Defending the Right to Deny the
by Sean Gabb
Last week, on the 19th April, the Justice Ministers of the European Union agreed to make "incitement to racism and xenophobia" a criminal offence in all 27 member states. Despite the best efforts of the German Government, this does not mean that sceptical comments on the holocaust will become a crime in any European country where it is not so already. I am surprised that the British Government held out for a moderating of the final document so that all speech short of "incitement" will remain free. But I doubt if the agreement made last week will be the last word in the matter. Already, nine member states of the European Union punish denial or "gross revision" with imprisonment. There are calls for criminalisation in England. I have no doubt these calls will grow louder.
My own view—and I speak on this matter not only for me but also for the Libertarian Alliance—is that there should be no restrictions on freedom of speech where public affairs are concerned. This involves, among much else, the right to say anything at all about politics, religion, sex, science or history. It is no business of the State to tell people what they can and cannot think. Our bodies are our own. Our minds are our own. What we do with them is our business. It is one of the highest glories of the Enlightenment that states were shamed out of dragooning people into the various established worships of Europe. It is one of the most ominous signs of the modern counter-Enlightenment that people can again be persecuted for their opinions.
Of course, there are people who claim to believe in freedom of speech, but who say that the promotion of "hatred" is a distinct matter. They say that "hate speech" is direct or indirect incitement to acts of violence against others, and so should be put down by law. This is not, on their reasoning, censorship. It is simply a matter of keeping the peace.
We in the Libertarian Alliance reject this supposed distinction. What some call the promotion of hatred others call telling the truth. Quite often, whatever opinion the rich and powerful do not like they will find some means of calling "hatred". In any event, we believe in the right to promote hatred by any means that do not fall within the Common Law definition of assault.
Perhaps you are one of those people who believe in a distinction between free speech and hate speech. This being so, I will drop any further mention of abstract rights and turn to a practical argument that is ultimately just as connected with keeping the peace. Let me ask: what reason have I to believe that the holocaust really happened?
The obvious answer—that the standard history books say it happened—is not in itself much good. My first degree was in History, and I know enough about certain periods to say with confidence that even standard secondary sources are riddled with errors that sometimes amount to actual falsehoods. I will not discuss the numerous claims of doubtful truth made about the Later Roman Empire. I will only observe that, in the standard accounts of the Second World War, the Katyn Wood massacre used to be blamed on the Germans, and now it is blamed on the Soviets. How can I be sure that the same is not true for the holocaust?
The next answer—that there are many witnesses to the holocaust still alive - is also not much good in itself. These people may have been in a concentration camp, and they may have seen atrocities. They did not see the holocaust in any synoptic sense. They may have been mistaken. One of my grandmothers, for example, lived in Kent all through the Second World War, and she went to her grave insisting that there had been an unsuccessful German invasion of England in 1940. There are millions of people who claim to have seen plaster statues of the Virgin weep real tears, and I am perfectly assured they are mistaken or lying. How do I not know that the holocaust survivors I have met or seen on television were not mistaken or lying?
Or there is the argument from the agreed nature of the Hitler Regime. Almost everyone accepts that this acted in defiance of—and perhaps in open contempt for—the norms of civilised behaviour. This may be evidence for the probability of a holocaust. But it is hardly proof that one happened. On the same reasoning, I can believe that Hitler was a bad man: this does not require me to believe that he ate human flesh.
To answer the question properly for myself, of whether the holocaust happened, I need skills and knowledge that I do not have and do not feel inclined to acquire. I need a good understanding of German, Polish, Russian, Hungarian and Hebrew, among other languages. I need to be able to track down a mass of primary sources, most of which are unpublished but are in various European and American archives. To evaluate all this, I need technical knowledge that I do not have—knowledge, for instance, about the lethal nature of Zyklon B gas, or of diesel fumes, or of how to burn bodies and dispose of the remains.
I have not read even much of the secondary material that exists in English. This is not a subject that has interested me since I sat my O Levels. I have, though, read a very small selection of the material published on both sides of the debate. And what I can say of this is that, considered purely in itself, the revisionist material is as persuasive as that of the mainstream historians. At least one side in this debate is lying, and lying very fluently—but I am not able, on the basis of the evidence offered, to say who is lying.
Nevertheless, I believe with reasonable firmness that the German National Socialists did try, during the last years of the Second World War, to murder every Jew they could set hands on, and that they succeeded in murdering several million. Whether this was a plan centrally conceived and centrally directed, or whether most of the killings were deliberate murder or the effects of culpable negligence, are not matters on which I have any opinion. But on the central claim of the holocaust, I am reasonably assured.
