By Dr Haider Shah
September 29, 2012
In the face of overwhelming archival evidence, when one denies the occurrence of communal violence, it can be an early warning sign of more sinister things to come
Of late, in the backdrop of the blasphemous movie outrage, there has been a rising chorus of equating Holocaust denial with blasphemy-related offences. Mimicking some honourable media juggernauts, our young e-jihadis have also been citing it profusely over social networking sites. The Holocaust-related discourse, however, took a very serious turn when even our worthy prime minister used the catchphrase of ‘Holocaust denial’ while announcing a national day for rioting, pillaging and killing with impunity. Ignoring the historical context of laws and usages is a dangerous pursuit and must be corrected to purge our discourse of overheated utterances. With this in mind, let us examine why Holocaust denial is a sensitive issue.
In the 1930s, a deep sense of unfair treatment by the victors of World War 1, laced with claims of racial superiority, dominated the discourse of German nationalists. The genocide of non-German communal groups by the Nazi regime was, therefore, not a sudden or accidental action. Hitler was infested with extreme racism when he was destitute and relied on state welfare support. A staunch believer in the supremacy of an Aryan ‘master race’ in order to attain ‘racial purity’, he was determined to purge Germany of all impure races. On assuming power, he propagated his racist ideology through publicly displayed posters, radio, movies, classrooms, and newspapers. Even science was not spared as German scientists applied eugenics to lend credibility to the Nazi ideology of racial cleansing. The Romani people, an ethnic minority of about 30,000, were the first target of this ideology in Germany. Even Germans were not safe from Hitler’s lunatic ideas as handicapped individuals and about 500 African-German children were subjected to forced sterilisation in 1933 so that they were unable to produce offspring. Schoolteachers were also employed for the purpose of poisoning young minds of pupils with the so-called ‘principles’ of racial science. Based on the skull size, nose length, and colour of pupils’ hair and eyes, school children were categorised as pure and impure Germans and the process would result in state-sponsored humiliation of Jewish and Romani students.
The Holocaust was the culmination of this racist policy of a totalitarian regime imbued with a perverted notion of nationalism. Europe had been witnessing the eruption of racially motivated violence after the volcano would remain dormant for some time. Being successful in trade and education, Jews would often qualify as convenient scapegoats whenever the economy had taken a downward turn. Unlike gypsies and disabled Germans, Jews were a thriving community and hence attracted the wrath of the Nazi racist regime with full force. Starting with a social boycott of Jews, the policy soon turned to the ‘Final Solution’, i.e. physical elimination of the impure Jewish community from the German-controlled lands in Europe. A wide body of archival material is available on the net that can help any curious reader know more about the state-sponsored genocide of the Jewish community by the racist Nazi government.
After World War II, western nations woke up to the reality of dealing with the spectre of racism. Since then it has come a long way and special legislation now protects the rights of disabled persons and members of ethnic minorities. People in these countries are haunted by a feeling of guilt as their silence facilitated the genocide. The governments in the western world are aware that the proponents of racial hatred are still alive and in the form of Neo-Nazis want a revival of those unfortunate times. This time society is, however, more alive to its duty of not letting that happens again. It is against this backdrop that ‘Holocaust denial’ is taken seriously, as those who resort to denial also harbour the same anti-Semitic ideals that drowned Europe in a pool of blood 73 years ago.
Historical revisionism is not to be confused with a denial of atrocities committed in the past. Revisiting incidents of the past in an academically robust way is a scholarly activity and helps us sift myth from reality. But in the face of overwhelming archival evidence, when one denies the occurrence of communal violence, it can be an early warning sign of more sinister things to come. Robert Kahn in his book on holocaust denial cases in Europe contends that society must criminalise Holocaust denial “for its assault on truth; the offence it gives to survivors; or the danger of a right-wing (or anti-Semitic) revival it carries with it.” If the western states had denied the genocide of Bosnian Muslims then Holocaust denial would have been a perfect comparison. In the Bosnian case, American and British soldiers risked their lives to rescue Bosnians from a Holocaust kind of situation. As an encouraging development, even Serbia has turned its back upon racist violence and has handed over war criminals to the International Criminal Tribunal.
Enjoying the right of freedom of expression, we must tell lunatics of all kinds that their attempts at causing wilful offence to the members of other faith communities are obnoxiously distasteful. But in our zeal to do that we must not mutilate history. Today, Neo-Nazis and right wing extremists harbour hatred against Muslim communities living in the western countries. If they come to power and if the floodgates are not strong enough, the gushing waters of deep-rooted racist sentiments can sweep away Muslims this time to the gas chambers of the Holocaust. All of us, including the prime minister, therefore, need to be more careful when crooked comparisons are made.
Dr Haider Shah teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan.