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.
This kind of nonsense is all the more dangerous when it comes wearing the mask of virtue. A perfect example is the recent attempt to enforce limits to the interpretation of history across the whole EU in the name of "combating racism and xenophobia".
How, for example, do you refute the absurd conspiracy theory, which apparently still has some currency in parts of the Arab world, that "the Jews" were behind the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on New York? By forbidding anyone from saying that, on pain of imprisonment? No. You refute it by refuting it. By mustering all the available evidence, in free and open debate. This is not just the best way to get at the facts; ultimately, it's the best way to combat racism and xenophobia too.
The only problem here is that the very same people (Marxists) who invented the words "racism" and "xenophobia" are the ones now trying hardest to persecute and prosecute those who investigate historical events.
The author also states that, "I believe it is very important that nations, states, peoples and other groups (not to mention individuals) should face up, solemnly and publicly, to the bad things done by them or in their name."
And of the good things done by them or in their name?
And who is to define what counts as "bad things" vs. "good things", because different groups will most certainly have varying notions.
And will we see apologies and/or at least recognition of the "bad things" inflicted upon European peoples by the likes of the Mongols, Arabs, Berbers, Muslims, Jews and Turks?
How was it Orwell put it,
"those who control the past control the present; those who control the present control the future"