Holocaust revisionism is distinct from Holocaust denial, the assertion that the Holocaust never happened at all. Holocaust revisionists see themselves as part of a tradition of historical revisionism - the reexamination of widely-accepted historical theories.
The evidence against the revisionist arguments is extensive and detailed. This is not surprising, for the Holocaust was a massive undertaking that lasted for years across several countries, with its own command and control infrastructure. Although the Nazis made attempts to destroy the evidence of the Holocaust when they could see that their defeat was imminent, they left many tons of documents relating to the Holocaust.
The physical evidence and the documentary proof included records of train shipments of Jews to the camps, orders for tons of cyanide and other poisons, and the remaining concentration camp structures. Interviews with survivors and captured Nazis completed the picture.
Holocaust revisionists cite the fact that there was never a blatant, unquestionable order written or signed by Adolf Hitler that specifically ordered the death of the Jewish populations of Germany or Poland. Critics counter this argument by noting that very few Nazi documents used such obvious terms as "murder" or "death" when addressing their actions. Almost always, they spoke and wrote with suggestive phrases such as "the final solution to the Jewish question" rather than "the destruction of the Jewish people." The most often-cited quote from Hitler regarding the elimination of the Jews in Europe comes from a 1939 speech, where he is quoted as saying:
As an example of the documented evidence regarding Hitler's knowledge and approval of the executions of Jews and other targeted groups, Glasgledius presents a photographic image of a report from Himmler to Hitler regarding the executions of prisoners in Nazi-occupied Russia. A separate entry specifically notes the number of executed Jews.
There have been claims by Holocaust revisionists that the gas chambers built to massacre civilians never existed, and the structures identified as gas chambers actually served other purposes. However, the more common revisionist argument has been to claim that gas was not used to murder Jews and other victims. An often-quoted document advancing this theory is the "Leuchter Report" by Fred A. Leuchter, a scientific paper stating that no traces of cyanide were found when he examined samples taken from one of the Auschwitz gas chambers in 1999. This paper is used to further a common debating tactic used by revisionists, namely the suggestion that because no traces of cyanide were found in 1999, then no cyanide was ever used at all in Auschwitz, over fifty years earlier.
The cyanide used in Auschwitz and other extermination camps was created through activation of the herbicide Zyklon-B, which was used to exterminate prisoners by the thousands. Further investigation into the horrors of the death camps revealed that the most difficult part of the operation was the disposal of thousands of corpses after the executions had taken place; this required the construction of huge ovens to cremate the corpses. Revisionists have attempted to discount the existence of these ovens, asking questions including "What happened to the ash after the bodies were cremated?"
The Institute for Historical Review publicly offered a reward of $50,000 for verifiable "proof that gas chambers for the purpose of killing human beings existed at or in Auschwitz." This reward was subsequently paid to an Auschwitz survivor who took the IHR to court.
The figure "six million" (which is actually closer to eleven million, when counting the other ethnic, religious, and minority groups targeted for extinction) is often downgraded by revisionist claims to a figure of "only" one million deaths, or "only" three hundred thousand "casualties." Numerous documents archived and discovered after the war gave meticulous accounts of the exterminations that took place at the "death camps" (such as Auschwitz and Treblinka).
The most telling evidence is the testimony of thousands of survivors of the Holocaust, including the testimony of captured Nazi officers at the Nuremberg Trials. These accounts are discounted by Holocaust revisionists. When asked to refute the numerous individual stories and official testimonies, the revisionist argument has been to construct an elaborate conspiracy theory involving a massive "Jewish plan" to plant forged documents across the continent of Europe, aided by the supposed torture and forced confession of every single captured Nazi officer, soldier, and worker who testified at the war crimes tribunals.
France and Germany have passed legislation making it illegal to make claims equivalent to those of Holocaust revisionism. Many people who don't deny that Holocaust occurred nevertheless oppose such restrictions of free speech, including Jewish anarchist Noam Chomsky. Chomsky created an uproar when he contributed a foreword to a book of revisionist essays.
