LONDON — In the grim search by historians and academics to pinpoint the first examples of postwar Holocaust denial, the finger of blame is most often pointed at fascists, anti-Semites and far-right figures in France, Sweden and the United States.
However, argues a new book, this misses the pivotal role played by Nazi sympathizers in Britain, both during World War II and in its immediate aftermath, in developing a “blueprint” that has been drawn on ever since by those who seek to deny history’s greatest crime.
“The truth is that Holocaust denial in its traditional form began not in France or America, as most have argued, but actually in Britain,” says Dr. Joe Mulhall, author of “British Fascism After the Holocaust: From the Birth of Denial to the Notting Hill Riots 1939-1958.”
Mulhall, senior researcher at the UK anti-fascism campaign group Hope Not Hate, identifies the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley as a central player in the emergence of Holocaust denial in postwar Europe.
As the book details, the French fascist Maurice Bardèche, his compatriots Paul Rassinier and Prof. René Fabre, and the veteran Swedish anti-Semite Einar Åberg are among those who have been awarded “the ignoble distinction of being the first person to maliciously deny the validity and uniqueness of Nazi war crimes.” By contrast, in the words of one historian, early Holocaust denial in Britain is viewed as “a pale reflection” of that propagated in countries such as France.
“While there is no solid consensus among historians as to who was the first true Holocaust denier,” writes Mulhall, a common thread is to “ignore or overlook early British deniers.”
Mulhall attributed this omission to a broader attitude among some academics towards British fascism. “Part of the reason is that the people who were denying the Holocaust from Britain were primarily British fascists and British fascism is often seen by scholars that look at fascism more broadly as a bit of a backwater,” Mulhall tells The Times of Israel in an interview.
However, believes Mulhall, this perception of British fascism has helped to skew the historiography of Holocaust denial. His research demonstrates that as soon as concrete evidence of Nazi atrocities began to emerge in the war, leading British far-right activists lost no time in attempting to downplay and discredit it.
In 1942, for instance, the Duke of Bedford, who helped bankroll the far-right British People’s party, published a pamphlet that dismissed pictorial evidence of Nazi killings as fake and claimed reports were overplayed. “In regards to the infliction upon Jews of actual physical brutality, it appears certain that this has happened on many occasions, but it may be deemed equally certain that the extent of the abuse has been greatly exaggerated by propaganda,” the duke argued.
A year later, Alexander Ratcliffe, a virulent anti-Semite and founder of the Scottish Protestant League, published “The Truth about the Jews,” which went further still. “The various press reports about Hitler’s terrible persecution of the Jews mostly are written up by Jews and circulated by Jews. Mostly such reports are the invention of the Jewish mind,” he claimed. “For the historian immediately after the war will prove that 95% of the Jew ‘atrocity’ stories and ‘photographs’ of such atrocities appearing in the press, magazines and journals are mere invention.”
He also denounced the “lying photographs” printed by the press, drawing a parallel with unreliable stories and propaganda which deluged the public during World War I. There is, Ratcliffe went on to argue, “not a single authentic case on record of a single Jew having been massacred or unlawfully put to death under the Hitler regime.”
Thus, notes Mulhall, while historians have suggested that Bardèche was the first to claim that pictorial evidence of the Nazis’ murder of the Jews was a fake, this lie was peddled earlier by Ratcliffe.
As the war drew to a close in the spring and summer of 1945, Ratcliffe began to change tack, no longer denying the existence of atrocities but attempting to shift the blame for them from the Nazi killing machine. Referring to the images emerging from the camps, he asked: “These bodies were starved to death! And why were these bodies starved to death? Because there was no food for these bodies! And who were to blame for that? Directly, or indirectly, the Allies.”
Circulation figures for the Duke of Bedford and Ratcliffe’s publications are difficult to ascertain and, Mulhall says, they were “in some ways marginal extreme figures.”
“In a direct sense, it’s unlikely that they created content which affected societal perceptions of the Holocaust,” says Mulhall.
