Denying Holocaust deniers a voice
Mr Ahmadinejad claims to have arranged the conference to retaliate for the notorious Danish cartoons poking fun at the Prophet Muhammad. These were seen as offensive by many Muslims but they were not the work of any government. The president's misunderstanding of how western democracies function may be matched by western misunderstanding of Iran or Islam. But it is hard to imagine anything remotely analogous to his questioning – in the face of overwhelming historical evidence – of the industrial-scale murder of 6 million Jews during the second world war. The word "myth" was much in evidence in Tehran. It is unclear whether he believes that gays, Gypsies and other victims of Nazi persecution also shamelessly lied about their suffering.
This unpleasant episode is more about the present than the past. Iran is deeply hostile to Israel. Mr Ahmadinejad has spoken of it "vanishing from the page of time" – prompting heated debate, more political than philological (and often absurdly indulgent of this bitter foe of the US), as to precisely what he meant. Iran's determined quest for nuclear power is widely seen as a cover for the acquisition of nuclear weapons to challenge Israel's nuclear supremacy. There are some very grave dangers here.
But there are aspects of this that ought to make us very uneasy. Describing some of the unsavoury characters (Nazi sympathisers, Ku Klux Klan activists, and so forth) attending the Iranian conference, the Guardian mentions, almost as an aside, that —
German neo-Nazis were banned from attending by their government.
True, our own government bans football hooligans from attending certain matches overseas — one of many examples of Blair laws infringing citizens' liberties on account of what they are deemed likely to do, not as punishment for anything they have done. So we are in no position to point the finger at the Germans. But it's one thing to prevent one's citizens from leaving the country because of a record of violent behaviour in defined circumstances in the past: quite another, surely, and even more objectionable, to prevent them from going abroad because of their unpalatable views on a historical issue. In both cases it's sad that we can no longer boast, as we used to do in the days of Soviet communism, that one of our treasured freedoms in the west was the right to leave the country without the government having the power to prevent us.
Still worse, though, is to enact laws under which a person can actually be sent to jail — not for days or weeks but for years — for denying that the Holocaust happened. Democratic EU members Germany and Austria however have just such laws. According to a Deutsche Welle website report of 23 Dec 2005, —
Germany's parliament passed legislation in 1985, making it a crime to deny the extermination of the Jews. In 1994, the law was tightened. Now, anyone who publicly endorses, denies or plays down the genocide against the Jews faces a maximum penalty of five years in jail and no less than the imposition of a fine.
"It affects the agitator who claims the Jews prey on the German people, that they invented the Holocaust for that purpose, that foreigners should all be thrown out and that the discussion should finally be over with," [historian Wolfgang Benz, who heads the Center for Anti-Semitism Research in Berlin] said. "He must be punished because he engages in incitement of the masses, because he slanders the memory of those murdered, because he slanders our fellow citizens."
Austria imposes even tougher penalties for such offences. Historian and Holocaust-denier David Irving, who was recently arrested there, faces up to 20 years in jail.
And the British historian David Irving was duly sentenced to three years' imprisonment, a sentence he is still serving:
British historian David Irving has been found guilty in Vienna of denying the Holocaust of European Jewry and sentenced to three years in prison. He had pleaded guilty to the charge, based on a speech and interview he gave in Austria in 1989. [BBC News, 20 February 2006]
Even allowing for the special sensitivity of the Holocaust for Germans and Austrians, it's impossible to defend this kind of sweeping censorship of opinion and encroachment on freedom of speech. We are talking here of events that took place more than 60 years ago, before most Germans or Austrians alive today were born. An oppressive law, applied with wholly disproportionate severity to an eccentric foreign historian of unacceptable views but no real significance, has turned the offender into the victim. This kind of breach of basic principles by otherwise liberal western democracies makes it that little bit easier for our own government to nibble away at our own similar liberties — attempting to criminalise the expression of religious or racial 'hatred', which slides easily into merely the giving of offence; or making statements 'glorifying' terrorism or terrorists, where terrorism is so broadly defined and is such a subjective concept that the legal ban is an open invitation to abuse by government and the police. We all know now that Voltaire didn't say "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," but if he didn't, he should have.
Meanwhile Irving, 68, languishes in an Austrian prison for expressing ludicrous if offensive views. It would be nice to think that his (and my) government has been and is still making strenuous efforts with the Austrian authorities to get him released. Some hope.