Timothy Garton Ash: Forget 'memory laws'

[Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Opinion pages, is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and professor of European studies at Oxford University.]

Among the ways in which freedom is being chipped away in Europe, one of the less obvious is the legislation of memory. More and more countries have laws saying you must remember and describe this or that historical event in a certain way.

The wrong way depends on where you are. In Switzerland, you get prosecuted for saying that the terrible thing that happened to the Armenians in the last years of the Ottoman empire was not a genocide. In Turkey, you get prosecuted for saying it was. What is state-ordained truth in the Alps is state-ordained falsehood in Anatolia.

Of all the countries in Europe, France has the most intense and tortuous recent experience with "memory laws." It began rather uncontroversially in 1990, when denial of the Nazi Holocaust of the European Jews, along with other crimes against humanity defined by the 1945 Nuremberg Tribunal, was made punishable by law. In 1995, historian Bernard Lewis was convicted by a French court for arguing that, on the available evidence, what happened to the Armenians might not correctly be described as genocide according to the definition in international law.

A further law, passed in 2001, says the French Republic recognizes slavery as a crime against humanity and that this must be given its "consequential place" in teaching and research. A group representing some overseas French citizens subsequently brought a case against the author of a study of the African slave trade, Olivier Petre-Grenouilleau, on the charge of "denial of a crime against humanity." Meanwhile, yet another law was passed, from a very different point of view, prescribing that school curricula should recognize the "positive role" played by the French presence overseas, "especially in North Africa."

Fortunately, at this point a wave of indignation gave birth to a movement called Liberty for History. The case against Petre-Grenouilleau was dropped and the "positive role" clause nullified. But it remains incredible that such a proposal ever made it to the statute book in one of the world's great democracies and homelands of historical scholarship.

This kind of nonsense is all the more dangerous when it wears the mask of virtue. A perfect example is a directive drafted by the European Union in the name of "combating racism and xenophobia." The proposed rule suggests that "publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivializing crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes" should be "punishable by criminal penalties of a maximum of at least between one and three years imprisonment."...

This week, a group of historians and writers to which I belong pushed back against these kinds of dangerous memory laws. In an article published in Le Monde last weekend, we stated that in a free country, "it is not the business of any political authority to define historical truth and to restrict the liberty of the historian by penal sanctions."

The historian's equivalent of a natural scientist's experiment is to test the evidence against all possible hypotheses, however extreme, and then submit his most convincing interpretation for criticism by professional colleagues and for public debate. This is how we get as near as one ever can to truth about the past. How, for example, do you refute the absurd conspiracy theory, which apparently still has some currency in parts of the Arab world, that "the Jews" were behind 9/11? By forbidding anyone from saying that, on pain of imprisonment? No. You refute it by refuting it. By mustering all the available evidence, in free and open debate. This is not just the best way to get at the facts; ultimately, it's the best way to combat racism and xenophobia too.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Bee Pi - 10/19/2008

Politicians delve arbitrarily into historical controversies to exploit political pressures or opportunities. If introducing an issue to "the floor" from "a certain perspective" will win them elections (i.e. get them contributions or block votes), then they will do it. After all, it does not cost them personally very much. Who cares about truth or due process?

We know this to be the example in France with regards to the so-called Armenian Genocide bill that landed Prof. Lewis in court. The same thing goes for US Congress' attempts to recognize the same so-called Armenian Genocide. Without a strong Armenian loby in either country, the chances that the top American legislative body would spend any time or energy on it is next to zero.

Don't expect French and US politicians to introduce legislation or resolution calling for a trial or commission or any other form of open, transparent due process that gives the accused the right to self-defense. Getting to the the truth is not the point. The supporters of the genocide bill inside and outside congresses/parliaments are interested in winning, not justice or truth. Devil may care that even the Nazis and Saddam Hussein had their day in court. So what if Turks don't get it. Someone decided on everybody else's behalf that the truth is somehow obvious and certain despite all the controversy and uproar.

Political interests will trump due process. However, without some form of due process, it is impossible to properly investigate and settle matters of accusation and crime.

So, don't hold your breath about memory laws. Everyone will push for their side and the one with more money and votes in this or that political body will win. That is all there is to it.

Until then, African Americans will have to settle for a semi-apology and Native Americans can forget about even that.

History News Network