Nonetheless, he argues, their importance shouldn’t be dismissed. Instead, they created the “original sources” and the “blueprints that are used by later Holocaust deniers” such as David Irving and Robert Faurisson. He quotes the historian Colin Holmes’s assertion that Ratcliffe was both “an important carrier of ideological anti-Semitism” and a “pioneer revisionist.”
Holocaust denial underestimated
These early themes — the suggestion that the extent of the Holocaust had been “greatly exaggerated,” that the blame for deaths should not rest primarily with the Nazis, and the refusal to accept the pictorial evidence — are ones which were both echoed, and added to, by Mosley.
All of the things that become the key tenets of Holocaust denial, Mosely is talking about in the 1940s
“Mosley is a way more important figure than people have given him credit for,” Mulhall says. “All of the things that become the key tenets of Holocaust denial, he is talking about in the 1940s. He was central to Holocaust denial in the UK and creating lots of the arguments that became the staples of international Holocaust denial.”
Mosley, who led the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s and founded a new far-right party, the Union Movement, in 1948, is often seen as having abandoned the worst excesses of his prewar anti-Semitism after the Third Reich’s defeat. But, says Mulhall, “this is just not what the historical record shows. It’s not what the newspapers show from the period. It’s not what Mosley himself talks about. He’s vehemently anti-Semitic and remains so.”
Moreover, even after the war, the former Blackshirt leader had a far greater public platform than any other figure on the British far right.
Buchenwald and Belsen are completely unproved… Pictorial evidence proves nothing at all. We have no impartial evidence
“He’s still a national figure — he might be a hated national figure, but he’s still a national figure,” says Mulhall. “What he does, people still look at.”
And, at a time when many of his former fascist comrades were dead, on trial or lying low, Mosley also had an enhanced standing within the European far right and an unparalleled ability to spread Holocaust denial within its networks.
While recognizing the existence of concentration camps, Mosley, like Ratcliffe, sought to discredit the images which emerged from them. “Buchenwald and Belsen are completely unproved,” he argued in his 1947 book “The Alternative.” “Pictorial evidence proves nothing at all. We have no impartial evidence.”
Indeed, he wrote, the camps were, in fact, simply an unpleasant necessity. “Men were short, food was short, disorder raged as all supply services broke down under incessant bombing. They held in prison or camps a considerable disaffected population, some German, but most alien, who were requiring guards and good food supplies,” the book claimed.
The fascist leader — who usually placed the word “atrocity” in quotation marks — mocked the “atrocity business.” His Union Movement newspaper derided “concentration camp fairy tales” while he also sought to deny the existence of a conscious mechanical extermination program by the Nazis and shift responsibility for any deaths which did occur elsewhere.
If you have typhus outbreaks you are bound to have a situation where you have to use the gas ovens to get rid of the bodies. If we had been bombed here in prisons and concentration camps, there would have been a few of us going into the gas ovens
The conditions in camps were the result of “Allied bombing and consequent epidemics,” he claimed. “If you have typhus outbreaks you are bound to have a situation where you have to use the gas ovens to get rid of the bodies. If we had been bombed here in prisons and concentration camps, there would have been a few of us going into the gas ovens,” he told a 1947 press conference.
Alongside the Allies, the Jews themselves were also responsible for their fate. “Modern war is the end of morality. Those responsible for beginning war, are, also, responsible for ending morality,” Mosley — who had repeatedly deplored the “Jew’s war” — wrote in “The Alternative.” To this noxious mix, he also added the notion — later taken up with gusto by Holocaust deniers such as Irving — that Hitler knew nothing about the Final Solution.
Mosley’s attacks on the Nuremberg Trials, which he called “a zoo and a peep show,” were also a key theme for early British Holocaust deniers. Those attacks were crucial to propagating the idea of what the American historian Deborah Lipstadt terms “immoral equivalency,” a tactic which seeks to undermine the uniqueness of the Nazis’ crimes by equating them to alleged Allied ones.
