In last Thursday’s Guardian, Timothy Garton warns, “The freedom of historical debate is under attack by the memory police: Well-intentioned laws that prescribe how we remember terrible events are foolish, unworkable and counter-productive”:
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, sometimes on pain of criminal prosecution if you give the wrong answer. What the wrong answer is 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.
This week a group of historians and writers, of whom I am one, has pushed back against this dangerous nonsense. In what is being called the “Appel de Blois”, published in Le Monde last weekend, we maintain 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”. And we argue against the accumulation of so-called “memory laws”. First signatories include historians such as Eric Hobsbawm, Jacques Le Goff and Heinrich August Winkler. It’s no accident that this appeal originated in France, which has the most intense and tortuous recent experience with memory laws and prosecutions. It began 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 France – as it is in several other European countries. In 1995, the 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.
People who indulge in this kind of high-minded overreach by criminalizing particular memories, policies, and thoughts they consider beyond the pale seem to have forgotten the lessons of Stalinism, Maoism, and religious wars of all ages. (I don’t mean to let off the Nazis, who criminalized irredeemable status offenses—being Jewish, Gypsy, Slav, homosexual, genetically disabled, etc.—for which there was no possibility of reeducation, only eventual extermination.)