Denying Holocaust deniers a voice

Few would disagree with the editorial in today's Guardian denouncing the Iranian President's conference to discuss whether the Holocaust actually happened as "undeniably offensive": 

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]

David Irving, holding his own bookEven 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. 


5 Responses

  1. Dan Goodman says:

    I’ve always found Chomsky’s position on free speech hits the nail on the head. He says, if you don’t believe in freedom of speech for those whose views you find the most repulsive and offensive, you don’t believe in free speech at all. The whole point about free speech is that it’s the freedom to say what you disagree with.

  2. Brian says:

    Dan, one's instinct is indeed to cheer Chomsky's splendidly sweeping pronouncement.  But even the most extreme libertarian would generally recognise that there have to be some limitations on freedom of speech.  Oliver Wendell Holmes:

    "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. […] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."

    Incitement to murder clearly comes within the Holmesian definition of what may properly be banned, and there will sometimes be borderline cases in which it's difficult to draw a clear line between the expression of repugnant views, e.g. on the extermination of Jews, and incitement to repeat the past acts that have been praised or condoned.  It seems to me clear that Irving's interviews and writings are in the former, not the latter, category.  Indeed, he doesn't even condone the killing of the Jews: he denies that it happened, or at any rate questions whether it happened. 

    The German and Austrian laws appear to rely almost entirely on criminalising denial of the Holocaust, not any explicit or even implied incitement to repeat it.  The defence of the German law by the historian Benz, quoted by Deutsche Welle in the extract in my post above, seeks to muddy the waters by mixing up such disparate 'offences' as "incitement of the masses" (incitement to do what?), "slander" of the memory of those who were murdered (slandering the memory of the dead, while no doubt undesirable in certain circumstances, seems an improbable basis for a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment), and "slandering our fellow citizens" (a charge too vague to be capable of rational analysis, and one which if accepted would tend to silence a significant proportion of all social and political debate).  If this is the best defence available for this questionable legislation, it's clearly in trouble.

    It's surely time now, in the first decade of the 21st century and almost a lifetime away from the Holocaust, for Germans and Austrians to feel such confidence in the strength of their democracy as not to need these draconian laws against the small, mainly batty minority who threaten it.


  3. Andrew Milner says:

    Welcome to Austria: Birthplace of Adolph Hitler. Seems more than a little illogical not to say hypocritical for Austria to imprison Holocaust deniers when they were the ones that started the Holocaust in the first place. So check out how many Nazi leaders came from Austria. Small wonder they are in denial. Finally Austria realised the embarrassment they were causing for themselves, and stopped shooting themselves in the foot by releasing David Irving early. But this is symptomatic of how world opinion is shifting away from the Jews in general and Israel in particular. The extent to which US Jews control the US government is finally being exposed. The even bigger picture is that a decline in US world status (definitely on the cards) will be very bad news for Israel. Similarly, Taiwan, South Korea and even Guam might want to mend a few fences with China. Notice how Japan is moving from a self-defence force towards a standing army with potential of nuclear weapons. Conjecture if you will the price of a barrel of oil if the state of Israel had never been founded. Hardly a dollar a barrel, but rather less than the present level I venture to suggest.

    Brian writes:  I am in two minds about whether to delete this comment.  It sails perilously close to the wind of the unacceptable.  What do others think? 

  4. Peter Harvey says:

    Well, I think that someone who is outspoken in defence of the alleged rights of Holocaust-deniers can hardly object to a bit of ignorant stupidity about Austria, or to criticism of the State of Israel and low-level anti-Semitism; these last two are, after all, the purpose of Holocaust-denial.

    Letting a thousand flowers bloom is a laudable objective in theory but it is only possible in practice if the garden is well maintained and kept weeded of oppressive strangling vines and noxious growth.

  5. Andrew Milner says:

    Gee Brian, you should have seen what I deleted. Everyone's so petrified of being labelled anti-Semitic they let Israel get away with murder. Check out the attack on the USS Liberty (June 1967) for starters. Thirty-four US sailors died and 173, wounded. Mistaken identity my foot. That was the US Administration and Israel colluding in a false flag attack to establish justification for a US attack on Egypt. But fortunately the dastardly plan didn't work because the ship refused sink, and Israel had to fall back on Plan B. And the heroes of the Liberty were threatened with death by their own government if they talked about the attack. I challenge you to read the accounts and then say you are such a big fan of Israel. Ancient history I realise, but doesn't it remind you of a more recent event in 2001. Just a minute while I crank up “Horst Wessel Lied” on the gramophone. The old songs are the best.

    Brian writes:  When did I write, say or imply that I am "such a big fan of Israel"?