In April 1993, just days before the opening of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, newspapers across the country reported “chilling” and “startling” news: 22 percent of American adults surveyed in a major public opinion poll said they thought it was possible that “the Nazi extermination of the Jews” never took place.
An additional twelve percent of adult respondents in the survey — sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and conducted by the Roper organization — said they did not know if it was possible or impossible. (See, for example, “1 in 5 Polled Voices Doubt on Holocaust,” The New York Times, April 20, 1993, and “Poll Finds 1 Out of 3 Americans Open to Doubt There Was a Holocaust,” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1993.)
Distress and consternation were the most common reactions to the poll results. “What have we done?” asked a stunned Elie Wiesel, perhaps the premier Holocaust survivor. “We have been working for years and years,” he said, commenting on the survey results. “I am shocked that 22 percent — oh, my God.”
"Is lesson of hate getting through?” asked a headline to an essay in the Milwaukee Journal (April 22). “Ignorance about the Holocaust allows spread of lies to the young,” claimed another item in The News of Port St. Lucie, Florida (April 28). An Associated Press piece — headlined “Many Americans doubt Holocaust happened” in the The Washington Times and “Holocaust denial seen gaining ground” in the Los Angeles Times (both May 8, 1993) — cited the impact of the Institute for Historical Review along with Bradley Smith's campus newspaper ad campaign and Dr. Arthur Butz's book, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century (published by the IHR).
Alarmed editorials in the New York Times (April 23) and the Los Angeles Times ("Dealing With Holocaust-Denial,” April 22) cited the poll results to sound a call for yet more Holocaust memorials. A similarly distressed Denver Post editorial (April 25, 1993), cited the “intensely disturbing” poll results to demand even more classroom emphasis on the fate of Europe's Jews during the Second World War: “… Public schools must obviously do a better job of teaching 20th century history, even if it means giving shorter shrift to the Civil War or the Revolution. Today's students … shouldn't be graduated if they can't recognize the names Auschwitz and Dachau as readily as Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima.” (By contrast, results of a September 1994 poll showing that 46 percent of Americans aged 18-34 believe in the existence of UFOs did not lead to comparable nationwide calls for more school science courses or new science museums.)
As it turned out, however, the “startling” results of the AJC/Roper survey were not accurate. One of the poll's most serious flaws was the confusing wording of question 16, which produced the response that generated the most media comment: “Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?” The question's compound structure and double negative wording almost certainly confused many respondents. It is also likely that some of the 992 adults and 506 high school students surveyed may have believed that the Nazis exterminated millions of Jews but nevertheless agreed that it “seems” impossible.
Responding to criticism, the AJC recommissioned the poll, changing only question 16. In the second survey, this question was worded: “Does it seem possible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened, or do you feel certain that it happened?” The results of the second, 1994 AJC poll were quite different: Only about one percent of Americans thought it was possible the Holocaust never happened, while eight percent were unsure. ("Poll on Doubt of Holocaust is Corrected,” The New York Times, July 8, 1994)
While the revised 1994 survey suggested that Americans are far more accepting of the standard Holocaust extermination story than the first AJC poll had indicated, not one commentator responded with a relieved call for less emphasis on this subject in classrooms, or fewer Holocaust memorials and museums.
Actually, the suggestive wording of key questions in each survey shows that the formulation of poll questions can produce skewed (and sometimes hoped-for) results. These polls also reconfirm what pollsters have long known: survey respondents tend to give answers they think are expected of them.
Given that the key question in each survey referred to “the Nazi extermination of the Jews” as an established fact, it was entirely to be expected that most respondents would accept the question's premise.
Bias was also reflected in other aspects of the two AJC/Roper surveys. The very first question in each was: “As far as you know, what does the term 'the Holocaust' refer to?” According to the booklet issued by the AJC explaining the 1993 survey, “If an incorrect response was given, respondents were told, 'To be precise, the Holocaust was the Nazi extermination of Jews during the Second World War'.” (What Do Americans Know About the Holocaust?, by Jennifer Golub and Renae Cohen. New York: AJC, 1993, p. 14.) Thus, respondents were “primed” to answer subsequent questions in the “proper” way.
In the second AJC/Roper poll, “Of those with less than a high school education, 55 percent knew what the Holocaust was. This rose to 74 percent among high school graduates, 87 percent among college graduates, and 92 percent among those with advanced degrees.” (The New York Times, July 8, 1994.) Given that up to 45 percent of the respondents were unable to identify the term “Holocaust” at the beginning of the survey, it is difficult, if not impossible, to see how 91 percent of respondents in this same survey could later be “certain that it ["the Nazi extermination of the Jews"] happened,” without the poll-takers “correcting” the “incorrect” answers in the meantime. Given this slanted technique, the poll's results are hardly surprising.
These AJC polls also point up the sorry state of historical awareness among Americans. More than 22 percent of those surveyed did not know that the Nazis first came to power in Germany, and more than 13 percent did not know that Adolf Hitler was the leader of Nazi Germany. These results are consistent with other surveys showing that Americans cannot identify states and countries on a map, recall the decade during which the Civil War was fought, or cite the names of recent American Presidents.
Although it was not widely reported, the 1993 AJC/Roper poll confirmed that remarkably many Americans are being reached by the revisionist message. One survey question asked: “Some people claim that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened. Have you ever heard this claim, or not?” Thirty-eight percent of adults and 21 percent of students replied that they had heard this claim. Of those who had heard this claim, 59 percent of adults and 42 percent of students said they had heard it from television, 37 percent of adults and 14 percent of students had heard it through newspaper and magazine articles, and 14 percent of each group had heard it either from books or from acquaintances. (What Do Americans Know About the Holocaust?, pp. 54-58)
Moreover, such polls are themselves an indication of the spread and growing impact of Holocaust revisionism. If it were an entirely insignificant phenomenon, there would be no incentive to determine the number of people who accept or might be susceptible to the revisionist position. Publication of the results of such polls also enables more people to learn that a dissident view of the Holocaust story exists.
Other recent “Holocaust” surveys — some of them more objective than the AJC/Roper poll — further confirm that Holocaust revisionism is now unquestionably part of the social-cultural landscape.
While the AJC/Roper polls indicated that better educated people are more likely to accept the Holocaust story — and to recognize its key components (Jews, Nazis, and the Six Million figure) — the Holocaust surveys cited here (most notably the one in western Canada) suggest the obvious point that the more people are aware of what revisionists actually say, the more likely they are to be skeptical of the orthodox Holocaust story.
Even though numerous surveys show that anti-Jewish sentiment has been steadily declining in America in recent decades, the specter of anti-Semitism continues to serve as a proven fund-raising tool for groups such as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. With a vested interest in conjuring up the supposedly eternal danger of anti-Semitism, these organizations are in the anti-Semitism business.
By characterizing Holocaust revisionism, and even a lack of “concern” about the wartime fate of European Jewry, as anti-Semitic, groups such as the AJC — along with the major media — are able simultaneously to discredit revisionists, encourage non-revisionists to feel guilty for a lack of Holocaust “concern,” and to present themselves as morally righteous fighters of evil and “hate.” That could be one reason why the results of the second, 1994 AJC poll, which suggested much greater public acceptance of the Holocaust story, was not deemed as newsworthy as the results of the first AJC survey.