Sunday, May 10, 2015

Nazism & Holocaust Denial. Censorship in Germany 70 Years Later.

As an American Jew, reading about the Holocaust, I am struck by the current legal prohibitions in Germany against denying this genocide or glorifying the Nazi government of 1933-1945. I live in a nation where expression of even the most obnoxious, hateful view is protected, unless it incites physical harm. Perhaps it is a failure of this writer’s imagination, but World War II’s armistice is having its seventieth anniversary this year. On the eve of this milestone, what is the wisdom of continuing these prohibitions?

I understand why Germany, divided and controlled by post-war Western powers, submitted to censorship of free speech around Nazism and (in 1985) Holocaust Denial. But a nation must periodically revisit restrictions on freedoms to examine whether or not they are still relevant. If German society has progressed enough that there is no threat of returning to totalitarian nationalism and genocide, then the prohibitions are superfluous and constitute a dangerous legal precedent to the stifling of other expressions. If strong undercurrents remain that might lead to destructive results, isn’t it time to recognize that a policy which has suppressed discussion has failed?

We won’t truly know the strength of totalitarian or genocidal tendencies in Germany until this censorship is lifted. If the result is that the voices favoring destruction are weak, then we can all celebrate the progress of human learning and peace. If these voices are strong, it may be time for Germans to face them directly in open, uncensored debate, aimed at educating society.

Admittedly, it is easy to sit safely across the Atlantic and ponder the consequences of lifting this ban. Even the presumption of safety may be na├»ve, given the last two world wars. I could be wrong. Cautionary inquiry and self-doubt propels frightening questions: Is Germany a Pandora’s Box of martial and racist sentiment that once opened, could only be closed again by World War III?  Is Freedom of Speech such a sacred virtue that we should risk the safety of non-German residents or neighboring countries? But these questions are driven by an anxiety that is itself affected by anti-German racism and the denial of present reality. Germany has been reunited for twenty-five years within a European Union. The destruction of that union would only harm Germany economically. It is unlikely that the opening of discussions around Holocaust Denial or the Nazi period would result in another world war. German society has evolved to the point where a Green Party regularly wins 10% of the federal parliamentary seats. The forces of reason and peace appear to be a strong counter-weight to neo-Nazi sentiment.

It is a truism, of both psychology and political history, that suppressed desires tend to destructively explode. Conversely, expressed desires brought into the open contain the possibility of being disarmed. If there are suppressed, racist and martial impulses in Germany, these will only fester until an economic failure forces a more rational leadership from  power. So, is censorship of these discussions wise? Seventy years after the armistice and twenty-five years after reunification, Germany is again a nation that can determine her own course through history. Outsider individuals and nations will undoubtedly express opinions, but this is a question that only German citizens can collectively answer.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy by Judith Schwarz

Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy is an optimistic, informative and regrettably short record of a women’s bi-weekly gathering in Greenwich Village. It was founded in 1912 by Mary Jenny Howe with the intention that “it would be a place where social constraints and conventional politeness were outweighed by the sheer delight in honest disagreements and differences which opened the mind to new possibilities, new ways of thinking, living, being” (Schwarz, p. 5).  This club’s attendees were among the most creative, accomplished, independent and well-educated women of their age. They supported each other personally, regarding occupational pursuits and life trials. Outside of the organization, they networked regarding a range of feminist activism from birth control to the vote. Though being a self-defined feminist in the early 20th Century was difficult, these women found a way to make the road less rocky and lonely.

While the author unreservedly loves her subject, she is not incognizant of this social group’s flaws. Reflecting the prejudices of its time, Heterodoxy was largely white and privileged in its composition. Few working-class women attended meetings. Only one member was African American. Also, this was not an activist organization per se. Though community activists for women’s rights became members or spoke at gatherings, the group did not have a political wing. For example, “Margaret Sanger was angry at Heterodoxy members for not becoming more involved with her birth control work,” whereas Mary Ware Dennett, founder of the Voluntary Parenthood League, was a member (Schwarz, p. 65).

Judith Schwarz does an excellent job of revealing the sanctum of Heterodoxy meetings and lives with scant primary information. She published this book in 1982, when the Women’s Movement was still prominent, but under attack by the New Right. As a result, Heterodoxy contains scattered comparisons between the two times and two groups of women in hostile territory. “Like those of us who have gone through ‘C-R’ sessions, Heterodoxy women must have often been startled that despite the differences in their backgrounds, most of them had received the same sort of messages and expectations as children” (Schwarz, p. 16). Sometimes her informality is playful: “a large number of the women in the photographs were also astonishingly tailored, or, as my mind instantly reacted: ‘butchy looking’” (Schwarz, p. 5). Schwarz presents a style of writing that is largely eschewed by feminists of the academy.

Scholarly style aside, history can do more than inform about the past. It can provide us with directions for the future and understandings of human nature or situation which we find relevant to ourselves. Though it is more common for feminist historians to restrain comparison of past and present, the reader or activist is under no such constraints. For those who favor equality and are facing opposition, (whether that opposition is the conservative cross-fire of the author’s 1982 or the numbing phase of feminist political dormancy of the early 21st Century), a book like this can offer support and inspiration. In Judith Schwarz’s words “we have a lot to struggle both for and against, and years of hard work ahead of us. In the meantime, take hope. Marie Jenney Howe and her merry ‘band of willful women, the most unruly and individualistic females you ever fell among’ did indeed ‘start something’ which still has relevance for us, their political descendants” (Schwarz, p. 82). Perhaps what we need today is a new generation of heterodoxy clubs as spaces for women to gather against the storm.

Schwarz, Judith. Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy. Lebanon, NH: New Victoria Publishers, Inc., 1982.