Undoubtedly the Holocaust was a nadir for humanity. The story of the systematic killing of about 6 million Jews is taught throughout most of the world as the worst atrocity that could ever happen. However, in spite of the overwhelming academic and public consensus on the facts and existence of the Holocaust, some believe that this event did not occur. They claim that the Holocaust was a hoax, “a deliberate Jewish conspiracy to advance the interest of Jews at the expense of other people” (1). These Holocaust deniers have spurred outrage among not only survivors but many others sympathetic and cognizant of the horrors of the Holocaust.
Holocaust denial is a crime in thirteen countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Switzerland (1). Despite the existence of these anti-hate speech laws, there are fears that Holocaust denial is spreading due to lack of awareness among youth. Since more than 60 years have passed since the Holocaust and there are less and less survivors alive to tell their stories every year, scholars are afraid that people will forget. “In 50 years from now, not only will there be no survivors alive, there won’t be anybody alive who even knew a survivor…” says Mr. Greenberg, president of a historical foundation (2). The promotion of Holocaust denying materials on the Internet is also a new cause for concern because many youth are unable to distinguish legitimate historical sites from false ones (2).
The existence of Holocaust deniers poses a distinct First Amendment problem, if the First Amendment were to be applied to European countries. For instance, a Frenchman named Vincent Reynouard was recently convicted and sentenced to one year in prison (with substantial fines) for publishing and distributing a pamphlet called “Holocaust? The Hidden Facts” disagreeing with the fact that six million Jews were killed (3). In the United States this conviction would be considered a case of subsequent punishment and infringement upon the freedom of speech. This hate-speech problem is more nuanced, however, than merely prohibiting the expression of one’s opinions concerning a controversial issue. Denying the Holocaust is also a distinct denial of the truth.
In fact, the French are accused of being hypocritical because they do not suppress any other expressions of falsity. “It is also not a crime for any politician in any European country to go to elections and lie to the nation about anything, including election promises…No citizen can bring a charge against anyone…for lying is not considered a crime under the law” (3). Prosecuting every instance when someone lied would seem to be a logistical impossibility, not to mention inherent problems in proving the truthfulness of an expression. In addition, shouldn’t preventing politicians from lying be a concern for the public interest of France also?
Nevertheless, the problem with Holocaust-deniers is that there is no doubt that what they are espousing is an untruth, so there is no need to prove the falsity of their assertions. Moreover, Europeans have been affected far more by the Holocaust than Americans have. How would we feel if someone denied the existence of Vietnam? Or the Civil War? There is assumedly a greater public interest in protecting the sensibilities of Holocaust survivors and their supporters than in assuming the risks of allowing Holocaust deniers to speak, which could include condoning genocide and allowing public attitudes towards it to become so lax that another genocide could possibly occur.
While I nevertheless believe that freedom of speech should be triumphant in this case, since truth is not a prerequisite for speech and the prerogatives of the speaker must be protected from governmental interference, there is the issue of solving this problem of anti-Semitism. Legislating it away is only a superficial solution. Education is the key towards instilling more tolerance in the people of both Europe and America.
Couldn’t one argue, however, that censoring of Holocaust denials constitutes education by the government? After all, people do learn the necessary lesson from this suppression and the existence of the Holocaust is upheld by the government reaffirming it through court rulings. This argument seems spurious to me, however, and various analogies could be applied to prove its invalidity, i.e. government suppression of Communists during the McCarthy era was not justified just because it can be said that the government was attempting to “educate” people about the evils of Communism.
There is an issue, however, in allowing Holocaust deniers to educate our youth. A ramification of this conflict occurred in the British courts, when historian David Irving, a Holocaust denier, filed a libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt for calling him a Holocaust denier (4). The court affirmed that Lipstadt’s allegations were correct and the judge caustically ruled that Irving had “deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence” (4). Thus the question arises of whether to allow Holocaust deniers to teach in schools because their beliefs may bias an accurate representation of history.
His defenders say that one should “judge what they [historians] do not by political intent, but by whether they produce work based on evidence” (5). His detractors counter that “[his] values are responsible for ultimately debilitating flaws in his work” (5). If a public school or university fired him, that would essentially constitute an infringement on his civil liberties: specifically on his freedom of association and right to hold his own expressions. If private institutions refuse to associate with him, that is their right as well. But the issue in the former instance is one of governmental suppression and censorship reminiscent of the blacklisting of Communist teachers during the McCarthy era. Should one be punished for his beliefs if they are driven by anti-Semitism and condemned throughout most of the world?
I would object to governmental punishment because the government should uphold the rights of all citizens under the law to prevent undue oppression and expansion of governmental power, but personally private blacklisting seems justified in this case.