Anti-Denial Laws: The Politics of Remembering

In many countries it is criminal to deny the Holocaust; yet, many historians have argued heavily against this concept. Do laws like these, which are passed by parliaments, unjustifiably limit the freedom of expression? Or are they necessary in the remembrance of genocides, such as the Holocaust, or the Armenian genocide?

Protesters at a demonstration against anti-Semitism in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018.
(Credit: Henry Nicholas, Reuters)

Holocaust deniers either state the Jews were not killed in a systemic genocide or minimise its extent; some claims suggest they were instead victims to disease, or other forms of indiscriminate hardship. The reality, as we well know, was “the most documented tragedy in recorded history”, as Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, Elie Wiesel declared during a discussion in 1999 at the White House. Due to the indescribable suffering inflicted upon many by the Nazi regime, many countries have in response passed Anti-Denial Laws, which criminalised both the promotion of Nazi ideology, as well as the denial of the Holocaust. In France, there is a more general law on genocide denial, geared perhaps to the Armenian genocide, which was commemorated formally for the first time in 2019. President Macron said during his 2017 presidential campaign, “France is, first and foremost, the country that knows how to look history in the face”, setting a precedent perhaps for other countries to not only set Anti-Denial laws, but to also commemorate such genocides. 

However, historians protested heavily against the more general law on genocide denial in France, and on the concept more broadly. As Garton Ash writes for The Guardian, such laws “curtail free expression”. Through restricting this by law, regardless of good intentions, other freedoms which free expression sustains are suffocated. Although ex-German justice minister Brigitte Zypreis argues “this historical experience puts Germany under a permanent obligation to combat systematically every form of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia”, Garton Ash contends there is no evidence that a ban on free expression will make any significant difference. Many of the countries with laws against Holocaust denial (such as France, Germany, Lithuania, Romania, and Belgium) happen to also be some of the countries with particularly strong right-wing xenophobic parties. It is of course not that these parties exist due to the existence of Anti-Denial laws, but independent of this. 

When the French Anti-Denial law was passed in 2006, many felt, again, that this was a repression of free expression. Even the renowned Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink passionately opposed such laws, as they placed limitations on the discussion of what happened to thousands of Armenians in 1915. While in Turkey, it was illegal for Dink to describe these events as ‘genocide’, for which he was tried. Before his death, Dink responded to the first moot of such a law in France: “I cannot accept that in France you could possibly now be tried for denying the Armenian genocide. If this bill becomes law, I will be among the first to head for France and break the law.” He continued somewhat humorously, that then we could all watch whether it would be the Turkish Republic or the French government to condemn him first. 

Anti-Denial laws while necessary in the remembrance of genocides, have proven a particularly contentious topic for historians. Although we promote free speech in society, there has to be limits. Therefore, while I have discussed both views, the promotion of free speech should not act as a gateway to hate speech in any form.

Emily Glynn

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