Written by B’nai B’rith Director of European Affairs Alina Bricman, this expert analysis is part of the report “The Fragility of Freedom Online: Holocaust Denial and Distortion.”
The Hamas massacre of Oct. 7 where over 1200 Israelis were brutally murdered in the deadliest attack in the country’s history will undoubtedly remain a date of historical significance, collective anguish, mourning and remembrance both for Israelis and the Jewish diaspora for generations to come. Compounding its devastating impact has been an unprecedented wave of antisemitism, jubilation over Jewish suffering and rampant Holocaust distortion, trivialisation and glorification – both on and offline.
The latter phenomenon has taken a wide array of forms: Inversions of victims and perpetrators, banalisation of the Holocaust, praise for Hitler and the Nazi regime, weaponisation of the term “genocide”, intentional efforts to obscure the scope of the Holocaust, accusations of Jewish complicity in their own mass murder, equivalences between Nazi Germany and the State of Israel, Nazism and Zionism, as well as the large-scale use of Nazi symbolism in public manifestations.
For the Jewish community itself, the atrocities of Oct. 7 instinctively evoked the memory of the Holocaust, triggering intergenerational traumas lingering within the Jewish psyche: the brutal murders, burnings, beheadings and rapes, purposefully disseminated online and accompanied by anti-Jewish genocidal discourse, constituted the largest antisemitic pogrom since World War II and amounted to the largest number of Jews killed in a single day since – a widely circulated observation in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas-perpetrated massacre. The subsequent spike in antisemitism around the world has further compounded the perception of current events posing an existential threat.
Holocaust distortion and antisemitism are not interchangeable. Nor are Holocaust education and education against antisemitism. However, in the post-Oct. 7 context, there is significant overlap within which Holocaust distortion can be understood as a subset of the surge in antisemitic manifestations experienced globally by the Jewish community.
This article conceptualises Holocaust distortion in accordance with internationally recognised standards, categorises expressions of Holocaust distortion most prominent since Oct. 7 and makes recommendations to better address the phenomenon in the current context.
Conceptualising Holocaust distortion
Holocaust denial and distortion are as old as the Holocaust itself. In the over 80 years that have elapsed, denial and distortion have manifested through a variety of historically- and geographically-dependent trends. As the Holocaust remained a taboo for multiple decades after the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Holocaust deniers, under the guise of quasi-scientific research, questioned the practical possibility of the sheer scale of the mass murder that had occurred. With time and a number of high-profile legal cases, such attempts were discredited and out-right denial became less common. However, Holocaust distortion persists to this day, and has become increasingly prevalent and often harder to identify. It encompasses a wide array of manifestations that include:
- Attempts to project guilt solely onto Germany and thus obscure national histories of collaboration;
- Portrayals of fascist dictatorships as primarily resistance forces against Communism;
- Equivalences between Nazism and Stalinism;
- Portrayals of fascist leaders as protectors of national honour, often coupled with efforts at historical and legal rehabilitation of collaborators;
- Obscuring collaboration of the Arab world and Iran in the Holocaust and of the wide-spread appeal of Nazi ideology in the Middle East;
- Engaging in competitions of victimhood meant to minimise the Holocaust in relation to other genocides;
- Allegations that Jews caused and benefitted from the Holocaust, primarily in bringing about the State of Israel
To address, classify and make the phenomenon actionable for instance by law enforcement authorities, in 2013, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance coined a Working Definition of Holocaust Denial and Distortion20 which encompasses the examples above and may serve as a useful tool. It is used in this paper as a reference point. Three years later, in 2016, the organisation also formulated a Working Definition of Antisemitism, now adopted by more than 40 governments, that includes elements of Holocaust distortion that amount to anti-Jewish hatred:
- Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
- Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
- Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis
Typologies of Holocaust distortion since Oct. 7
Holocaust distortion observed since Oct. 7 has taken some of the forms detailed above, but has also brought forward new narratives and points of focus, as will be detailed below. These new trends in Holocaust distortion, and particularly the forceful return of Holocaust glorification require both academic and legal focus. While the categorisation that follows is not exhaustive, it is an attempt to systematise the phenomenon in the current moment and draw attention to necessary steps to address it.
Glorification of Hitler and the Holocaust
The increase in volume of antisemitic content online since Oct. 7 has been documented in detail, including by the Anti-Defamation League, which has recorded a 919 percent increase in antisemitic content on X (formerly Twitter) and a 28 percent increase on Facebook in the month since Oct. 7.
