Mistaking failure to support for “censorship”: The Danish government funding a Holocaust denier

Until the other day, it had been a long time since I had indulged my interest in World War II history. Not surprisingly, a certain anti-Semitic troll appeared out of the woodwork, thus amazing me with persistence, given that it’s been at least two months since I’ve even mentioned the topic. That’s a long time to have to wait for an opportunity to leap into the comments here and rail against “Jews” and Zionists while I’ve been dishing out the usual commentary on alternative medicine, science, clinical trials,

Since he/she/it’s here again, I thought I’d mention a story that’s cropped up over the last week that I found out about via History on Trial. Did you know that it’s possible for Holocaust deniers to get research grants to study Nazi history, presumably in order to churn out more Holocaust denial? It’s true. It happened recently in, of all places, Denmark:

Danish Holocaust denier obtained government funding for his studies on the involvement of Danes in Hitler’s SS, the Danish newspaper Information revealed yesterday.

The paper reported that Erik Haaest received grants totaling 100,000 Danish krone from the Danish Arts Council, a government-funded body, in 2004 and 2006.

In a conversation with the Danish paper earlier this week, Haaest called Anne Frank’s diary a “forgery” and refused to renounce earlier publications in which he wrote that the gas chambers never existed and that the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust has been greatly exaggerated.

Now, the fact that a Holocaust denier got a grant from the Danish government to study the Holocaust could just be a typical bureaucratic snafu, a mistake. That Haaest got financial support from Denmark to support his “scholarly pursuits” isn’t necessarily in and of itself disturbing. What was disturbing was the reaction of the Danish Arts Council to the intense criticism of its award:

The Arts Council said in response that it does not deal in censorship and “it is not our job to judge [people’s] opinions.”

This is a beautiful example of being so open-minded that your brains fall out. Here’s an analogy to demonstrate the vapidness of this response. What if a young earth creationist somehow got a grant from the National Science Foundation to study evolution? What if, when criticized for awarding this YEC such a grant, an NSF spokesperson said that the NSF does not deal in censorship and “it is not our job to judge [people’s] opinions.” Or what if the NIH gave a grant to an HIV/AIDS denialist to study whether HIV causes AIDS, and then an NIH spokesperson said the same thing? Too harsh? Not at all. If anything, it’s not harsh enough of a response to such a comment. Holocaust denial is not an “opinion.” At least, it’s not an viewpoint that is considered legitimate among historians, anymore than YEC is a viewpoint considered legitimate among biologists or HIV/AIDS denialism is a viewpoint considered legitimate by infectious disease doctors and scientists. Would the Danish government fund a study about the legitimacy of flat earth or looking into whether the sun revolved around the earth?

I sincerely doubt it. Yet the same government unconcernedly funds a Holocaust denier.

This is not a matter of suppressing free speech. Recall my outrage at the arrest and imprisonment of Holocaust denier David Irving. (Some of my earliest posts after joining ScienceBlogs were on just this topic.) Recall how I’ve been labeled as dogmatic or insenstive for criticizing laws criminalizing Holocaust denial in Austria and Germany. Recall my broadsides against the pernicious and ridiculous proposed European Union law criminalizing not just Holocaust denial but “genocide denial,” perhaps the most idiotic response to the problem of Holocaust denial that I’ve ever seen proposed, a solution that would ban Holocaust denial and some vaguely defined “genocide denial” not just in nations that participated in the Holocaust and where Holocaust denial has a more threatening subtext (namely the resurgence of Nazi-ism), but in the entire EU.

Besides, there’s a difference between permitting Holocaust denial as one of the odious prices that we must pay to allow free speech and financially supporting it. Clearly Denmark does the former, as Holocaust denial is not illegal there. That’s good and as it should be. However, it does not follow that, if a government permits people to spew the lie that is Holocaust denial, that it must also subsidize Holocaust deniers using taxpayer money. For a government body to award large grants to a Holocaust denier and then to dismiss criticism with a blithe,”we do not censor opinions” is beyond the pale. Not only does it give the imprimatur of government approval to such views, but the government’s response to criticism of its award reveals a level of cluelessness about Holocaust denial that is breathtaking, especially coming from a country that acquitted itself well during its occupation in World War II.

I hear the objection right now, though. Perhaps, some are thinking, Haaest won his award for work that doesn’t deny the Holocaust or for worthy work that has nothing to do with death camps or the Holocaust but rather deals with some other aspect of Danish history during World War II. Maybe. However, as has been pointed out, Haaest’s citations in the Holocaust denial literature go back to 1959:

Dr. Shimon Samuels, Wiesenthal Centre’s Director for International Relations, wrote to Rasmussen that “Haaest reportedly received this prize for his work on ‘The Danish Friekorps on the Eastern Front, 1941-1965’, hardly a symbol of Danish national pride”, adding that “Haaest’s citations from Holocaust denial literature go back to the 1959 volume of the Journal of Historical Review published by the institute of the same name, frequented by neo-Nazis worldwide.”

Another publication reports Haaest as declaring Anne Frank’s diary “a swindle”.

The Danish government has helped Holocaust deniers get exactly what they want, exactly what Professor Lipstadt warned about in the 1990s in her book Denying the Holocaust: To enter a “debate” as “the other side” or as a legitimate opinion.

Sadly, their efforts are being assisted by more than just the Danish Arts Council. Switzerland has also contributed to the effort of legitimizing Holocaust denial through a blind insistence on “balance” in a truly idiotic proposal floated recently:

WASHINGTON — Switzerland’s foreign minister proposed in December that her government host a conference on varying perspectives on the Holocaust. The participants would include the Jewish state of Israel, and the country whose president has denied the attempted genocide ever happened, Iran.

The details of the plan emerged this week in the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche, which claimed to obtain minutes from a meeting between Micheline Calmy-Rey and Iran’s deputy foreign minister on December 21. The Iranians had just made world headlines after hosting a Holocaust denial conference in Tehran that featured neo-Nazis and ex-Klansmen, such as David Duke.

Once again, the fallacy of”balance” rears its ugly head. When it comes to pseudohistory or pseudoscience, there are not two comparable sides to the issue. There is a side supported by evidence, science, and reason, and then there is the other side, the crank side, be it Holocaust denial, creationism, HIV/AIDS denialism, or 9/11 “Truth,” Putting the two together at the same table to “discuss” or “debate” only serves to give the impression that the crank’s view is somehow roughly comparable in validity to the consensus view. This is the reason why cranks, be they Holocaust deniers, creationists, or 9/11 Truthers, are so desperate to “debate” in forums with legitimate historians, biologists, or medical scientists, respectively. They know they can appear far more legitimate than they are, and they are not constrained by evidence, science or the truth, which allows them to put the side that is constrained by these things on the defensive. Moreover, as the “rebel,” the crank almost always controls the agenda, and, particularly in the U.S., people root for the seeming underdog anyway.

That’s why public debates with such cranks are almost always a bad idea and anyone who naively and in good faith mistakenly agrees to such a staged pseudodebate to refute them should never, never underestimate the capacity for misinformation, spin, and lies.