Recommitting to “Never Again”: Learning to Never Forget

Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration  Camp in Poland

Arron Hoare | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Holocaust denial as a form of antisemitism

The Holocaust is one of the most tragic events in human history. It claimed the lives of six million Jews, along with millions of other marginalized people, and stands as a stark reminder of the dangers of hate, bigotry, and conspiracy theories. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the Holocaust, there are still those who deny its existence or distort the truth.

Holocaust denial and distortion are forms of disinformation that are not only antisemitic, but also dangerous and harmful to society. By erasing the lessons of the past and obscuring the consequences of antisemitism, they make it easier for such bigotry to flourish and for atrocities to occur. Historical facts about the Holocaust serve as a deterrent against antisemitism and remind us of the devastating consequences of hate. Surveys by the ADL Center for Antisemitism Research show that those who know basic information about the Holocaust – specifically, how many Jews were murdered – were significantly less likely to believe in antisemitic ideas than those who severely underestimated the number killed at one million or fewer. Yet 6 in 10 Americans ages 18-30 could not accurately identify that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

The historical record is clear about the Holocaust, but this truth is inconvenient for those invested in the project of antisemitism. Antisemites often assert that Jews have immense power and control. However, if this were true, why were 2/3 of Europe’s Jews murdered in just a few short years by the Nazis? This is where the antisemitic conspiracy theory of Holocaust denialism comes in. It alleges that the Holocaust is a Jewish hoax perpetrated in pursuit of some nefarious Jewish agenda. This is not only false, but it also perpetuates harmful stereotypes about Jews that are central to the denialist narrative. When such denialism takes hold, it gives antisemitic notions about Jewish power and control a veneer of plausibility.

Holocaust denial and the era of misinformation

Holocaust denial has its own lineage. The Nazi campaign of propaganda, disinformation, and distortion of truth followed the pattern of escalating antisemitism in Germany years before the “Final Solution” was conceived and implemented. Throughout the war, Nazis sought to cover their heinous crimes under the veil of secrecy and lies.

Auschwitz I Concentration Camp

“Work will set you free” Gates of Auschwitz I - reminder of the continued co-evolution of Holocaust denial even while genocide was occurring

The rise of Holocaust denial after the war sowed the seeds for the proliferation of disinformation we are seeing today, planting distrust in facts, science, and research. This is the kind of truth-twisting that forms the bedrock of extremist ideology in the era of mis- and disinformation which allows  for more far-fetched and hateful crimes to be conceived and realized.  Increasing reports show how intimately linked denial is to other forms of online violence, including those rooted in racism, misogyny, or xenophobia.

Holocaust denialism is continuing the work of the Nazis themselves. Scholars have long argued that denial is the final act of genocide. When we allow Holocaust denialism and distortion to go unchallenged, we give credence to the idea that the truth can be suppressed and that perpetrators of genocide can get away with their crimes. Denialism unjustly exonerates the murderers and turns victims into perpetrators. This is an outrage and an insult to the memory of those who suffered and were murdered during the Holocaust.

Holocaust denial and "inverting" the past 

In the United States, Holocaust denialism was once relegated primarily to extremist right-wing groups. Yet, as we draw further away from the events of the Holocaust, and as there are fewer and fewer first-hand witnesses to its atrocities, Holocaust denialism, distortion, and disinformation are finding increasing currency within the mainstream.

For example, a 2022 survey from the ADL Center for Antisemitism Research on antisemitic attitudes in America found that nearly 4 in 10 Americans believe Israel treats Palestinians the way the Nazis treated Jews. This is not only an incredible misunderstanding of the conflict, it is a kind of Holocaust inversion that casts Jews, the primary targets of the Holocaust, as the new Nazis, the perpetrators of genocide. Worse still, according to a 2020 Claims Conference survey, 1/10 Americans believe Jews themselves caused the Holocaust and, shockingly, among millennials and Get Z, that figure was 1 in 5 (20%).

Holocaust distortions undermine our ability to rationally understand our modern world and effectively address its problems. Too often we see the memory of the Holocaust cynically appropriated for use as a political tool. This includes falsely invoking charges of Nazism to delegitimize sovereign nations and justify violence against their civilians, whether in Israel or Ukraine.

It is our responsibility to stand up against Holocaust denialism and distortion, to protect the truth, and to ensure that the lessons of the past are never forgotten. We must do everything in our power to prevent the spread of disinformation and to fight antisemitism wherever it emerges. The memory of the Holocaust is not just a Jewish concern - it is a concern for all people who believe in the importance of history and in the power of truth.

Building resistance to Holocaust denial and countering misinformation

It is clear that we need to do more to combat Holocaust denialism and distortion. We must educate ourselves and others about the truth of the Holocaust and the dangers of antisemitism. We must also hold those who spread disinformation accountable, whether they are individuals or organizations. This includes holding social media platforms accountable for allowing Holocaust denialism to persist on their platforms. We must also continue to support Holocaust education and remembrance initiatives, such as Holocaust museums and memorials, so that the memory of the Holocaust is never forgotten; ensuring future generations understand the consequences of hate; and expanding and supporting teaching about the Holocaust – especially in schools – both the event itself, and the underlying ideology that allowed for dehumanization and genocide.

Hateful ideologies do not take root overnight. With enough repetition misinformation becomes acceptable and truthful in the mind of the consumer. The work of countering Holocaust denial is multifaceted and starts with meaningful education. Teaching about the Holocaust is a central tenet of stopping denialism and combating antisemitism.

The public recognizes the importance of Holocaust education. 87.4% of those surveyed agree that high schools should be required to teach about the Holocaust. Yet today, only about half of U.S. states have Holocaust education mandates.

Bolstering skills on media literacy, critical thinking, and resistance towards conspiratorial thinking will also help young people build resilience when they encounter hateful, extremist, and antisemitic messages “in the wild.” At ADL, researchers found that those who reject  conspiracist thinking are less likely to hold antisemitic views.

It is key to remember that in essence, denial of the Holocaust is a war against memory. What does it mean to attack history so openly, and so brazenly? When the veracity of the historical record is questioned, we are, in part, undermining society’s capacity to recognize prejudice, address antisemitism, and ultimately to prevent atrocity.

As educators, activists against antisemitism, and stewards of Holocaust memory, we must engage young people in the project of learning not only in the classroom but wherever, whenever, and however information is disseminated.