The Silver Lining of Negationism
According to The Telegraph, an 89-year-old German woman, Ursula Haverbeck a.k.a. “Nazi-Grandma,” has been condemned for claiming that the murder of Jews at Auschwitz was not “historically proven.” The German Constitutional Court is quoted as declaring (I hope the substance of the translation is better than its grammar):
The dissemination of untrue and deliberately false statements of fact can not [sic] contribute to the development of public opinion and thus do [sic] not fall in the remits of protection for free speech.
The denial of the Nazi genocide goes beyond the limits of the peacefulness of public debate and threatens public peace.
Libération, a French leftist daily, also reports the court decision.
Like many—it must be 99% of mankind—I have never done any serious research on the Holocaust. Over the years, I read a number of newspaper or magazine stories and saw some photographs. The only book I read thoroughly was Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men (HarperCollins, 1992), a very troubling book, which was translated in French and published by a Paris publisher I was associated with. I also skimmed through a negationist book published in Toronto by negationist Ernest Zündel, Did Six Million Really Die: Report of the Evidence in the Canadian ‘False News’ Trial of Ernst Zündel – 1988. The book was prefaced by another negationist, Robert Faurisson, an ex-professor of literature at the Université de Lyon in France.
With such cursory information, how can I believe that the Holocaust happened roughly the way it is generally described? The main reason is that I know the topic has been debated for decades and that, on the free market for ideas, negationism lost. Very, very few credible people who have studied the history of the Holocaust, if any, support the claims of Haverbeck or Zündel.
Right now, a rational belief in the Holocaust depends mainly on the survival of free speech in America. It is still a risky freedom, as the topic is not exactly the ideal research choice for a young historian, except if he knows his conclusion in advance. But government at least stays out of it. If denial of the Holocaust were also criminalized in America, imagine what the situation would be in another half century. We would have no serious reasons to believe that the Holocaust ever happened. The starting point of the economics of Holocaust beliefs is that information is costly. So it is often rational to believe the ideas that have survived the test of debates. Provided there are free debates. Here as elsewhere, free competition is good. On the Holocaust, the debate was free for many decades; now, it is probably only in America that it remains free, that is, not censored by government. Witness, the cases of Haverbeck, Zündel, and Faurisson, all prosecuted for their ideas during the last three decades.
The absence of dissent, including by dissenters deemed cranks, is worse than their presence in the market.
If even the Newtonian philosophy were not permitted to be questioned, mankind could not feel as complete assurance of its truth as they now do. The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded. If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still; but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of; we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us: if the lists are kept open, we may hope that if there be a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in the meantime we may rely on having attained such approach to truth, as is possible in our own day. This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this the sole way of attaining it.
It is depressing that many our contemporaries have forgotten this, naïvely trusting the state to tell them what is true.