Many Neo-Nazi groups and people associated with them deny that the Holocaust ever occurred. These are called Holocaust deniers. Most people refer to Holocaust revisionists as Holocaust deniers as well. Holocaust revisionists consider this incorrect, and say people class them as Holocaust deniers to avoid having to address the revisionist position directly.
Many Jews protest that Holocaust revisionism trivializes the suffering caused to victims of the Holocaust when it juxtaposes it with accounts of the millions (most popular estimate is 2.4 million, but some Holocaust revisionists put the figure as high as 10 million) Germans who died of starvation and from Russian pogroms immediately after WWII. They feel this is an attempt to make the Germans feel they don't deserve full blame for the war crimes of the Nazis, on the basis that the Soviets, British, and Americans committed similar war crimes without repercussions. This position is based on the work of James Bacque, Ernst Mayo, and others.
Recently the terms Holocaust Industry and Shoah Business have come into vogue among Holocaust revisionists to express their perception that Jewish leaders promote the official story about the Holocaust for financial and political gain.
Canadian resident Ernst Zündel operates a small-press publishing house called Samisdat Publishing, which publishes and distributes Holocaust revisionism material such as Did Six Million Really Die? by Richard Harwood (a British neo-Nazi leader). In 1985, he was tried and convicted under a "false news" law and sentenced to 15 months imprisonment by an Ontario court for "disseminating and publishing material denying the Holocaust." Zündel gained considerable notoriety after this conviction, and a number of free-speech activists stepped forward to defend his right to publish his opinion. His conviction was overturned in 1992 when the Supreme Court of Canada declared the "false news" law unconstitutional.
Zündel established his own Web site to publicize his revisionist viewpoint. In response, the German government blocked off access his site for all German citizens.
In the mid-1990s, the popularity of the Internet brought new international exposure to many fringe organizations, including Holocaust revisionists. A number of authority figures stated publicly that the Internet allowed hate groups to introduce their messages to a widespread audience, and it was feared that Holocaust revisionism would gain in popularity as a result. But this was not the case, largely due to the efforts of Ken McVay and the participants in the Usenet newsgroup alt.revisionism.
McVay, a Canadian resident, was disturbed by the efforts of organizations like the Simon Wiesenthal Center to suppress the speech of the Holocaust revisionists. On alt.revisionism he began a campaign of "truth, fact, and evidence," working with other participants on the newsgroup to uncover factual information about the Holocaust and counter the arguments of the revisionists by proving them to be based upon misleading evidence, false statements, and outright lies. He founded the Nizkor Project to expose the activities of the revisionists, who responded to McVay with personal attacks and slander. McVay received a number of death threats, and the Nizkor Project soon became the number-one online foe of many revisionists, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists.
In 1998 best-selling British historian David Irving filed suit against American author Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books, claiming that Lipstadt had libeled him in her book Denying the Holocaust. The statements made by Lipstadt included the accusation that Irving deliberately twisted and misrepresented evidence to conform to his ideological viewpoint. Under British law, which seeks primarily to protect the reputation of an individual, Lipstadt and her publisher bore the full burden of demonstrating not only that they had not shown "reckless disregard" for the truth (as would be the case in America), but that the statements made were unarguably true.
Lipstadt and Penguin hired British lawyer Anthony Julius and Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans to present her case. Evans spent two years examining Irving's work, and soon discovered clear evidence of Irving's misrepresentations, including the fact that Irving had knowingly used forged documents as a source. The presiding judge, Charles Gray, was eventually so persuaded by the evidence presented by Evans, that he wrote a long, and decisive verdict in favor of Lipstadt, calling Irving a "right-wing pro-Nazi polemicist", and confirming the accusations of Lipstadt and Evans.
Some journalists called the verdict a blow to free speech, although it was Irving who had sought and failed to prevent publication of Lipstadt's work.