In many countries in Europe, people get thrown in jail for claiming that the Nazi holocaust of the Jews didn’t happen, or even that it did happen, but that there were nowhere near as many deaths from it as the mainstream media reports.
Normally, we have rules for the study and reporting of historical events. Normally the rules are that anybody can say anything, and the only punishment for lying is a loss of credibility. There is the exception of libel and slander, but in most countries it is very difficult to press charges for slander and win. And generally, holocaust deniers are not prosecuted on libel or slander charges.
Why should the rules for this one event be any different from all of the rest of history?
Reason 1 for Different Rules
The Nazi party is so profoundly evil that it must be vigorously suppressed. I hate the Nazis and find them loathsome, but I doubt whether this censorship is necessary or constructive. Also, I cannot believe that Nazism has any hope of really catching on.
I’ve read some holocaust denial websites, and what they are usually claiming is that the Nazi holocaust happened, but nobody was gassed, and about 100,000 people were murdered, and about 500,000 people died from inhumane conditions in slave labor camps.
100,000 murders of non-combatants certainly qualifies as quite an atrocity. This hardly lets the Nazis off the hook. And nobody is contesting the dozens of millions who the Nazis killed through completely unprovoked conventional warfare. The Nazis also committed many other crimes, including enslaving millions of people — most societies had outgrown slavery as a terrible crime at least 50 years before that. Another crime the Nazis committed is censoring free speech in their own society, and routinely lying to their people. Most people don’t consider those to be atrocities — communist governments did (and still do) that all the time, but I consider it very serious.
Another thing Hitler did that was absolutely disgraceful was he completely betrayed Germany. As he was losing the war, his orders were to destroy everything in the path of the allies, including everything in Germany. The only reason it didn’t happen was that German soldiers usually disobeyed those orders. As he was in his bunker at the end, he wouldn’t lift a finger to try to influence history for the well-being of the German people, and he said several times that the Germans had proven themselves weak and therefore deserved to be exterminated.
Hitler’s decision that he didn’t care about the welfare of his people, and his decision to just destroy everything in his control for no reason other than that he was a sore loser, is about as clear a demonstration of the catastrophic failure of fascism as can be imagined.
So even without the holocaust (or with a greatly reduced holocaust), Hitler was such a flaming disgrace to everything that he believed in that Nazism is just an utterly discredited philosophy.
Reason 2 for Different Rules
The Nazi holocaust of the Jews was a unique event; nothing like it has ever happened before or since, and it was the worst thing that ever happened to anyone, and so much worse than any other event, that the normal rules of discussing history should not apply to it.
Genocides are common in history, and the further back you go, the more frequent they were (see the book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”, by Steven Pinker). It is probable that we exterminated the Neanderthals. If you read the Old Testament, many genocides were committed by the Jews, and some of them were significantly worse than the Nazi holocaust of European Jews. About 75% of European Jews died in the Nazi holocaust. But if you read about the holocaust by the Jews of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15 in the Bible, for example, every last Amalekite, including the king, was eventually exterminated. Your odds of survival would be infinitely better as a European Jew being attacked by the Nazis than as an Amalekite being attacked by the Jews or as a Neanderthal being attacked by the humans. Genghis Khan would sometimes kill the entire population of cities that resisted him. Over 90% of the American Indians were wiped out when the whites came. So the Nazi holocaust of the Jews was far from the worst thing that ever happened to anyone. Many groups have suffered genocide, and historians should be free from censorship so they can examine all of these events from all angles.
Reason 3 for Different Rules
The Nazi holocaust of the Jews, as described by Simon Weisenthal, is so central to our interpretation of history, that no one should be allowed to argue any other point of view about it.
I can see how the Nazi holocaust of the Jews is really central to the history of the Jews, but is it central to everybody’s history? An an American WASP, I don’t find it that important. It was an act by a foreign country that my country was at all-out war with (the Nazis started gassing people for their ethnicity about the same month that they declared war on the US). As I have described above, not only the government that did it, but the very style of government that did it, is thoroughly disgraced and discredited for other reasons.
I find other events, like the genocide of the Native Americans and the slavery of the blacks, to be much more relevant to my history. But no one is arguing that we need laws forbidding people from saying that the genocide of the Native Americans or the slavery of the blacks didn’t happen.
I find other things in history much more worthy of our attention, like the many genocides committed by the Jews in the Bible. While the Nazi genocide was ordered by Hitler, a man now revered by almost no one and now despised by nearly everyone, the genocides in the Bible were ordered by, and approved of, by Jehovah, who is still widely revered and still widely described as an infinitely wise and loving entity, the very definition of virtue. I think people need to be told more often about these atrocities, and re-examine whether Jehovah is a deity worth worshiping.
Many believers claim the genocides in the Bible didn’t really happen, that they were just “parables”! (Parables of what???? — Parables of utter depravity?) So we are surrounded by millions of these modern holocaust deniers. Why should we tolerate deniers of these many holocausts but not that one?
Censorship Can be Very Counterproductive
Denial of the Nazi holocaust is a conspiracy theory, and like most conspiracy theories, it’s very far fetched and hard to believe. They believe, for example, that all the witnesses at the Nuremberg trials were tortured into giving completely false confessions, and that a worldwide conspiracy manipulated the world press into believing in at least 4 or 5 million murders that never really happened. I don’t think it’s something anyone is going to believe unless they really, really want to.
But extinguishing a conspiracy theory with censorship is like putting out a fire with gasoline! Once there is censorship, the conspiracy theorists can say “There are a lot of persuasive, intelligent arguments to be made for my point of view that are being censored. If you heard the whole truth, you would agree with me.”. Furthermore, most conspiracy theories claim the government is suppressing the “truth”. Censorship adds credibility to that claim.
If we started locking up UFO witnesses, suddenly a much larger fraction of the population would believe in UFO’s. Similarly, locking up 9/11 “truthers” would enhance their credibility in the eyes of the public.
For myself, a large part of how I know the Nazi holocaust happened stems from the fact that I was able to visit denialist websites, hear them out, and decide that I found their arguments unpersuasive. If there was effective censorship of Nazi holocaust deniers, my position on the topic would be “I don’t know if the Nazi holocaust happened or not. How can I have an opinion? I haven’t heard both sides.”
Censorship of Nazi holocaust denial in Europe is only marginally effective — people in those countries can still access denialist websites on the global internet. If they couldn’t, belief that the Nazi holocaust didn’t happen would probably be much more popular in those countries.
In many third world countries, free speech is desperately needed. Often, there are laws banning the criticism of religion, and many religions are widely believed to be the source of all virtue in the world. In my view, this belief is one of the most destructive beliefs in the world, and criticism of religion is desperately needed in these countries. The developed world should be setting an example by holding free speech high as one of the most exalted ideals of civilization. But when third world countries see Europeans claiming to favor free speech with one hand while throwing people in jail simply for expressing a historical opinion on the other, the whole ideal of free speech is reduced to the appearance of mere hypocrisy.
In the US, there are no laws banning Nazi holocaust denial, and the Nazi party is hardly doing very well. They hold no seats in congress, and the only Nazis to be found are a few scattered convicts and nut cases.
Free speech is very important to the functioning of society. I am very uncomfortable with even having libel and slander laws. It is vital to the functioning of the marketplace of ideas that all points of view be heard. Sure, there are many ideas that I think are idiotic and harmful that I would love to see extinguished — the anti-vaccine movement, climate change denial, and the Abrahamic religions, for example. But censorship is morally wrong, and every time we do it, it sets a precedent for more censorship, and we may wind up censoring an idea that’s true someday.