Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Holocaust Deflection and Whitewashing

Filed under: Antisemitism, Europe and Israel, International Law, U.S. Policy, World Jewry
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

No. 85,

  • Holocaust deflection entails admitting that the Holocaust happened while denying the complicity or various types of participation of countries, specific groups, or individuals despite ample evidence to the contrary. Major examples of deflection occur in those countries where, during the war, Germans were helped massively in the killing, deportation, and despoliation of the Jews.
  • An important differentiation, however, is between whether the beneficiaries of deflection are major perpetrators such as Germany or Austria or collaborators such as Lithuania, Romania, or Hungary. Nor can the collaboration in a country such as Lithuania, where the collaborators were usually fully integrated in the killing mechanism, be compared with the collaboration of locals in, say, Poland where they were not.
  • In Germany, Holocaust deflection has taken specific forms. These include the false claim that the Holocaust was implemented solely by special units, denying that the Wehrmacht (the regular army) was involved to a great extent in the mass murders. The philosopher Martin Heidegger attributed the responsibility for the crimes of World War II to modernity in general. East Germany tried to convey the impression that it had eliminated all Nazi influences, at the same time minimizing attention to the Holocaust.
  • Whitewashing is a type of Holocaust distortion that aims at cleansing certain groups or persons of blame regarding the Holocaust without necessarily accusing others.

Holocaust deflection entails admitting that the Holocaust happened while denying the complicity or various types of participation of countries, specific groups, or individuals despite ample evidence to the contrary. Major examples of deflection occur in those countries where, during the war, Germans were helped massively in the killing, deportation, and despoliation of the Jews.

Many European nations have tried to present themselves exclusively as victims of the Germans and have denied or diluted their participation and responsibility or that of their nationals for the Holocaust. Michael Shafir calls this “deflective negationism.” He and others have analyzed the phenomenon in various countries of Eastern and Central Europe in the communist and postcommunist periods.[1]

Shafir observes that:

whereas outright negationism rejects the very existence of the Holocaust, its deflective alternative does not; or, to some extent it does, but more perversely so. Rather than negate the Holocaust, deflective negationism transfers the guilt for the perpetration of crimes to members of other nations or it minimizes own-nation participation in their perpetration to insignificant “aberrations.” It is thus particularistic rather than universal, as well as self-defensive.[2]

Perpetrator and Collaborator Countries

Deflection mechanisms often lead to complex distortions of the Holocaust’s significance. Exposing them frequently requires an extensive study of how history has been corrupted. For many who do not have detailed knowledge of the manipulated subject, deflection is difficult to detect. Among the contemporary Holocaust distortions this is the one that, to be counteracted, usually requires the most additional study.

One extreme case of Holocaust deflection is Austria, which portrayed itself for many years as a victim of the Nazis. Another is Romania, which, under  its communist regimes, denied or greatly downplayed its role in the genocide of the Jews.[3] From here on, attention will be given to Holocaust deflection in a number of countries.[4]

An important differentiation, however, is between whether the beneficiaries of deflection are major perpetrators such as Germany or Austria or collaborators such as Lithuania, Romania, or Hungary. Nor can the collaboration in a country such as Lithuania, where the collaborators were usually fully integrated in the killing mechanism, be compared with the collaboration of locals in, say, Poland where they were not.

For the countries under communist rule, its fall and the breakup of the Soviet Union were watershed events that made it possible to start facing their Holocaust past more honestly. Efraim Zuroff, who coordinates worldwide research on war crimes for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, considers that there are six stages in this process. The first is acknowledgment of complicity by the local population in the murder of the Jews and an apology for those crimes. The next is commemoration of the victims, followed by prosecution of the perpetrators. The fourth stage is the documentation of the crimes. Thereafter should follow the introduction of Holocaust education into the curriculum and the preparation of appropriate educational materials, as well as restitution of communal and individual property.[5]

The Restitution Negotiations

The restitution negotiations of the 1990s played an important role in exposing attempts at Holocaust deflection and whitewashing by several countries. In many countries they also forced a change in attitude toward their past. As Arieh Doobov notes: “At the London Conference on Nazi gold, delegation after delegation, with varying degrees of willingness, acceded to the consensus demand that light must be brought to national histories even when they are shameful. Only the Vatican declined.”[6]

Avi Beker, a former secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress who was involved in several restitution negotiations, says,

Austria created one of the strongest national myths, presenting itself as one of the Nazis’ first victims, rather than as their partner and fellow perpetrator. Another major legend was that Vichy France was not the “real” France. The Swiss national myth centered on its fake neutrality. Once organized Jewry presented claims based on documented figures, everyone realized that many countries still possessed major amounts of stolen Jewish property. The financial negotiations thereafter also led to a discussion of national myths.[7]

