In 1986, in his book The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi wrote about the difficulties in explaining Auschwitz to new generations:
I remember with a smile the adventure I had several years ago in a fifth grade classroom, where I had been invited to comment on my book and answer the pupils’ questions. An alert-looking little boy, apparently at the head of the class, asked me the obligatory question: “But how come you didn’t escape?” I briefly explained to him [about the malnutrition and starvation, the watchtowers and electrified fencing, the fanaticism of the guards, and the fact that there was nowhere to flee to even if I escaped]; not quite convinced, he asked me to draw a sketch of the camp on the blackboard …My interlocutor studied the drawings for a few instants, asked me for a few further clarifications, then he presented to me the plan he had worked out: here, at night, cut the throat of the sentinel; then, put on his clothes; immediately after this, run over there to the power station and cut off the electricity, so the searchlights would go out and the high tension fence would be deactivated; after that I could leave without any trouble. He added seriously: “If it should happen to you again, do as I told you; you’ll see that you’ll be able to do it.”
That little anecdote made me smile too, but it’s also worrying – it shows how difficult it was for young people to get their head round the Holocaust, even in the 1980s. With each generation, we’re further removed from what took place, and it’s an unsettling sign of the times that nowadays, people can claim that the Nazis didn’t systematically murder millions.
It’s an even more unsettling sign of the times when we start to take those people seriously. The EU is very wrongly proposing a blanket ban on Holocaust denial, as well as “grossly trivialising” other genocides. The suggestion has been around for six years, and since then, there’s been much debate about the exact wording, and which crimes against humanity should be included. (The Armenian genocide, for example, is specifically exempted, to avoid upsetting Turkey.)
There’s very little point in me going back over the classic arguments for unrestricted free speech. I believe there’s no idea so right, or so wrong, that it should be exempt from being discussed, but that argument’s been made for centuries, and much more convincingly than I could put it. What I am certain of, however, is that this sort of legislation will largely help the far right. You only need to look at what happened a couple of years back, when pseudo-historian and revisionist David Irving was arrested in Austria under existing Holocaust denial laws. The British National Party used the news story as a springboard for this very dangerous article, a classic example of the Trojan horse tactics of the far right.
I say “Trojan horse” because the BNP are making a legitimate complaint against a genuine wrong (in this case, a writer being arrested for suggesting a banned idea) – but at the same time, they’re allowing several outrageous claims to piggyback on a reasonable-sounding article. Half of the BNP article is a coherent defence of freedom of speech; the other half consists of subtle insinuations about the truth of the Holocaust, and a defence of David Irving’s deliberate forgeries.
Just over a decade after the Rwandan genocide, and in the middle of the genocide in Darfur, the BNP are able to get away with saying that the events of WWII are “matters of history, not of 21st century politics” – although these events couldn’t be more relevant to us today. And in a moment of extreme cynicism, the BNP claim that discussions about the truth of the Holocaust are irrelevant to the debate, purely a matter for historians, and that they are entirely neutral on the issue – despite the fact that they're sticking up for the reputation of an entirely discredited writer, and defending his debunked views! What coherence.
If we ban Holocaust denial, we’ll give the far right many more martyrs like Irving. And every time the BNP have a legitimate grievance to write about, they’ll manage to sneak in half a dozen revisionist, or downright racist ideas, under a veneer of plausibility. The BNP may claim to be appalled by a ban on Holocaust denial, but if the EU follows through with its idiotic idea, Nick Griffin and his ilk will be laughing all the way to the polling station.