Birds of a feather

Germany has tossed a Holocaust denier into prison, and the American Christianist right is all outraged about it. Or so PZ Myers tells me; it’s telling that I had to learn about this from him, as this hasn’t been a big story here at all.

As you probably know, it is illegal in Germany to deny the Holocaust. Lutheran pastor Johannes Lerle denied it publicly; he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to a year behind bars. So far, so yawn. Germany has its share of reactionaries, but any of them stupid enough to deny the Holocaust publicly are punished; end of story as far as the Germans are concerned.

Not in the USA, though. For some on that side of the Atlantic, Pastor Lerle is a Christian martyr.

Lerle is no stranger to the lash of the law. He is an anti-choice extremist; though, as he has not SFAIK killed anybody, not as extreme as his American counterparts. One thing he likes to do is post to the internet the names of women who have had abortions and the doctors who provided them. (You stay classy, Pastor Lerle!) At the time of his sentencing, he had six prior convictions, including two short jail terms.

Perhaps it is because Lerle is so extraordinarily offensive that he has earned the sympathy of the American right; like closes rank with like. The gibbering maniacs of the ‘Free Republic’ website (they’ll get no link from me) accuse the German state of persecuting Lerle for preaching the Christian religion. (In an extraordinary example of pot/kettle projection, the freepers also paint the German people as ‘scum’ and ‘fascist thugs’.) And, as PZ tells us, William Dembski direly predicts that, since Germany persecutes Christians and all, they’ll soon be jailing people who preach ‘intelligent design’ creationism.

Untwist those knickers, my American wingnut friends! Lerle is a ghastly man with ghastly beliefs, but he is perfectly free to hold and disseminate his anti-choice views and, if so inclined, ID creationism as well. He’s not in pokey for any of that; he’s in for publishing neonazi propaganda.

This is not the first weird American obsession with the travails of the German lunatic fringe. It never made the headlines here, but apparently the US Christianist right was all afroth over a girl taken from her parents because they insisted on home-schooling her. (A court later returned the girl, but underscored that home-schooling is illegal.) Yet another example, it would seem, of the Secular Humanist Liberal One-World Black Helicopter Antichrist Government oppressing the People of the Lord. It’s hard to know the exact facts of the case, as I can’t find any articles about it except in the American wingnut media. (It’s not even clear that religious fundamentalism was the parents’ motive, as it so often is America.) But, for anybody who knows anything about Germany, the notion that this was an act of the antireligious left is ludicrous — the state concerned was Bavaria, after all. (If you don’t know Germany, Bavaria has been ruled for decades by a populist religious-right government — just the sort of government the freepers and creationists would like to see in place in America.) Now, you can argue that the German states ought to permit home-schooling. (As long as parents teach to the set curriculum and the kids can pass the same tests taken by those in state schools, I’d be inclined to permit it myself.) But the fact remains that, right now, Germany doesn’t permit home-schooling. If you don’t send your kids to school, the school authorities will follow up. And, if you are recalcitrant and continue to keep your kids out of school, at some point the state will force you to send them, placing the kids with foster parents if necessary. There is nothing Black Helicopter about it.

Similarly, one can easily find the German laws prohibiting Holocaust denial disturbing. (Certainly PZ does, and nobody can accuse him of right-wing sympathies.) Holocaust deniers are loathesome toads to be sure. But freedom of speech is a very high value, and anyway, sunshine is the best disinfectant and all that. In principle, I think the German law should change. In practice, I fully understand why Germans, of all people, would want to err on the side of caution, especially when there are still victims — and perpetrators — alive. (I’d have a lot less tolerance for the German restrictions if they are still on the books in 100 years.) However that may be, right now German law makes Holocaust denial a criminal offence. Johannes Lerle was found guilty of committing that offence; he is a criminal and is being punished as one. That he is for many other reasons a disgusting human being is, pace the American right wing, irrelevant. There is no law in Germany that prohibits human beings from being disgusting.

20 thoughts on “Birds of a feather

  1. It goes a bit farther than that. He did not call for a repetition. That would be a crime almost everywhere, probably even in Iran.

    He did not justify or condone it or propose mitigating circumstances. Even in this case you can make a strong case that justification of a crime is an implicit justification of a repition.

    He denied it. The problem with that is that it allows the state to define official truth, with the force of law behind them. Facts are facts. They are above the law.

  2. Nail, head, bang. The other point being that if the German people want to change any of this, they are perfectly at liberty to toddle along to a polling station and elect people who will do the business. And they don’t.

    Nice to see you back, Mrs T.

  3. The problem with that is that it allows the state to define official truth, with the force of law behind them. Facts are facts. They are above the law.

    Facts are indeed facts, Oliver. Which aspects of the law’s ‘official truth’ — i.e., that the Holocaust occurred — do you think are not facts?

    chris y: thanks, it’s nice to be back.

  4. “The problem with that is that it allows the state to define official truth, with the force of law behind them. Facts are facts. They are above the law.”

    In a sense you are right in that the state clearly forbids denial of that truth. However, as Mrs T pointed out, the Holocaust IS a fact and as far as I know there are no laws against denying other historical facts (except maybe the genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman empire). Though it would be interesting to see what happens if somebody started denying the existence of WWII nazi’s.

    Personally I believe it is a sad state of affairs that we should have laws against Holocaust denial in the first place, but for the time being I am comfortable with this one particular restriction on free speech (as an exception) seeing that it was partly the exercise of that very same free speech (verbal incitement to hate) that led to the Holocaust in the first place and that similar sentiments are still present today, albeit more or less covert in the case of hatred against Jewish people.

