It seems that every year or so word comes down of another high profile prosecution of a Holocaust denier somewhere in Europe. This year, the seemingly unlikely target is Vanity Fair magazine, which is feeling the heat in Germany for printing an interview with a prominent German Holocaust denier. German law regarding the Holocaust allows for suit to be brought by the family of Holocaust victims, under the fairly broad rubric of “disparaging the memory of the dead”. Vanity Fair has pointed out that the entire point of the article was to make the public aware of the danger of Holocaust denial; the plaintiff, Arno Lustiger, has made it clear through his lawyer that he regards giving a forum to Holocaust deniers- even for the purpose of education- should be regarded as being no different than Holocaust denial itself.
Holocaust deniers rank uniquely in human history as a combination of stupidity and ill-will- flat-earthers joined to murderous malice. But the question remains: are these denial laws- on the books in many European countries and proposed for inclusion in the EU constitution- really the best method for dealing with the threat posed by Holocaust deniers? Prosecutions like this one show one of the serious failings of Holocaust denial laws: their broad interpretation can easily limit public discourse on the Holocaust and its deniers. Shutting down such public forums weakens the use of one of the greatest weapons against denial of the Holocaust: the truth.
When given an open airing, the conspiracy theories and bizarre claims of Holocaust deniers reveal themselves for what they really are- antisemitism thinly concealed with intellectual dishonesty. When you hear the arguments of Holocaust deniers, it’s difficult to believe that even they believe the nonsense that they are spouting. It’s easier to believe that their imaginative denial of one of the best-documented genocides in history is instead a cynical attempt at symbolically defying the opponents of racism and Nazism.
There could be no better counter, I think, to the theories of these apologists for genocide than to force them to air their ridiculous arguments often and in public. The overwhelming evidence to the contrary of their claims- the thousands of images and personal effects of Holocaust victims, the stories and scars of survivors- quickly reveal to any reasoning observer that Holocaust deniers embrace a cause that rests on dogma rather than facts.
Meanwhile, attempting to restrain discussions of Holocaust denial at the legislative level plays directly into the wild theories of the deniers. Their central claim has always been that the Holocaust is a conspiracy by Zionist-controlled governments to discredit the heroic National Socialist movement and stir sympathy for the Jewish people and the state of Israel. Anti-denial laws provide a legal touchstone for deniers in their attempts to lure the disaffected and dispossessed into the wider anti-semitic, nationalist movement. Elevating the Holocaust above every other issue in the study of history to the only official state truth gives more ammunition to the cause of the deniers- ammunition that is in short supply given the weakness and improbability of their argument. If we’re so far off the mark, the Holocaust denier claims, why are the governments of the world falling over themselves to keep us quiet?
A better solution would be to eagerly offer Holocaust deniers enough rope to hang themselves with. You want to argue counter to a mass of historical scholarship, physical evidence, and first-hand accounts by both the victims of the Holocaust and the Nazi officers who carried it out? Go nuts. While you’re at it, argue that the moon is made of green cheese and that maggots spontaneously generate from spoiled meat. Europe will soon see- as the United States has with the Klu Klux Klan- that the voices that line up to drown out this sort of nonsense soon overwhelm the deniers before they begin.
There is no need to legislatively declare that a lie is a lie; in fact, to do so gives too much credit and attention to the lie, saying implicitly to the public that the falsehood is so appealing and dangerous that it must be contained by the state. Better to let the deniers make their case in the open, free from the artificial shelter provided by laws that restrict public discussion. With no legal excuse for not taking their case public, deniers will be forced to make their arguments publicly and in the face of dogged opposition- a situation where such a preposterous lie can not long live.