It is arguable whether the restitution negotiations were the dominant factor in fostering a more honest approach to the past or whether it derived mainly from other considerations. Beker also mentions other factors, one of which is that “the generation of those guilty or responsible for what happened during the war left the stage to younger representatives who were more willing to break longstanding national myths about the Second World War.”[8]

Admission of the historical truth by governments or parliaments is important for countering many of the Holocaust distortions including its denial, minimization, deflection, and whitewashing. Although official admissions of a nation’s Holocaust crimes are significant, apologies lend even greater emphasis to such confessions. These will remain well documented for future generations after all survivors have passed away.[9]

The main characteristics of deflection can best be understood through examples from various European countries. In addition, some other cases illustrate how deflection has been applied to parts of societies as well as individuals.


In presenting its Holocaust history, Austria has long been an extreme example of deflection of guilt. Simon Wiesenthal claimed that the Austrians were involved in killing nearly half of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.[10] After the Anschluss, Austrians represented 8 percent of the German population; yet they constituted 40 percent of the staff and 75 percent of the commandants of the death camps. They were also notoriously overrepresented in the SS. The Austrian method of systematically robbing the Jews of all their possessions became a model for the German Nazis.[11]

In the Moscow Declaration that resulted from the Moscow Conference of 30 October 1943, Austria was described as the first country to fall victim to the aggression of Nazi Germany. This element was included in the Declaration of the Provisional Government of Austria of 27 April 1945.

For several decades many Austrian politicians, academics, and other public figures have been promoting the idea that the Austrian people were victims of the Nazis. With that came attacks on the Allies who had liberated Austria and installed a four-power administration. This was then followed by the promotion of the perception that, once the Allied administration was removed, Austria had thereby “end[ed] a 17-year-long path of bondage full of thorns” as Austrian chancellor Leopold Figl put it at the time. He thus combined the Nazi period with the Allied period as two rather similar facets of foreign occupation. These views, in various degrees, represented the majority of Austrian public opinion.[12]

Deflection attitudes do not only concern the falsification of Holocaust history and the creation of a distorted collective memory. They may also have practical consequences. Zuroff says: “The number of Austrians was proportionately high among the main perpetrators of war crimes. Yet the country made a ‘career’ out of claiming to be a victim of Nazism. Its leaders had no political interest in investigating war criminals since prosecution would prove the opposite. On philosophical, moral and historical levels, that only changed in the 1990s.”[13]


For many decades Romania, under the communist regime as well as later, denied or greatly downplayed its role in the Holocaust.[14] There were about eight hundred thousand Jews in prewar Romania, almost 5 percent of the general population. About half of the Jewish population was murdered in the Holocaust. As Romanian-born historian Radu Ioanid explained:

World War II transformed what might otherwise have remained a period of severe anti-Semitic outbreaks into a true Romanian Holocaust that, while part of the broader German-European Holocaust, remained at the same time a specifically Romanian story. As in Germany, the immediate background to Romania’s Holocaust tapped archaic anti-Semitic traditions and was crafted by militant agitation of anti-Semitic parties, itself followed by State legislation and then compounded by wartime circumstances. Bloody mob violence was the result, but now drawing in government elements, the riots took on the character of a social enterprise and thus invited takeover by the State.

This transition phase, when mass robbery and mass murder evolved from a societal to a governmental enterprise, took place in the months immediately preceding and immediately following Romania’s entrance into the war. The tempering of the Romanian-German diplomatic alliance into one of wartime fraternity augured more deliberate and more systematic ill for Romania’s Jews. Finally, during this time, the Antonescu regime became more directly involved in encouraging the violence, though still more in the sense of indirect inspiration. Soon, however, it would openly take things over.[15]

One typical example of an atrocity in which Romania’s Legionnaires were heavily involved was the pogrom in Iasi in June 1941. This pogrom was undertaken by a combination of the local authorities, the Romanian army, the Legionnaires, as well as the SS. The number of Jews who were killed was estimated at eight to twelve thousand. Another almost three thousand died of thirst or asphyxiation while traveling for days in sealed cattle cars of trains. For decades communist historians blamed the pogrom largely on the German SS and reduced the number of victims.[16]

Questioning the Holocaust

In mid-2001, a symposium was held in Bucharest that had the questionable title “Has There Been a Holocaust in Romania?” Its final resolution stated that Jews had “suffered almost everywhere in the Europe of those years, but not in Romania [sic!],” and it added that “the testimony of trustworthy Jews” demonstrates that “the Romanian people had in those years a behavior honoring the human dignity [sic!].”[17]

