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Confronting Holocaust "Revisionists:" Nuremberg War Crime Trials

by A G.

A student essay from Dr. Elliot Neaman's History 210 class (historical methods - spring 1996)

© Elliot Neaman / PHDN
Reproduction interdite par quelque moyen que ce soit / no reproduction allowed


Racial purity was on the agenda for the Nazi Party during the Second World War. The goal was an empire comprised of the "Aryan" race and Jews were the obstacle. Almost 35 million combatants and civilians died during this war. Of this number, six million were Jews (Dawidowicz 5).

Almost five decades later, Holocaust "revisionists" claim that this horrible event never happened and are now getting more attention than ever before. Under the misleading label of "revisionism", they find fault with all documents concerning the Holocaust, ignore the ones that they cannot disprove, and disregard testimonies from Holocaust survivors and Nuremberg War Criminals alike. Filled with ignorance and motivated by anti-Semitism, these "revisionists" will stop at nothing to convince the world that the Holocaust is nothing more than a hoax.

While there are countless aspects of the Holocaust that revisionists have tried to ignore, alter, or altogether deny, one of these is the Nuremberg War Crime Trials. The information and evidence presented at these trials have uncovered most of the information about the Holocaust when they were first released and are therefore an important source of learning about the Holocaust. Deniers have claimed that the trials were unfair for reasons such as the prosecution was too harsh and that the Germans were the victims of the trials. They have also objected to finding those criminals who have escaped prosecution because of reasons such as the length of time that has passed since the war and the criminals' old age.

The Nuremberg Trials were a lengthy and complex effort that included political agendas of the United States, England, France, and the Soviet Union. Sir Alexander Cadogan described the trials as a "put-up job" and "exceedingly long" (Hitler's Apologists 83). There were twenty-one defendants in the first round of the trials. These defendants were presented before the international military tribunal. Three of the defendants were set free, four were given a sentence of at least ten years, three were sentenced to life in prison, and the remaining eleven were given the death penalty. When prosecution asked to bring six government or party-affiliated organizations involved in the Holocaust, the tribunal admitted only three of these organizations and set limits on future prosecutions (84). The American Subsequent Proceedings Division created a list of over five thousand names who were involved in the Holocaust but less than two hundred were tried. The second round of the trials sentenced twenty-five defendants to death, twenty defendants to life in prison, ninety-seven defendants to sentences less than twenty-five years, and thirty-five were found not guilty (84). In 1951 an American-run clemency board recommended the release of 77 of the 142 convicted criminals.

"Revisionist" implies one who seeks alternatives to a widely-known theories in spite of controversy. He or she can be praised for these findings never considered before or condemned for not accepting the truth. Holocaust revisionists believe that the Holocaust never happened by magnifying how much the Jews were really to blame for their own deaths and minimizing the crimes committed by the Nazi Party. There are many interpretations of a single historical event yet denial altogether of that event does not qualify as an "interpretation."

The Holocaust Deniers' Arguments and the Evidence Against the Deniers

There are many tactics that Holocaust deniers use to try to defend their position. Just as the other aspects of the Holocaust, the Nuremberg War Crime Trials have in a sense gathered its own deniers' arguments. Deniers have complained that the testimonies were coerced and that the criminals lied about what had happened to them and to the Jews. Deniers also oppose to finding and prosecuting war criminals in the present-day because of their arguments of "passage of time", "extenuating circumstances", and "contrition" (Rosenbaum 119). One of these deniers is former Communist and Socialist Paul Rassinier.

According to Deborah Lipstadt in Denying the Holocaust, Rassinier became interested in the "genocide myth" in the 1940's and published books such as The Drama of European Jewry (1964) and Debunking the Genocide Myth (1977). He did not reject the stories of the Holocaust survivors but believes that the estimated six million Jews who died was an extreme exaggeration for "they are victims who are fired by a resentment in proportion to what they suffered (Lipstadt 55)." Rassinier believes that the testimonies given by the war criminals were outright lies for these criminals could not do anything but lie to tell the judges what they wanted to hear. The criminals, according to Rassinier, were "testifying under threat of death" and falsely admitted their guilt because it would "be most likely to save [their]... life (55)."

