The Holocaust Historiography Project

Defining ‘Holocaust’ — A proposal

Greg Raven

Although there are thousands of books about aspects of the plight of European Jews during the Second World War, few define with any precision what they mean by the term that has come to represent this plight: “Holocaust.” Often, “Holocaust” is used in the same paragraph as references to six million Jewish dead, genocide, the “Final Solution,” gas chambers, crematories, and words that imply mass murder and extermination, without explicitly establishing the relationship (if any) among these concepts, and without defining the central term itself.

Typical of the associative technique of defining the Holocaust is President Bill Clinton’s speech at the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum:1

The Holocaust began when the most civilized country of its day unleashed unprecedented acts of cruelty and hatred abetted by perversions of science, philosophy, and law … Millions died for who they were, how they worshiped, what they believed, and who they loved. But one people — the Jews — were immutably marked for total destruction. They who were among their nation’s most patriotic citizens, whose extinction served no military purpose nor offered any political gain, they who threatened no one were slaughtered by an efficient, unrelenting bureaucracy, dedicated solely to a radical evil with a curiously antiseptic title: The Final Solution.

Politicians must master the art of talking without saying anything: historians do not have that luxury.


A good example of the confusion that can arise when attempting to discuss the Holocaust without a prior understanding about the central term can be seen in the article “Proving The Holocaust” by Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine.2 Shermer introduces his article with an attempt to eliminate Holocaust revisionism (and revisionists) by unilaterally redefining the term “Holocaust.” While so attempting, he presents three different definitions.


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives a historical usage of “complete destruction, especially of a large number of persons; a great slaughter or massacre” (caust — burn, holo — whole). By this definition, then, the Nazis attempted a holocaust since [sic] they did not succeed in completely exterminating European Jewry. But Holocaust historians mean something much more specific.


The Holocaust, according to the Director of the Research Institute of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Michael Berenbaum, is “the systematic state-sponsored murder of six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II; as night descended, millions of others were killed in its wake.” Please note the clause following the semicolon. Holocaust revisionists complain that Holocaust histories, as well as the museum, concentrate too much on Jews and ignore the millions of others who were persecuted and killed. Obviously they do not, nor does the museum. Capital “H” Holocaust, then, specifically refers to the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews.

And finally:

In this analysis I mean by the Holocaust: The intentional or functional near-destruction of a people based primarily on race.

Shermer’s difficulties with defining the very term describing the event he has set out to “prove” indicate that a common definition is badly needed. In his first example Shermer mischaracterizes one of the OED’s general definitions of “holocaust” as a “historical” one (while failing to note that the OED has a specific definition of the “Holocaust,” see below). He also implies that the Nazis may not be guilty of the Holocaust.

In his second example Shermer falsely asserts that the clause following Berenbaum’s definition somehow eliminates the Judeo-centric nature of the word “Holocaust” as used by Berenbaum and others. Also, he flatly contradicts what he erroneously claims Berenbaum meant, while creating a circular (and Judeo-centric) definition that the “Holocaust, then, specifically refers to the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews.” Shermer’s final definition is so vague and all-inclusive as to be worthless for anything approaching a serious study of the topic, although it is noteworthy that by including race, he effectively removes gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the handicapped — each of which is claimed to have been a target of Nazi extermination — from the definition, to leave only Jews.

Subsequently, even Shermer apparently became dissatisfied with his definition as presented in this article. In correspondence with Journal of Historical Review editor Mark Weber in 1996, Shermer wrote,3 “I define the Holocaust as the functional intent on the part of the Nazis to exterminate European Jewry.”

The phrase “functional intent,” whatever that means, seems to categorize the Holocaust as a thought crime, wherein the Nazis had some “nonfunctional” (or dysfunctional?) ideas about exterminating European Jews, which were okay. They transgressed by having “functional” ideas about Jewish extermination. In this definition, it is not necessary for any Jew to have been harmed in any way for the Nazis to have been guilty of the Holocaust, a characteristic of thought crimes. What this definition does make clear is that Shermer is guilty of the very thing of which he accuses revisionists, focussing on the Holocaust as involving only Jews.

Even revisionists have been remiss in defining the term “Holocaust:” most revisionist works, while acknowledging the tragedy of the Jews during the Second World War, focus on what did not happen during the “Holocaust,” rarely supplying a definition (either revisionist or otherwise) for the event or events that should be classed under the heading “Holocaust.” There are exceptions, of course, such as Michael A. Hoffman II’s 1985 article “The psychology and epistemology of ‘Holocaust’ newspeak,”4 and Robert A. Hall’s 1986 article, “Deceptive linguistic structures in the phrase ‘the Holocaust’,”5 each of which appeared in The Journal of Historical Review.

The Nuremberg connection

However defined, the events said to make up the Holocaust are usually derived from the evidence presented against the Nazis at the post-war Nuremberg Trials. The word “Holocaust,” however, was neither used nor defined at these trials — or by the Nazis themselves, for that matter. Most of the elements of what is referred to as the “Holocaust” fell under the charge of “Crimes Against Humanity,” the last of four counts of “criminal activities” charged against the Nazi leaders.6

In the nearly fifty years since the end of the Nuremberg Trials, much of the “evidence” presented at the Trials has been discredited. The testimony of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, the backbone of most “Holocaust” works, was obtained by torture, and contains numerous errors of fact.7 Although these errors have long been known, only recently have anti-revisionist historians begun to wean themselves away from Höss.8 Likewise, gas chambers at Dachau and Buchenwald,9 human-skin lampshades, soap made from the bodies of Jews,10 and various bizarre and arcane methods of mass killing have all been quietly dropped by historians,11 and even the death figures for Auschwitz have been drastically reduced.12 In spite of this, widely-held perceptions of the “Holocaust” persist as if we have learned nothing in the intervening years since the Nuremberg verdict was announced on October 1, 1946.

Traditional definitions

It is important to remember that, although the word “Holocaust” — capitalized to denote a more or less specific set of events — is now in common parlance, it is a relatively recent addition to the language in its current sense. According to the 1993 Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition):13

The specific application [of the use of the word “holocaust” in the phrase “the Holocaust”] was introduced by historians during the 1950s, probably as an equivalent to Heb[rew] hurban and shoah ‘catastrophe’ (used in the same sense); but it had been foreshadowed by contemporary references to the Nazi atrocities as a ‘holocaust’ (sense 2 c): … The term is in common use among Jews, but seems to be otherwise relatively rare except among specialists.

As examples of this foreshadowing, the OED2 gives the following citations:

1942 News Chronicle 5 Dec. 2/2 Holocaust … Nothing else in Hitler’s record is comparable to his treatment of the Jews … The word has gone forth that … the Jewish peoples are to be exterminated … The conscience of humanity stands aghast.14

1943 Hansard Lords 23 Mar. 826 The Nazis go on killing … If this rule could be relaxed, some hundreds, and possibly a few thousands, might be enabled to escape from this holocaust.

To the examples cited by the OED2, we can add:

  • The American Hebrew of October 31, 1919, refers to a “holocaust of human life” in an article describing the fate of “six million men and women” Jews said to be suffering at the hands of the Germans.15
  • In a September 1939 Life magazine article on Adolf Hitler entitled “The War World,” author Bernard Lansing wrote: “His [Hitler’s] eyes sparkling with faith and decision, he has proved that he could summon the holocaust.”16
  • In December 1942 the Jewish Telegraph Agency charged the Nazis with cruelties toward Jews that included throwing victims into a “huge boiler which was used for rendering hog fat” under which was built a fire. “Old women as well as children perished in this holocaust,” reported the JTA.17

The OED2 goes on to offer some post-war uses of “holocaust”:18

1945 M. R. Cohen in S. Goldschmidt Legal Claims against Germany, Millions of surviving victims of the Nazi holocaust, Jews and non-Jews, will stand before us in the years to come.

1957 Yad Vashem Bulletin Apr. 35/2 “Research on the Holocaust Period.”

1958 Ibid. July 2/2 The catastrophe which overtook us … The Inquisition … is not the same as the Holocaust.

1962 B. Glanville. Diamond xviii. 296 The holocaust … was the inevitable end, the logical conclusion of the pogroms, the Mosley marches, the hatred.

1965 A. Donat (title) The Holocaust Kingdom. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

1967 N. Cohn Warrant for Genocide. ix. 208 By the autumn of 1944 the holocaust was nearing its conclusion.

1968 Manchester Guardian Weekly. 25 Apr. 10/4 There is now within modern history a compartment of “holocaust studies” — dealing with the wholesale destruction by the Nazis of European Jewry.

1972 F. Forsyth Odessa File. 306 The mausoleum of Yad Vashem … the shrine to six million of his fellow Jews who died in the holocaust.

On April 18, 1980, the Jewish Chronicle wrote of “A memorial service … to mark Holocaust Day.”

Aside from Yad Vashem and Nora Levin’s 1968 book The Holocaust: The Destruction of European Jewry,19 usage of “holocaust” to describe the Jewish catastrophe during the Third Reich usually appeared in the lower case until the late-1970s, when it was used at all. Neither of the two most important early Holocaust works — Gerald Reitlinger’s 1953 The Final Solution20 and Raul Hilberg’s 1961 The Destruction of the European Jews21 — use the word “Holocaust.” Even The Holocaust Kingdom (mentioned above), scarcely uses the word “holocaust” outside of the title, and even then it is not capitalized.

In the early seventies, the use of “holocaust” to describe the Jewish catastrophe slowly gained currency. In 1973 New York’s Behrman House published Bea Stadtler’s The Holocaust: A History of Courage and Resistance. In 1975, Yad Vashem published The Holocaust in Jerusalem, and Black Sparrow Press of Los Angeles published Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust. In 1976 Yad Vashem published Jacob Robinson’s The Holocaust: The Nuremberg Evidence, and in 1977, the Catholic Library Association of Haverford, PA, published Harry J. Cargas’ The Holocaust: An Annotated Bibliography. Clearly, use of the phrase “the Holocaust” as a label for a collection of Judeo-centric events during the Second World War is due almost exclusively to Jewish sources.

Even so, for two decades after the War, “holocaust” was largely used in contexts other than Jewish genocide. “Nuclear holocaust” is perhaps the most commonplace, but other topics merited the “holocaust” label as well. For example, Paul Benzaquin’s 1959 book Holocaust (New York: Holt) deals with the devastating 1942 fire at the Cocoanut Grove in Boston, Bernard Lewis’s 1961 book, The Emergence of Modern Turkey (London, New York: Oxford University Press), refers to the friction between the Turks and Armenians as “a struggle between two nations for the possession of a single homeland, that ended with a terrible holocaust of 1915, when a million and a half Armenians perished,”22 Henry Kane’s 1967 book Holocaust (New York: Trident Press) is a collection of detective and mystery stories, and William Hermanns’ The Holocaust: From a Survivor of Verdun (New York: Harper & Row) chronicles the Battle of Verdun in 1916 during the First World War.