When asked in 2003 to clarify a Romanian government declaration that “within the borders of Romania between 1940 and 1945 there was no Holocaust,” then-Romanian president Ion Iliescu asserted: “The Holocaust was not unique to the Jewish population in Europe. Many others, including Poles, died in the same way…. Jews and Communists were treated equally…. However it is impossible to accuse the Romanian people and the Romanian society of this [massacre of Jews].”[18]

The deflection process in Romania was undermined when the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, chaired by Elie Wiesel, released a report in November 2004 that unequivocally points to Romanian culpability. It declares: “Of all the allies of Nazi Germany, Romania bears responsibility for the deaths of more Jews than any country other than Germany itself.”[19] The report recognizes the isolated examples of Romanian individuals and institutions who have struggled to correct the record, and whose influence on the general population had been marginal thus far.

Laurence Weinbaum writes:

Iliescu praised the commission’s findings and was himself praised in Jewish circles for convening it and accepting the results. However, in one of his last acts as president, he conferred the state’s prize for Faithful Service on Holocaust-denier [Gheorghe] Buzatu. He also awarded the state’s highest decoration, the Order of the Star of Romania, to Corneliu Vadim Tudor, the [far-Right party] Romania Mare leader long known for his virulent anti-Semitism. It was a fitting end to the Iliescu regime, one that epitomized its clumsy attempts to comply with international pressure while pandering to Romanian nationalist sentiment seemingly oblivious to the evident contradictions in such a policy.[20]


Hungary remained an ally of the Germans until 1944. The historian Randolph Braham asserts that the Hungarian method of deflection is partly based on conveying a generous and false picture of the way Hungary had treated its Jews since 1867. The whitewashing included “largely overlooking the many anti-Semitic legal and physical measures that were taken against them during all those years.”[21]

Braham claims that various judicial decisions and governmental policies in the postcommunist era have negatively affected the memory of the Holocaust as well as the interests of the Jewish community. These include court decisions in war-crimes cases, discriminatory handling of restitution issues, difficulties concerning the acquisition of archives, and the plan for a new exhibit at the Hungarian pavilion in Auschwitz.

Material had been prepared for this new pavilion since 1998. When the proposed documentation was transmitted to five experts for evaluation, their main conclusions were that it falsified the history of the Jews in Hungary and, in particular, during the Holocaust. Furthermore, these experts concluded individually that the script’s political objective seemed to be the rehabilitation of the Horthy era, achieved by transferring almost all responsibility for whatever crimes had been committed in Hungary to the Germans.[22]

In 2001, Braham wrote about the then government of the right-wing FIDESZ party:

In the climate of political anti-Semitism fostered since the inauguration of the Orban government in 1998, history cleansers appear to have been given the green light to proceed with their drive to bring about the rehabilitation of the Horthy regime, including the major law-enforcement agencies that were involved in the Final Solution. As part of this drive, history cleansers have expended considerable effort to bring about the absolution of the gendarmerie-which played a crucial role in the roundup and deportation of the Jews-by placing all responsibility onto the Germans.[23]

Another highly controversial issue concerns the House of Terror. This museum was opened in 2001. It was supported by the then center-right government and directed by Maria Schmidt, an adviser to Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The museum documents the Arrow Cross terror of late 1944 as well as the Stalinist terror of the late 1940s to early 1950s, allegedly led by people whose Jewish origins are clearly evident. The museum ignores the anti-Semitic policies and legislation of the Horthy period.[24]

Braham sums up the Hungarian wartime history concerning the Jews:

The Hungarian chapter of the Holocaust of European Jewry constitutes not only the greatest tragedy in the history of Hungarian Jewry but also the darkest chapter in the history of Hungary. Never before in the history of the Hungarian nation were so many people expropriated and murdered in so short a time as in 1944. In contrast to the calamities of the past, when Hungary was subjected to foreign occupation, the hundreds of thousands of people victimized in 1944 fell prey to the connivance of their own government.[25]


For a long time, Polish society at large did not think it carried any guilt related to the Holocaust. As Weinbaum formulates it,

Most Poles continued to see themselves as entirely blameless for the tragedy that had befallen the Jews of Poland; and continued to speak of Poland as a “land without Quislings.” If anything, much of Polish society saw Jews guilty of “anti-Polonism.” And here it is significant to point out that this view was shared by both dogmatic Communists and Catholics alike-whatever their differences on other issues.[26]

He adds: “…Jews living abroad had often presented bitter indictments of Poles, often accusing them of collaboration, not ‘merely’ crimes of omission (failing to rescue their neighbors) but also commission (actual murders). For the most part (but with notable exceptions), these accusations were never accepted by Polish society.”

