Denying the holocaust has been prevalent in society since the 1940s. It has plagued modern society with its claims and arguments, further harming people who were directly and indirectly affected by it. Deniers of the Holocaust claim that certain areas of the Third Reich were not taken up by concentration camps, and that therefore the Holocaust did not happen.
Alright it’s more complicated than that-but the fact is history has proven the Holocaust occurred. And there shouldn’t need to be proof. Not to show it happened; a conversation with any Holocaust survivor or anyone affected by the genocidal crime is more than enough to prove that so many people were killed in a barbaric and senseless manner.
Mere words like ‘barbaric’ and ‘senseless’ can’t really describe what happened in the Holocaust, no word can do enough to capture the horrific events which took place across Europe in the 1930s and 40s.
But the issue here is whether holocaust denial should remain legal, or whether it should be illegalized. The main argument for allowing Holocaust denial is that freedom of speech is an inherent part of our society and that to ban or punish Holocaust denial would perpetuate this fundamental right. The debate about whether holocaust denial should be allowed is particularly thematic now, not only because Tuesday (27th January 2015) marked 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, but also because the recent Charlie Hebdo massacres and the relevant responses threw the question of freedom of speech and it’s limits right into the limelight. Do Charlie Hebdo have the right to publish editions portraying, amongst other controversies, Muhammed, something which is forbidden throughout Islam? Or is this beyond the ‘line’, the ‘line’ separating freedom of speech from pure disrespect and insult.
The same issue resides with Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial has transcended the ‘freedom of speech’ we support and has become a pure insult to the memory of the 11 million people who were killed, and the countless others who were permanently affected by it. The extent of the Holocaust and the effect it has on present day politics and life in general makes it’s denial a gross injustice to the people who went through so much in the camps, and in Nazi Germany in general.
Another argument against punishing Holocaust denial is that a legal punishment would not necessarily end the problem. And of course, this is right. With the modern methods of communication and the infinite resources available to us all online, yes some of these sentiments will get through. But a partial restraint on Holocaust denial is better than no restraint whatsoever. The argument that Holocaust denial should be allowed because its restriction would not lead to the end of the problem is fundamentally flawed, as the majority of measures we take in our society do not solve problems completely.
A few examples: the use of fossil fuels, hunger, disease-the failure to eradicate a problem off the face of the earth does not render that problem unimportant or undeserving of attention. The same comes with Holocaust denial.
Freedom of speech, the kind discussed following the American, French and other revolutions, is not a bottomless concept. Freedom of speech does not denote that anyone can say what they want, where they want, when they want. The principle of freedom of speech is that which allows someone to voice an opinion which does not a) grossly offend a people or peoples b) argue a cause which is factually inaccurate. The ticking of one of these conditions would render an issue subject to criminalization. The fact is that Holocaust denial actually ticks both these boxes.
What we have to do here is to examine various topics which are punishable in our society and compare these to others which are not. An argument that Holocaust denial should remain legal would mean there is something more in elements of society which are not allowed.
Nazi propaganda is banned all over Europe. If a photo of Nazi propaganda is posted without any reference to historical education, this person can be arrested. And why? What we have here is a reference to history. For very good reason, Nazi propaganda walks hand in hand with the Holocaust and cannot be separated from it. Any reference to Nazi propaganda can so easily be linked to the atrocities of the 1930s and 40s.
The reason this is banned is because of the historical context it has. What is confusing about the Holocaust denial is that it is also inextricably linked to the atrocities of the 1940s. This represents one of the flaws of our society, there is no trend or ground rule. Although both Nazi propaganda and Holocaust denial are inextricably linked to the genocide, one is banned when the other is not. If freedom of speech were a “bottomless concept” then Nazi propaganda would not be banned. However to make that legal would be a breach of human rights. Every Jewish person, Roma, Sinti, disabled, homosexual and Pole (amongst others) has the right to live their life without seeing a representation of the atrocities which befell their family and friends.
In the same way, allowing Holocaust denial to flourish and spread through coverage in the form of books, and other medium readily available for consumption is a breach of human rights. The reality that the Holocaust did occur means these views should not be shared, the only consequence is the insult to the memory of those who died and those who survived.
Another example rests with the conduct of the Scottish Defense League. Last year at a counter protest against them in front of the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh, some members of the SDL were arrested for shouting out slogans such as ‘All Muslims are paedos’. They were arrested as they deserved to be, this is a deeply shameful and disgusting act which no Muslim should ever have to bear witness to or accept.
The question is where the main difference between these two examples and Holocasut denial are. These events all have the explicit purpose to harm and disgust the individual they are aimed against. However the notion of holocaust denial remains legal.
The notion that education of Holocaust deniers would be a better response is strong. The view, however, that opinions can be changed with a ‘telling off’ by society is extremely naïve. The aim of banning Holocaust denial would be to halt the spread of Holocaust denial in our society. A limit on the influence Holocaust denial has on out society would inevitably cause its spread to be more difficult to achieve. Education has its boundaries and, although effective, it cannot be expected to synthesize every holocaust denier. What the illegalization of Holocaust denial would offer is a limit on the spread of Holocaust denial.
The fact of my Jewish heritage means that I am open to the accusation of being ‘biased’. And so I am. But there is a fundamental flaw in society if only the unaffected are listened to. The opinion of the affected is hugely significant, because while the ‘unaffected’ can sympathise with the feelings of the ‘affected’, empathy is not possible. To allow Holocaust denial to continue to proliferate in our society is to give rise to the beliefs that Holocaust deniers project out. Moreover, the fact of the matter is that Holocaust denial is more often than not coupled with anti-semitic, and generally racist and discriminatory views. To provide a platform for Holocaust denial is to effectively provide a platform for racist views to spread. The two are intrinsically linked, the majority of Holocaust deniers also maintain extremely right-wing views, and Holocaust denial is their method of disassociating themselves with the Nazis and the atrocities they brought with them.
There are also various elements which are banned in our society, however there is little, if any, specific differentiation between these forbidden elements and Holocaust denial. To post a Nazi cartoon, for example, crudely depicting ‘Jewish people’ is illegal. Even in the British justice system, the 1986 Public Order Act prohibits any act which has the aim of causing ‘a person harassment, alarm or distress’ using ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour,’ or displaying ‘any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,’.
Obviously publicising a cartoon like the one above comes under the second condition, as it is a direct reference to the Nazi period and their propaganda against the Jewish people.
However, Holocaust denial is a discourse which comes projects an exact replica of this rhetoric. The sole intention of Holocaust deniers is to insult, and cause ‘alarm or distress’. The differentiation of these two ‘crimes’ from one another is non existent-the aims and practice of them are both to insult and distress, and yet the notion of ‘freedom of speech’ allows Holocaust denial to grow and infect today.
Freedom of speech, as a blanket term, is not limitless. It too has boundaries, which, if transcended, enter the realm of pure insult and intent to distress. The line dividing these two concepts stops just short of Holocaust denial, and the concept of Holocaust denial is thereby not an infringement of the ‘human right’ to speak, it is an infringement on the victims of the Holocaust to live their lives without seeing a group of people deny an event which brought so much pain to their families.