Neither was “holocaust” used in revisionist Paul Rassinier’s writings from the early 1960s, and Arthur Butz’ 1976 book The Hoax of the Twentieth Century23 used the word “holocaust” infrequently, and always in the lower case. Butz also cites an article in The New York Times dated December 13, 1942, that states, “The slaughter of a third of the Jewish population in Hitler’s domain and the threatened slaughter of all is a holocaust without parallel.”24

Even many reference works, including encyclopedias and dictionaries, show no listings under “Holocaust” until 1978. For example, the 1976 CBS News Almanac makes passing reference to “the Nazi holocaust that took the lives of six million Jews,”25 while the 1976 Information Please Almanac makes no mention of the Holocaust. Three years later, however, the 1979 edition of the Information Please Almanac not only refers to the Holocaust in its timeline of history, but also explicitly defines the term in a lengthy sidebar (see below).

A computerized search shows that no PhD dissertations prior to 1970 used the word “Holocaust” in the title, while between 1970 and 1975 there were 21, with 97 dissertations between 1976 and 1980, and 274 between 1981 and 1985.26

The turning point was the four-part NBC miniseries “Holocaust,” which aired in April of 1978.27 By the next year, Congress had approved plans for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and from that point on, “holocaust” became “the Holocaust” when describing the fate of the Jews during the Second World War. Ironically, the book Holocaust by author Gerald Green, also published in April 1978, uses the lowercase form “holocaust” in the text.28

After 1978 there was also a change in the way books about the Holocaust are noted in the Library of Congress card catalog. Before 1979, “holocaust” is often shown in lower case in multi-word titles; from 1979 on, “holocaust” is always capitalized, and always refers to the ordeal of the Jews. This latter point is not because of some policy of the Library of Congress, but rather a recognition by authors that “holocaust” has been redefined, and that its use is virtually off limits unless discussing events in the European theater of the Second World War.

Shifts such as this in the meanings of words are normal in any living language. Oftentimes the shifts are unintentional, although sometimes groups will intentionally attempt to “high-jack” parts of the language for social or political ends. An example of attempts to intentionally shift the meaning of a word can currently be seen in the efforts by groups other than Jews to use the word “Holocaust” to describe real or imagined past sufferings, a testament to how in less than two decades the phrase “the Holocaust” has become a potent linguistic device to describe the ultimate in victimhood.

Before stating a revisionist definition of “Holocaust,” it is instructive to look at existing definitions to see where they are defective. Existing definitions may be separated into four main categories: 1) central act of life as we know it, 2) more or less specific claims of extermination in death camps, 3) less specific claims of extermination, and 4) a combination of mistreatment and extermination. In two of these categories, there are examples of the word applying both to Jews alone and to Jews accompanied by non-Jews, with the Jews at the forefront.

Central event of life as we know it

The most overheated and least nuanced definitions are those derived from theological and quasi-theological discussions of the “Holocaust,” such as the statement by Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith:29

The Holocaust is something different. It is a singular event. It is not simply one example of genocide but a near successful attempt on the life of God’s chosen children and, thus, on God Himself.

From a historical point of view, no discussion of how the Nazis attempted to kill God is likely to result in any useful insights. Some, such as Michael Berenbaum, Project Director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Georgetown University theology professor, have attempted to elevate the Holocaust to a similar position, but from the secular side:30

The Holocaust was [once] regarded as a side story of the much larger story of World War II. Now one thinks of World War II as a background story and the Holocaust as a foreground story.

Extermination of Jews in camps

In the American Jewish Committee/Gallup Poll conducted 1993, “Holocaust” is defined as:31

… usually referring to the killing of millions of Jews in Nazi death camps.

The 1989 version of Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language agrees:32

… 3. the Holocaust, the systematic mass extermination of European Jews in Nazi concentration camps prior to and during World War II.

These definitions could be said to “deny” the deaths of Jews in the Eastern territories and elsewhere, as well as the often brutal but non-fatal mistreatment of Jews during the war, both of which are acknowledged by revisionists. Jews killed by the Soviets during the war likewise are not included (unless the Nazis are being blamed for them, ala Katyn); the Nazis (and by extension the German people) as the sole perpetrators. Because of its overly-narrow focus, this definition eliminates the possibility of anyone being a “Holocaust survivor:” Holocaust victims are dead, while the others were not part of “the Holocaust.”

Extermination of Jews

The definition of the Holocaust as a Jewish-only event is concisely expressed by one of the first reference books to include a separate definition for “Holocaust:”33

holocaust … 2. … — the Holocaust … the systematic destruction of over six million European Jews by the Nazis before and during World War II.

During the second “false news” trial of German-Canadian publisher Ernst Zündel in 1988, Judge Ron Thomas took judicial notice that, “The Holocaust is the mass murder and extermination of Jews by the Nazi regime during the Second World War …”34

Later, giving testimony in this trial, preeminent Jewish Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg told the court that he defined the Holocaust as “the annihilation by physical means of the Jews of Europe during the Nazi regime between the years 1933 and 1945.”35

Like other definitions in this category, these definitions encompass Jewish deaths, but only at the hands of the Nazis, and again brutalities of any type are overlooked. The implication is that either no Jewish deaths were accidental or incidental, or that accidental and/or incidental Jewish deaths are not included in the Holocaust. These definitions thus suffers the same deficiencies as those of the category above.

