Criminalising Holocaust Denial

Lord Haw-Haw and Holocaust Denial

by Gwydion M. Williams

Tony Blair [in 1997] lent support to the notion that it should be made a criminal offence to deny to Nazi Holocaust. Has he quite thought the matter through?

For a start, just what is it to be a crime to deny? Many scholars do not endorse the popular figure of six million Jews. Six million was a piece of journalese based on the original Anglo-American estimates of 5,721,000. It later turned out that Stalin had shipped out large numbers of East European Jews from areas he controlled before the Nazi invasion. Not all the missing were dead, though rather more than four million Jews in Nazi Europe were definitely killed or died of neglect. But just where does one draw the line between criminal ‘denialism’ and reasonable scholarly doubt from persons of impeccable anti-Nazi backgrounds?

Shall one also make it criminal to omit mention of the extermination of several more millions Slavs and Gypsies and homosexuals of all ethnic backgrounds? Also could one have a special clause forbidding anti-abortionists from making Nazi comparisons without mentioning that the Nazis themselves reversed the liberalism of German democracy and passed very strict anti-abortion laws?

Could one not also take the matter further, and prosecute anyone who denied that North America was founded by wholesale massacre and ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Native Americans? Or that Hong Kong was acquired by Britain in defence of opium smugglers – opium which was grown as a legal monopoly of the East India Company? If the aim is to root out bad history, why not go after some of the central mythology instead of just the views of a few right-wing malignants?

Nuremburg was an act of vengeance dressed up in the form of law. Virtually everything that the accused had done had also been done by the allied powers. The best efforts of lawyers were unable to find the surviving Nazi leaders guilty of anything Britain hadn’t also done. Only the Extermination Camps were unique.

The allies avoided possible embarrassment by specifying that Nuremburg was only concerned with war crimes committed by the defeated powers. Had one of the allied powers decided to finish off remaining Jews on own territory, the Nuremburg Tribunal could have done nothing. And there was a very deliberate decision to do nothing and say nothing about the various expulsions of unwanted minorities in Eastern Europe. Even ‘nice’ Czechoslovakia was brutal with its German minority, which was ‘ethically cleansed’ in much the same way as the various Bosnian factions have purged rival populations. (Croats expelling Muslims from their part of Mostar, most recently and very embarrassingly for their allied backers.)

Only the Extermination Camps were unique. Britain had invented Concentration Camps [during the Second Boer War], and used them to break the will of both the South African Boers and those South African Blacks who took the Boer side. Britain never had any Extermination Camps, any more than Soviet Russia ever had. Both had the same approach to unwanted or rebellious populations. Do not specifically kill them, but by all means neglect them to death.

In the case of the Nazis, a small group in the SS were responsible for millions of unwanted people. Neglecting them to death was likely to take too long. So they went one step further and established Extermination Camps. It is unclear how many people outside of this small SS circle knew about this. Warnings were given to both the Pope and the Allies, who however chose to do nothing and say nothing. It is unclear how many of the Nazi leaders were told of this extra policy, even though Nuremburg duly held them all responsible.

Goering and the other Nazis were of course well aware that Europe’s Jewish population was being rounded up and shut away. Just as people in Britain were aware that ‘enemy aliens’ were being rounded up and shut away in the early days of the war, even though they were Jews and anti-Nazi activists and showed themselves determined allies when they were later let out and allowed to do their bit in the war.

Goering was sentenced to be hung for war crimes, even though he hadn’t done a single thing that Allied leaders hadn’t also done. It is generally agreed that his suicide was only possible because he was helped by some of the Allied soldiers who were guarding him. They surely did the right thing. Killing him as a dangerous enemy was fair enough. Hanging him as a criminal merely degraded the whole procedure.

Lord Haw-Haw’s hanging was another piece of jiggery-pokery. As a mere broadcaster, he could not be plausibly set up as a war criminal. He was instead found guilty of treason, even though he had very clearly rejected Britain and put himself on the German Nazi side well before the war started. British justice decided that a British subject is not free to renounce Britain and support some potential enemy, even though there is no question of deception or betrayal of trust and secrets. The United States government could have executed Jane Fonda by just the same rule, apart from the minor detail that Vietnam was not classed as a war. Legal jiggery-pokery between the President and Congress meant that Vietnam was never actually a war, merely a rather large conflict involving armies, navies and the air force.

In the case of Lord Haw-Haw, there was an added complication. He turned out never to have been a British subject, which seemingly made it impossible to convict him. He had however managed to get hold of a British passport when he made his final decision to quit Britain and cast in his lot with Nazi Germany. England’s best lawyers managed to argue that made him effectively a British subject and thus liable to be hung. And hung he was. Quite pointlessly, since most of the soldiers who had won the actual victory over Nazism saw this as a brutal act by a ruling class that had been less than determined to stop Nazism in the early days when it could have been done very easily.

Lord Haw-Haw’s execution gave a marginal dignity to a nasty little man who would otherwise have gone down as a clown wilfully attached to a thoroughly bad cause. A law against ‘denialism’ is bound to do the same for right-wing malignants who are currently ignored. It has indeed been the pro-Nazi obsession of the Far Right that has made them ineffective, since the anti-Nazi struggle is part of the half-truths and mythology on which mainstream British nationalism depends.

Throughout this article, I have insisted that British and Soviet actions were very much of a muchness, while the Nazis exceeded them only in establishing Extermination Camps. No doubt some readers will want to cite claims that the Soviet era caused ten, twenty or even forty million deaths. But just how are these figures derived? And what would you get if the British Empire were to be audited on the same basis?

Soviet-era death estimates typically include everything, even Bolsheviks killed by White Guards or Nazi. In a sense, the Bolsheviks could be held responsible even for the death of their own supporters. It would not have happened if there had been no October Revolution, though few states escape at least one violent convulsion during their entry into the modern world.

But if Lenin and Stalin are to be held responsible for deaths they did not wish for nor plan, but which did result from their policies, then what about British responsibility? If Britain had stayed out of World War One, there would have been no millions of deaths in trenches. Also most likely no Soviet Union and no Nazi Germany. The same would have been true if Britain had made it clear it would support France against any German attack, since in that case Germany would hardly have been so militant in supporting Austria against Serbian terrorism in the then-Austrian province of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

You might mention the Ukrainian famine in the 1930. Was it so different from Ireland’s potato famine in the 1840s? The main difference was that the Irish could not plausibly be seen as a threat to the British Empire, having in fact supplied it with some of its best and most loyal soldiers and administrators. Irish Catholic loyalism had flourished during the early 19th century, and was only ended by Britain’s stubborn refusal to help the hungry after the potato crop failed.

British opinion in the 19th century was quite comfortable with genocide, so long as it was confined to the ‘lesser breeds’. Darwin was happy to see British colonisation and conquest ‘leading to the inevitable extinction of all those low and mentally undeveloped populations with which the Europeans come into conflict’. Also ‘high [British-origin] New Zealanders say the [Maori] race dying out like their own native rat.’ (Darwin, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Michael Joseph London 1991, page 521).

Mainstream British racism differed from the German sort, only in as much as it classified the Jews as generally useful and an asset to the Empire.

Apart from some dormant laws on heresy, British law does not forbid ‘bad opinions’. It has a depressingly bad legacy of ‘bad opinions’ of its own, that should be openly confronted and rooted out in preference to bits of imported right-wing crankery. And it should be done by reason and argument, not law. People should be free to deny the entire 2nd World War if they feel like it. Insults to persons or groups are acts of aggression and will be dealt with either legally or illegally. We have to have laws in society is to work. Opinions about historic facts should be off limits.

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 1997

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