This Post Is Not Good For A Chuckle

I was struck last week when the following two articles shared the front page of the Israeli edition of the International Herald-Tribune (itself sort of a "Google-News" from the pre-net era).

Le Pen calls Nazis not so 'inhumane'

Prince Harry's costume draws uproar

Far be it from me to deny that the House of Windsor is often good for a chuckle or a self-righteous tut-tut. And Le Pen is always saying something or other to stir people up. But why pair these two so prominently? Nazis. And maybe Auschwitz.

On January 27th, it will be 60 years to the day since Soviet forces overran the concentration camp at Auschwitz and freed the surviving prisoners there. I honestly can't tell if that is a big deal here -- I've seen it mentioned a number of times, but not in the context of anything special happening. So it's seen as particularly bad taste that Le Pen would speak up now, or that a Prince would be seen wearing a Nazi uniform (at a colonialism-themed costume party, which sounds like a pretty blatant invitation to poor taste in and of itself).

But Prince Harry got a scolding. Le Pen is being investigated by the French authorities, since

Under a 1990 revision of the press law, Le Pen could be charged for publicly denying the existence of "crimes against humanity" committed by the Nazis in World War II or making an "apology for war crimes."

If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison and a fine equal to $60,000.

I can't shake the suspicion that the two are related. Back in America, there are surely thousands of Le Pens, ranting in pamphlets and on web pages. None of them poses much risk of hijacking the political process. In fact, they are generally ignored as crackpots. When from time to time one manages to gain a modicum of attention, the response is not (usually) to deploy the lawyers, but to point exhaperatedly to the ample historical record that the Nazis were, in fact, pretty disagreeable.

It's obvious why the European nations often have laws about this sort of thing. They remember what happened the last time, and for them the death and devastation that swept their lands is the memory of a nightmare. They dread that someday memory will fade, and something like Nazism could again take root among an incautious people. So they make it a crime to deny the atrocities, or to look with other than scorn upon the swastika. Because they cannot make it a crime to forget. Even so, I wonder if this approach isn't counterproductive. Quash an entire historical debate -- and notice, this latest row arises from Le Pen challenging certain details of the occupation of France, just the kind of debate that historians routinely have -- and a certain type of person will tend to assume it's because the people in charge can't win their argument on its merits. Which, as it happens, is sometimes true.

A followup article in the IHT swipes obliquely at this attitude, comparing the criminal sanctions on the Continent to the British tendency to assail the Nazis with alternating deconstruction and derision. And perhaps this is the more healthy approach. So long as all things Nazi remain intellectual forbidden fruit, I suspect that nonconformists will continue to dabble there for the sheer perversity of it.

So mock the Nazis, outlaw them, or just use them as a rhetorical bludgeon against your opponents. If anyone in the audience has an opinion on the best way to handle the question, I'd enjoy reading your thoughts in the comments. Here, they seem to favor an odd mixture of all three (my favorite example is the law that specifically prohibits comparing any political figure to a Nazi, something of a Godwin's Law for the real world, which seems to be pretty routinely violated). But I'd advise against forgetting Auschwitz, just as I'd recommend giving some thought to the million killed in the Rwandan genocides, or the several million people who will starve to death this year. I don't know any Rwandans, but the former is fairly inescapable here: last week, my officemate was updating his family tree to account for a recent wedding, pointing out the several whole branches that terminate abruptly in the early 1940s ...

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This page contains a single entry by Milligan published on January 23, 2005 2:34 PM.

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