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 naïve, 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.