According to an article in The Independent newspaper, one Gerald Fredrick Töben, a “holocaust revisionist” was arrested yesterday (1 October) at Heathrow airport by officers from Scotland Yard’s extradition unit at the request of authorities in Germany. He will appear in court on Friday under an EU arrest warrant accused of committing offences in Germany, though in fact he had just arrived from the USA, and is an Australian citizen.
Now it may just be me, but I find this deeply, deeply, disturbing.
There is no doubt in my mind that the holocaust occurred pretty much as most people think — involving a systematic and deliberate attempt to exterminate the Jewish race in Europe, and resulting in the deaths of millions of Jews and others.
No one who has seen contemporary news footage can feel anything but horror, not just at Nazism, but at the human race, for what was perpetrated in a few short years. Nor can anyone who has read Mein Kampf, incidentally, have any doubt but that Adolf Hitler was a clear and deliberate anti-Semite who saw the Jews as being the root of Europe’s troubles.
To deny the holocaust is therefore unreasonable as well as unpleasant. But being unreasonable and unpleasant is not a crime. There are those (sometimes those who send comments to this blog) who think I personally am both. But surely so, too, is the denial of free speech.
We can hardly condemn the Nazis for burning books if we are a society which bans ideas. (Indeed I suspect that it is this very attitude which goads some people into the very attitudes they seek to ban.)
Moreover, there is undeniably a ‘slippery slope’ at work here. We should not forget what ought to be a notorious speech given by the Darwinist philosopher and scientist, Nicholas Humphrey, to the Oxford branch of Amnesty International in 1997, in which he argued that parents of certain religious persuasions which might question Darwinism ought not to be allowed “freedom of expression” with regard to their own children - in other words, I presume, that their children should, if necessary, be taken away from them.
There is no record that he was hissed, booed, or censured by his audience. Yet surely he should have been?
Similarly, we have seen in the last few days an eminent scientist levered out of his post in the Royal Society for saying something which was misquoted in the press.
What is truly frightening is the increasing silence which greets these pronouncements and actions. We have become a society which ignores the abuse of power when it is directed against those who are an easy target: the BNP-supporting teacher, the holocaust denier, the accidental ‘creationist’.
But the very fact that the innocent, such as Professor Michael Reiss, have already suffered should warn us things have gone too far. Moreover, we should surely take note of the fact that what some people warned against is happening before our very eyes, namely that you can now be arrested in this country for something which is not a criminal offence here, and which, in fact, is in accordance with a deeply held tradition, long exemplified by the existence of Speaker's Corner at Hyde Park, that no matter how daft your ideas, you should be allowed the freedom to express them. (There will be some who will observe that, nevertheless, certain expressions of ideas are illegal in this country. I would simply comment that this is not, in my view, generally a good thing.)
We have all heard the pious saying, “I disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” Unfortunately, almost no one seems to want to step in when real harm might result to their own reputation.
Our cultural leadership have, it seems, learned the ‘Frank McGarahan’ lesson. He, you will remember, was the banker murdered when he intervened to help a Lithuanian being beaten up by some young men in Norwich. Sometimes ‘defending to the death’ means just that.
And maybe declaiming ‘Free Gerald Töben’ would be social suicide. Much better, surely, to wait til they pick on someone everyone agrees is innocent. But that, trust me, will never happen. First they will turn society against them. Then it will be safe to pick on them. After all, isn’t that just what they did with the Jews?
2 October 2008