Two events last week starkly illustrate the dilemmas of countries grappling with a terrible past. In Austria, Holocaust denier David Irving received a three-year jail sentence for his public assertions that the Nazis did not carry out a systematic extermination of the Jews during World War II. Meanwhile, in Russia, as the country marked the 50th anniversary of its official turn away from Stalinism under Nikita Khrushchev, many people regard the late dictator's legacy as mostly positive—and a new museum celebrating that legacy is about to open.
Irving's sentence reflects Europe's hard-line approach to its Nazi past. Laws prohibiting Holocaust denial and pro-Nazi propaganda are stringent in Germany and Austria, the countries most directly implicated in Nazi crimes against humanity; but they exist in many other countries on the European continent as well. Such laws are troubling to most Americans.
To some, the issue is not clear-cut. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that "while Irving's rants would not have led to legal action in the United States, it is important that we recognize and respect Austria's commitment to fighting Holocaust denial…as part of its historic responsibility to its Nazi past."
While I have no sympathy for Irving (who, faced with jail, tried to weasel out of his position with the ludicrous claim that new evidence has led him to believe people were slaughtered at Auschwitz after all), I still think that the law used against him is a bad idea. The state of Austria can own up to its responsibility to its past without criminalizing even the worst of speech. In the United States, even without legal sanctions, Holocaust denial is effectively marginalized by public opinion.
Meanwhile, the criminalization of Holocaust denial may perversely strengthen the hand of the deniers, leading some to argue that the defenders of Holocaust history must have little confidence in their facts if they feel they must silence challengers. Historian Deborah Lipstadt is concerned that the jail sentence could give Irving publicity and martyrdom instead of the obscurity he deserves.
On to Russia, where from the early 1930s until his death in 1953 Stalin slaughtered his own people on a Holocaust-like scale. It is estimated that at least 20 million died. The extermination was not as systematically deliberate as the Nazis', but the victims, in the end, were just as dead.
Fifty years ago at a secret Communist Party meeting, Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, gave a speech denouncing Stalin's "personality cult" and the repressions under his rule. This speech began the process of the de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union, Most political prisoners were released, and many of the dead posthumously exonerated. Yet neither the Soviet Union nor, in later years, post-Soviet Russia fully repudiated Stalin, or fully came to terms with his crimes. In recent years, Russian president Vladimir Putin has been advocating a more positive view of the country's Soviet past. Cities have erected monuments to Stalin.
A Stalin museum is scheduled to open in March in Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad.
Polls show that 30 to 40 percent of Russians now regard Stalin's role in history as mostly "positive," crediting him with turning the Soviet Union into a superpower and defeating Hitler.
Compared with this amnesia about state crimes against humanity, the German experience is certainly a good model—whatever one thinks of Germany's Holocaust denial laws. Sadly, amnesia about the crimes of communism is common in the West as well; historians who have downplayed and minimized those crimes, such as Miami University of Ohio historian Robert W. Thurston (who argues that there was no "mass terror…extensive fear did not exist…[and] Stalin was not guilty of mass first-degree murder"), have not been ostracized the way David Irving has been for a long time.
The resurgence of the Stalin cult in Russia shows the danger of such amnesia. Holocaust denial and Gulag denial should be finally seen as the twin evils they are.