There are many dictionaries published after 1978 that, while showing a definition for “holocaust” as a more or less generic term, do not mention “Holocaust.” Looking at the early definitions shows, however, that “Holocaust” has never been precisely defined in any universal way. The Information Please Almanac 1979, for example, overreaches itself in attempting to come to grips with the term:36

The Holocaust (1933-1945) … is the term describing the Nazi annihilation of about 6 million Jews (two thirds of the pre-World War II European Jewish population), including 4,500,000 from Russia, Poland, and the Baltic; 750,000 from Hungary and Romania; 290,000 from Germany and Austria; 105,000 from The Netherlands; 90,000 from France; 54,000 from Greece, etc.

Aside from the questionable numbers of Jewish victims, this definition implies that the Nazis started “annihilating” Jews as soon as they came to power in 1933, and it excludes non-German participation. Other such definitions are commonplace:37

holocaust … 2. Holocaust. The mass murder of the Jews carried out by the Nazi government of Germany …

In 19? the ADL and the National Council for Social Studies offered the following definition:38

Holocaust: Term devised in the late 1950s to describe the Nazi program of the wholesale physical annihilation of European Jewry. Connotes unprecedented phenomenon of human destruction. By the end of World War II, it was estimated that some 5.7 million Jews had perished as a result of the systematic and racial program of the Nazis.

Later the ADL offered a simplified definition:39

Holocaust — from the Hebrew word “olah” which means “burnt offering.” The term is used to describe the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis.

“Holocaust” is from the Greek holokaustos (from which comes the Latin holocaustum) a combination of holos, which means “whole,” and kaustos, which means “burnt.”40 There may be some relationship between olah and holocaustos, but it is inaccurate to imply that “Holocaust” comes directly from a Hebrew word of slightly different meaning. Also, according to this definition, anyone who believes that fewer than six million Jews were killed by the Nazis — which includes virtually all historians — risks being classified as a “Holocaust denier.”41

The exclusively Jewish nature of the Holocaust sometimes is threatened in the scramble for victim-status by other groups, but the Judeo-centric nature of the Holocaust is zealously guarded:42

In this [President Carter’s] most disturbing statement, the Holocaust is re-defined to include the sum total of all the atrocities committed by the Nazis … The Holocaust in this view is no longer a unique historical event … but a hold-all term for “the inhumanity of man to man,” and similar generalizations. Not only were the six million Jews murdered by their enemies; they now stand in danger of having their unique martyrdom obliterated by their friends.
Jews … were killed for the crime of being born. Their destruction was a sacral act. Even the method of their murder after 1941-- gassing — was different: only a few thousand gypsies and a smaller number of Soviet prisoners of war shared the fate of millions of Jews. The place of the Jews in the Nazi world was unique, and was related to the unique history of the Jewish people and their historical relationship to the non-Jewish world.

Or, to put it succinctly (if incorrectly):43

To be precise, the Holocaust was the Nazi extermination of Jews during the Second World War.

The conservative Oxford English Dictionary imperfectly cited by Shermer (see above) echoes the theme of Nazi and Jewish exclusivity, but leaves itself an out by allowing the same term to be used to describe other groups:44

holocaust … 2. d. the Holocaust: the mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis in the war of 1939-1945. Also used transf., of the similar fate of other groups; and attrib.

Some definitions restrict the Holocaust’s victims to Jews and multiply the perpetrators, even to the point of making all non-Jews guilty of the Holocaust, either through active participation or through doing nothing (or not doing enough) to save the Jews:45

The Holocaust, Shoah in Hebrew, is the most tragic era in the history of the Jewish people — 1933 to 1945 — when the Germans and their collaborators perpetrated genocide against them. By the end of the Second World War, the Nazis and their minions had managed to put some six million Jews to death and destroy thousands of Jewish communities.

Even with multiple groups of perpetrators, these definitions imply that either there was no participation by Allied forces (such as the Soviets) in the killing of Jews, or that any such killing does not qualify as part of the Holocaust.

A subset of Holocaust definitions includes reference to the Old Testament, which some feel is a way of implying that all Christians (that is, non-Jews) are somehow guilty of the Holocaust:46

Holocaust, an Old Testament sacrificial term, is used by historians to describe the massacre of 6 million Jews by the German Nazi regime during World War II.

Those who do not use a Septuagint Bible will search in vain for “holocaust,” however, as “holocaust” is not used in the King James or other popular Bibles.

To put a finer point on it, a definition can combine Jewish exclusivity as victims, a multiplicity of perpetrators, and a Nazi policy of genocide.47

The “Holocaust” was: The systematic, bureaucratic annihilation of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and their collaborators as a central act of state during World War II.


… Holocaust — the systematic state-sponsored murder of six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Those anti-revisionists who acknowledge the lack of Nazi documents ordering the genocide of the Jews are referred to as “functionalists,” that is, they believe that the annihilation began at the local level and developed spontaneously and organically, as opposed to the “intentionalists,” who believe that Adolf Hitler (or a member of his high command) gave an actual order to exterminate the Jews. Presumably, no “functionalist” anti-revisionist would find the above definitions satisfactory.