  5. One more thought. A long time ago the Church had laws against denying that the earth was the centre of the universe. This law served only to preserve and enforce an official “doctrine”, something which would be totally unacceptable in a modern, democratic society.

    Laws against Holocaust denial do not, as far as I can see, serve to enforce an official “doctrine”. Unless, of course, you see protection of a minority that “factually” suffered from another doctrine as a doctrine.

    Saying the earth was not the centre of the universe only threatened some people’s power base, saying the Holocaust never occurred, in spite of all the facts proving otherwise, revives old traumas and has a real impact on people’s lives. In both cases feelings are hurt, but there is a huge difference between reliving a trauma and having your convictions challenged.

  6. And talking about creationism and the state defining an official truth, what about this:

    “Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees.” (…) “In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.”

  7. There are many restrictions on free speech almost everywhere – for example, where is one allowed to libel people?

    If our newspapers reported correctly, the wife of Mr Beckham successfully sued a US publication recently for saying she was rude, so obviously “freedom of speech” doesn’t mean you can say what you like, when you like, not even in the US.

  8. Yep, Suvi. In a way it comes down to common decency, isn’t it ? That is so sad about the Holocaust law. Apparently we have to “force” some people to remain decent about certain things.

    And as far as tabloids go (I assume that is what that US publication is), their very existence is a serious indictment of our so-called Western “civilization”.

  9. First of all, it will not remain one law. The next exception seems to be the Armenian or the Ruandan genocide.
    Can I say that eg, the Cambodian atrocities were worse because a larger percentage of the population was murdered? Do you see where this leads?

    Secondly, if this is the case, obviously there are two kinds of truths. Officially protected truths and others. Do we also limit equal protection by the law?

  10. Guy, it’s about common sense. The Germans have good reasons for a law like this, and if it means freedom of speech takes a back seat, I agree with them, because they’re right.

  11. Hardly common sense. It’s an attempt to close the barn door after the horse has gotten away, driven by guilt. Understandable, but still wrong.

    Common sense tells you that the surest way to undermine your credibility is to resort to threats.

  12. I understand the tragedy of the holocaust but I’m tired of it being such an issue. I think the public is able to condemn such speech without it being illegal.

  13. “I understand the tragedy of the holocaust but I’m tired of it being such an issue.”

    I appreciate what you are saying, but at the same time I keep wondering why certain people must insist on denying it fully knowing it is illegal and I cannot help but think in some cases Holocaust denial is just a part of something bigger, a way to pave a road to something else. But that is just a hunch.

  14. As far as I see it, the law against Holocaust denial can make some sense, in so far as such denial might constitute a major attempt at rehabilitating the Nazi ideology and regime (basically, once the most major atrocity that resulted from these gets handwaved away, it removes major obstacle to the slippery slope that goes over re-interpreting the war, self-pity over the bombing Dresden, the Versailles treaty, etc etc). This is however, as can be seen from above, a dual-edged sword at best, and possibly the law should be retooled to be more context-sensitive (although such has its own slippery slope).

  15. it will not remain one law. The next exception seems to be the Armenian or the Ruandan genocide.

    Really? I wasn’t aware the German government was considering making it illegal to deny the Armenian genocide. (And does anybody even want to deny the Rwandan genocide?)

    I do know the French were thinking about criminalising denial of the Armenian genocide, and for all I know might have gone ahead and done so. Without taking sides in the debate whether what the Turks did to the Armenians constituted genocide (and if I were taking sides, I’d say that it did), I strongly oppose such a law.

    Now, can you see why I might be so strongly against the French law while being prepared to tolerate the German law? (Note that it is merely a question of toleration; as a matter of principle, I’m against the German law too.) Here’s the distinction: in the latter case, the prohibition is imposed by the very nation that committed the atrocity, and within living memory. In the former case, the prohibition is imposed by a completely different country, and in reference to acts that took place beyond the scope of living memory.

    In criminalising Holocaust denial, postwar Germany was policing itself. Its democracy was a very new and shaky thing. Plenty of its people (and too many of its postwar political leaders) had been enthusiastic supporters of what went before and lots of them would have been only to happy to downplay, or even defend, the nazi regime. Denying what that regime had done was a big part of this problem. Today, Germany’s democracy has matured, but there are still a lot of people alive who lived during the nazi era. I agree that the German Holocaust denial law is illiberal. But I can understand why it is in place. As I said, if it’s still there in 100 years’ time, when the Holocaust has well and truly become past history, I’d think differently about the matter.

    But I see nothing to excuse the French law. If Turkey were to enact such a law, I’d be inclined to give it the same pass I give the Germans (though given that the Armenian genocide lies farther in the past than the Holocaust, it’s a closer call). Similarly, if Rwanda wishes to make it illegal to deny that Hutus quite recently slaughtered a lot of Tutsis (and a lot of Hutus as well), I could understand it; but Germany would have no business passing such a law.

  16. You can’t police thoughts. You can use threats to keep people from saying things. Consequently things didn’t get discussed. That was shortly after the war.

    There are people today who think the Nazis were good. They won’t go away because we have laws. Today they can always say that they are not allowed to make their case. And they are right. And some on the fringe will give them the benefit of the doubt, as logic dictates.

    Every time a neonazi is jailed his cause is advanced and you have one more who is commited to the movement as a convict is unable to go back to normal society.

  17. Oliver, I don’t agree

    If I did, I’d have to believe that a) neonazis were very popular, and benefited from the publicity; and b) that no rehabilitation took place in Germany.

    Do you have any evidence this is the case?

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