No denial

February 08, 2007

An organization called the "Holocaust Foundation of Iran" has asked Austria, Germany and Poland to supply documentary evidence of the deaths of Jews during World War II. It's a provocative move, because the purpose of this foundation is to propagate the argument that the Holocaust never happened. And it's easy to see that when the three European countries decline to cooperate, as they surely will, Holocaust deniers in Iran and elsewhere will be quick to argue that they asked for proof of the genocide and none was forthcoming.

The claim that 6 million Jews did not die at the hands of the Nazis is so utterly wrong that the people who make it can only be motivated by actual malice and a reckless disregard for the truth. It's a libel, in other words, at least as the term is defined in American law - except that you can't libel a people, or the dead, or a fact of history.

Perhaps because it's so oblivious of the facts, Holocaust denial won't go away. It's infuriating, hurtful and nearly impervious to argument. The German government, which feels a particular obligation to combat it, has made it a crime, as have eight other European countries. Now, Germany, which holds the presidency of the European Union, wants to push through a law criminalizing Holocaust denial throughout the EU. And not just that, but also any statements that minimalize genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity in a way that would incite violence or hatred. The German argument is that the intellectual underpinnings of xenophobia and racism must be prohibited, or the world will pay the price. Distorting the past, in this view, poses a threat to the future.

It's an understandable, and even attractive, line of reasoning. But it's wrong.

Yes, neo-Nazis are flourishing, especially in Eastern Europe. And yes, with the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran declaring the Holocaust to be a "fairy tale," it's obvious to Europeans who worry about their own Muslim populations that deniers are not simply cranks on the fringes of society. But curbing free speech is not the way to kill off an idea. It's a way to make something illicit seem appealing, and it's a way to make martyrs of your opponents, and it's a way to begin giving up on civil liberties in general.

Consider the complications that have already arisen:

The Polish government wants the EU to go further and forbid the term "Polish death camp."

Some critics have asked whether the German proposal isn't really aimed at keeping Turkey out of the EU, because the Turks still insist that they didn't commit genocide against the Armenians back in 1915 (and in fact they prosecute anyone who says there was a genocide).

Three years ago, the party that now controls Germany's government suggested that memorials to those killed by the Nazis and those killed by the Communists be given parity, until it was forced to retreat in the face of bitter denunciations from those who believe the Holocaust was unique.

The past is a complicated place. Much of what people believe about it is false or slanted. But free speech is not what's wrong - free speech is the cure.

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