Only after the fall of the communist regime did an opportunity arise for different attitudes. At the start of the year 2000, a Polish-born American scholar Jan Tomasz Gross published his book Sasiedzi (Neighbors), which would become a landmark in this process. It was followed by a similarly named movie by Agnieszka Arnold, which was shown on primetime national Polish television. The book revealed that, in the small town of Jedwabne in 1941, the local population had slaughtered the members of the Jewish community.

Weinbaum observes:

Significantly, this was largely an internal debate. People living outside Poland (Jews and non-Jews) did contribute to the discussion, but above all it was Polish voices coming from within Poland that dominated the discourse. The Polish intelligentsia had been grappling with many of these issues for some years before but the Jedwabne revelations finally brought them to the grassroots level.[27]

Joanna Michlic, now teaching at Brandeis University, considers the debate on the book and the Jedwabne massacre

a reflection of the process of democratization of Poland’s political and social life after 1989. Moreover, it reflects the increasing importance of the critical approach toward the previous biased representation of Polish-Jewish relations and toward the collective self-image of Poles as victims. The critical approach was endorsed by segments of the mainstream political and cultural elite, as well as others, particularly in the younger generation. The investigation into the massacre by the IPN [Institute of National Memory], and the sixtieth anniversary commemoration show beyond doubt that an important part of Polish elites is capable of coming to terms with the country’s dark past.[28]

Michlic, however, balances her judgment, noting that the truth about the Jedwabne massacre was rejected by the nationalist and conservative political elite and certain important church representatives, while the fact that respectable historians also took the same position made the matter even worse.[29] Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski, however, apologized “in the name of those Poles whose conscience is moved by the crime.”[30]


In Lithuania, more than 95 percent of the 220,000 Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Zuroff says: “A significant part of those victims were murdered by fellow Lithuanians, initially in spontaneous pogroms led primarily by armed vigilantes, and later by security police units.”[31]

The massacres of the Jews were started by the local population before the German army arrived in June 1941. Dov Levin, an expert on the Holocaust in the country, said: “The local population, the Lithuanians, helped the Nazis. Before the first German soldier entered Lithuania, the Lithuanians, at different levels of organization, already harassed the Jews.” He added: “Once the Germans arrived, Lithuanian collaborators ‘not only murdered, but murdered and stole and raped. Even the military and police helped the Germans.'”[32]

On 8 May 1990, the Lithuanian Supreme Council passed a declaration condemning “the annihilation of the Jewish people during the years of the Nazi occupation in Lithuania.” Zuroff observes that

though the declaration specifically stated that it was being issued “on behalf of the Lithuanian people,” it attributes guilt for the crimes committed in Lithuania during the Holocaust to “Lithuanian citizens,” a category clearly not restricted to those of Lithuanian nationality, which could even (by a twist of perverted logic) include Jews. Thus the Lithuanian parliament sought to differentiate between the ostensibly blameless “Lithuanian people” and the murderers who were “Lithuanian citizens,” a distinction that is not supported by the historical record.[33]

Zuroff remarks:

The government’s approach to Lithuania’s Holocaust past reveals a stubborn reluctance to honestly confront the crimes committed by local Nazi collaborators, and what amounts to an aggressive campaign to minimize Lithuanian guilt by distorting history…. When Lithuania was admitted to NATO and the European Union, things only became worse. Freed from their fear of failing to become part of these bodies, the Lithuanians began an aggressive campaign to downplay their responsibility for Holocaust atrocities, and maximize recognition for their suffering under the Soviets.[34]

In the Lithuanian case Holocaust deflection is largely combined with postwar Holocaust equivalence. This blend of abuses also exists in Latvia and Estonia.

Yet another version of deflection and whitewashing had its origins in the communist world. It was practiced by Soviet ideologues, other communists, as well as a number of Trotskyites in the Western world. As Braham writes,

While the representatives of the extreme left do not deny the atrocities committed by the Nazis, they are involved in another historical obscenity: they place much of the blame for the Holocaust on the Zionists, who are accused not only of collaboration with the Nazis during the pre- and wartime periods, but also of pursuing-through Israel-a racist-imperialist policy after the war. In several socialist countries, above all the Soviet Union, the Holocaust is sunk in the memory hole of history.[35]

East Germany

In communist East Germany, much of the blame for not properly dealing with the Holocaust aftermath was assigned to West Germany. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) supposedly constituted a radical break from the Nazi past. It tried to present West Germany as the successor state of Nazi Germany.

