Using the law to salve a guilty national conscience
You automatically lose an argument if you call the other person a Nazi, states an adage coined by Mike Godwin, a writer about the internet, in 1990. With that in mind, it is wise to proceed with caution when discussing analogies between the Holocaust and anything else. Yet as Russia's draft law on criminalising challenges to the Stalinist version of history comes closer to reality, it is worth looking at the successes and failures of other attempts to make certain views of history illegal.
Germany, Austria and more than a dozen other European countries have laws that more or less ban "denial" of the Holocaust. Sometimes these are part of general prohibitions of Nazi activity. Sometimes they are more generally framed as anti-hatred laws.
How far that is justifiable in theory is debatable. Every country curbs free speech to some extent (look at American companies' use of corporate libel laws, for example). Whether one particular set of sensitivities deserves more protection than another is a matter for public debate: if voters mind enough one way or another, the politicians will pass or repeal the laws concerned.
From that point of view, it is hard to quibble with Russia's desire to protect and sanctify the memory of its millions of soldiers who fell in the fight against Nazism. As the western wartime allies wallow in nostalgia, it is worth remembering that more than ten times as many "Soviet" (admittedly a loose term) soldiers died in combat than British and American troops combined.
But it is also worth noting that Holocaust-denial laws have done little to restrict the pernicious myths peddled by those who think the Jews were the victors, not the victims, in the second world war. In fact, a bit of legal persecution is just what those advocating fringe history most want. They can argue that the authorities are trying to suppress the "truth" because they have no other answer to it. What is in reality little more than a bunch of quibbles, anomalies, loose ends and historical puzzles becomes a grand scheme of events, and thus more potent in attracting the gullible or prejudiced.
The best antidote to Holocaust denial is truth, such as the excellent nizkor.org, which provides a painstaking refutation of the mythmongers' cases, backed up with meticulous documentation. (An enterprising group of researchers ought to provide a similar dossier to rebut the equally absurd claims of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists).
Of course, questioning the Stalinist version of history is not directly comparable to Holocaust denial. If anything, the label should be on the other side. When a Russian defence-ministry website can argue straightfacedly that it was Poland that started the second world war, it is hard to accept that the authorities in Moscow are really interested in nailing falsehoods, rather than—as they seem to be—promoting them.
But Poland has not responded by banning the import of modern Russian textbooks, or passing a law making the denial of the Katyn massacre (which Stalin ordered and then blamed on the Nazis) into a criminal offence.
Banning a particular version of history is usually a sign of a guilty conscience. In the case of continental Europe, it is to make amends for collaboration and perpetration during the darkest years of the last century. In Russia's case, what should be a source of proud sorrow—the heroism of those who fought and defeated Hitler—is being used to cover up Stalin's behaviour: both his bungling of the Soviet defences against Hitler's attack, and before that conspiring with the Nazis to carve up the Baltics, Balkans and central Europe.
(Europe.view column, Economist.com Jun 11th 2009)
Let us have no lies (2)