The Free Speech Deniers

The Holocaust denying author and publisher Ernst Zündel is currently serving a prison term in his native Germany, having received a five year sentence in 2007 for denying the Holocaust.[1] The books, pamphlets, and websites in which Zündel’s Holocaust denying and far-Right views are expressed were neither written nor published in Germany, but rather in Canada, where Zündel had lived for four decades.

Having failed to secure Canadian citizenship, Zündel spent a couple of years in the United States, but was sent back to Canada after he violated the terms of his stay by missing a meeting with an immigration official. Canadian officials then handed Zündel over to the German authorities, deporting him on the bizarre grounds that he, a 64 year old with no influence outside the Holocaust denial subculture, constituted ‘a threat to national security’.[2]

In deporting Zündel, Canadian authorities were knowingly sending him to a German jail cell. The answer of many will undoubtedly be, ‘so what?’ or ‘he got what he deserved’. This reaction is understandable – Zündel is clearly an odious propagandist of the far-Right and of pseudo-history – but at the same time flawed and dangerous for the concept of freedom of speech.

Put simply, the ‘crime’ for which Zündel has been incarcerated should not be considered such in free Western liberal democracies. In Iran, it is a criminal offence to deny the existence of God; in Europe, this was also once the case, yet with the emergence of our secular human rights culture came the establishment of the right to deny the truth of anything, no matter how widely accepted as fact, and no matter how emotive it may be. In criminalising denial of the Holocaust, the governments of a number of European countries are coming dangerously close to ascribing to it a sacred status, a status shared by no other historical event. In these countries, it is not a criminal offence to downplay or flatly deny the horrific crimes perpetrated by the likes of Stalin, Pol Pot, Ide Amin, Slobadan Milosovic, or Saddam Hussein, yet to deny the crimes of Hitler will result in a jail sentence. In addition to the worrying association of the Holocaust with a sort of sacredness, there is also the issue of State intervention in the telling of history. Germany is exhibiting an authoritarian approach to history which has echoes of the Soviet Union, with its ‘official’ version of history. It is not the place of government to legislate on the status of historical fact. As Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1994), puts it: ‘I shudder at the thought that politicians might be given the power to legislate history. They can hardly fix the potholes in our streets. How can we expect them to decide what is the proper version of history?’[3]

Zündel’s denial of the Holocaust and promotion of far-Right views is deeply offensive to the memory of those who died under the Nazis, offensive to Jews in general, and offensive to anyone with respect for historical truth, yet offensiveness cannot be considered a crime in a free society. Thankfully, there are still signs that genuine freedom of speech does exist in the West, as witness the republication of the Muhammad cartoons (which have caused such global uproar) in a number of magazines, but this freedom is under assault now on an almost daily basis. Claims of the harm caused by ‘offensiveness’ are rapidly eroding the principles of free speech and free expression. It has become commonplace for Western politicians to claim to support freedom of speech but then immediately undermine this with the slippery concept of ‘responsibility’ and the notion that freedom of speech should be tempered by the higher principle of not ‘offending’ people. Sadly, even the United Nations has now become effectively useless as a bulwark against creeping censorship; indeed, worse still, it has become an active agent of intellectual suppression, with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights bowing to Islamist pressure and basically shredding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the International Humanist and Ethical Union reports:

With the support of their allies including China, Russia and Cuba (none well-known for their defence of human rights) the Islamic States succeeded in forcing through an amendment to a resolution on Freedom of Expression that has turned the entire concept on its head. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression will now be required to report on the “abuse” of this most cherished freedom by anyone who, for example, dares speak out against Sharia laws that require women to be stoned to death for adultery or young men to be hanged for being gay, or against the marriage of girls as young as nine, as in Iran.[4]

All too often, supposed Human Rights advocates are now inverting the concepts they pay lip service to, apparently viewing people’s sensitive ‘feelings’ as more important than the right to express ideas freely and without fear of censorship. Canada, which sent Zündel to face a thought crime conviction, was the venue for a disgraceful recent witch hunt against Ezra Levant, publisher of the Western Standard, a magazine that re-printed the infamous Muhammad cartoons. Complaints were made to the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission by the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada and the Edmonton Muslim Council, leading to Levant being dragged before the Commission for questioning regarding this supposed ‘hate crime’.[5] The case was ultimately dropped, but the fact that it was even taken up to begin with says a lot about the precarious state of free speech and free expression in the West today. As Levant has noted of both self-styled anti-racists and the Islamists they lend their support to, they are ‘illiberal censors who have found a quirk in our legal system, and are using it to undermine our Western traditions of freedom’.[6]

While in the cases such as that of Levant, the legal system is indeed being turned into a weapon against free speech, in Germany and other European countries the legal system actively prohibits full freedom of speech, with its criminalisation of Holocaust denial. Arguably, a country that outlaws one form of non-violent expression because of its ‘offensiveness’ is on shaky ground when it comes to defending free speech as a general principle.

In a 2006 interview with Der Spiegel, noted scholar of Islam Bassam Tibi argued that ‘Europeans have stopped defending their values’ and that ‘[w]hen it comes to Islam, there is no freedom of the press nor freedom of opinion in Germany. Organized groups in Islamic communities want to decide what is said and done here’.[7] So, on the one hand we have a country that allegedly supports freedom of speech, yet imprisons one of its own citizens for his views on the Holocaust, and on the other hand we have a country that claims to support freedom of speech while frequently engaging in a kind of ‘politically correct’ self-censorship, caving in to the demands of Islamists. Freedom of speech in Germany and across Europe is increasingly looking like the privilege of those who are saying ‘the right things’, when true freedom of speech is based on the assumption that very ‘wrong’ things can be said as well. As Noam Chomsky argued in his defence of the French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson:

even if Faurisson were to be a rabid anti-Semite and fanatic pro-Nazi … this would have no bearing whatsoever on the legitimacy of the defense of his civil rights. On the contrary, it would make it all the more imperative to defend them since, once again, it has been a truism for years, indeed centuries, that it is precisely in the case of horrendous ideas that the right of free expression must be most vigorously defended; it is easy enough to defend free expression for those who require no such defense.[8] [Emphasis mine]

Without doubt, Zündel’s historical method is deeply flawed (as is that of all Holocaust deniers), and his scholarship is in fact pseudo-scholarship, skewing evidence to fit an ideologically predetermined conclusion. The answer to this in a free society is to point out the flaws of his thesis, meticulously demonstrate his abuse of evidence, and therefore consign his crackpot theories to the intellectual dustbin. This is how we deal with nonsense masquerading as fact.

Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews (1961), argues:

If these people want to speak, let them. It only leads those of us who do research to re-examine what we might have considered as obvious. And that’s useful for us. I have quoted Eichmann references that come from a neo-Nazi publishing house. I am not for taboos and I am not for repression.[9]

And Deborah Lipstadt, who defeated a libel action brought against her by the British Holocaust denier David Irving, rightly notes that

genocide denial laws suggest that we do not have the facts and the documentation to prove that these people are liars. We defeated David Irving in court not with law but with facts. We followed his footnotes and demonstrated that, in the words of Professor Richard Evans, Irving’s work on the Holocaust was a ’tissue of lies’.[10]

The Irving court case provided an interesting example of how Holocaust denial can be publicly and forcefully refuted. The Judgment handed down in the British High Court action by David Irving against Penguin Books Ltd and Deborah Lipstadt dealt a devastating blow to Irving’s credibility. Mr. Justice Gray concluded:

it appears to me that the correct and inevitable inference must be that for the most part the falsification of the historical record was deliberate and that Irving was motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence.


The charges which I have found to be substantially true include the charges that Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the  treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-semitic and racist and that he associates with right wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.[11]

Arguably, Irving has been defeated and has no credibility as a serious historian of the Holocaust. For Austria, however, it is not enough for bad ideas to be taken apart, the ideas themselves are seen to exist in some realm outside the normal understanding of free speech, and their originators are seen as criminals. So, in February 2006, Irving was sentenced to three years imprisonment for ‘trivialising’, ‘playing down’, and denying the Holocaust. Again, Lipstadt condemned the use of laws to silence Holocaust denial, telling the BBC: ‘I am not happy when censorship wins, and I don’t believe in winning battles via censorship … The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is with history and with truth’.[12]

Just as Austria has a somewhat strange understanding of free speech, so we find the same problem in Germany. Rather than following the traditional methods of debunking lies dressed up as truth, German legislators have simply claimed that to tell such lies is so offensive that one must be imprisoned for doing so. Hence, Ernst Zündel currently sits in a German prison cell – convicted under laws that equate Holocaust denial with advocating racial hatred – for the ‘crime’ of writing and publishing offensive materials in another country.

We in the West do not live in the Middle Ages, nor do we live in the Middle East. In Europe and the United States we share a common tradition of free inquiry and free expression, and with such freedom comes the freedom to be wrong, and the freedom to cause offence. To politicise freedom of expression by setting State boundaries on what is acceptable in terms of assertions about historical events is preposterous. If governments can do this with regard to the Holocaust, then how long before other politically motivated restrictions on expression follow? (In fact, arguably such restrictions are already creeping in.) If governments start legislating on the status of historical fact based on how offensive it is to the majority to deny these historical facts, then how long before all scholarship across the board has to be produced within narrowly defined margins of what is acceptable to the prevailing political climate? Many Muslims across Europe want to see freedom of expression restricted when it comes to forms of expression which ‘offend’ their religion. This is barely being resisted, but, for now, forceful resistance can still be heard.

However, when, in a modern Western liberal democracy, one can be imprisoned for telling the ‘wrong’ version of history, it is only a matter of time before governments start considering what other ‘offensive’ ideas they might wish to ban. One cannot argue in favour of publishing ‘offensive’ cartoons when ‘offensive’ history books are banned.

The Holocaust denial laws need repealing, and repealing right now.


[1] ‘Ernst Zundel sentenced to 5 years for Holocaust denial’, CBC News, 15 February 2007.

[2] ‘Zundel turned over to German authorities’, CBC News, 1 March 2005.

[3] Deborah Lipstadt, ‘Denial should be defeated by facts, not laws’, Spiked, 16 July 2007.

[4] International Humanist and Ethical Union, ‘Vote on freedom of expression marks the end of Universal Human Rights’, 30 March 2008.

[5] Keith Bonnell, ‘Defiant Levant republishes cartoons’, National Post, 12 January 2008.

[6] Ezra Levant, ‘Censorship In The Name Of “Human Rights”’, National Post, 18 December 2007.

[7] ‘Europeans Have Stopped Defending Their Values’, SPIEGEL Magazine, 2 October 2006.

[8] Noam Chomsky, ‘Some Elementary Comments on The Rights of Freedom of Expression’, 11 October 1980.

[9] Quoted in Christopher Hitchens, ‘Hitler’s Ghost’, Vanity Fair, June 1996.

[10] Deborah Lipstadt, ‘Denial should be defeated by facts, not laws’, Spiked, 16 July 2007.

[11] Judgment handed down in the British High Court action by David Irving against Penguin Books Ltd and Deborah Lipstadt, 11 April 2000.

[12] ‘Holocaust denier Irving is jailed’, BBC News Online, 20 February 2006.

Posted September 15 2008

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