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Holocaust Denial Laws: The Good and the Bad

February 21st, 2006

British historian David Irving has been sentenced to three years in jail in Austria for denying the Holocaust. This story caught my attention because I had not known that it was a jailable offense, in any country, to disagree with a historical account.

Apparently, in 1989 Irving made two speeches and gave an interview in Austria in which he denied that Jews died in gas chambers at concentration camps during the war, alleging instead that they died of diseases like Typhus. He also claimed that Hitler was not responsible for the Holocaust and even tried to help Jews.

The law against Holocaust denial was created in 1992. I can only suppose that in Austria, one can be tried for crimes committed before the establishment of the law making something a crime.

Irving claimed that in 1991, he started to change his mind about things and did believe that gas chambers were used to kill Jews.

On one hand, the law in question seems like an excellent idea: denying the Holocaust is intrinsically dangerous, as it usually represents an approval of the policies and actions of the Third Reich, an attempt to cover them up, and signals a potential return to those horrors; call it an “enabling” of the most horrific kind of crime imaginable, popularizing the atmosphere in which such crimes were committed. At the very least, it “unlearns” the lessons of that time, making it more likely that the same crimes will be allowed to happen. Ergo the benefit of penalizing the denial, which presents a clear public harm (not to mention the visceral satisfaction of kicking around the rather disagreeable kind that put Hitler up on a pedestal).

On the other hand, such laws would also represent a precedent which goes much too far in the other direction: making it so that a disagreement with official historical accounts a criminal offense. This could easily be expanded to have the reverse effect of the Holocaust Denial laws, and strides directly into the realm of making a point of view illegal. That’s where we see that the principle of a free and open society demands that we endure the cost of dangerous ideas, necessitating the will of good people to stand up and protest those ideas–but not the criminalization of any idea. As Aaron Sorkin once wrote, a democracy in which freedom and liberty is guaranteed is advanced citizenship. “It’s gonna say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.'”

Maybe Austria is too scarred to allow such freedom, it’s hard for me to say. But the principles of freedom of ideas, and the liberty of a point of view, however repugnant, are principles that are hard to justify breaking. And in the end, if we’re going to get where we want to go as a civilization, the people are going to have to want to frown on views like Irving’s. It’s going to have to come from within, which means that it’s better to fight with social commentary, with reason and dogged pursuit of fact, and ultimately with the winning of hearts and minds, breaking our addiction to hatred, vengeance and arrogance–instead of with the extrinsic force of law. Actions can be dealt with by statute, but wills cannot be.

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  1. ykw
    February 22nd, 2006 at 03:30 | #1

    I think this holocaust denial thing is bit of a crazy battleground. I think folks jump in with denials to get attention or to bug the jews. The jews that are bugged are a bit silly in my view since I think they should ignore someone trying to press these buttons. Very few people play this game, therefore, I don’t think it is a threat. I think politicians in Austria passed the law in return for political support / campaign money from some jews that took this too seriously. I think the Iraq thing and the muslims burning many cars in France thing has causes folks to get mad and when they do, they sometimes like to press other’s buttons (e.g. cartoons, holocaust denial, etc). It’s all a bit silly and I think everyone should try to calm down and solve the underlying problems.

  2. Michael Thomas
    December 21st, 2006 at 09:35 | #2

    Holocaust denial laws have been in effect in Austria since 1945. In fact, the arrest warrant on which Irving was arrested was issued in 1989.

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