Extermination of Jews and non-Jews

Some definitions include a number of non-Jews:49

… the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, summons all who enter its portals to rise to an important and extraordinary challenge: to remember and immortalize the 6 million Jews and millions of other Nazi victims of World War II — Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, the handicapped, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political and religious dissidents, Soviet prisoners of war — who were murdered in the most horrifying event of our time: the Holocaust.


… the Holocaust — the systematic, state-sponsored mass murders by Nazi Germany of 6,000,000 Jews, alongside millions of others, in the name of a perverse racial theory.


ho.lo.caust n … 3 a often cap: the mass slaughter of European civilians and esp. Jews by the Nazis during World War II — usu. used with the


These crimes, however, pale in comparison to the massive, deliberate, and well-planned extermination of more than 15 million persons in what is termed the Holocaust. This genocide of staggering proportions was carried out with scrupulous efficiency by a well-coordinated German bureaucracy in which nothing was left to chance.

The primary goal of the Nazi Holocaust was the extermination of all the Jews in Europe. This purpose was nearly fulfilled. Out of an estimated 8.3 million Jews living in German-occupied Europe after 1939, about 6 million were killed.

… Holocaust as a term has normally been used to describe the fate of Europe’s Jews.

The second definition shown above may be considered the official U.S. government definition of “Holocaust.” Including non-Jewish victims in definitions of the Holocaust seems to be politically motivated.53

Mistreatment and extermination

Surprisingly few definitions make mention of mistreatment or persecution, although those that do are noteworthy. The New Columbia Encyclopedia of 1975 is a good example, defining “the Holocaust” as “A name given to the period of persecution and extermination of European Jews by the National Socialists.”54

The Encyclopedia Britannica definition likewise includes persecution as well as extermination, but dates the start of the Holocaust from the Nazi accession to power:55

Hebrew SHO’AH, or HURBAN, the 12 years (1933-45) of … Nazi persecution of … Jews and other minorities, which was marked by increasing barbarization of methods in the expanding territories under German rule; it climaxed in the … “final solution” (die Endlösung), the attempted extermination of European Jewry.

Revisionists believe that the Nazi “final solution” of the Jewish problem pre-dated — and is only incidentally related to — the Holocaust, and did not involve extermination, but nevertheless this definition is the most nuanced of those surveyed so far.

Value of imprecision

The amorphous nature of the term “Holocaust” is convenient to the extent that it implies an inconceivable sequence and combination of events, which lead to an improbable result, leaving the specifics to the imagination. This has proven convenient on more than one occasion, when a portion of the received knowledge of the Holocaust has had to be jettisoned or altered: because there is no fixed definition, the word can still be made to conjure up just as much horror as it did before the adjustment. Typically, however, these adjustments are recognized only by scholars and researchers, so that word of the change is rarely if ever communicated to the average person.

The dichotomy between the public conception of the “Holocaust” and the facts surrounding the period known by scholars leads to “Holocaust” meaning something different to just about everyone. Because of the imprecision of its definition, the word “Holocaust” is often simultaneously all-inclusive and extremely exclusive. Therefore, by questioning the gas chambers one becomes a “Holocaust denier,” even though only in sensationalized media accounts is the “Holocaust” defined as the gassing of Jews.56

Revisionists are often victims of the imprecise definition of “Holocaust.” No matter how much of the Holocaust story is acknowledged by a revisionist, the definition of “Holocaust” is so plastic that the “denier” label can still be applied by opponents more interested in ideology than in historical discussion. Conversely, anti-revisionists are allowed the freedom to alter or discount large portions of the Holocaust story without being labelled as “deniers” as long as they are perceived as accepting the Holocaust as a unique and horrific crime against Jews and the Jewish people.57

Lack of precision in defining “Holocaust” is not, of course, part of a conspiracy to make it possible to attack revisionists. Rather, it arises from the fact that there is little if any agreement among those who most use the term, as to what they mean. Add to this the convenience of having a term that can be inflated to make a socio-political weapon of whatever size is necessary, determined only by the volume of hot air that one is willing to inject. Not surprisingly, anti-revisionists virtually never complain when attempts are made to over-inflate the Holocaust.

Before historians can discuss events and implications of the Holocaust, there first must be an understanding about what they mean when they use the word. Such an understanding would not be a straitjacket that stifles debate, but rather one that encourages discussion due to the creation of what semanticists call an “extensional bargain” — that is, where all participants to the discussion agree on the basic terminology of the subject being discussed. With such an understanding (or definition) in place, there could be no Holocaust “denial” among participants in the discussion, and labelling revisionists as “deniers” then clearly would be shown as the act of bad faith it is.

Real-world problem

The lack of a definition for “Holocaust” creates problems that go beyond name-calling. To give just one example, in 1993, Deborah Lipstadt published a book entitled, Denying the Holocaust, in which she defined “Holocaust” as “the attempt to annihilate the Jewish people.”58 One of those she described as being a “Holocaust denier” was best-selling British historian David Irving. Because of the difference between the libel laws in the United States and Britain, Irving sued Lipstadt for defamation, in part because of the “denier” label.

Lipstadt and her British publisher responded with, among other things, two lengthy position papers from expert witnesses, each of whom has his own definition of “Holocaust.”

One expert, Robert Jan van Pelt (Professor of Architecture, University of Waterloo) wrote that Irving was denying:59

… the National Socialist attempt to exterminate European Jewry — a deed … which today is commonly known as the “Holocaust.”

