What a magnificent blow for truth, justice and humanity the French national assembly has struck. Last week it voted for a bill that would make it a crime to deny that the Turks committed genocide against the Armenians during the first world war. Bravo! Chapeau bas! Vive la France! But let this be only a beginning in a brave new chapter of European history. Let the British parliament now make it a crime to deny that it was Russians who murdered Polish officers at Katyn in 1940. Let the Turkish parliament make it a crime to deny that France used torture against insurgents in Algeria.Let the German parliament pass a bill making it a crime to deny the existence of the Soviet gulag. Let the Irish parliament criminalise denial of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. Let the Spanish parliament mandate a minimum of 10 years’ imprisonment for anyone who claims that the Serbs did not attempt genocide against Albanians in Kosovo. And the European parliament should immediately pass into European law a bill making it obligatory to describe as genocide the American colonists’ treatment of Native Americans. The only pity is that we, in the European Union, can’t impose the death sentence for these heinous thought crimes. But perhaps, with time, we may change that too.
Oh brave new Europe! It is entirely beyond me how anyone in their right mind – apart, of course, from a French-Armenian lobbyist – can regard this draft bill, which in any case will almost certainly be voted down in the upper house of the French parliament, as a progressive and enlightened step. What right has the parliament of France to prescribe by law the correct historical terminology to characterise what another nation did to a third nation 90 years ago? If the French parliament passed a law making it a crime to deny the complicity of Vichy France in the deportation to the death camps of French Jews, I would still argue that this was a mistake, but I could respect the self-critical moral impulse behind it.
This bill, by contrast, has no more moral or historical justification than any of the other suggestions I have just made. Yes, there are some half a million French citizens of Armenian origin – including Charles Aznavour, who was once Varinag Aznavourian – and they have been pressing for it. There are at least that number of British citizens of Polish origin, so there would be precisely the same justification for a British bill on Katyn. Step forward Mr Denis MacShane, a British MP of Polish origin, to propose it – in a spirit of satire, of course. Or how about British MPs of Pakistani and Indian origin proposing rival bills on the history of Kashmir?In a leading article last Friday, the Guardian averred that “supporters of the law are doubtless motivated by a sincere desire to redress a 90-year-old injustice”. I wish that I could be so confident. Currying favour with French-Armenian voters and putting another obstacle in the way of Turkey joining the European Union might be suggested as other motives; but speculation about motives is a mug’s game.
It will be obvious to every intelligent reader that my argument has nothing to do with questioning the suffering of the Armenians who were massacred, expelled or felt impelled to flee in fear of their lives during and after the first world war. Their fate at the hands of the Turks was terrible and has been too little recalled in the mainstream of European memory. Reputable historians and writers have made a strong case that those events deserve the label of genocide, as it has been defined since 1945. In fact, Orhan Pamuk – this year’s winner of the Nobel prize for literature – and other Turkish writers have been prosecuted under the notorious article 301 of the Turkish penal code for daring to suggest exactly that. That is significantly worse than the intended effects of the French bill. But two wrongs don’t make a right.
No one can legislate historical truth. In so far as historical truth can be established at all, it must be found by unfettered historical research, with historians arguing over the evidence and the facts, testing and disputing each other’s claims without fear of prosecution or persecution.
In the tense ideological politics of our time, this proposed bill is a step in exactly the wrong direction. How can we credibly criticise Turkey, Egypt or other states for curbing free speech, through the legislated protection of historical, national or religious shibboleths, if we are doing ever more of it ourselves? This weekend in Venice I once again heard a distinguished Muslim scholar rail against our double standards. We ask them to accept insults to Muslim taboos, he said, but would the Jews accept that someone should be free to deny the Holocaust?
Far from creating new legally enforced taboos about history, national identity and religion, we should be dismantling those that still remain on our statute books. Those European countries that have them should repeal not only their blasphemy laws but also their laws on Holocaust denial. Otherwise the charge of double standards is impossible to refute. What’s sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander.
I recently heard the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy going through some impressive intellectual contortions to explain why he opposed any laws restricting criticism of religion but supported those on Holocaust denial. It was one thing, he argued, to question a religious belief, quite another to deny a historical fact. But this won’t wash. Historical facts are established precisely by their being disputed and tested against the evidence. Without that process of contention – up to and including the revisionist extreme of outright denial – we would never discover which facts are truly hard.
Such consistency requires painful decisions. For example, I have nothing but abhorrence for some of David Irving’s recorded views about Nazi Germany’s attempted extermination of the Jews – but I am quite certain that he should not be sitting in an Austrian prison as a result of them. You may riposte that the falsehood of some of his claims was actually established by a trial in a British court. Yes, but that was not the British state prosecuting him for Holocaust denial. It was Irving himself going to court to sue another historian who suggested he was a Holocaust denier. He was trying to curb free and fair historical debate; the British court defended it.
Today, if we want to defend free speech in our own countries and to encourage it in places where it is currently denied, we should be calling for David Irving to be released from his Austrian prison. The Austrian law on Holocaust denial is far more historically understandable and morally respectable than the proposed French one – at least the Austrians are facing up to their own difficult past, rather than pointing the finger at somebody else’s – but in the larger European interest we should encourage the Austrians to repeal it.
Only when we are prepared to allow our own most sacred cows to be poked in the eye can we credibly demand that Islamists, Turks and others do the same. This is a time not for erecting taboos but for dismantling them. We must practice what we preach.