In no instance has this surge come across more clearly than in the circulation of the trending hashtag #HitlerWasRight – which was used in over 46 000 posts in the month following the Hamas attack (a 820 percent increase compared to the prior month), often in conjunction with calls to violence against Jews: the hashtags #DeathtotheJews and #DeathtoJews appeared over 51 000 times in the same timeframe, according to digital investigations by Memetica.
The slogan gained traction outside of the virtual space as well: “Hitler was Right!” was painted for instance on a public school in Barcelona, Spain, known to have a number of Jewish and Israeli pupils. Calls to finish what the Nazi leader started or otherwise endorsing violence against Jews inspired or closely associated with the Nazis, have been pervasive. In a widely circulated video, a large mass of demonstrators in front of the Sydney Opera house appear to be chanting “Gas the Jews!”. The slogan “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the Gas!” has been daubed on stickers found in Harleem, Netherlands. A metro station in Oslo, Norway, was tagged with a large graffiti reading “Hitler started it. We finished it.”
Pro-Palestinian supporters have noted similar messages on camera. This was the case of a teenage demonstrator in Hamburg, Germany saying “I want Adolf Hitler back, that’s my opinion. I’m for Hitler, for gassing the Jews.” A group of teenagers on the Paris metro chanted “[…]we are Nazis and proud.”
Use of Nazi symbolism, language of eugenics, and Nazi-inspired vandalism
Part of Holocaust glorification is the use of Nazi symbolism, and especially the swastika, as a form of intimidation, or to tacitly imply support for the fascist antisemitic ideology. Swastikas have featured on posters at demonstrations and have been spray-painted on various Jewish institutions and even cemeteries. This was the case in Kraineem, Belgium, where Jewish gravestones were desecrated and in Vienna, Austria, where the walls of the cemetery were tagged. The use of swastikas has been widespread beyond the tagging of Jewish institutions, with perpetrators tagging public buildings with the symbol, accompanied by explicit anti-Jewish violent language.
Beyond the use of the swastika, other forms of Nazi-inspired vandalism have also featured prominently since Oct. 7: The tagging of buildings with Jewish residents, as was the case in Paris, and Berlin, with Stars of David; the defacement of Jewish-owned stores (such as kosher restaurants in Villeurbanne, France or in Toronto, Canada); signs on certain establishments saying “Jews not allowed”, as featured at a bookstore in Istanbul and a store in Paris, and the calls to boycott Jewish businesses are such examples.
Eugenicist language has also been pervasive, notably through a widely circulated slogan “Keep the world clean” alongside a drawing of a Star of David (potentially intended as an Israeli flag) being thrown in a trash bin. The idea of keeping the world clean from Jews is a cornerstone of the Nazi ideology of racial hygiene. These drawings and slogans have featured in multiple demonstrations – including in Warsaw and in New York. Variations of such language have included depictions of Jews, Israel or Zionism as “cancers” or “diseases”. While the proponents of such signs or graffiti may not identify themselves with Nazi ideology, their use of its symbolism and language nevertheless serves to reference and distort the Holocaust.
Holocaust distortion through inversions of victim and perpetrator
Beyond Holocaust glorification, Nazi symbols have been instrumentalised in a variety of forms of Holocaust distortion. The portrayal of Jews as perpetrators of a Holocaust and the false equivalence between the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a particularly pernicious form of the phenomenon. In it, Jews or Israelis are depicted as the new Nazis, Zionism as a form of Nazism, and Israel’s offensive in Gaza as being the same or worse as Nazi genocide against the Jews. Most commonly, the inversion is depicted by equating a Star of David and a swastika – a visualisation prevalent since Oct 7. For instance, the tag was spray-painted on the front door of the Jewish Community Centre in Ljubljana, Slovenia, the Israeli embassy in Bogota, Colombia, an e-bike stop in London or a private Jewish home in Volos, Greece.
In an incendiary and widely criticised intervention, Colombian President Gustavo Petro compared Israeli government comments to those made by Nazis, and Gaza to the Auschwitz concentration camp. In a similar vein, Spanish MEP Manuel Pineda has accused Israel of committing a “Holocaust” against the Palestinian people – an accusation levied with softer language by other Spanish officials, including Social Rights Minister Ione Belarra. Such language has become standard messaging in pro-Palestinian demonstrations, legitimising and fuelling this particular form of Holocaust distortion.