Thus, while Lipstadt claims the “Holocaust” was the attempted annihilation of all Jews, van Pelt believes that Irving denies only the attempt to exterminate European Jewry, quite a different matter.

The other expert, Richard J. Evans (Professor of Modern History, University of Cambridge) devoted a lengthy, if round-about, section to defining the Holocaust, about which he ultimately wrote:60

The meaning of the term “Holocaust” is thus metaphorical rather than literal; common usage has made what it refers to, however, abundantly clear. Thus for example the standard work by the distinguished Canadian historian Michael Marrus, The Holocaust in History (London, 1987) focuses on, to use his own words, “the Holocaust, the systematic mass murder of European Jewry by the Nazis.”

Where Lipstadt is absolute in condemning “Holocaust deniers,” Evans says that “Holocaust” is actually nothing more than a metaphor, which the dictionary defines as a figure of speech, allegory, or parable. Where Lipstadt’s definition implies that all Jews were at risk world wide, Evans identifies the victims as European Jewry, as does van Pelt. Where Lipstadt makes no mention of the perpetrators, Evans and van Pelt are specific that the Nazis alone were responsible. Where Lipstadt is a little fuzzy on how this annihilation came to pass, Evans claims that it was the result of systematic mass murder, but only of European Jewry.

Additionally, one of Lipstadt’s other Holocaust experts, Professor Heinz Peter Longerich, submitted a lengthy position paper in which he fails utterly to define “Holocaust” at all, instead making vague references to “final solution,” “mass murder,” and various “code words” allegedly used by the Nazis.

Also, on the second day of the trial (the first day of Irving’s cross-examination, Lipstadt’s own attorney, Richard Rampton, defined the Holocaust as:61

The systematic mass murder of millions of Jews by the Nazi regime during the Second World War.

In Rampton’s definition, while similar to Marrus’ (as cited by Evans), leaves the possibility for including Jews other than those in Europe, and does state that there were millions of them. However, there can be no Holocaust survivors for Rampton, because the Holocaust is mass murder (not attempted murder, or attempted extermination): If one survives murder, it is no longer murder but rather attempted murder. It is also murder as opposed to killing, the implication being that it was against Nazi law to kill Jews, but they did it anyway, so that even by their own standards it was murder.

What we are left with are serious discrepancies among statements by Lipstadt and her main Holocaust experts, about what is meant by “Holocaust,” and by extension, “Holocaust denier.” Nevertheless, not only are the reputations of Irving and Lipstadt in the balance, but also hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, which will have to be paid by the loser. When the stakes are as high as this, someone ought to spend at least a few minutes defining the game.

The revisionist viewpoint

There is no question but that many people suffered during the Second World War, and that some of those who suffered were Jews. Some Jews suffered for no other reason than they were Jews. While it may seem improper to single out the Jewish experience during this horrible time with a special title, there is much to be gained by examining the Jewish role in historical events, so by giving a special name to the Jewish wartime experience we may more quickly come to an understanding of the period. In other historical events, such as the French revolution, Bolshevik revolution, and the Spanish Inquisition, in which Jews played large roles, emphasis is often shifted away from the role of Jews because the title given the event does not hint at the Judeo-centric nature of the event. By using the term “Holocaust” to define a Judeo-centric aspect of the Second World War, it is possible to eliminate some of this shift.

The list of what happened to the Jews must not be restricted to “extermination.” Although many Jews died, our sympathies and our study must include those who were uprooted, driven out, forced into labor or concentration camps, and otherwise mistreated. This would also include those who lost their possessions, but not those who left by choice, or who died of old age or other natural causes, as they would have done so whether or not the Nazis had come into power, or if peace had prevailed instead of war. Perhaps most importantly, the Holocaust should not count among its victims those Jews who died as combatants, even as a result of resistance activities.

There may be other exclusions as well. Writing about the number of Holocaust victims in the USSR, Hilberg notes:62

The adjusted deficit is therefore still 850,000 to 900,000, and from this number one must deduct at least five categories of victims that are not attributable to the Holocaust: (1) Jewish Red Army soldiers killed in battle; (2) Jewish prisoners of war who died in captivity unrecognized as Jews, (3) Jewish dead in Soviet corrective labor camps during the period 1939-59; (4) civilian Jewish dead in the battle zone, particularly in the besieged cities of Leningrad and Odessa; and (5) deaths caused by privation among Jews who had fled or who had been evacuated for reasons other than fear of German anti-Jewish acts.

The period covered by the term “Holocaust” cannot start in 1933, with the Nazi rise to power, because while some Jewish groups vigorously opposed the Nazi party, and are not free of guilt in antagonizing the Nazis, other Jewish groups collaborated with the Nazis between 1933 and the outbreak of war in 1939, a strong argument against those who claim that the Nazis hated Jews as Jews.63 After the outbreak of war, however, Jews were classified by the German government as enemy aliens, as which point they were subject to different treatment until the end of the war in 1945.

The bulk of Jews said to have been involved in the Holocaust were not from Germany, but rather from neighboring countries such as Poland. However, it is inaccurate to restrict the geographic scope of the Holocaust to Germany and German-occupied lands. Walter Sanning and others have proposed that millions of Jews included in traditional Holocaust calculations actually disappeared into the Soviet Union.64 The Soviet scorched-earth policies may very well have resulted in hundreds of thousands or millions of Jews being forcibly resettled to Siberia and other regions within the Soviet Union. The fate of these Jews is no less tragic because the perpetrators were not Nazis. On the other hand, reprisals exacted on Jews by indigenous populations in the Eastern territories for mistreatment — real or imagined — at the hands of Jews before the war, must not be included in “Holocaust,” as to do so would irreparably blur the line between state-sponsored and local, spontaneous actions.

