Joan Bakewell: Holocaust denial should be debated, not banned

Banning anything is a move that calls into existence its opposite: defiance, secrecy, martyrdom
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Guilt is a very powerful emotion. It clearly gripped a great majority of the German people after 1945, and the agony of individual consciences led to their shielding their children from an exact knowledge of what had gone on.

Even today, younger Germans are embroiled in the load of guilt that has for decades eaten at the hearts of their elders. The schooling given in Axis schools after the war was crude and brutal: many classes of small children were forced to watch unedited footage of concentration camps and, amid their incomprehension and distress, hectored about how "this must never happen again" and "this is what your parents did".

Today that generation runs the country. It is a tormenting load and no doubt lies behind the recent proposal from Germany's 53-year-old justice minister that all EU states should criminalise Holocaust deniers. Germany has just taken on the EU presidency and it is claimed the EU justice commissioner is of a mind to agree with her. It would be a big mistake.

There is a specific EU reason for such a move right now. Since 1 January with the accession of of Romania and Bulgaria we have seen the emergence of the ITS party, a grouping of right-wing parties given critical mass to the point of being an acknowledged political group entitled to funding and the rights over amendments and agendas.

ITS stands for Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty - which translates into national interests, Christian values and European civilisations. They are a motley band of xenophobes who include France's Le Pen, Italy's Alessandra Mussolini and Austria's Andreas Moelyer.

Their harangues against immigration and the dangers of strangers will be vicious. They are basically set on damaging the European project. At the same time in Britain we see the rise of the BNP which, however tentative, gives pause for thought. Even with such a confluence of available extremists, for the EU to promote the criminalisation of Holocaust denial is wrong.

Banning is never one directional. If it were, we could simply ban all the things we hate and see the forces of evil wither away. But it doesn't happen like that. Banning anything is a move that calls into existence its opposite: defiance, secrecy, conspiracy, martyrdom. The regrettable pursuit by Austria of the case against David Irving and his imprisonment there, simply renewed his public profile and even allowed him the luxury of reluctant support from those who would defend freedom of speech.

Holocaust deniers would relish a swathe of court cases, in each of which they could cry freedom, and never be subjected to scrutiny of what exactly they believe.

Holocaust deniers don't want a close and scholarly examination of witnesses and numbers at all . They want to pick away at detail - which kind of gas was used, which train routes to which camps, which specific promulgation for women, for children - until the wider and inattentive public begins to believe there might indeed be something to consider, and to think that perhaps there is an alternate version of history that isn't getting a fair hearing. To shut down the deniers' access to public argument and discourse would be to strengthen their hand and to conceal the poverty of their evidence against the greater record that is the true historic case.

If anti-Semitism is on the rise we must educate our children to recognise and reject it, just as they must reject all other discriminations - against Muslims, blacks, homosexuals. Schools, universities and the educational branches of the media must persist in teaching and confirming the known facts about the Holocaust, and its uniqueness in European history. But they must also teach the facts of other inhumanities. Turkey's prosecution of those who report its Armenian genocide should count against its application to join the EU.

The recent orchestrated move to shackle the law banning discrimination against gays must be examined for its claims and justification. Never was it more important to give rising generations a sense of history, based on free enquiry and evidence.

Sometimes there are gratifying signs that the system of openness and free speech works well. Celebrity Big Brother has presented us this week with the crudest and most banal encounter between two of its inmates: the vitriolic and uneducated Jade and the Indian beauty accused of little more than smugness and genteel manners. Words flew. Gestures, expletives... it was a hideous sight.

The public response was overwhelming. Thousands phoned Channel 4 to complain of racism, the papers are full of the story, Keith Vaz raised the matter in the House (of Parliament, that is). The shrill invective of such a trivial programme has prompted universal condemnation. Channel 4 and the programme's maker Endemol may relish being the focus of attention, but there's no denying the spontaneity and revulsion of the viewing public.

Does Jade's hysterical outburst of hatred reflect the true face of Britain's bigotry? Is she expressing what others feel but daren't speak. If so, how much better that it is out in the open, widely condemned and not left to fester and spread its poison in secret. Freedom of speech commits us to hearing things with which we profoundly disagree. But unless we hear them, we have no chance to refute and correct them. It is right that we should allow Holocaust deniers to make their case, and then watch their evidence crumble.