One of my favorite rumors to emerge out of this summer’s World Cup had very little to do with soccer. The talk was that if Iran advanced past the opening round, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would make a visit to Germany to watch the team. If Germany had even allowed him into the country, they could have been obligated to arrest him. Not for inciting terrorism or his aim of wiping Israel off the map, but for his public denials of the Holocaust.
I doubt many would have actually complained if Ahmadinejad had been thrown into a German jail cell, but that is really beside the point. Holocaust denial laws litter much of Western Europe: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Switzerland all have laws criminalizing the act. The punishment for denial is not insubstantial and is actually enforced quite often. The maximum sentence in Austria is 10 years, and just last year “historian” David Irving was sent to jail for three years there after pleading guilty to the charge (and admitting that he was wrong and that the Holocaust had, in fact, occurred). Also, just last month, a German court sentenced Ernst Zïndel to five years in prison for his pamphlets denying the Holocaust.
Sadly, these efforts to rid the world of Holocaust denial, while clearly well intentioned, are entirely counterproductive and have really only resulted in undermining Western-style liberalism.
You don’t have to be a political science major to know that freedom of speech is one of the most basic principles of political freedom as we understand it. For pretty obvious reasons, criminalizing the speech act of denying the Holocaust runs counter to this tenet. But it also has justified demands by other groups in Western Europe for similar protection against speech which they deem offensive.
The main group I’m talking about is Western Europe’s enormous population of Muslim immigrants. The members of this group don’t tend to be well off financially and don’t tend to be too disposed toward accepting Europe’s brand of liberalism at face value. This situation came to a head last year when a Danish newspaper published a dozen cartoons that were either blasphemous to or played up stereotypes of Muslims. The result was rioting all over Western Europe and demands on Western governments to censor publication of the cartoons.
But lost in the excitement was the fact that one of the justifications Muslims used for their calls of censorship was the Holocaust denial laws that many of the relevant countries had on the books. Why, they argued, should people be free to so terribly offend Muslims, but not Jews? Somehow I doubt European leaders actually managed to provide a sufficient answer.
The question of how best to assimilate Muslim immigrants into Western society is one of the biggest facing Europe right now. They’d do well to start by actually providing the brand of liberalism that they have been trying to sell those immigrants for the past few decades.
But even independent of these philosophical considerations, Holocaust denial laws fail miserably at achieving their aim.
Any free and open society (like…hmm…all of Western Europe) has more than enough outlets through which the obvious truth of the Holocaust can be exposed. In fact, the outcry and discussion that has followed Ahmadinejad’s very prominent denial of the Holocaust has probably harmed the efforts of Holocaust deniers by reinvigorating the vast majority of Western society’s memory of those high school history lessons.
Now, compare that to a society in which a Holocaust denier isn’t thoroughly rebutted on a television news show, or made a fool of by even the stupidest of pundits, but in which he is carted off to jail. First, the denier starts to be viewed as a victim and martyr to some, which makes the act of Holocaust denial sympathetic. Second, the fact that the state would go to such great lengths to squelch denial only grants legitimacy to those whodeny the truth (not to mention that it stokes Jewish conspiracy theories that often go hand-in-hand with Holocaust denial). Third, decreeing the “fact” that the Holocaust happened causes Holocaust remembrance groups to rely on the state’s punishment to achieve their aim as opposed to taking the airwaves and trying to convince people, rather than threaten them.
Granted, Western Europe’s efforts to come to grips with its crimes during World War II far outpace those of Japan, which is still debating whether it actually did anything bad. But the continent has surely reached a point at which it has to stop proving to the world and itself that it isn’t about to have another Kristallnacht. It is clearly time to take these hypocritical and counterproductive laws off the books.