Finally, the door must be left open to consider the role of Jewish and Zionist leaders. Whether or not they were well-intentioned, actions by the Judenrat, Jewish kapos, and pro-Nazi Zionists that resulted in Jewish hardships must be studied and criticized, just as actions by these groups and others are praised when they resulted in the saving of Jewish lives.

A proposed definition

According to the OED, “revision” is, “The action of revising or looking over again; esp. critical or careful examination or perusal with a view to correcting or improving.” Revisionism is defined as, “A term used for a revised attitude to some previously accepted political situation, doctrine, or point of view.”65 A revisionist, then, would be someone who approaches a historical event (such as the Holocaust) by looking at the facts, putting them in context, and arriving at the “what” and the “why.” An anti-revisionist would be someone who has fixed ideas about a historical event, and then finds facts to support his conclusions, usually at the expense of context.

Taking into account everything above, I would propose that the term “Holocaust” be defined as: “The mistreatment and death of Jewish civilians at the hands of the combatants during the Second World War (1939-1945).”

Addendum: Holocaust or Shoah?

Although the current usage of the word “Holocaust” is due to the efforts of enumerable Jewish writers and historians, not everyone is comfortable associating what happened to the Jews during the Second World War with Biblical stories of a fiery sacrifice to God, for the reason that in one sense this implies that the Jews should have accepted their fate at the hands of the Nazis, as did Isaac when God commanded Isaac’s father, Abraham, to sacrifice his first-born son.66 Furthermore, for such a sacrifice to take place with the Jews serving as the offering to be burnt, the Nazis must then be thought of as priests, doing God’s work, and the Jews, as animals or beasts, the traditional offerings in such a sacrifice.67

Following this analogy, proof of God’s satisfaction with the Holocaust as a sacrifice is the establishment of the state of Israel, a reward to surviving Jews in exchange for the for millions of silent, unresisting Jewish victims. This further implies that Jewish resistance was impertinent at best, and a sacrilegious affront to God at worst.

Little wonder, then, that there is an effort among Jewish scholars to instead use the word Shoah, which means destruction or ruin, with no connotation of sacrifice.


