Hitler and Free Speech
Posted by rantingkraut on August 2, 2007
The Grauniad has received some attention with a pro-censorship propaganda piece in a ‘comment is free’ column by some Cath Elliot. She argues the by now familiar line that principled support for free speech causes people to commit hate crimes. Naturally, she takes the opportunity to point out that Hitler too spoke freely. Less common is her partial admission to an implied key assumption: Ms Elliot actually spells out that this argument presupposes that people are generally incapable of thinking for themselves.
Unfortunately, she stops there and doesn’t work out the further implications: if humans can’t think for themselves, who is to think for them? After all, if people generally can’t think for themselves, then the same should be true for their elected (human) representatives. And how can they have the ability to elect representatives in the first place if they can’t independently think and decide who should represent them etc. By and large the piece is so poorly argued, I could spend all night fisking it. I can’t be bothered to do that though and will therefore concentrate on her invocation of the Führer.
Elliot asks the rhetorical question “Would the so-called libertarians who defend Nick Griffin’s right to call Islam a “wicked, vicious faith” also have defended Hitler’s right to say of the Jews: “the personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew”?” (Source)
My guess is that most libertarians would. Of course, the insinuation that goes with this appeal to Hitler is that those who would have defended Hitler’s right to make this statement would also approve of the Holocaust or would at least accept it as the price for free speech. This would probably be the conclusion many would reach once they accept that Hitler’s rise to power and the subsequent persecution of the Jews, dissidents and others are a direct consequence of skillful Nazi propaganda. It is this assumption that needs to be challenged.
Elliot is not alone in invoking Hitler to attack free speech, she is merely using one of the standard arguments of the pro-censorship lobby. This line of argument conjures up the impression that Hitler was left to undermine a functioning liberal democracy through a sustained propaganda campaign an that all this could have been averted if only there had been a law to stop him. This impression is wrong!
Let us look first at the condition Germany was in between the wars:
Interwar Germany was not a stable, liberal democracy; by modern standards, it would be classed as a failed state. Inter-war Germany was known as the Weimar Republic, not because Weimar was its capital, but because that is where the constitutional assembly met. The constitutional assembly met in Weimar because the capital, Berlin, and other big cities like Munich were the site of an ongoing civil war –it would simply not have been safe to meet there.
Let’s not forget that once this republic was founded it stumbled from one major crisis to another. Prior to the Great depression, Germany saw hyper-inflation on such a scale that in late 1923 the Reichsbank didn’t even bother printing on both sides of bank notes. The currency was loosing value so quickly, nobody would have been tempted to forge money any more.
Let’s not forget either that this was a time were several major parties –including the mainstream Social Democrats- had armed party militias which were fighting the police and each other in the streets.
Against this background, let us ask next what the legal situation of the Nazi party was.
The NSDAP and its affiliate organizations (the SA and SS) were breaking criminal laws so frequently that no further censorship provisions would have been needed to reign them in. Indeed, the NSDAP was banned for some time after the coup of 9 November 1923, and the SA was briefly banned in 1932. The laws to stop the Nazis existed, the will to use them did not!
Of course the Nazis used propaganda too, but they did so against a background of sustained violence against a fledgling republic in a state of perpetual crisis before they finally seized power at the height of the great depression.
So what would the consequence have been, had Hitler merely been rambling on about Jews and Satan in a stable democracy with an economic and political background comparable to that of any modern member state of the EU? My guess is that few would have noticed, let alone cared about it.
When Hitler’s propaganda is used in justification of censorship, we should remember this: The Nazi party’s rise to power was not primarily a propaganda victory over a stable democracy which merely let down its guard, it was the culmination of a sustained and violent attack on a failing state in perpetual crisis.
A second case Cath Elliot mentions are the radio broadcasts in the Rwandan genocide. Here the situation is similar: propaganda was used, but this can’t explain what happened. According to a report by Human rights watch:
“Throughout the genocide, Radio Rwanda and RTLM continued to broadcast both incitations to slaughter and the directions on how to carry it out. Authorities knew that they could reach a far wider audience through the radio than through popular meetings and so told people that they should listen to the radio to know what was expected of them. The burgomaster of Bwakira commune, for example, reminded people that they “have to follow all orders transmitted in meetings or on the radio.”” (Source)
This clearly was no case of lynch mobs spontaneously following the call of a ranting radio DJ. According to this report, the radio was indeed used to direct the paramilitary organizations like the Interahamwe militias –i.e. it was used to issue direct instructions rather than some form of abstract incitement. However, before this could happen, the genocide had been planned and prepared with government support.
There seems to be a pattern in the authoritarian Left’s growing demand for censorship whereby references are made to spectacular atrocities in which political propaganda played a limited role. On closer scrutiny, the implied support for censorship appears highly implausible.
The experience of Hitler’s reign of terror could have given humanity a stern lesson about leviathan’s potentially destructive power. Instead it has given us a facile cliché for ready use in the war on anything.
More on Freedom of Expression here
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