic propaganda campaigns and livestreams.

Holocaust Denial

Fliers distributed by white supremacist groups promoting Holocaust denial.

Holocaust deniers continue to seize opportunities to mainstream their views:  In late 2022, Ye, the highly influential figure formerly known as Kanye West, made a series of antisemitic comments disputing the facts of the Holocaust and defending Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. “The Holocaust is not what happened,” he claimed during an interview on Alex Jones’s InfoWars show, alleging that the Nazis “didn’t kill six million Jews; that’s just, like, factually incorrect.” His comments further emboldened antisemites and extremists, who celebrated his Holocaust denial and cited Ye in their own antisemitic activities.

Despite these efforts to enter the mainstream, Holocaust denial’s antisemitic arguments truly thrive in the darker corners of the internet. On 4chan and 8kun, where vile, explicitly hateful and racist speech is the norm, anonymous trolls rehash old Holocaust denial talking points from the 1980s and 1990s, sometimes repackaged in forms that resonate with modern meme culture. Holocaust denial also has a foothold on poorly regulated messaging platforms like Telegram, where entire channels and threads are devoted to denying the Holocaust and touting antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jewish and Zionist global “control.”

Holocaust denial has also found a home on fringe media-hosting platforms like Bitchute and Rumble, where Holocaust denial videos are used to attract views and to convince audiences of a purported global effort by Jews, Zionists or the elite to support Israel, dominate public opinion and exert social control by limiting the topics open to free public discourse.

Some of the older Holocaust denial figures remain active, creating content for their obscure online journals and blogs dedicated to “revisionist” history. This includes a small, core group of self-styled “experts” who are always looking for new Holocaust facts to “debunk.” Holocaust denial continues to appear in certain popular right-wing extremist publications and on websites like The Barnes Review and American Free Press.

Today, Holocaust denial, which grew and matured among right-wing extremists, has joined the mix of disjointed, fantastical content that circulates and metastasizes in the diverse, largely online subcultures of conspiracy theorists, trolls, antisemites and even some extreme anti-Zionists.