Thursday, February 23, 2006

Does Jailing Historical Revisionists Ultimately Strengthen Their Cause?

Does Jailing Historical Revisionists Ultimately Strengthen Their Cause? Recently, Holocaust denier and historical revisionist David Irving was put in jail in Austria. His crime was making two speeches where he advanced his revisionist version of 20th Century history. While I clearly disagree with Mr. Irving's historical claims, I am troubled by the fact that we was thrown in prison for them. For more on this, see Irving strikes defiant note from his Austrian jail cell.

The Holocaust is one of the best documented events in history. The physical evidence coupled with oral history is overwhelming. It happened. Holocaust deniers can stand on their heads and shout until judgment day yet they will be unable to disprove the fact that this terrible event occurred. At best, they will claim conspiracy theories, be selective in the documents they cite, and look for flaws in individual testimonies or news accounts to try to throw doubt on all testimony and all news reports.

So why are Holocaust deniers being thrown in jail? They are wrong and they have a right to be wrong. This is not the case in the Middle East or China perhaps but it is in the West. I am astonished that Austria would throw someone in jail for spouting off bad history.

Should we throw other historical revisionist in jail? Should we also throw Heribert Illig in jail for claiming that Charlemagne and that 300 hundred years of medieval history never existed? How about those "historians" who claim that the Apollo Moon Landings were faked or those who make historical assertations that lead to claims that Hawaii and Texas are independent nations undergoing illegal military occupation by the USA? Maybe we should jail Anatoly Timofeevich Fomenko for his radical and wrong New Chronology Hypothesis which claims that nothing can be dated prior to the 11th Century? There are a lot out there as well denying the Armenian Holocaust...

The big danger in jailing (or otherwise legally sanctioning revisionist speech) is that it may ultimately help the cause of the revisionist. They will ask, "If we are wrong, why will you not allow us to speak? The very fact that you are jailing us proves you have something to hide." And this question from the revisionists will find fertile grounds on the Web.

I guess I am even concerned more long term. What if there are wars or other disasters which destroy much of the evidence which proves the Holocaust? Evidence is lost through time and there is no guarantee that the future will be only bright and good. A millennium from now, there will be no survivors to speak in person. Historians in the future may well point to the suppression of speech on the topic that perhaps there was evidence to support that the Holocaust never happened.

I think we should let all historical revisionists (Holocaust deniers included) speak all they want. They may be gadflys but the bulk of evidence is not on their side. They are on the fringe and they will stay there. Let their websites stay up and let them give all the presentations they want. In the meantime, historians can continue to monitor these individuals and make the appropriate responses when it it warranted.


eeore said...

In a recent survey it was found that 20% of Americans believe that it is possible the Holocaust never happened.

As for the rest of the argument, it shows that your grasp of history is weak. The course of action you propose, is the line taken during the rise of Hitler and look where that ended?

Miland said...

"As for the rest of the argument, it shows that your grasp of history is weak."

Ad Hominem arguments are weak. I am sure you can do better. I have four college degrees and have a lot of history education. It just interpret history differently than you.

"The course of action you propose, is the line taken during the rise of Hitler and look where that ended?"

So hence censorship is justified because failure to censor can lead to dictators? Of course, dictators censor too. So what then do we censor? That which is politically incorrect perhaps?

And back to the main argument, censoring and imprisoning Holocaust deniers helps their cause. They can not be silenced in this fashion and perecution invariably makes people think they must have something valid to say.

Jennie W said...

I think there is a difference between jailing a holocaust denier and jailing someone who says the the Apollo moon landing was a fake.

I went and read the article on Irving - he's charged with holocaust denial, not with bad history. In a way, he's charged with harassment. I think that Austria is saying that denying the holocaust is akin to ethnic harassment. People are charged with harassment suits all the time in the US. While I certainly don't think bad history should be a jailable offense, the question really is "is holocaust denial harassment?" Because if it is, there is a precedent throughout the West that this is a jailable offense. I would say that many people would probably agree that holocaust denial is ethnic/religious harassment. Should he go to jail for 10 years for it - probably not.

As to eeore comments on US beliefs that the Holocaust didn't happen - many people in the US don't exactly top the chart on the brain cell count. Researching background evidence is not on the top of their chart of things to do. And many people's answer to something they find distasteful is to pretend it didn't happen.

Now on the comment that you don't know history - well, that is a little laughable. I don't think that wanting to let holocaust deniers have their say is on par with the British appeasement policy with Hitler. Letting Irving speak is not the same as letting Hitler have the Sudetenland.

Miland said...

Thanks for the comments Jennie.

"I think that Austria is saying that denying the holocaust is akin to ethnic harassment."

I understand this but should ethnic sensibilities determine what is studied?

Many Turks would claim that trying to prove the Armenian Holocaust is akin to ethnic harassment of Turks. (And that will get you put in jail in Turkey.) Should historians not study the Armenian Holocaust?

And do not even get into the competing claims of Palestinian and Israeli historians who accuse each other frequently of racism and bias.

Should we not study some historical events if that could result in findings that may upset a group of people?

I do not support the "history" of historical revisionist but I support their right to speak. And I would really hate to see entire portions of history off limits to historians because it may offend people. Silencing the cranks can also chill the rights of real historians.

elementaryhistoryteacher said...

Your post reminds me how important our jobs are as history teachers. I agree with you that revisionists should be allowed to spout their craziness. Hopefully an educated public will evaluate their claims as junk. As educators we need to make sure that we provide students with the skills to review many sources for content and be able to evaluate those sources thoughtfully. Even in my 4th grade classroom I use several different resources for each unit. Students begin to recognize repeated information and always notice new information. When there are contradictions we discuss possible reasons for them.

KNL said...

I agree. I think this sort of government dictated history is terrible. Facts ought to stand on their own. Lies need the help of government and the Holocaust is not a lie.

Ahistoricality said...

eeore's contention that freedom of speech contributed to the rise of Hitler is pretty strong evidence for a distinct lack of historical knowledge, too. Germany, like many European countries, had pretty clear limitations on publication of "dangerous ideas" (most communism and anarchism, not nationalism, of course) in the early 20th century, not to mention limitations on communist parties, etc....

So, in fact, his argument strongly suggests that censorship leads to Hitlers....