Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt opposes genocide denial lawHistorians in the News
Last week it was revealed that Germany, current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, is proposing a Europe-wide ban on Holocaust denial and other forms of genocide denial. This would make a crime of ‘publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivialising…crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes [as defined in the Statute of the International Criminal Court].’ (1) In some European countries – most notably Germany and Austria, which formed the heart of the Third Reich – it is already against the law to deny or minimise the Nazis’ exterminatory campaign against the Jews in the Second World War. This new legislation might also make it a crime, punishable by fines or imprisonment, to raise awkward questions about the official history of conflicts that took place over the past 20 years.
‘This is so over the top’, says Lipstadt, in between sips of decaf coffee in the plush surroundings of the Athenaeum Hotel in Piccadilly, London. Her earthy New York accent sounds almost out of place in a building where even the doorman comes across as posh. ‘The question of genocide, the history of genocide and what you can say about it, should not be decided by politicians and judges’, she insists.
Lipstadt certainly can’t be accused of being soft on deniers. Her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, published in 1994, meticulously exposed the lies and the underlying racist agenda of those who deny the truth of the Nazi Holocaust. Famously (or infamously) she was subsequently sued by the British historian David Irving, whom she had named in the book as a Holocaust denier. In January 2000, the 32-day trial, a showdown between an American-Jewish historian and a far-right British historian, became a legal debate about the history of the Nazis, and the nature of truth itself. Irving lost rather spectacularly. The judge branded him an anti-Semite, a racist and a Holocaust denier who had ‘deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence’. Lipstadt recounts the experience in History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving.
Yet this ridiculer of deniers is no fan of the idea that Holocaust denial or genocide denial should be outlawed. The current EU proposal to criminalise denial of contemporary genocides and war crimes is an affront to serious historical debate, she says.
Consider Srebrenica, the massacre that took place at the end of the Bosnian civil war in 1995 in which it is estimated that 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed. ‘Some people argue that, given there are only so many tens of thousands of people in Srebrenica and the Serb soldiers went after an X number of a specific group, then it is genocide. But someone else might say it’s a massacre of the X population, not a genocide – because if you’re going to use that word then you have to go back to what the Nazis did to the Jews or what was done to the Armenians [by the Turks in the First World War]’, says Lipstadt. ‘That is an entirely legitimate debate to have about Srebrenica. Are we now saying that the person who says it’s not a genocide will be fined and punished?’
Lipstadt is also worried about the way in which debate about the Armenian experience might be closed down. During the First World War, as Ottoman Turkish forces fought against the Russians, some of the Armenian minority in Eastern Anatolia sided with Russia. Turkey responded by rounding up and killing hundreds of Armenian community leaders in April 1915, and then forcibly deporting the two million-strong Armenian community in marches towards Syria and Mesopotamia (now Iraq). Hundreds of thousands died as a result. At the end of last year, to the fury of Turkey, France made it a crime to deny that the Armenian tragedy was a genocide, and now Germany seems to hope that the rest of Europe will follow suit by accepting its proposals to outlaw denial of all genocides.
‘This is another body-blow to academic debate’, says Lipstdadt. ‘I know serious historians who do not deny for a minute what happened to the Armenians, who do not deny the severity or the barbarity of what happened to them. But they question, they ask intellectually, “Was this a genocide, or was it a horrendous massacre?” They don’t ask that question on ideological grounds; they don’t have a shred of allegiance to Turkey. They ask it intellectually, because they want to get to the truth.’
‘I happen to think they’re wrong’, she says. She believes the Armenians did suffer a genocide. ‘But you can, indeed you must, have a vigorous academic debate about historical events. And in the course of that vigorous academic debate you probably would illuminate weaknesses in both sides of the argument, and hopefully sharpen the arguments as a result. That is what academic debate is about. This kind of legislation could put a kabash on that.’
Lipstadt finds today’s over-use of the genocide and Holocaust tags, to describe conflicts or political repression, disturbing and distasteful. She seems still to be reeling from an article she read in The Times on Saturday, the day before we met. Under the headline ‘We are vilified like Jews by the Nazis, says Muslim leader’, the paper reported that Birmingham’s most senior Muslim leader had compared contemporary political Britain to Nazi Germany.
‘That is ludicrous. It is stupid and ridiculous’, she says. ‘Is there fear of Muslims today? No doubt. Do some politicians play on that? Of course. But to compare Muslims in Britain to Jews in Nazi Germany…that shows an utter lack of historical understanding, not to mention sensitivity. Here, the police go out of their way to explain to Muslims what is going on. In Nazi Germany if a Jew spoke to a policeman he got hit. It was a whole government dedicated to being against you, to eliminating you. So that is a disgusting kind of analogy. It is wicked, and cleverly wicked. Sometimes it is done in a calculating fashion to further your aims by playing that victim card.’
To the ‘befuddlement’ of some of her colleagues, Lipstadt is also opposed to laws outlawing actual Nazi Holocaust denial. Such laws already exist in Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, and under Germany’s proposals these will be extended to the rest of the EU and will also cover genocide and war crimes denial. She points out that there is a huge difference between those historians who legitimately debate something like the Armenian experience, and the charlatans who distort the truth in order to show that the Holocaust didn’t happen and ‘the Jews’ are all liars. Where ‘genocide denial’ laws might frustrate serious academic debate, Holocaust denial laws are only aimed at punishing weird and malicious pseudo-historians. Yet she is against the censorship of these charlatans, too.
‘I’m opposed to Holocaust denial laws for three reasons’, she says. ‘First because I believe in free speech. Governments should make no laws limiting free speech, because it is never good when that happens. Second, because these laws turn Holocaust deniers into martyrs. Look what happened to David Irving when he was released from jail in Austria – he became a media darling, given room to spout his misinformation. We should ignore them rather than chasing them down.
‘And thirdly, and most importantly, such laws suggest that we don’t have the history, the documentation, the evidence to make the case for the Holocaust having happened. They suggest we don’t trust the truth. But we do have the evidence, and we should keep on developing it and deepening it, and we should trust it.’
Ironically, given her outspoken opposition to laws against Holocaust and genocide denial, many point to Lipstadt’s legal victory over David Irving as evidence for why the courtroom is a good place to resolve historical issues and punish those who lie about or deny historic tragedies. ‘I wish they wouldn’t do that’, she says. She points out that her case was not about ruthlessly pursuing Irving in order to prove the truth about the Holocaust. ‘He came after me! He sued me! I didn’t want it. I tried to stop it. Our whole legal strategy was premised on trying to make this guy go away. Only when it was very close to the case, when I saw the wealth of evidence that showed how he had lied and distorted the facts, was I glad it had come to court. Aside from that, I can think of no other instance where history has benefited from courtroom adjudication.’
‘Politicians should not be doing history’, she says. ‘They have a hard enough time doing politics right and doing legislation right. Let them not muck up history, too.’
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