Funded by the Duke of Bedford, the British People’s party’s pamphlet “Failure at Nuremberg” received much coverage in both left- and right-wing magazines after its publication in 1946. “If the Nuremberg law is to be held inviolate, therefore, it will be seen that a strong prima facie case exists against both the Russian and the American leadership, whose surviving members must forthwith be placed in the dock as suspected war-criminals,” it said.
As Mulhall outlines, the publication was simply one element of a prolonged effort by the party to relativize the Holocaust. “We can safely rest assured that the cellars of Hamburg, the deserts which were once Hiroshima and Nagasaki will not be on view,” noted the BPP newspaper, People’s Post, in December 1945 after footage of atrocities was screened in the Nuremberg courtroom.
Writing in the paper in September 1945, the Duke of Bedford also pointed to events in Central and Eastern Europe in the immediate aftermath of the war in an attempt to downplay the Final Solution. “The expulsion of Germans by Czechs and Poles, approved of by Russia and tolerated by Great Britain and the USA, is going on under conditions of cruelty which equal anything ever attributed to Nazi policy and which, moreover, is being carried on a much larger scale,” he wrote.
Beyond the BPP, the British journalist Montgomery Belgion’s 1946 book “Epitaph On Nuremberg” offered a similarly strong attack on the alleged double standards of Nuremberg, which he dismissed as “a gigantic piece of propaganda.” The book went on to describe the Allied bombing campaign as the “RAF’s Holocaust,” claiming it had brought disease and starvation to Germany. The Jewish publisher, Victor Gollancz, who had originally encouraged Belgion to write the book, was horrified by the “unpublishable draft.”
Wolves in sheeps’ clothing
Mulhall also decided to include in his account the writings of the military historian and theorist Capt. Basil Liddell Hart, an altogether more respected and respectable figure than Mosley or the leadership of the British People’s party. His 1948 book “The German Generals Talk,” while “by no means a work of outright Holocaust denial,” says Mulhall, staunchly defended the Wehrmacht and the German Military High Command and sought to absolve it of responsibility for the Final Solution.
“What is really more remarkable than the German generals’ submission to Hitler is the extent to which they managed to maintain in the Army a code of decency that was in constant conflict with Nazi ideas,” wrote Liddell Hart. But as historian Graham Macklin has argued, Liddell Hart’s book “wilfully ignored the Wehrmacht’s willing complicity in the descent into genocide” and “actively colluded in whitewashing their horrific crimes.”
The impact of the British Holocaust deniers is, Mulhall says, evident in Bardèche’s 1948 book “Nuremberg or the Promised Land.” He, too, questioned the pictorial evidence, which he called “a film set,” and labeled Nuremberg “another Dreyfus case,” arguing: “I will believe in the judicial existence of war crimes when I see General Eisenhower and Marshal Rossokovsky take seats at the Nuremberg Court on the bench for the accused.”
He also pursued the idea of “immoral equivalency,” suggesting that the Allies engaged in “different but just as effective methods, a system of extermination almost as wide-spread.” This is, says Mulhall, “no mere coincidence” and, in a further book in 1950, Bardèche readily acknowledged his debt to his comrades across the English Channel, singling out the Duke of Bedford, the BPP, Liddell Hart and Belgion, who he quoted at length.
Similarly, Mulhall notes that the best-known early American Holocaust denier, Francis Parker Yockey, was heavily influenced by writings from Britain. “The argument and tone of Yockey’s denial echoes the work of the British ‘pioneer revisionists,’” Mulhall writes. “While American, Yockey was based in Britain, with British fascists, during much of the late 1940s, and his work ‘Imperium’ was published first in the UK, which likely accounts for the similarities with early British denial literature.”
However marginal, obscure and extreme the writings of Britain’s Nazi apologists may have seemed in the immediate aftermath of the war, their poisonous long-term impact should not be discounted, believes Mulhall.
“The Holocaust denial that becomes this international phenomenon a decade or two later and into the 1970s — this really dangerous thing filling out theaters and selling huge numbers of books — is based on ideas which were created in this period,” he says.
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