Dealing with dangerous views

By Tim McEvoy and Ben Griffiths

Last weekend an Austrian court convicted and jailed historian David Irving for the crime of denying the Holocaust of European Jewry. At various stages throughout his career, Irving has claimed that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, that Hitler was unaware of the massacres, and that there was no systematic extermination of Jews during the Second World War. The state prosecutor claimed that Irving was “everything but a historian” and a “dangerous falsifier of history.”

Holocaust denial has been a rising trend in anti-Semitic thought since the 1960s. Far from being genuine historical revisionism, it is a tool of those with a deliberate political agenda. Within the West, most deniers have had links to the far right and neo-Nazism, although the trend has become prevalent amongst Israel’s enemies in the Middle East. It has been demonstrated over the years that important denial texts have misquoted witnesses, fabricated evidence and cited non-existent authorities. Quite simply, it is anti-Semitism dressed up as academic debate.

The aim of the movement is simple. If they can convince the public that the Holocaust is a Jewish hoax, then they can reduce sympathy for Jewish suffering, alleviate the blame heaped on their nationalistic heroes and undermine support for Israel. And here lies the problem for many central European states: This sort of perversion of history has happened before, when fascists rose to the fore in governments in the 1930s.

This is the basis of the reason for the Holocaust denial laws – every European country with such legislation was occupied by the Nazis and experienced the horrors of their crimes against humanity. They suffer from a huge collective guilt as most of the population turned a blind eye to the atrocities and pretended they weren’t happening. Nations such as Germany and Austria have founded their modern identity on the active rejection of these crimes.

As such, it is important to recognise that the purpose of these laws for these countries is not to give extra protection to a particular minority, nor is it designed to prevent offence caused to Jews and the other persecuted groups. They exist and are enforced to send out a message that they will not stand idly by and allow fascism to again raise its ugly head.

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    Such an objective is noble, even admirable, and the general idea should be embraced. After all, it only takes good men to do nothing for evil to prosper. But manifesting this philosophy by banning certain views is both foolish and mistaken. At best these laws will drive such speech underground, and at worse it will make martyrs out of incorrigibles like Irving and give off the impression that these views can only be countered by suppression.

    The truth is that there is a far more effective way of countering such views. Rather than vainly attempting to stamp out such ideas via prosecution, we should use logic and evidence to show up these standpoints for the foolishness they are. David Irving’s reputation as a historian was already in tatters from the critical attacks of genuine academics. No trial or prosecution was needed. In the words of Carl Sagan, the cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument.

    But even within this framework, we cannot be complacent. The benefits of free speech only work as long as despicable views are scrutinised and challenged. The removal of Holocaust denial laws will only be effective insofar as people are willing to step in to combat deliberate untruths. Both in central Europe and across the democratic world, we must be attentive to rises in any form of nationalism – be it based on race, country of birth, or religion – especially when it threatens to marginalise outsiders.

    As the atrocities of the Second World War fade out of living memory, free speech must prevail, but it must be accompanied by a willingness in the general population to speak out against dangerous views.

    Tim McEvoy and Ben Griffiths are exchange students from the United Kingdom. Contrary to the campus consensus, they believe “The Boondock Saints” is the worst film of all time. Their column appears on a rotating basis. They can be reached at [email protected].