If neither the Jews nor the war criminals are to blame for the exaggeration, the only perpetrators are those who were chosen by a number of Jewish historians and institutions called the "Zionists". Zionists created the Holocaust hoax in order to "reap institutional, communal, and personal gain (56)." Because of an old Jewish stereotype, Rassinier asserts that Zionists concocted the hoax for money. The number of Jews who died was inflated to "swindle" the German government of millions of dollars. Rassinier, however, never presented evidence to prove any of his claims.

Another argument that tries to discredit the testimonies of the war crime trials is illustrated by electrical engineering professor Arthur R. Butz. Butz, author of The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, has a different approach of denying the Holocaust. He disguises his anti-Semitism with the image of "a serious scholar who was critical of Nazi anti-Semitism (124)." He has portrayed the Germans and Austrians as the real victims in the Holocaust. In order to discredit the testimonies of the war criminals, Butz announced that all testimony was inferior to the documents presented during the trial because while all documents are susceptible to the possibility of tampering, testimonies "confirm the existence of an annihilation program (129)." Lipstadt confronts Butz' argument and questioned why would the criminals admit that the Holocaust happened. Butz believes that "it was better to admit to the crime of the century and risk losing one's life than to protest against a monstrous fraud (130)." Yet, as Lipstadt pointed out, if a death sentence was going to be given to a criminal no matter what his testimony was, then there would be no point in lying about their participation in the genocide.

Another explanation that Butz gives for the false testimonies of the war criminals is that they made a mistake for the defendants were confused or even misunderstood the question. When Hermann Goring, an officer in the German Reich, was asked about a pile of corpses during the trial, he was confused. Had Goring properly understood the question, he would have said that the corpses were an unfortunate result of Allied, not Nazi, aggression toward the end of the war (131). However it is hard to believe that intelligent, high-ranking officers in the military could be unclear about matters that would determine whether he faces the rest of his life as a free individual or an imprisoned criminal.

While one of the ways that deniers reject the Holocaust through the Nuremberg War Crime Trials is to discredit the defendants and their testimonies, another is to oppose efforts to find criminals who escaped prosecution before their trials began. These criminals should not be brought to trial for the reasons that Alan S. Rosenbaum wrote about in Prosecuting Nazi War Criminals. These arguments are the passage of time, special consideration, and contrition.

One of the deniers' arguments that is presented in Rosenbaum's book is the "passage of time". This argument is not to deny that the Holocaust ever happened but to diminish the crimes committed. Because it has already been fifty years since the Holocaust, many of these criminals have already established new lives for themselves and their families and are too old to pose any threat to society. Generations that proceed the war criminals' have expressed their dismay over future prosecution as it is almost as if they too are being blamed for their fathers' or grandfathers' mistakes (119).

It is true that some criminals' lives will be greatly affected but they were supposed to be on trial over five decades ago. Their five decades of freedom should be seen as more reason to pursue prosecution. By not placing criminals who escaped on trial, this makes their crimes appear unimportant and diminishes their role in the Holocaust. As for those generations who feel that they should not be held responsible for actions that they did not commit, many of them feel that the Jews are preventing them from German national pride (119). Their need to forget the past should be perceived "as a prelude to a rewriting of history and an evasion responsibility in the name of national renewal (120)." Moreover, time is irrelevant to what is morally right. War criminals, no matter how much time has passed, must be prosecuted.

Another argument that Rosenbaum wrote of is the theory of "extenuating circumstances" where the extent of the crimes of war criminals is diminished and are therefore excused from their crimes. Defendants who allowed the Allied forces to use their testimonies in order to prosecute other criminals more severely were given lesser sentences than they would have normally received. While this practice is parallel to "plea bargaining" (where in exchange for a guilty plea, the changes given to the defendant are lowered), we should not allow lesser changes to excuse these defendants from their crimes. It would be considered a failure of the political system if prosecution decided not to sentence criminals to the fullest extent of the law; we must remember the "stipulation of the essential obligations that citizens owe their community (123)."

