Germany’s push for all European Union member states to adopt legislation criminalizing Holocaust denials is gaining traction as several key countries that expressed concerns over potential free-speech infringement have indicated a new willingness to join the effort.
Berlin announced early this year that during its six-month presidency of the E.U., it would press to make Holocaust denial punishable by law in each of the 27 member states. German officials have described their effort as a moral imperative, as well as a practical effort to unify European legal standards on the issue.
A similar attempt by Luxembourg in 2005 was blocked by Britain, Denmark and Italy, three countries that saw the measures as overstepping the rights of expression under their respective national laws. But supporters of the campaign believe that new British laws against inciting terrorism, the controversy over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and a new government in Italy, as well as the backlash over statements questioning the Holocaust by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, could lead to a successful outcome in the coming months.
“We are optimistic we will see a positive result, even if it is not a perfect one,” said Pierre Besnainou, president of the European Jewish Congress, in an interview with the Forward. “Our advocacy for a pan-E.U. legislation has been well received in various capitals, and we believe [German] chancellor [Angela] Merkel is determined to get it done.”
Among E.U. members, only Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, Romania and Spain have laws specifically targeting Holocaust revisionism on the books — meaning that Berlin needs to convince 20 other countries to come on board by July, when it will relinquish the E.U. presidency.
As a result of the disparity in E.U. legal standards, Holocaust deniers have been prosecuted in some countries while being left alone in others. The most high-profile case involved controversial British historian David Irving, who spent 13 months in an Austrian jail but faced no legal threat in his native country.
The European Commission, the executive arm of the E.U., is publicly supporting the Germans’ initiative. Last month, on the eve of international commemorations to mark the Holocaust, E.U. Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini called on all member nations to “finally adopt” tough new rules to criminalize the incitement of hatred and acts of racist violence.
The new German plan envisions the introduction of minimum E.U.-wide prison terms — between one and three years — for those convicted of purposely inciting racist violence or hatred, or for those who deny the Holocaust.
Last month, German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries expressed hope that unifying E.U. legal standards regarding Holocaust denial and xenophobic acts was now possible because Italy had dropped its opposition. But Italy’s stance is still ambiguous.
The center-left government in Rome was set to include an explicit reference to Holocaust denial in a draft law imposing jail terms of up to four years for racist or ethnically motivated crimes, on the advice of the bill’s author, Italian Justice Minister Clemente Mastella. But the center-left coalition government heeded protests from several of its ministers, as well as from academics and even some Jewish leaders, who argued that jail time was not a proper way to address the issue. Rome’s former chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, who was tortured by the Nazis during the German occupation of Italy, publicly said he doubted that the measure could stop antisemitism.
Several members of the Italian government expressed misgivings about using criminal procedures to deal with what they see primarily as a cultural and educational problem. In addition, about 200 Italian historians publicly argued that such laws could impinge on free speech, echoing an argument made by common-law countries in the E.U., first and foremost the United Kingdom.
As a result of any remaining differences, Besnainou said that an agreement on criminalizing Holocaust denial in all the E.U. would be reached but the tough jail sanctions proposed by Germany would be lessened.