Over the past few days, I’ve seen several viral posts and news articles going around the Internet that really struck a nerve with my historian brain. These have involved people on the right and the left, often well-meaning, comparing current political events and turmoil to the infamous November 1938 “Night of Broken Glass”, also known as Kristallnacht. That two-night pogrom in Nazi Germany involved the widespread destruction of Jewish businesses and property, the torching of almost 1,500 synagogues, and the killing of over 90 Jews. In the aftermath of these destructive and targeted riots, Jews were done the ignominy of having to pay for the damages caused to their own property by vile anti-Semitic thugs. Besides that forced payment, 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps, due to nothing else but their religious and ethnic origins. Kristallnacht is widely seen by historians as being one of the first actions of the genocide of the European Jews known as the Holocaust. As such, it is rightly viewed as an evil atrocity which should never happen again.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Freedom of speech is a fundamental aspect of American society and an important classical liberal ideal, but it is a right which is not always convenient, convivial, or comity-inducing. In fact, allowing the full flourishing of the freedom of expression and speech often includes permitting speech that much of society will find despicable, evil, offensive, or harmful. Unfortunately, there is a strong cultural – and outside of the United States, legal – movement to restrict speech freedoms and police the public discourse, sometimes with actual police officers. This trend is only accelerating with the mass adoption of social media and Internet communications more broadly, as well as the perpetually searchable online past of nearly everyone in society. So-called ‘cancel culture’ is commonplace in certain circles of political and social activism, and virtually every potentially controversial opinion (and many that are not) is met with the metaphorical gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. There are increasing levels of pushback against this trend, but the idea of ‘de-platforming’, stifling, or censoring speech which the vast majority of society considers beyond the pale – support for terrorism and blatant white supremacy, to give two examples – is quite popular, especially among younger people. According to a poll conducted by the Campaign for Free Speech, “61 percent of Americans agree that free speech should be restricted, and 51 percent believe that the First Amendment, ratified in 1791, should be rewritten to reflect the new cultural norms of today. Millennials feel a greater sense of negativity from free speech, with 57 percent agreeing that the First Amendment should be rewritten, and 54 percent believing that possible jail time would be an appropriate consequence for ‘hate speech.’” Despite the strong American constitutional protections for free speech, as seen in the First Amendment quoted above, without a strong cultural presumption and acceptance of the values around free speech, the right itself can be chipped away.
The Earth is flat. Dinosaurs lived alongside humans. Aliens built the Egyptian pyramids. Elvis is still alive on another planet. The Holocaust never happened.
All of the aforementioned statements are unequivocally false, conspiratorial pablum; still, some people in modern America believe each one of them. The most painful and despicable of these lies is the final one presented, that of the falsity of the Holocaust. True believers in the ‘Holocaust hoax’ conspiracy theory are, thankfully, few and far between, but the lack of Holocaust knowledge within the American population is stunningly high. According to a 2018 survey, “Nearly one-third of all Americans (31 percent) and more than 4-in-10 Millennials (41 percent) believe that substantially less than 6 million Jews were killed (two million or fewer) during the Holocaust” and “While there were over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust, almost half of Americans (45 percent) cannot name a single one – and this percentage is even higher amongst Millennials.” This lack of historical knowledge around the Holocaust plays directly into the hands of those who wish to deny it and provides an opening for denialist rhetoric and ‘information’ to fill the gaps.