Holocaust Denial

Many intelligent people, I suspect, believe that the Holocaust probably didn’t occur. This is likely because:


1) It seems very unlikely that a group now as powerful as “the Jews” could so recently have allowed themselves to be murdered on such a large scale, and


2) Many of their associates doubt that the Holocaust occurred, and


3) They live in countries where history books and newspapers promote obvious falsehoods. Thus, they have either read that the Holocaust was a myth, or they have reason to doubt the validity of writings that claimed the Holocaust happened.


If I met a Holocaust denier living in, say, Syria I would argue that nearly every sane person in the U.S., a nation with a free press, believes that the Holocaust did occur. But this Syrian could counter that the EU is considering criminalizing Holocaust denial. Such criminalization signals that many people living in the EU, also an area with a free press, doubt that the Holocaust occurred. Furthermore criminalization perhaps shows (from the viewpoint of the Syrian) that believers in the Holocaust want to foreclose debate on the subject and thus indicates that they fear they might lose an honest debate.

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  • Once people in our society know that our media accuse many other nations of lying in their media and history books, they should have more doubts about the truth of our media and history books as well. After all, the claim that our media are more accurate because we have a “free press” is hard for ordinary people to evaluate. They cannot easily tell how much people are punished for deviating from the official line to tell an unpleasant truth, nor how this punishment varies across nations.

  • James Miller, an obvious anomaly with your reasons 1;2;3 is that they are all rationalist reasons. You may be trying to put yourselves in the shoes of deniers, thinking, “What sort of reason would move me to say such a thing?” But they are not you.

    I recently met, in person, someone (educated US national) who believed the moon landings were faked. Would you search for rational reasons why they might believe so (“The moon is very far away”) or give up?

  • Primary sources. If they can be authenticated, the bias of the press is irrelevant. There are countless photographs, written records, used gas canisters, and even eyewitnesses to the events.

    One can be sane and unaware of the evidence. The way to convince such people is to show them the evidence, not to argue from popularity.

  • Buzzcut

    It feels to me like we’ve fallen into a conspiracy theory trap since the 1960s. Even otherwise well informed people believe strange things with regards to conspiracies. It probably started with the Kennedy assasination, but these days it boils over to gas prices, the Iraq war, and countless other issues.

    So, perhaps Holocaust denial is the worst mistaken belief to hold, but there are plenty of others beyond even the moon landings.

    Broaden the question: why do otherwise well informed people hold mistaken and perhaps stupid beliefs?

    Part of the problem is that these things are very theoretical. I wasn’t at Aushwitz. You weren’t there. We didn’t see it with our own eyes. We’re taking it on faith that these things really happened (unless we take a trip over there and see the camp with our own eyes, and even then Holocaust deniers have all sorts of excuses for what is there).

    Contrast this with, for example, someone who denies that 9/11 happened (if there is such a person). While I wasn’t at the Trade Center that day, my brother was. He almost died when the Towers came down. My mother was in Manhattan, and saw the plume. I’ve been to the Trade Center before and after the attack, and my own senses tell me it’s not there anymore.

    As time goes on and real witnesses to something die off, an event becomes more and more theoretical, and the likelihood of denial becomes easier.

  • Robin ─ I suspect (without having any evidence) that people in totalitarian countries know how corrupted their press and history books are and so have far less faith in them than Americans do in our press and history texts.

    Eliezer ─ I’m not sure why you think 1,2 and 3 are just rationalist reasons. Americans should believe that the moon landing occurred in part because our government doesn’t have the capacity to fake something like that. But if the U.S. government, U.S. press and U.S. history books were like those of, say, North Korea then I would have doubts about whether the moon landing occurred, wouldn’t you?

    Jewish Atheist ─ An individual Holocaust denier in Syria is probably not going to take the time to examine the primary sources, so how else could I convince him during a conversation that the Holocaust did occur?

    Buzzcut ─ You ask “why do otherwise well informed people hold mistaken and perhaps stupid beliefs?” Perhaps instead we should ask how we can convince conspiracy theorist to abandon their beliefs.

  • James, are you suggesting that most people in other countries have personal experience with the corrupting of a press story of a historical event? If not, what evidence do you think they have?

  • michael vassar

    When I lived in Kazakhstan I had an argument with a doctor who was also high school valedictorian over whether the US participated in WWII. It’s fairly incredible what sincere people who deeply distrust their government (he did, his sister had been raped and murdered by a Soviet official who got off via connections) will believe with very high confidence. Typically the reason is very simple. A a-priori plausible story that you have heard many many times without anyone drawing attention to its controversial status is very compelling. Much counter-evidence should be needed to overturn it.

  • Well, in the case of Holocaust denial there is the ugly problem of anti-Semitism. If one is an anti-Semite, then one may well disbelieve primary evidence provided by someone who is Jewish (“they are all liars” obviously). And, heck, all that paraphernalia and those photos? Easy enough to stage. And what about Auschwitz? So, it is there, but that does not prove that anything particularly nasty happened there. Or if it did, well, it was all disease and this and that and so forth.