In this ideological framework the GDR published a Brown Book in 1965 with incriminating material on the Nazi past of West German officials. It aimed to convey the impression that the GDR had eliminated all Nazi influences.[36]

Besides Holocaust deflection the official GDR policy also minimized attention to the Holocaust. As Thomas Haury, a German scholar of anti-Semitism, notes: “The GDR emphasized the workers, the party, and the Soviet population as having suffered most from National Socialism. The genocide of the European Jews was only one crime among many, to which the GDR hardly paid attention.”

Haury adds: “The GDR drew a clear line between the ‘criminal Hitler regime’ and the ‘enticed German people,’ declaring them innocent and indeed the first victims of Hitler’s rule. In the eastern part of Germany there was no debate on the German people’s participation in discrimination, confiscation, and mass murder until 1989.”[37]

The Wehrmacht in West Germany

In West Germany, it was long maintained by many that the mass murders of the Jews during the Holocaust had been executed by the SS and the SA (storm troopers), who in many countries were helped by locals. However, historians had long known that the Wehrmacht (the regular German army) had been involved in the mass murders to a great extent.

In 1995, under the leadership of its founder Jan Philipp Reemtsma, the Hamburg Institute for Social Research put together an exhibition based on already available material. Titled “War of Annihilation, Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941-1944” (“Vernichtungskrieg, Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941-1944”), it sparked a huge debate in German society. Neo-Nazis demonstrated against the exhibition at venues where it was shown.[38]

The initial exhibition contained a number of substantial errors that damaged its credibility. In November 1999, the exhibition was withdrawn.[39] It would take two years until it was reopened. In 2007, the German ZDF television channel broadcast a series of documentaries about the Wehrmacht. It brought out new material about the regular German army’s substantial involvement in the murder of Jews. One of these was a protocol in which the Wehrmacht general Dietrich von Choltitz said the liquidation of the Jews had been his most difficult assignment. He added that he had executed it until its “final consequences.”[40]

Heidegger’s Projection

Clemens Heni tells how the German philosopher Martin Heidegger deflected German guilt. In a lecture published in 1949, he said: “Agriculture is nowadays a motorized nutritional industry, by nature the same as the production of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockade and the starving out of countries, the same as the production of the H-bomb.”[41]

Heni observes:

Beyond [the] well-known projection of guilt on the USSR and the USA, something else stands out: the unprecedented crime of the destruction of European Jews in the gas chambers is equated with modern agriculture. This represented a new kind of anti-Semitism, which Heidegger promoted in 1949, a few years after the Shoah….

For scientific research Heidegger’s 1949 lecture is of great importance, not only because Heidegger is arguably the world’s most widely taught philosopher of the 20th century, but also and especially because he was one of the founders of the concept of rejection and universalization of German guilt. He attributed the responsibility for the crimes of the Second World War on modernity in general, which then made it possible to deemphasize the responsibility of the German mass murderers.[42]

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Many cases of Holocaust deflection consist of countries or major bodies blaming a third party for war crimes. There are also examples of individuals whose responsibilities during the Holocaust have been deflected to others. So, for instance, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, has long blamed the State Department for American inaction during the Holocaust. Whereas the above cases deal with the deflection of responsibilities of perpetrators and collaborators, this case concerns a bystander who could have acted far more than he did.

In 2005, a number of historians wrote a letter, under the auspices of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, to the Roosevelt Museum. They mentioned that there was a panel in the museum on the Holocaust that stated:

During the 1930s, as many European Jews were looking for a safe haven from official anti-Semitism, members of the State Department enforced the bloodless immigration laws with cold rigidity. Yet even Roosevelt’s bitterest critics concede that nothing he could have done-including bombing the rails leading to Auschwitz in 1944-would have saved significant numbers from annihilation. Let alone dissuaded the Nazis from doing what they were so intent on doing.[43]

The historians’ letter asserted that these statements were inaccurate. It said the American immigration policy-“which kept immigration far below the legal limits set by Congress-had the full knowledge and approval of President Roosevelt himself through the Holocaust years.”[44]

The historians added:

There are numerous steps that the Roosevelt administration could have taken to save lives, such as granting refugees temporary haven in America or in Allied-controlled regions; pressuring the British to open Palestine to refugees; ordering the bombing of the gas chambers at Auschwitz or the railways leading to them; and giving broader funding and power to the War Refugee Board.[45]

The historians requested that the wording of the panel be corrected.

The museum replied two weeks later to say the wording of the panel had been changed as follows: “Historians today continue to debate whether specific actions FDR and the United States could have taken-including bombing the rails leading to Auschwitz in 1944-might have saved significant numbers from annihilation.”[46]

Holocaust Whitewashing

Whitewashing is a type of Holocaust distortion that aims at cleansing certain groups or persons of blame regarding the Holocaust without necessarily accusing others. There are many examples of this, a few of which convey the nature of this distortion phenomenon.

