The "last Nazi trials" weren't even under way in Europe last October when the BBC put a Holocaust denier from the far-right British National Party, Nick Griffin, on TV. He was clean-scrubbed but nervous, a pasty plump man in a blazer and tie, and since the program was called Question Time, he endured a lot of right-minded abuse from the audience.
But why was he on TV at all? The BBC said it let Griffin participate in its political talk show because his party had polled well in a recent election. The BNP, like a German neo-Nazi party called the National Democratic Party, has won some grassroots support over the last few years from voters who are fed up with mainstream politicians. The BBC claimed, in so many words, that it might be good to put Griffin on TV and give his ideas a brisk whack with a broom handle. Griffin himself said he was "the most hated man in Britain," and Question Time, accordingly, scored record ratings.
Holocaust denial is as old as the Holocaust itself, but in Europe as well as the United States, the age for "questioning" it — for treating deniers as the other side of some legitimate debate — may be on us. The story of the gas chambers is so ghastly that the mind almost resists it as a tale, the World War II generation is dying apace, and for politicians who find the memory of Nazi genocide an inconvenient barrier to their ambitions, a concerted attack on history works surprisingly well.
So what's the proper response to the public denial of proven fact? Nick Griffin, in the past, has called the Holocaust a "Holohoax" and claimed the history of the gas chambers was "a mixture of Allied wartime propaganda, extremely profitable lie, and ... witch-hysteria." For this alone he could be arrested in Germany. In fact, more than a dozen European countries have tried to resist far-right extremism by outlawing behavior ranging from "racial incitement" to flat Holocaust denial.
These provisions strike people in America and Britain as shocking exceptions to free speech. They are; but then continentals are closer to the scene of the crime. In fact, Holocaust denial is most prominent in the eastern nations and Soviet republics where most of the killing occurred. Not just Poland, but Ukraine, Belorussia, Romania, Hungary and former Czechoslovakia saw most of their Jewish populations wiped out by Hitler's archipelago of death camps. The Soviet gulags stood on some of the same territory, and in these long-suffering places, Moscow saw no reason to revive memories of Jewish sacrifice. Generations of Eastern Europeans learned, instead, about the heroic Russian struggle against the Nazis.
The result is that Holocaust revisionism takes root easily in Eastern Europe — even if most of the "scholarship" comes from the West. All it takes is for someone, somewhere, to claim the Holocaust never occurred, and then politicians can claim "historians disagree" on this or that. The Internet, of course, can spread denial like a kindergarten flu. But Western revisionists could influence other parts of the world even before the fully wired age. "English and American scientists are contesting the Holocaust itself," claimed a Romanian nationalist named Tudor Vadim in 1994, "providing documentation and logical arguments proving that the Germans could not gas six million Jews, this being technically and physically impossible."
Real scholars don't disagree about an intentional Nazi Holocaust, with gas chambers, just as they don't argue about the reality of World War II. But the freely speaking chorus of authorities shouting down crackpots like Nick Griffin in the West becomes a distant roar by the time the denialists' calculated lies reach Belgrade or (more dangerously) Beirut.
From that point of view, the European approach of outlawing denial seems reasonable. Actually, though, the problem in Eastern Europe should point the West away from a nervous clampdown on free speech, since the roots of it are Stalinist and totalitarian. The whole point of a Western government is that it has little power to dictate discourse. "It is a poor service to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust to adopt a central doctrine of their murderers," Noam Chomsky once wrote in defense of a French Holocaust denier's right to air his views.
Most Holocaust memorial groups say the real bulwark against denial is not a law but an attentive public. When Germany's NPD signed up in 2005 for a march through Berlin, a whole spectrum of opposition groups stood in the way. The police counted more counter-protesters than neo-Nazis and called off the event due to "riot danger." This ritual repeats itself every so often in Germany. The NPD boys get to stroll out with their slogans and signs, and the cops tolerate them even if they aren't allowed to walk very far. It's a sort of street referendum. The real moment to fear isn't the debut of Nick Griffin on mainstream Western TV; it's the languid, lazy afternoon when no one turns out to holler back.
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