  • anon

    Other reasons some give for questioning the Holocaust include:
    1. Questioning particular claims is attacked as “Holocaust denial”;
    2. Several particular claims of eyewitnesses, the only details I remember offhand is a claim of “black smoke” from “smokeless” crematories, which the witness admitted he had made up when confronted;
    3. The way Jewish organizations attack anyone who questions anything they support, related to the criminalization of questioning the Holocaust in many European countries. It is already illegal, there have been reports of academic historians fined and imprisoned for asking uncomfortable questions.

    I don’t remember where I came across most of this, some was L. A. Rollin’s site, some Birdman Bryant’s (he is not a reliable source, but he links to some), and a third site whose name I can’t remember, but it also had a lot of transhumanist documents.

  • Gil

    “Setting The World To Rights” has an interesting series on conspiracy theories here:

  • Robin, citizens in totalitarian countries surely realize that their press and
    history books rarely (or never) say anything critical about the government and
    its official ideology. They must also know that those who criticize the
    government are punished. Thus, many citizens should be aware of the pro-government bias in many publications about many subjects. It wouldn’t be a huge leap for them to then assume that they have been lied to about some events of historical significance.

  • James, even out our society the press and history books are reluctant to criticize the government and its official ideology, and those who deviate tend to be punished to varying degrees.

  • michael vassar

    James Miller, as I stated, it may not be a big leap, but people *don’t* conclude that they have been lied to. At most they respond by ignoring everything and not taking anything they are told seriously but generally taking th attitude that inquiry into such questions isn’t worth while or interesting, and isn’t a serious pursuit.

  • How would this relate to religious questions? Most members of our species believe one or more of a set of mutually exclusive claims about facts and events relating to various figures such as Jesus or Mohammed. If you are in Syria, the truth about Mohammed seems very clear, almost everyone around you agrees with at least the major aspects of your view, and the conflicting story comes from people in countries that do not seem to understand you, regularly say horrible things about you, and oh yes have been at war with you off and on for over a millennium. A few thousand miles away, people believe in the resurrection as a historical fact.

    Is every religion except yours a conspiracy theory? The different branches of religions often seem to see their heretical cohorts as conspiracies to distort the true meaning and intent of an otherwise shared faith. Are Muslims resurrection deniers?

    Connecting back to the original post, if you are from a Muslim country that criminalizes apostasy, does that show “that believers in [Islam] want to foreclose debate on the subject and thus indicates that they fear they might lose an honest debate”? “If I met a [Muslim] living in, say, Syria I would argue that [the majority] in the U.S., a nation with [free religion], believes that the [resurrection of Jesus] did occur.” Or do those substitutions change something essential to the argument?

    (I should note that I am using Islam as the example because Syria was the previous example. You probably know stories about other religions that have had Inquisitions and executed heretics and pagans.)

  • Stuart Armstrong

    I suspect (without having any evidence) that people in totalitarian countries know how corrupted their press and history books are and so have far less faith in them than Americans do in our press and history texts.

    Yes, but I suspect that these people use the anchoring heuristic that Elizer described. Specifically, they know they are being lied to, so they take the corrputed newspaper as a base and “adjust it” till it sounds plausible.

    But this doesn’t result in anything particularly reliable (more reliable than the newspaper, certainly, but still not very good). You can’t use reason to overcome a known bias if you have nothing more truthfull to compare it with. And people normally have great faith in their new position – after all, they’ve constructed it themselves, on the lookout for any evidence they could glean.

    A holocaust denier in a totalitarian state would feel his opinions are more accurate than those in the US, because he has “worked out the truth” while we have just “accepted the newspaper’s version without question”.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    An individual Holocaust denier in Syria is probably not going to take the time to examine the primary sources, so how else could I convince him during a conversation that the Holocaust did occur?

    Unfortunately, the primary sources are the key. We in the west have a free press, meaning a market oriented press, backed up by some libel laws, and certain values in the press and in the public. To convince someone from another culture that such a set-up is pretty fair overall would be much harder than bringing in the primary sources (“what newspaper gets rich by printing things people don’t want to read?” would be their response. “Why should I trust the New York Times more than the National Enquirer? They’re both free press.”)

    And he’ll add the pro-israel bias which is a feature in the US media. Trying to convince him that it doesn’t matter in this case is very hard.

    Best approach, if desperate: Note that german and other european newspapers also endorse the holocaust, and they aren’t seen to have pro-israel bias. Even Russian sources confirm the holocaust – and Russian isn’t a pro-jewish country by any strech of the imagination.

  • anonymous

    For those of you who are interested in how holocaust denial relates to freedom of expression, here is a video of an excellent speech on the subject by Christopher Hitchens:


  • Tom

    You might be interested in this post by Michael Berenbaum at the Encycloapedia Britannica blog:

    “Holocaust Denial: Iranian Style”

  • Keith Stanovich explores rationality and the logic of evolution in his lucid “The Robot’s Rebellion”. In it, he discuss a framework for approaching the dilemna Otto Neurath raised about bootstrapping rationality:

    “We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”

    Stanovich argues that to a strategy for evaluating memes should include the criteria that the memes are falsifiable. be suspicious of any meme that protests evaluation. One nebulous meme that satisfies this criteria is freedom of speech: it’s difficult to construct an appealing argument that questions it.

  • One thing to keep in mind is that accuracy of belief in the Holocaust is not something that has a major impact on most people’s lives. The social impacts are far more important. If you live in a community of Holocaust deniers the costs of learning the truth may be greater than the benefits.

  • Lauren Clark