Nizkor – We shall remember!
By Lorenz Lorenz-Meyer
A Canadian online project is showing a way of dealing with neo-Nazis in the net without resorting to censorship.
Freedom of speech is in many ways an awkward business, seeing that it protects the views of others just as much as one’s own. Some opinions are so extreme that they give cause for doubts as to whether one ought to allow people to express them publicly. “No freedom for the enemies of freedom,” is a slogan often used in defence of a well-fortified democracy.
In the light of German history it is understandable that the system of beliefs on which the Nazi regime was based is banned by law. Many people still feel a sense of shock about the vehemence with which that philosophy, with its contempt for mankind, its falsehoods and contradictions, took hold of and poisoned the minds and hearts of people.
A thinly-veiled guise in which neo-National Socialist thoughts have been celebrating a revival since the war is the so-called revisionist movement: under the pretext of examining the established opinions of historians, revisionists question the reality or at least the extent of the mass murders carried out by the Nazis on Jews and other social groups. The revisionist theories are, of course, unable to stand up to scientific scrutiny – yet, particularly in times of dissatisfaction and political discontent, they constitute an initiation drug into a mental world full of theories of conspiracy and full of hate.
Section 130 of the German Penal Code makes the denial of the Holocaust a punishable offence as constituting “Volksverhetzung”, incitement to hatred or violence against segments of the population. In the interests of the truth and the memory of the victims, no one in Germany is to have to face Nazi propaganda unprotected. No freedom for the enemies of freedom.
But in view of the globalisation of the media, especially with the rapid growth of the Internet, the German interpretation of the law and the intuition on which it is based have recently come under a great deal of pressure. The new communication media allow revisionist disinformation to be displayed on one’s screen with just a few clicks of a mouse – often from countries in which it is circulated quite legally because there are no legal provisions against hate propaganda in those countries corresponding to the article on Volksverhetzung in German law.
The German public prosecutors are running into problems. For instance, the Mannheim public prosecution caused a considerable stir when at the beginning of this year it demanded that T-Online, the online service of Deutsche Telekom, bar access to the Web site of the German-Canadian neo-Nazi Ernst Zündel. Apart from the usual technical problems – it is hard to filter out individual items from the bulk of the information offered by an Internet server – the German authorities also faced unexpected political opposition. Network activists, on the whole anything but sympathisers with the neo-Nazi scene – offered their protection to Zündel, mirroring his Web pages on their servers. The American Declan McCullagh, for instance, who recently also took the incriminated Issue No. 154 of the German autonomist newspaper “Radikal” under his wing. The public prosecution’s campaign came to naught.
The motto of this counter-campaign is freedom of speech and expression, and: fight censorship. Here German security-mindedness, which wants to put a legal stop once and for all to the spectre of the past, comes up against a fairly contrary understanding of democracy and human rights, influenced particularly by American individualism: this latter aims at maximum freedom of the individual and as little government control as possible, political opinions are to be formed through the free interplay of forces. To European minds this “libertarian” American ideology is unfamiliar and often difficult to comprehend. The “left versus right” scale we are accustomed to using in assessing the political field can scarcely be applied here.
An event that took place in 1979 served as a forerunner and model for the current conflicts. On that occasion, the famous American linguist, philosopher and civil rights campaigner, Noam Chomsky, lent his support to the French revisionist Faurisson. Chomsky eloquently resisted all accusations of being roped in to the revisionist cause, using arguments worth considering here: “It is elementary that freedom of expression (including academic freedom) is not to be restricted to views of which one approves, and that it is precisely in the case of views that are almost universally despised and condemned that this right must be most vigorously defended,” as Chomsky wrote at the time in an article in The Nation.
Opponents can safely be given a chance to speak, for if you have the truth on your side, openness and lucidity turn into weapons. This attitude also forms the basis of what is probably one of the most impressive current projects for combating revisionism: under the name of “Nizkor”, Hebrew for “we shall remember”, the American Ken McVay has collected what is at present the largest online Holocaust library in the world. He views his collection explicitly as a fund from which opponents of revisionism can help themselves in order to counter the obvious and less obvious historical distortions of the revisionists with an overwhelming wealth of facts.
McVay began his project in 1992. Shocked and angered by the increasing presence of right-wing extremist opinions in the online media he set to work: he collected historical sources about the holocaust and other material and put them on the Internet. What started out as a one-man operation has meanwhile turned into a network of over 50 volunteers from all over the world. The project is financed through donations and the small income McVay makes on lectures and similar activities. In 1995 Ken McVay was awarded the “Order of British Columbia” for his efforts.
McVay and his helpers have recently started to process the files from the original FTP-archive in a highly professional manner for the World Wide Web. Nizkor is an impressive demonstration of how excellently the Web is suited to making huge amounts of knowledge available in an ergonomically suitable way. The conversion is, however, a long way from being completed. Nizkor is said to be “under permanent construction”.
There is another reason why there is no end of this project in sight. Apart from the historical events of the holocaust, the Nizkor archives also document the current status of revisionism and its followers – allowing one to obtain a quick overview of the proponents and their ideology. The protagonists’ biographies and the documentation of their activities are constantly being updated, for instance by monitoring the newsgroup alt.revisionism.
Nizkor pursues a whole range of aims: it wants to encourage historical investigations into and educational projects on the holocaust; it wants to observe and document the revisionist scene; it wants to expose and refute its misrepresentation of history; it wants its educational work to help keep the right-wing extremist scene isolated and marginalised.
Nizkor’s goals could hardly be accomplished if access to the right-wing extremists’ materials were blocked by the government. In this sense McVay’s project requires a “libertarian” attitude. But there is no trace of a too liberal or even conciliatory attitude towards its opponents. Nizkor’s staff stand up determined and purposeful against those who refuse to see reason, and they allow themselves a certain degree of emotionality: one senses anger and contempt, and sometimes their opponents are the butt of bitter scorn and derision.
Nizkor is undoubtedly something of a model. But unfortunately imperturbability and courage cannot readily be copied.
SPIEGEL ONLINE 43/1996 Only to be duplicated with the consent of the SPIEGEL publishing company.
The original article is available on http://www.spiegel.de/.