What is Holocaust distortion and why is it a problem?

Holocaust distortion is an urgent and growing issue. “Distortion of the Holocaust is found in all kinds of places. From facts twisted on the internet, to opportunistic statements by politicians, misleading exhibitions at museums, and claims, like that of the founder of Extinction Rebellion, Roger Hallam, who in 2019 referred to the Holocaust as 'just another f***ery in human history.' Each of these forms must be challenged, and strategies for countering them must be developed, for societies and individuals to fulfill their responsibility to commemorate the victims,” says IHRA Chair Ambassador Küchler.

With antisemitism on the rise internationally, we see Holocaust denial and distortion becoming more and more prevalent in contemporary culture, from media to politics across the ideological spectrum. But what is Holocaust distortion, and why is it so damaging?

Read more: Why we need action on Holocaust denial and distortion now 

The difference between denial and distortion of the Holocaust

“Holocaust deniers seek to make antisemitism acceptable, to provide legitimacy for Nazism and fascism, to claim that the Holocaust was a product of the Jewish imagination, and so on,” says Robert Williams, Chair of IHRA’s Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial. The eventual goal of Holocaust denial is to recast history to erase the legacy and reality of the genocide of the Jews and related atrocities by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Distortion of the Holocaust is rhetoric, written work, or other media that excuse, minimize, or misrepresent the known historical record. This can be intentional or unintentional. However, all distortion, whether intentional or not, feeds into antisemitic narratives, and can lead to more violent forms of antisemitism.

In this sense, as IHRA Honorary Chairman Yehuda Bauer notes, “a half truth is worse than a full lie.”

What forms of Holocaust distortion exist?

Distortion of the Holocaust comes from a variety of sources and is not unique to one particular worldview. It can be found on both the right and left of the political spectrum, across religious and ethnic lines, and is also informed, in part, by a broader culture of denialism in present-day discourse.

IHRA experts have identified ten main forms in Recognizing and Countering Holocaust Distortion: Recommendations for Policy and Decision Makers:

  • Intentional efforts to excuse or minimize the Holocaust or its elements, including the roles played by collaborators and allies of Nazi Germany
  • Gross minimization of the numbers of victims
  • Blaming Jews for the Holocaust
  • Casting the Holocaust as a positive historical event
  • Attempting to blur responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust
  • Accusing Jews of “using” the Holocaust for some manner of gain.
  • Use of the term “Holocaust” to refer to events or concepts that are not related to the genocide of European and North African Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.
  • State-sponsored manipulation of Holocaust history to sow political discord within or outside a country's borders.
  • Trivializing or honoring the historical legacies of people or organizations complicit in the crimes of the Holocaust.
  • Using imagery and language associated with the Holocaust for political, ideological, or commercial purposes unrelated to this history in online and offline forums.

Juliane Wetzel, a member of the German delegation to the IHRA, says, “Holocaust distortion focuses for example on exaggerating the number of rescuers and whitewashing or glorifying collaborators. Sometimes it is even used to raise awareness of different issues without having intended to minimize the Holocaust, but rather to bring attention to the respective issue.” 

Why is distortion of the history of the Holocaust such a problem?

Although distortion often shares the same antisemitic goals as denial, it can be harder to identify the motives behind it, as there are some forms of distortion that stem from ignorance rather than antisemitism. Regardless of the motivation, however, distortion always reinforces antisemitism and related biases. It opens the door to outright Holocaust denial or other forms of pernicious, dangerous, and violent antisemitism.

Brigitte Bailer, who co-chairs an IHRA Project with Juliane Wetzel that produced an informational brochure on Holocaust distortion, agrees.

“Holocaust denial is always rooted in antisemitism and is part of antisemitic propaganda. Holocaust distortion is often connected to antisemitism, but not necessarily so,” Bailer says, adding that “denial and distortion both damage the memory of the Holocaust and are an insult to its victims and survivors.”

Ways of addressing Holocaust distortion

Because fighting against Holocaust denial and distortion will require a concerted and cooperative international effort, the German Presidency of the IHRA decided to establish the Global Task Force Against Holocaust Denial and Distortion in 2020. This task force continues to serve as a network that brings together like-minded governmental and non-governmental bodies to identify, develop, and promote good practices on countering distortion.

“The task force will bring together experts from a variety of backgrounds to develop new approaches to cooperative confrontation of Holocaust denial and distortion and will ensure that governments support such work in ways that are not only meaningful, but effective over the long term,” said Robert Williams.

Toolkit to counter Holocaust distortion

The IHRA Toolkit Against Holocaust Distortion provides the tools, guidance and example activities to empower you to take action against Holocaust distortion – on 27 January for International Holocaust Remembrance Day and beyond.