“Legislate in haste, repent at leisure.” The old adage about marriage can now be applied to Hungary’s new law, passed this month, that criminalizes Holocaust denial. The law states: “Those who publicly hurt the dignity of a victim of the Holocaust by denying or questioning the Holocaust itself, or claim it is insignificant, infringe the law and can be punished by a prison sentence of up to three years.”
These are febrile, even hysterical days in Hungary as the country gears up for the election next month. The center-right Fidesz party is widely predicted to win a sweeping victory, perhaps even take a two-thirds majority, and to dislodge the governing Socialists. But arguably the real victor will be the far-right radical nationalist Jobbik party, which is running at about 10 to 12 percent in the polls and which has roughly quadrupled its support over the last couple of years. Some polls even predict that it will beat the collapsing Socialists and come in second place.
Fear of Jobbik seems to have spurred Hungary’s legislators to finally pass the law after years of wrangling. More than 550,000 Hungarian Jews perished in the Holocaust and the country’s willing collaboration in the Nazi Genocide remains a profoundly sensitive topic.
The consensus among many politicians seems to be that Hungary is too immature a democracy to allow Holocaust denial. Yet Hungary, much more than its neighbors, has made progress in the memorialization of the Holocaust and Budapest boasts an excellent Holocaust museum. And legislating for belief is always wrong. It’s wrong because the most effective way to combat Holocaust denial is through education, not criminalization; wrong because the law stifles free speech and necessary debate about the Holocaust and because it turns the Nazi extermination of the Jews into a political football.
Consider the phrase ?questioning the Holocaust.? It is the job of historians to continually question, probe and rigorously analyze and re-interpret the past as new data becomes available. Even now, for example, nobody knows precisely how many people were killed at Auschwitz. For many years the accepted figure was up to four million. The Jewish Virtual Library says between two and 2.5 million. The Web site of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum states ?at least 960,000? Jews were killed at Auschwitz. Perhaps museum officials should avoid visiting Hungary for now, for fear of arrest.
Of course that is an unlikely scenario. But what is likely is that once in power, Fidesz will pass a law criminalising the denial of crimes committed under Communism. As most of the Soviet archives are closed, and are likely to remain so for the near future, it will be near impossible to quantify Stalin?s crimes. Yet even though the parameters of these crimes remain unclear, their denial will likely be a criminal offence. The only beneficiaries of laws such as these are not truth, justice or history, but the lawyers who grow rich on the court cases they will trigger.