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Negating history

Volker Wagener
October 10, 2016

The genocide of the Jews has been historically researched and confirmed. But there are still people who simply deny the facts, even more than 70 years after the Holocaust. That's a crime in many European countries.

Deutschland Judenstern Rampe KZ Auschwitz
Image: picture-alliance/IMAGNO/Austrian Archives

She is 87 years old, and she refuses to learn. Ursula Haverbeck is well-known in legal circles all over Germany. She's been keeping the courts busy for years: in the Westphalian town of Detmold; in Verden near Bremen; in Hamburg; in Berlin; and Tuesday (October 11) in another Westphalian town, Bad Oeynhausen. Again and again public prosecutors have had to investigate accusations of incitement made against her. This sprightly old lady is popular in far-right political circles. She denies the Holocaust, and even at her advanced age is able to provoke uproar in the courtroom.

Deutschland Prozess Ursula Haverbeck wegen Holocaustleugnung in Detmold
Ursula Haverbeck, 87, is known for her extremist viewsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Gentsch

In February this year she tried to enter the courtroom in Detmold during the trial of a former Auschwitz SS guard. As far as she's concerned, Auschwitz was just a labor camp, not an extermination camp. She insists that the Nazi genocide of the Jews is "the biggest and most sustained lie in history." Ursula Haverbeck is not the most high-profile example of denial of Nazi Germany's crimes against the Jews, which have been historically and legally acknowledged throughout the world. She's just the most recent one to make news.

Prominent denier: David Irving

David Irving has been a thorn in the side of the judiciary, politicians and the media with his theories about the Second World War in general and the Holocaust in particular for a long time now. During the 1950s he was a steelworker in the Ruhr region, and learned to speak fluent German. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books about the National Socialist period. The British author came to prominence in 1963 with his book "The Destruction of Dresden" in which he cited fake documents to substantiate his claim that the number of victims was far higher than believed.

Deutschland Geschichte Hitler-Tagebücher Stern David Irving
David Irving has been refused entry to several countriesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

While at first Irving may have been regarded as an unconventional researcher, credited with referencing hitherto unknown sources, he has not been taken seriously as a historian since the late 1980s. That was when he first emerged as a Holocaust denier. Since then he has regularly aligned himself with right-wing extremists, principally in Germany.

The core message of his revisionist historical convictions is that Hitler neither ordered nor was aware of the extermination of the Jews. The Vienna district court sentenced Irving to three years imprisonment without probation for asserting that there were no concentration camps in Austria. He served two-thirds of his sentence, and has been refused entry to numerous countries ever since.

In 1993 the American historian Deborah Lipstadt described Irving as an "authentic Holocaust denier" who falsified facts and manipulated documents in his books. Irving sued her for libel, initiating his own financial ruin. In the year 2000 the High Court in London rejected his suit. Judge Charles Gray described Irving as "a right-wing pro-Nazi polemicist," stating that he was "an active Holocaust denier; that he was anti-Semitic and racist and that he associated with right-wing extremists who promoted neo-Nazism." Irving was ordered to pay the costs of the trial, totaling around 2.5 million pounds.

Prominent denier: Bishop Richard Williamson

The theories of a high-ranking Catholic cleric have been causing a similar stir for years. The British bishop Richard Williamson denied the mass extermination of the Jews, and in doing so became the best-known representative of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) . This renegade brotherhood of priests, founded in 1970 by the French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, devotes itself to fundamentalist Catholic tradition. It rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which, among other things, opened up the Catholic Church to ecumenical Christianity and the freedom of religion, and recognized Judaism as a path of salvation.

Richard Williamson
Richard Williamson publicly denied the veracity of the HolocaustImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Williamson was already flatly denying the existence of gas chambers in 2008: "I believe that the historical evidence is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler. I believe there were no gas chambers," he said. He also claimed that "the most serious conclude that between 200,000 and 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration-camps. But not one of them by gassing in a gas-chamber."

These claims were made, on record, during an interview with a Swedish journalist. Knowing that Holocaust denial was a criminal offense in Germany punishable by up to five years in prison, Williamson asked for the interview to be published only in Sweden, and not online. The Swedish journalist ignored his request. The district court in Regensburg sentenced Williamson in absentia to 100 daily fines in lieu of jail time, at a rate of 100 euros per day. SSPX excommunicated Williamson in 2012 over a different matter.

Legal consequences for deniers

The punishment for Holocaust denial varies widely from one country to another. In the United States the right to freedom of speech also includes the right to dispute the extermination of the Jews. This is also the case in Great Britain, and this is why David Irving preferred to express himself in these countries.

However, Holocaust denial is now a criminal offense in several other European countries as well. Since 1992 Austria has been punishing those who "seek to deny, grossly trivialize, endorse or justify the National Socialist genocide or other National Socialist crimes against humanity." Two years prior to this, France also made it an offense punishable by law.

Historical denial is punishable in Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as in the Czech Republic and Poland, where the denial of Communist crimes is also an offence. In Spain, however, the law is different. In 2007 the Spanish constitutional court decided that its law against Holocaust denial infringed upon the right to freedom of expression.