One such case concerned U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s 1985 visit to the German military cemetery of Bitburg. When his visit to Germany was announced, it was also specifically mentioned that he would not visit a concentration camp. Initially the impression was that only soldiers and officers of the Wehrmacht were buried in this cemetery. This planned visit was a clear act of whitewashing. The Wehrmacht gave support to the SS, which carried out most of the mass murder of Jews. Only years later would it become more widely known that the Wehrmacht itself had played such a major part in the murders. [47]

Shortly after the visit was announced, it transpired that members of the Waffen SS were also buried in this cemetery. This led to huge protests against the visit. Reagan had agreed to go to Bitburg in order to show that the United States now had normal relations with Germany and its pro-American chancellor Helmut Kohl. Because of the protests he later visited the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen as well.

In his memoirs Elie Wiesel devotes an entire chapter to the Bitburg affair. He summarizes the essence of whitewashing:

The German tactic is obvious; to whitewash the SS. It is the final step in a carefully conceived plan. To begin with, Germany rehabilitated the “gentle,” “innocent” Wehrmacht. And now, thanks to Kohl, it was the turn of the SS. First of all, the “good” ones. And then would come the turn of the others. And once the door was open, the torturers and the murderers would be allowed in as well. Bitburg is meant to open that door…. Officials in the State Department tell me that Kohl bears full responsibility for this debacle; he convinced Reagan that if the visit were canceled it would be his, Kohl’s defeat, and hence that of the alliance between the United States and Germany.[48]

Kurt Waldheim

Kurt Waldheim, the former UN secretary-general and Austrian president, is a paradigmatic figure for whitewashing one’s wartime past by the omission of essential data. The historian Prof. Robert Edwin Herzstein is quoted as saying, “Kurt Waldheim did not, in fact, order, incite or personally commit what is commonly called a war crime…. But this non-guilt must not be confused with innocence. The fact that Waldheim played a significant role in military units that unquestionably committed war crimes makes him at the very least morally complicit in those crimes.”[49]

One of Waldheim’s lies was the claim that he had never been a member of a Nazi-affiliated organization. In fact he had enrolled in the National Socialist German Students League. He also became a member of the paramilitary Sturmabteilung (SA), known as the Brownshirts.

Waldheim was wounded during his military service in Russia at the end of 1941. After the war he falsely claimed that his military service concluded at that time. Actually he became an intelligence officer in the Balkans. When information about his service there became known, Waldheim denied it until documents proved the contrary. Both the U.S and Soviet intelligence services had damaging information about his wartime past, but did not disclose it, while his career progressed.[50]

In 1987, in the second year of his Austrian presidency, the U.S Justice Department barred Waldheim’s entry into the country. In 1988, an Austrian- appointed international commission of historians concluded that he must have been aware of atrocities committed and had facilitated these crimes by doing nothing about them. Waldheim, however, continued to insist on his innocence, blaming an American Jewish conspiracy for his being barred from the United States.[51]

Vatican Pressure on Yad Vashem

Another example of attempts at whitewashing is the Vatican’s pressure on the Israeli memorial institute Yad Vashem to change the text under a picture of Pope Pius XII in its museum. The caption says:

Pius XII’s reaction to the murder of the Jews during the Holocaust is a matter of controversy. In 1933, when he was secretary of the Vatican State, he was active in obtaining a Concordat with the German regime to preserve the Church’s rights in Germany, even if this meant recognizing the Nazi racist regime. When he was elected Pope in 1939, he shelved a letter against racism and anti-Semitism that his predecessor had prepared. Even when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican, the Pope did not protest either verbally or in writing. In December 1942, he abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews. When Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz, the Pope did not intervene. The Pope maintained his neutral position throughout the war, with the exception of appeals to the rulers of Hungary and Slovakia toward its end. His silence and the absence of guidelines obliged churchmen throughout Europe to decide on their own how to react.[52]

In 2007, the Papal Nuncio in Israel, Antonio Franco, said he would not attend the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day state ceremony at Yad Vashem because the museum had rejected his demand to change the caption. Yad Vashem answered that this was the first time a foreign emissary had deliberately skipped the ceremony. It said it was inconceivable that diplomatic pressure should be used on a matter of historical research. It also had informed the Vatican representative that the caption accurately reflected history and that Yad Vashem would be willing to reconsider if the Vatican would open its archives to its researchers. These archives still remain closed after almost sixty-five years.[53]

During the war Pope Pius XII had an ambivalent attitude toward Ante Pavelic, who headed a Croatian Catholic regime that committed many cruel murders and other extreme crimes. The historian Robert Wistrich points out that the pope never publicly censored Pavelic’s atrocities. He adds: “The Vatican is alleged to have helped him and some of his murderous henchmen to escape justice and flee to South America after 1945-a point that has yet to be convincingly refuted.”[54] After the war Catholic officials also helped some other major war criminals escape to South America. This issue has not been fully investigated.