Efforts to diminish and relativise the Holocaust
The insinuation that Jews instrumentalise or abuse the memory of the Holocaust to advance their own goals is a form of Holocaust distortion dating back to the immediate post-Holocaust period. Accusations that the Jews caused the Holocaust in order to bring about conditions for the establishment of a Jewish State, or that they use the Holocaust to engender international sympathy are common forms of distortion, that live at the clear and established intersection with antisemitism, as described by both the IHRA working definition of Holocaust denial and distortion and its working definition of antisemitism.
The slogans circulated in Austria and Germany – “Free Palestine from German guilt” and “Free Palestine from Austrian guilt” can be understood within this wider context. They do not merely suggest that German and Austrian support for Israel are a sole consequence of the two countries’ historic responsibility over the Holocaust, but also that such responsibility, or “guilt” is unwarranted. The suggestion is both that historic responsibility should not inform foreign policy decisions towards Israel and Gaza, and that the question of historic responsibility is altogether either inflated or passé.
Distorted reflections on German and more broadly European responsibility over the Holocaust have also made their way into discussions about the current spike in antisemitism. A 30-minute-long segment, “European Jews and Muslims on edge as racism rises in Europe” aired early November on Euronews, a platform that deems itself “Europe’s leading international news channel, providing global, multilingual news with a European perspective to over 400 million homes in 160 countries.” There, the mythology that “antisemitism has its roots in Europe, not in the Middle East” as “it comes from white supremacy”, was left unchecked along with numerous other false, incomplete or misleading claims.
Indeed, the history of oppression of Jews in the Arab world and Iran, as well as the history of Nazi collaboration in the region have found little space in a conversation dominated by the types of Holocaust distortion previously described.
Why the surge in Holocaust distortion?
In his 2015 “The definition of anti-Semitism”, Kenneth Marcus laments the erosion of the “post-Holocaust taboo against anti-Semitism”. A dizzying browse through incident lists occurring since Oct. 7 reveals an even more troubling conclusion: the erosion of the post-Holocaust taboo of the Holocaust itself.
While instances of Holocaust glorification have been comparatively easy to call out and chastise as antithetical to democratic norms and values, the same cannot be said of Holocaust distortion and relativization.
When a comparison is made between Israel and Nazi Germany it is usually not for lack of a more accurate analogy. For any critics of Israeli policy, the entire body of international law exists to offer terminology necessary to engage in debate. So too do endless numbers of other conflicts in recent world history, many obviously more similar by any measure. Rather, Holocaust comparisons carry harmful outcomes: the rhetorical weaponisation of the most painful episode of Jewish history against Jews and Israel and – by minimising its historical significance, to banalise and erase it.
In calmer times, academics in the field of antisemitism have been pressed by detractors to defend the IHRA’s working definitions. Today, as demonstrators are burning Israeli flags in front of synagogues and tagging Jewish daycare centres with slogans equating the Star of David with the swastika, the quests to neatly prop up the incidents against the definitions seem almost comical: of course, what we are witnessing is antisemitism. In this new, taboo-free antisemitism era, the memory of the Holocaust is at play.
Conclusions and recommendations
The typologies of Holocaust glorification, distortion and trivialisation documented in this article are by no means exhaustive, nor are the instances provided to exemplify them. To our knowledge, such literature – documenting and systematising instances of post-Oct. 7 Holocaust distortion is yet to emerge, but the current article aims to serve as a small attempt at such an endeavour.
Monitoring bodies tasked with recording incidents of antisemitism have been inundated since the Hamas attack and subsequent surge in anti-Jewish sentiment. While descriptions of individual incidents abound, as do overall numbers on percentage growth in antisemitism, disaggregated data on Holocaust distortion incidents is still missing.
The specific recording of such data should be prioritised and is particularly important in the context of Holocaust denial and distortion legislation. Where such legislation exists, it must be responsive to the actual scope of the phenomenon. Yet, what emerges in the post-Oct. 7 reality is the need to revisit our understanding of Holocaust distortion, to account for new narratives shaped by current political circumstances.
This can mean simply the supplementation of existing definitions with new examples and the popularisation of such amendments among law-makers, educators, law enforcement officials and other relevant parties.
Additionally, more focus among police and prosecutors should be placed to address the phenomenon and ensure that instances of denial and distortion are in fact sanctioned where appropriate– whether they occur offline or online.
Moving forward, online platforms must devote more resources to better detect denial and distortion (including through appropriate training of moderators and the buildout of identification software) and remove such content in accordance with the law and their own terms of service.
Finally, faced with levels of antisemitism and Holocaust denial and distortion– unseen in the decades since the Holocaust, it is clear that broad educational efforts are necessary, to teach about the Holocaust, and build resilience against current forms of denial and distortion.