A third argument that Rosenbaum presented is "contrition". Contrition is displayed by remorse of a defendant for his crimes or the guilty conscience of a defendant has become so great that prosecution must be halted. Either way both claims are inexcusable. Contrition is explained by the defendants' state of minds, not their actions yet it does not affirm or deny that his actions were wrong (127).

The Third Reich ruled over Germany for twelve years, far less than Adolf Hitler's promised thousand. Often labeled a tyrant, Hitler was to perfect the concept of "total war" by committing crimes "against humanity in the course of military conflict (Harris 3)." On October 7, 1942, the United States and Great Britain announced that they would create a United Nations War Crime Commission to specifically deal with crimes that occurred during the Second World War. The Commission was established later that month and began to compile lists of war criminals.

Contrary to the deniers' accusations of the war crime prosecution being too harsh to the defendants, evidence shows that the prosecution, if anything, was too lenient. By the early 1950s, actions to prosecute a war criminal were made only if a member of the public accused him. Because of heated public opinion, the government became wary of bringing charges against anyone. According to Punishing War Criminals, there were 1,523 convictions in 1949 and 908 convictions in 1950. However, in 1954 there were only 44 convictions and 21 in the following year (243). The Bundestag passed amnesty laws in 1954 to protect criminals by allowing them to "disguise one's identity for political reasons (Muller 243)." In addition, a "pardoning fever" was spreading throughout the legal systems. They granted amnesty to almost all of the war criminals who were already sentenced (243).


Editor and columnist Eric Breindel of the New York Times wrote "those who deny that the mass murder of European Jewry by Hitler and his collaborators took place commit an unspeakable outrage against Jewish history, Jewish memory, and Jewish humanity (Hitler's Apologists 14)." As if the very existence of the Holocaust was not enough to devastate Jews, there are those who have the audacity to deny it ever happened: "If they aren't anti-Semites... then there's no such thing as an anti-Semite (14)."

Each war criminal that goes unpunished or given a lesser sentence than he deserves is in a sense being excused from his crime. When war criminals are not punished, their actions are minimalized. These criminals can then be portrayed as victims in the vicious legal cycle. It is an insult to not only those who believe in the legal system but to those who are affected by the Holocaust.

As long as there is anti-Semitism, Holocaust "revisionists" will continue their efforts to deny the Holocaust to anyone who is listening. Their tactics will change and conform to the needs of future generations who are vulnerable to their arguments. One of the ways that we can undermine their efforts is to prosecute any and all war criminals who have escaped prosecution as proof to those who doubt, ignore, or deny that the Holocaust ever existed.

Works Cited

Conot, Robert E. Justice at Nuremberg. Harper and Row, New York, 1981.

Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The Holocaust and the Historians. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1981.

de Zayas, Alfred M. The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, 1939-1945. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, Nebraska, 1989.

Harris, Whitney R. Tyranny on Trial: The Evidence at Nuremberg. Southern Methodist University Press: Dallas, Texas, 1954.

--. Hitler's Apologists: The Anti-Semitic Propaganda of Holocaust "Revisionism." Anti-Defamation League: New York, 1993.

Lipstadt, Deborah. Denying the Holocaust. Plume: New York, 1993.

Maier, Charles S. The Unmasterable Past. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988.

Marrus, Michael R. The Holocaust in History. University Press of New England: London, England, 1987.

Muller, Ingo. Hitler's Justice: The Courts of the Third Reich. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991.

Rosenbaum, Alan S. Prosecuting Nazi War Criminals. Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado, 1993.

Stipp, John L., ed. Devil's Diary. Antioch Press: Yellow Springs, Ohio, 1955.

Vidal-Naquet, Pierre. Assassins of Memory. Columbia University Press: New York, 1992.

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