The almost desperate efforts to whitewash the pope’s silence during World War II must be seen in the framework of the Vatican’s desire to have Pius XII beatified.

Knut Hamsun

The attempts to whitewash Waldheim’s past were mainly his own doing.

The partial whitewashing of Knut Hamsun, a Norwegian Nobel Prize winner for literature, was a national government-sponsored effort. The New York Times noted that he “welcomed the brutal German occupation of Norway during World War II and gave his Nobel Prize in Literature as a gift to the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Hamsun later flew to meet Hitler at Hitler’s mountain lair in Bavaria.”[55]

In February 2009, Norway’s Queen Sonja opened the “year-long, publicly financed commemoration of Hamsun’s 150th birthday called Hamsun 2009…the queen spent a highly specific half-hour with Hamsun family members at the National Library. Together they viewed the author’s handwritten manuscripts.”[56] The Times added: “It’s all you would expect of a national jubilee: street theater, brass bands, exhibitions and commemorative coins. A statue is to be unveiled, and a $20 million architectural gem of a museum is under construction.”[57]

There is more than one level of significance to this act. First, a Labor-dominated government rehabilitates an admirer of Hitler and the National Socialists. Second, the queen participates in the celebration, as if the royal family did not flee abroad when the Germans conquered their homeland in 1940 and then brutally abused it.

The German Jewish author Max Tau, who fled to Norway before the war, tells how Hamsun-a former friend of his-was despised by many Norwegians when he showed his sympathy for Hitler-ruled Germany after its invasion of Norway. A friend of Tau, the medical head of a hospital, told him, “Today I have burned all Hamsun’s books.” Others told him they would never read one more sentence Hamsun had written.[58]

It emerges, then, that Holocaust deflection and whitewashing are related. Yet the two also appear in combination with other Holocaust distortions such as Holocaust denial and postwar Holocaust equivalence. Denial is an aggrandized form of whitewashing. If the Holocaust never happened, then hardly any crimes were committed, nobody has to be absolved, and specific whitewashing is superfluous.

Publication of this issue was made possible in part by the support of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (Rabbi Israel Miller Fund for Shoah Research, Documentation and Education) for the JCPA program on Contemporary Holocaust Distortion. This essay will be part of a forthcoming book on the abuse of Holocaust memory to be published jointly by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Anti-Defamation League.

*     *     *


*The comments of Mikael Tossavainen and Efraim Zuroff were greatly appreciated. Many thanks are due to Miriam Mandl for her assistance in researching parts of the material for this essay.

[1] Michael Shafir, “Deflective Negationism of the Holocaust in Postcommunist East-Central Europe (Part 1): The Germans Did It Alone,” East European Perspectives, Vol. 4, No. 18, 5 Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, September 2002.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Laurence Weinbaum, “The Banality of History and Memory: Romanian Society and the Holocaust,” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 45, 1 June 2006.

[4]  Michael Shafir, East European Perspectives, Vol. 4, No. 20, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, 2 October 2002.

[5] Efraim Zuroff, “Eastern Europe: Anti-Semitism in the Wake of Holocaust-Related Issues,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 1, Nos. 1-2 (Spring 2005), 63-79.

[6] Arieh Doobov, “The Vatican and the Shoah,” in Avi Beker, ed., The Plunder of Jewish Property during the Holocaust (Houndmills, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2001), 324-25.

[7] Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Restitution Issues Destroy National Myths,” interview with Avi Beker, in Europe’s Crumbling Myths (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2003), 163.

[8] Ibid., 162.

[9]  Gerstenfeld, Europe’s Crumbling Myths, 31-32.

[10] Bruce F. Pauley, From Prejudice to Persecution: A History of Austrian Anti-Semitism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 297.

[11] Ibid., 296.

[12] Oliver Rathkolb, “Austria’s Reversed Holocaust Perception: The ‘Allied Occupation’ and the Collective Memory of Austrians after 1945,” in Klas-Göran Karlsson and Ulf Zander, eds., Holocaust Heritage: Inquiries into European Historical Cultures (Malmö: Sekel, 2004), 127-42.

[13] Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Filling in for Governments: Chasing War Criminals,” interview with Efraim Zuroff, in Europe’s Crumbling Myths, 103.

[14] Weinbaum, “Banality of History.”

[15] Radu Ioanid, The Holocaust in Romania (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), 108-09, quoted in Weinbaum, “Banality of History.”