  1. President Bill Clinton. Dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, April 22, 1993, 12:43 PM EDT.
  2. Michael Shermer, “Proving the Holocaust: The refutation of revisionism and the restoration of history,” Skeptic Magazine, vol. 2 no. 4 (1994), pp. 32-57.
  3. E-mail message from Michael Shermer to Mark Weber, June 28, 1996.
  4. M. Hoffman. “The psychology and epistemology of ‘Holocaust’ newspeak,” JHR, vol. 6 no. 4 (Winter 1985), p. 467.
  5. R. Hall, Jr. “Deceptive linguistic structures in the phrase ‘the Holocaust’,” JHR, vol. 7 no. 4 (Winter 1986), p. 495.
  6. Count I: Illegally conspiring or having a common plan to commit crimes against peace; Count II: Committing specific crimes against peace by planning, preparing, initiating, and waging wars of aggression against a number of other States; Count III: War crimes; Count IV: Crimes against Humanity.
  7. For a comprehensive examination of Höss and his testimonies, see Robert Faurisson, “How the British Obtained the Confession of Rudolf Höss,” Journal of Historical Review, Vol. 7, no. 4 (Winter 1986-87), p. 389.
  8. Christopher Hitchens. Vanity Fair, December 1993.
  9. M. Broszat, “‘No Gassing in Dachau’,” JHR, vol. 13 no. 3 (May/June 1993), p. 12.
  10. R. Harwood, Ditlieb Felderer. “Human soap.” JHR, Vol. 1 no. 2 (Summer 1980) p. 131. See also: Mark Weber. “‘Jewish soap’.” JHR, Vol. 11 no. 2 (Summer 1991), p. 217.
  11. C. W. Porter. Made in Russia — The Holocaust. England: Historical Review Press, 1988.
  12. Bauer.
  13. The Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition) on Compact Disc (version 1.0b). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  14. OED2 CD.
  15. M. H. Glynn, “The Crucifixion of Jews Must Stop!”, The American Hebrew, October 31, 1919. Reproduced in JHR vol. 15 no. 6 (November/December 1995), p. 31.
  16. Life magazine, September 25, 1939, p. 43.
  17. Jewish Telegraph Agency. Daily News Bulletin. December 24, 1942.
  18. OED2 CD.
  19. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.
  20. New York: The Beechhurst Press.
  21. Chicago: Quadrangle Books. Neither is “Holocaust” used in Hilberg’s 1985 three-volume version revised and definitive edition (New York: Holmes & Meier), although it does appear — without definition — in the preface to his 1985 student edition (New York: Holmes & Meier).
  22. According to Mark Weber.
  23. Arthur Butz, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The case against the presumed extermination of European Jewry, Newport Beach, CA: Institute for Historical Review. 1993.
  24. Butz. Hoax, p. 76.
  25. CBS News Almanac, Maplewood, NJ: Hammond Almanac, Inc., 1975, p. 884.
  26. Cited in “Why Do We Call the Holocaust ‘The Holocaust’? An inquiry into the psychology of labels,” by Zev Garber and Bruce Zuckerman, in Remembering for the Future, volume II. Oxford, New York: Pergamon Press, July 10-13, 1988. p. 1883.
  27. Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year, 1979, p. 656.
  28. Gerald Green. Holocaust. New York: Bantam Books, 1978, p. 1.
  29. ADL On the Frontline, January 1994, p. 2
  30. The Washington Times, January 10, 1991. Found in JHR Vol. 14 no. 3 (May/June 1994), p. 44.
  31. Jennifer Golub & Renae Cohen, What Do Americans Know About the Holocaust?, New York: AJC, 1993, p. 14.
  32. Gramercy Books, New York. Dictionary copyright 1983.
  33. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language: Second College Edition. William Collins + World Publishing Company, 1978.
  34. Barbara Kulaszka. ed. Did Six Million Really Die? Toronto: Samisdat Publishers, 1992, p. 1.
  35. B. Kulaszka, ed. Did Six Million Really Die? p. 6.
  36. Information Please Almanac 1979, (New York, Information Please Publishing, Inc., 1978, p. 103):
  37. The American Heritage Dictionary. New York: Dell Publishing; 1983, p. 332.
  38. The Record: The Holocaust in History, 1933-1945.
  39. Harry Furman (editor-in-chief). The Holocaust and Genocide. New York: Anti-Defamation League; 1983; p. 2.
  40. OED2 CD.
  41. In an attempt to distinguish the Holocaust from what Arthur Butz has referred to as “Talmudic yarns” (other Jewish misrepresentations of massacres in their history), Arno Mayer, professor of European history at Princeton, uses the word “Judeocide” in his book, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? (New York: Pantheon, 1988), implicitly defining the Holocaust as the killing of Jews.
  42. Yehuda Bauer. Chicago Sentinel (May 1980), and the Australian Jewish News (April 18, 1980). Found in Lewis Brandon’s review of “The Other Holocaust,” JHR, vol. 1 no. 4 (Winter 1980), p. 379.
  43. Jennifer Golub & Renae Cohen, What Do Americans Know About the Holocaust?, New York: AJC, 1993, p. 14.
  44. OED2 CD.
  45. Yitzhak Arad. The Pictorial History of the Holocaust. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company; 1990; p. 7.
  46. Grolier’s New Multimedia Encyclopedia. 1994; also Grolier’s Multimedia Encyclopedia, 1995. Also, AskERIC InfoGuide. Compiled 01/28/94, by S.W. Chen. Last update 03/28/94. (From the Internet.)
  47. US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Fifty Years Ago: Revolt Amid the Darkness. Washington, DC: March 1993; p. 3.
  48. Michael Berenbaum. The World Must Know. Boston: Little, Brown and Company; 1993; p. 1.
  49. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. From the Museum’s website:
  50. Senate Resolution 193, November 9, 1995. See also House Resolution 316, December 20, 1995.
  51. The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary: 1994 Merriam-Webster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
  52. Compton’s. Compton’s Encyclopedia, Online Edition. Downloaded from America Online, April 4, 1994.
  53. Simon Wiesenthal.
  54. Found in M. Hoffman, “The psychology and epistemology of ‘Holocaust’ newspeak,” JHR vol. 6. no. 4 (Winter 1985), p. 467.
  55. Encyclopedia Britannica Online/CD-ROM edition. 1995. The online version can be reached on the World Wide Web at
  56. The monolithic nature of the term “Holocaust” also results in other distortions in the debate between revisionists and anti-revisionists, such as “Holocaust deniers” being compared to “flat-Earth” types. The “flat-Earth” claim, whatever its merits, involves a single declarative statement, that being, “The Earth is flat.” It is not the same to say, “The Holocaust didn’t happen,” if for no other reason that the “Holocaust” is not a single event, but rather the category name given to hundreds of thousands of separate events.
  57. See “What is Holocaust ‘Denial’?” Newport Beach, California: Institute for Historical Review.
  58. Deborah Lipstadt. Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. New York: Free Press, 1993, p. 21.
  59. Robert Jan van Pelt. The Pelt Report. Expert opinion, submitted in the case of David John Cawdell Irving (Plaintiff) and Penguin Books Limited and Deborah E. Lipstadt (Defendants). © Robert Jan van Pelt, 1999, p. 17.
  60. Richard J. Evans. Expert Witness Report. Expert opinion, submitted in the case of David John Cawdell Irving (Plaintiff) and Penguin Books Limited and Deborah E. Lipstadt (Defendants), 1999, sec. 3.1.
  61. Irving v. Penguin, Lipstadt, transcript, Jan. 12, 2000, p. 219.
  62. R. Hilberg. “The Statistic.” Unanswered Questions: New York, Schocken Books: 1989, p. 170.
  63. M. Weber. “Zionism and the Third Reich.” JHR vol. 13 no. 4 (July/August 1993), p. 29.
  64. Walter Sanning, The Dissolution of Eastern European Jewry, Newport Beach, California: Institute for Historical Review. Stephen Challen, The Korherr Reports.
  65. OED2 CD.
  66. Garber and Zuckerman. Why Do We Call the Holocaust “The Holocaust”? See also: Charles Passey, “New word to replace Holocaust wins favor” (Palm Beach Post, April 18, 2004 —
  67. Daniel A. Harris. H-Net History of the Holocaust List. E-mail message of August 9, 1995.