I am assured of this on the authority of the mainstream historians. I have no means of knowing for myself whether the holocaust happened. But I take it on trust that it did happen. That is true for me, and it is true for the overwhelming majority of everyone else who believes the same.
There is nothing in its nature unsatisfactory about knowledge based on authority. Most of what we know we cannot demonstrate on any grounds of direct evidence. I "know", for example, that light travels at 186,000 miles per second, and that the Earth is in an elliptical orbit around the Sun, and that the Earth is around 5,000 million years old. I am completely incapable of demonstrating any of this. I might even have trouble arguing with a convinced flat-earther. I believe all these things and much more beside because nearly everyone else believes them.
I grant that we should not believe too much on authority that we are competent to investigate for ourselves. But the only real concern with such knowledge is not that it is on authority, but that the authority should be good. What makes authority good? The best answer is when it can be openly contested by others who claim to know better, but who have not convinced reasonable onlookers that they do.
With regard to the holocaust, I have—broadly speaking—two options. I can believe that it did happen roughly as claimed. Or I can believe that it is a gigantic conspiracy of lies maintained since the 1940s in the face of all evidence. Since debate remains free in the English-speaking world, it should be obvious what I am to believe. I believe in the central fact of the holocaust. On the secondary issues mentioned above, where my authorities do not agree, I suspend judgment.
Take away the freedom to argue with or against these authorities, though, and my assurance that they are right must be weakened.
In my case, let me say, laws against revising or denying the holocaust will not destroy my belief that it happened. There is still the long preceding time of open debate, and the unlikelihood that compelling new evidence either way has been discovered now. There is also the fact that many people will insist on laws in support of evident truths. If you are Jewish, for example, it may be very upsetting for people to say that your grandparents were not murdered in Poland in 1944, but are alive and well and living in Finchley. Or you may worry that scepticism about the holocaust will prepare the way for a repeat of it. Then there are the obvious financial and moral advantages that certain Jews and the State of Israel have obtained from the holocaust. Cries of anti-semitism are a good closing tactic for many debates that might otherwise be lost.
Laws to compel belief in the holocaust do not mean it did not happen. But they do allow people to ask what kind of truth this is that needs laws to defend it. There are many people who know even less about the holocaust than I do, and who deny that it happened simply because David Irving is generally acknowledged to be an expert of sorts on the period, and he had to be locked up before he would shut up.
Open mockery of deeply-held views, deliberate and gross offence, savage abuse that barely stops short of incitement to violence—these may well disturb the peace. Far worse, though, is the sort of hatred that boils beneath a seemingly placid surface, and then erupts into a disorder that cannot be checked by reason. That is the danger of laws to compel belief in the holocaust.
And they make cranks into martyrs. Do you suppose the Libertarian Alliance enjoys putting out news releases in defence of David Irving? We put these out because we believe in freedom of speech with no exceptions. We put up with the cold shoulder from other civil liberties groups, and with raised eyebrows and outright smears. We are much happier defending the rights of sexual or social minorities, whose tastes we might ourselves share or do not think in the least reprehensible. We do what we believe is our duty, and do it as well as we can—but we regret the need to do it.
And they set a precedent for further censorship. If people must be careful what they say about the holocaust, why not add the alleged Armenian genocide? Or the alleged Bosnian genocide? Or the alleged Irish genocide of the 1840s? Or the Divine Mission of Christ? Or the holiness of the Prophet? Why not have legal curbs on doubts regarding the nature and extent of global warming? Indeed, on this last, there are calls for the American President to be impeached for his expressed doubts.
Censorship is rather like torture. It is always possible to fabricate "exceptional circumstances" to justify it. Opponents can always be denounced as naive or tender-hearted. But it is always corrupting of civilised decency. Its general tendency is to undermine whatever it is called into being to uphold.
I am glad that the British Government, among others, managed on this occasion to prevent a common scheme of censorship across the European Union. But I do not suppose, given the settled decline of faith in freedom of speech, that this will turn out to have been more than a holding action.
NB—Sean Gabb's novel The Column of Phocas (£8.99) will be withdrawn from sale in the next few months, prior to its reissue in February 2008 by a multinational publishing group. Buy copies of the first edition while you can from http://tinyurl.co.uk/z31v or via Amazon: http://tinyurl.co.uk/2cnw The sequel has already been completed.
You can download the first three chapters free of charge from: http://tinyurl.co.uk/kkl4