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Should Free Speech Allow Holocaust Denial?

By Michael Smerconish

"IF WE REALLY want to know the truth about history, we need to allow freedom of speech."

So I was told by David Duke in an interview three weeks ago via a scratchy connection from Tehran. He was in Iran to participate in Mahmoud Admadinejad's Holocaust conference.

I've followed Duke's career and find his repeated condemnation of Israel and its supporters to be abhorrent. And I knew that accepting an invitation to interview the former Klan Imperial Wizard would cause a stir. But I was willing to speak to him because I was on the verge of visiting the most deadly of all Nazi extermination camps, and I wanted to hear what a self-described revisionist had to say.

The fringe represented by Duke argues that laws in Europe prohibiting Holocaust denial inhibit an analysis that could otherwise reveal the Holocaust to be a historical exaggeration that exists to justify the legitimacy of Israel. No Holocaust, or exaggerated description? Then there's no justification for the creation of the state of Israel in the minds of these few.

Now that I'm back from my visit to Auschwitz, I find that I agree with Duke that Europeans should be free to debate the Holocaust, but not for reasons he would agree with. Having seen the ghastly evidence, I believe it's far easier to defeat the deniers with fact and logic rather than risk fostering the skepticism that comes from making those views illegal. It is through the clash of truth and falsity that the truths of the Holocaust are most readily seen.

A grim trip to the killing fields

My trip had been planned for nearly a year. I'm one of a half-dozen Philadelphia friends, three Jewish, who regularly travel after New Year's to historic sites.

We began in Berlin at the Wannsee villa where, on Jan. 20, 1942, 15 officials of the Third Reich plotted the "final solution." In their meeting room, we read the protocol written by Adolf Eichmann that set forth the plan to murder European Jews.

Then we visited Track 17 in the fashionable Grunewalt section of Berlin, at the former station that was the point of departure for Jews from the area being sent to the camps. Listed next to the tracks are the dates, number of passengers and destination of the railcars.

Next stop: the other end of those tracks, in Poland.

On a raw, dark, rainswept day, we spent four hours walking the grounds of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

We saw it all. At Auschwitz I, we walked through the infamous gate ("Work Brings Freedom"). We toured the surviving crematorium. We saw the ghastly displays of human hair, personal effects, suitcases, even shoe polish, all confiscated from the prisoners who'd packed in haste under the ruse of "resettlement." Also there: empty canisters that held pellets of Zyklon B, the agent used to exterminate human life in the crematoriums.

At Auschwitz II-Birkenau, we stood on the platform where Jews were divided between those who were to be immediately gassed and those who would live for, at least for a while. We also surveyed the ruins of crematorium II, the most prolific of the death machines, largely destroyed by the Nazis in an effort to hide their crimes against humanity.

Outlawing the denial?

The critical question: If the evidence of the Holocaust was right before my eyes, should all argument to the contrary be outlawed? Close to 20 nations say yes, and ban Holocaust denial. Austria only recently released historian David Irving, imprisoned for this very crime. Our guide was one of many who believe those laws justified. She thinks they're a safeguard for properly educating future generations about what occurred.

I agree, we must ensure the understanding of future generations. But I don't see these laws as a way to do it. Banning Holocaust debate would be like America disallowing argument on the wacky 9/11 Internet conspiracy theories.

There are many credible-looking Web sites that have become clearinghouses for rumor and innuendo about the attack on the Pentagon. A missile, some argue, not an airplane. (What then happened to American Airlines Flight 77 and its passengers?)

The most effective way of dealing with such propaganda is to discredit it point by point, not to make it unlawful, which runs the risk of fueling skepticism. Popular Mechanics did so exquisitely in both magazine and then book form.

It should be the same with Holocaust revisionists. The way to combat their mindset is with total openness and a climate of candor about all aspects of World War II. That includes providing full access, even to those locations that run the risk of cultivating morbid curiosity.

In Berlin, we stayed in the Hotel Adlon at the foot of the Bradenburg Gate. The concierge provided me with a walking tour map of the neighborhood. Included were both the Reichstag, home of the German Parliament, and the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. Missing, however, was any reference to what's beneath a nondescript parking lot just 100 yards behind the hotel: Hitler's bunker.

Not until the World Cup came to Germany last year was there any sign to note the significance of the spot where Hitler killed himself as Russian troops stormed the Reichstag. That too is the wrong response to a hideous chapter of German history. Not only should the location of the bunker be noted, it should be unearthed and opened to the public.

We need the bunker reality

Those were my views upon arriving back home. But my reflection wasn't over.

I then had the chance to question one of the world's foremost historians, Sir Martin Gilbert, official biographer of Winston Churchill and author of "Auschwitz and the Allies" and "The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War." I asked him if he thinks Holocaust denial should be against the law.

"This is a very difficult question," he said. He attended almost every day of the trial that convicted David Irving, "and I heard from the mouth of the Holocaust denier the most terrifying racism and anti-Semitism. I thought to myself, if this person is allowed to spread his word to ignorant audiences or audiences who want to be prejudiced, that's a bad thing.

"So when the Austrian government imprisoned him for his denial, I thought, 'Well, he knew the law, he broke the law, and the Austrians have a right to feel that this is something inflammatory and wrong.'

"I think every country has the right to its own laws... As you say, free speech is tremendously important in our society, and debate and argument, and I'm all for that. I'm all for every Holocaust denier being able to speak in a forum where there's someone who is going to challenge him or her. At the same time, countries like Poland know that Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, racism take on a life of their own."

I told Gilbert that I believe we give credibility to the minute number of deniers by not allowing that kind of dialogue. I worry that there will be a level of skepticism in future generations who'll ask why we're able to debate anything but that.

"I think the key word is dialogue," Gilbert said. "I'm totally in favor of every Holocaust denier being able to speak, provided he or she allows there to be a dialogue. I'm willing to travel the world or get up at the crack of dawn in order to be present at such a debate. And many other historians, Jews and non-Jews, will do the same. So that's fine.

"And the other thing I feel... is that Holocaust denial is really quite a minor thing. I mean it has its fling on the Internet; it has its few adherents who travel everywhere, as they did to Ahmadinejad's anti-Holocaust conference - they made a pathetic showing actually there.

"I think that what is important is the amount of material about the Holocaust, much of that you'd have seen in the Auschwitz bookshop, published by Auschwitz itself: records, diaries, the enormous number of superb memoirs... These things are available, they're taught in school. American schools have a very good record mandating Holocaust teaching."

I told Gilbert about my Berlin experience and suggested that the Fuehrerbunker be opened to the public. He agreed.

"When I traveled around Europe with my students about 10 years ago, and I wrote a book about that called 'Holocaust Journey'... I was myself astonished, and I mentioned in the book, that there wasn't a plaque there. I'm glad to hear there is, albeit only a small one...

"There should be complete transparency and the bunker should be open for the world to see...

'SO LET THE bunker be open, let it become a place of pilgrimage, if you like, and a place of learning, as so many Holocaust sites are today."

Finally, I shared all this with a close friend who lost family in the Holocaust. We discussed whether free speech should exist on the issue of Holocaust denial.

He was unsure. But he acknowledged that laws banning Holocaust denial are probably an insufficient blanket to put out that fire.

Michael Smerconish is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News and the author of Muzzled. He can be heard weekdays 5:30-9 a.m. on 1210/AM in Philadelphia. Contact him via

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