[16] Michael Shafir, “Selective Negationism of the Holocaust in East-Central Europe: The Case of Romania,” East European Perspectives, Vol. 4, No. 25, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, 18 December 2002.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Weinbaum, “Banality of History.”

[19] Final Report of the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, presented to President Ion Iliescu, Bucharest, 11 November 2004, 7.

[20] Weinbaum, “Banality of History.”

[21] Randolph L. Braham, “Hungary and the Holocaust : The Nationalist Drive to Whitewash the Past (Part 3),” East European Perspectives, Vol. 3, No. 20, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, 14 November 2001.

[22] Randolph L. Braham, “Hungary and the Holocaust: The Nationalist Drive to Whitewash the Past (Part 2),” East European Perspectives, Vol. 3, No. 19,  Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, 31 October 2001.

[23] Braham, “Hungary and the Holocaust: The Nationalist Drive to Whitewash the Past (Part 3).”

[24] Stephen Roth Institute, Hungary 2001-2002,, viewed 14 July 2009.

[25] Randolph L. Braham, “Hungary and the Holocaust: The Nationalist Drive to Whitewash the Past (Part 1),” East European Perspectives, Vol. 3, No.18, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, 17 October 2001.

[26] Laurence Weinbaum, “Penitence and Prejudice: The Roman Catholic Church and Jedwabne,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 14, Nos. 3-4 (Fall 2002), 132.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Joanna Michlic, “Coming to Terms with the ‘Dark Past’: The Polish Debate about the Jedwabne Massacre,” ACTA, 21 (Jerusalem: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2002), 32.

[29] Ibid., 33.

[30] Ibid., 25.

[31] Efraim Zuroff, “Lithuania’s Crocodile Tears,” Haaretz, 8 July 2009.

[32] Haviv Rettig, “It’s the Least I Could Do for My Friend,” Jerusalem Post, 6 April 2008.

[33] Zuroff, “Eastern Europe.”

[34] Zuroff, “Lithuania’s Crocodile Tears.”

[35] Randolph L. Braham, “Revisionism: Historical, Political and Legal Implications,” in Asher Cohen, Joav Gerber, and Charlotte Wardi, eds.,  Comprehending the Holocaust, 33 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1988), 63.

[36] Braunbuch: Krieg und Naziverbrecher in der Bundesrepublik und West Berlin (Berlin: Nationalrat der Nationalen Front des Demokratischen Deutschland, Dokumentationszentrum der Staatlichen Archivverwaltung der DDR, 1968), [German]

[37] Thomas Haury, “Current Anti-Semitism in East Germany,” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 59, 1 August 2007.

[38], viewed 5 July 2009. [German]

[39] “Reemtsma schliesst die umstrittene Wehrmacht-Ausstellung, Die Welt, 5 November 1999. [German]

[40] “Am Ende der Legenden,” Die Welt, 18 November 2007. [German]

[41] Martin Heidegger, Einblick in Das Was Ist (Bremer Vorträge, 1949), in Martin Heidegger, Bremer und Freiburger Vorträge (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1949), Gesamtausgabe, 79, 3-77. [German]

[42] Clemens Heni, “Secondary Anti-Semitism: From Hard-Core to Soft-Core Denial of the Shoah,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 20, Nos. 3-4 (Fall 2008).

[43] Letter from David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies to Cynthia Koch and Herman Eberhardt, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Museum, 6 July 2005.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Letter from Cynthia Koch of Franklin D. Roosevelt Library to Dr. Rafael Medoff of David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, 20 July 2005.

[47] Elie Wiesel, And the Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs, 1969  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 224-50.

[48] Ibid., 234.

[49] Jonathan Kandell, “Kurt Waldheim, Former U.N. Chief, Is Dead at 88,” New York Times, 15 June 2007.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Etgar Lefkovits, “Vatican to Skip Yad Vashem Ceremony,” Jerusalem Post, 12 April 2007.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Robert S. Wistrich, “Pius XII and the Shoah,” Antisemitism International, 2004, 15.

[55] Walter Gibbs, “Norwegian Nobel Laureate, Once Shunned, Is Now Celebrated,” New York Times, 27 February 2009.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Max Tau, Ein Fluchtling findet sein Land (Hamburg: Hoffmann & Campe, 1964), 88, 89. [German]

*     *     *

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is an international business strategist who has been a consultant to governments, international agencies, and boards of some of the world’s largest corporations. Among the fourteen books he has published are Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism (JCPA, Yad Vashem, WJC, 2003) and Behind the Humanitarian Mask: The Nordic Countries, Israel and the Jews (JCPA and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, 2008).