Christopher Caldwell: Historical truth speaks for itself

By Christopher Caldwell

Financial Times

Published: February 19 2006

At the height of the worldwide demonstrations over caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, some protesters claimed the west did not value free speech as much as it said. After all, the argument ran, many western countries ban Holocaust denial. Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the Iranian leader, has recently thumbed his nose at the west by denying the Holocaust himself. A Belgian Arab group released a cartoon showing Adolf Hitler in bed with Anne Frank. “Europe, too, has its sacred cows,” said the group’s leader, Dyab Abou Jahjah, “even if they are not religious sacred cows.”

The gesture may be tawdry, but the point is essentially correct. In much of Europe, there is a legislated “official truth” about the Holocaust. France passed its so-called Gayssot law, making Holocaust denial a crime, in 1990. Germany and Switzerland soon followed suit. Denying or minimising the Holocaust is now also a crime in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia.

The problem with this official truth is not that it is untrue. The problem is that policing fringe opinion about the second world war creates more problems than it solves. Some are constitutional. In The Guardian last week, Ronald Dworkin, the legal philosopher, wrote: “If we expect bigots to accept the verdict of the majority once the majority has spoken, then we must permit them to express their bigotry in the process whose verdict we ask them to respect.” He suggested using the European Convention on Human Rights to strike down laws banning Holocaust denial.

There are also practical problems with such laws. They provide a bonanza of easy publicity for extremists who can present themselves as bold, censor-defying non-conformists, merely by brushing up to the law, without quite breaking it. That is how the Anne Frank drawings made it into the Belgian papers. In France, the National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen’s most reliable route on to the evening news is to stage some Gayssot law-related outrage, such as calling the Holocaust “a detail of history”.

Madeleine Rebérioux, the late leftist historian, warned of the biggest danger of the Gayssot law as soon as it was passed. “One day”, she wrote, “it’s going to lead into other areas besides the genocide against the Jews – other genocides and other assaults on what will be called ‘historical truth’.” She was right. A law declaring the Turkish killings of Armenians early last century to be a “genocide” was passed in 2001; later that year, another law defined the slave trade as a “crime against humanity”; a year ago, legislation mandated that teachers stress the “positive role” of the French presence in north Africa. Each new officialisation of remembrance calls into being more “moral lobbies”, which press their claims with ever more insistence, in ever more obscure corners of political life, and with ever more legal clout.

Since the Gayssot law, sanctions against “crimes of opinion” have proliferated in all walks of life. Already in 1995, Bernard Lewis – probably the most important scholar of Turkey in the past century – was condemned in a French court for refusing to apply the term “genocide” to the Armenian massacres. Muslim and human-rights groups have brought complaints and suits against the novelist Michel Houellebecq, the journalist Oriana Fallaci, the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut and (for printing cartoons of Mohammed) the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. In January, a member of the national assembly who had said he found “heterosexuality superior to homosexuality on the moral level” became the first Frenchman convicted of homophobia.

Last year, Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau, the best-known French historian of slavery, criticised the 2001 slave-trade law in an interview. A pressure group of “descendants of slaves” took him to court for “disputing a crime against humanity”. In recent weeks, two petitions have urged the repeal or gutting of all memory laws – and have won the support of much of the intellectual world in Paris. The first, “Freedom for History”, signed by the historians Pierre Nora, Michel Winock and Mona Ozouf, among others, noted the way claims to official memory multiply. The second, “Freedom to Debate”, authored by Paul Thibaud, the anti-colonialist essayist, and signed by several of the country’s most distinguished historians and philosophers, deplored the recent “competition of memory”.

The Gayssot law, Mr Thibaud argues, unleashed “a variety of anti-Semitism more dangerous than the one it restrained”. Groups formed to promote the memory of slavery, for example, increasingly allege that Jews controlled the slave trade – a favourite myth of Louis Farrakhan’s US-based Nation of Islam. In principle, what was done to the Jews of Europe during the second world war holds universal lessons. In practice, minority groups have not seen the Gayssot law that way. They reason that there are other prejudices in society besides anti-Semitism. Once the state admits the principle of protecting minorities by restricting certain utterances about their history, new groups pop up to agitate for special protections against the prejudice that threatens them most.

Mr Dworkin’s case for abolishing laws against Holocaust denial, on grounds of political legitimacy, is the right one. Of course, no one should be under the illusion that being able to go out and deny the Holocaust will add much to any “debate”. The official truth of western governments about the Holocaust happens to be the truth. Allowing delusions or anti-Semitic propaganda to masquerade as “opinions” will not change that. So those western countries with laws against Holocaust denial are now in a tricky position. They must undo laws that have proved unworkable and counterproductive, and at a moment when some of those laws’ most vocal detractors are violent people of ill will.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard