In the 19th century, Baudelaire satirized what he called “l’esprit Belge”: Oh, were that Baudelaire were with us today! The latest folly from that seat of unelected, unaccountable, untaxed bureaucrats is an effort to criminalize Holocaust denial--and not just denying the Holocaust, but also “trivializing” it. “Laws that make denying or trivialising the Holocaust a criminal offence punishable by jail sentences,” reports the Financial Times,
will be introduced across the European Union, according to a proposal expecting to win backing from ministers Thursday.Has it come to this? No one has less time for “Holocaust deniers” (David Irving & Co.) than I do. As I put it in a note for The New Criterion way back in September 1993,
Offenders will face up to three years in jail under the proposed legislation, which will also apply to inciting violence against ethnic, religious or national groups.
For most of us, the idea of denying the Holocaust--the systematic extermination of some six million European Jews by the Nazis in World War II--is about as plausible as denying the sphericity of the earth. Of course we have all heard of Holocaust deniers. The image we are likely to conjure up is of a right-wing kook who visits the barber too often and distributes books like The Hitler We Loved and Why. Why should we take them seriously? After all, there are also people who deny that the earth is round. . . .
[I]t is important to understand that denying the Holocaust is only one of many efforts to undermine the authority of historical truth. The phenomenon of Afrocentricism (which, incidentally, often indulges in a bit of Holocaust denial as a sideline) belongs here, as do many varieties of academic literary “theory” that now reign in the academy: deconstruction, extreme examples of “reader-response” theory, new historicism, etc. For all of them, facts are fluid and historical truth is a species of fiction: what actually happened in the past, or what a given text actually means, are for them ridiculous questions. Nor are these attitudes confined to the cloistered purlieus of the academy: in watered-down versions they have become standard-issue liberal sentiment: Rather than risk having to make an unpleasant judgment about the facts, deny that there are any such things as facts.
But what sort of political failure has to happen that you would actually incarcerate people for denying a fact? (The odious David Irving, by the way, is currently in jail for exactly this.) How tenuous a grasp on power must a regime have before it entertains such expedients?
The European Union is a Janus-faced entity: ridiculous but also minatory, depending on which side you happen to face. This latest foray into ineptitude will not be the last--but think about it: it’s not just denying the Holocaust that carries a jail sentence (and also, by the way, denying the massacre in Rwanda--but only there: Armenians take note!) but also trivializing (or even trivialising it. What can this mean? My friend Mark Steyn once suggested that the Hutu national anthem should be “Toot Toot Tutsi Goodbye.” Is that not “trivializ(s)ing” the Rwandan genocide?
OK, the EU blimpocrats “stressed that the wording [of the proposed law] was designed to avoid criminalising comical plays or films about the Holocaust,” etc. Gee, thanks! And who decides, Jacques? Maybe the same people who made xenophobia and racism a crime in Europe, who must be related to the folks who made it a crime for journalists to criticize the diktats of their masters in Brussels.
The moral, Aesop (or Tocqueville) would have said, is: Be afraid, be very afraid.
Update: A reader points out that David Irving is no longer in jail; although given a three-year sentence, he was released after about a year.