March 14, 1990
The crime of rewriting history
STEPHEN VIZINCZEY argues that this is not the time to forget Nazi war crimes as the tensions and hatreds involved are reawakening in East Europe.
IT IS good news that the Government has introduced a Bill to permit British courts to prosecute the alleged Nazi war criminals who have been living undisturbed in Britain since the end of the war. True, it is not easy to try people for crimes committed decades ago, but just the same, Mr David Waddington, the Home Secretary, is right to press for legislation: moral and political imperatives ought not to be abandoned simply because they cause difficulties.
Many well-meaning people feel that old mass-murderers should be left alone and we should, in the words of Rabbi Barbara Bolt, work instead towards "the eradication of all blind hatred". But, alas, there is no way to eradicate from human nature anything as basic as blind hatred. It is one of the mainstays of humanity; millions of people could not get through the day without it. Hatred soothes their sense of inadequacy: it fills the void created by the absence of understanding, abilities, virtues or accomplishments.
These are not abstract generalisations but historical facts -- historical facts which a lot of people are busy denying. The British Nazis who mounted street protests against prosecution when the issue first came up in Parliament were not protesting against the possible danger of innocent old men being convicted, they were giving away newspapers claiming "Auschwitz is a lie!"
This sort of insanity is given respectability by newspapers which refer to the neo-Nazi propagandist David Irving as a "historian"' and a ""scholar", albeit "controversial" one. A man who can write a book announcing that Hitler had nothing to do with the Holocaust is not engaged in thinking or reasoning in any generally accepted sense of the word. Nor is he a scholar", controversial or otherwise.
That war is not over; the issues over which it was fought are coming alive again as East Europe is taken out of the political freezer of communism. The Nazis in Germany, Austria, Romania, Poland, even Russia, have wakened as if from a deep sleep, and the tensions and hatreds that swept Europe before the 1939-45 War are with us again, The Nazis are only militant minorities everywhere, it is true, but they are surrounded by millions who are as resentful about the reimposition of the Versailles borders as they were after the 1914-18 War.
Whatever we face, it ought not to be on the basis that at this late date we cannot really determine what the Nazis did a few decades ago. You can imagine the appeal of this idea in soon-to-be-reunited Germany, if you consider that it has gained the support not only of some noble Lords and MPs but also of large sections of the American press.
Last year influential journals in America gave a sickeningly respectful reception to a book by Princeton professor Arno Mayer, whose Why did the Heavens Not Darken? The Final Solution in History, tries to cast doubt on the evidence for genocide, "Sources for the study of the gas chambers are at once rare and unreliable," Mayer claims untruthfully.
"Most of what is known is based on the depositions of Nazi officials and executioners at post-war trials and on the memory of survivors and bystanders."
In fact, much of what we know comes from the impeccable files of German bureaucracy. As for the depositions of Nazi officials and executioners, survivors and bystanders, they were queried and accepted not only by the four-power tribunal at Nuremberg but by courts in many countries, including East and West Germany.
The big lie of Mayer, Irving and their like, who are very active in France, Germany and all over explosive Central and Eastern Europe -- is the pretence that the "only" evidence of genocide is the confessions and testimonies of a few thousand people given in court or recorded by Allied investigators after the war, No one took my testimony, but I was an 11-year-old witness to the transport of the Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz.
I remember watching horrified as they were pushed into the cattle cars, treated worse than cattle, treated as people whose life had already been forfeited, Certainly not many Hungarians would be inclined to doubt Höss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, who testified that more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in the camp. There are tens of millions of neighbours throughout Europe who saw the Jews taken away and did not see them come back.
That is not only a past crime but a present wound, and not just for the Jews but for all Europeans. The Holocaust is an unending European tragedy, The absence of over six million murdered Jews and their descendants weakens the chances for peace in Central and East Europe.
The blind hatred is still there, even though the six million are dead, and that hatred, as we know from the history of Nazism, is aimed ultimately at Western democracy. It is in this context that we have to consider the prosecution of a handful of elderly mass murderers.
Britain must remind the world what the Allies fought against, if we are to avoid another conflagration. This is no time to forget crimes against humanity.
Novelist Stephen Vizinczey is the author of In Praise of Older Women, and Truth and Lies in Literature.
David Irving's reply was published by The Daily Telegraph on March 23, 1990