The World from Berlin Holocaust Denier Zündel's 15 Minutes of Fame

Historical revisionist Ernst Zündel has been convicted for denying the Holocaust and sent to jail for five years. But many in Germany suspect such trials may do more harm than good.

Ernst Zündel was sent to prison for five years for denying the Holocaust.

Ernst Zündel was sent to prison for five years for denying the Holocaust.

The "martyr of the German Reich" -- as his right-wing supporters call him -- is heading to jail. On Thursday, a court in Mannheim sentenced 67-year-old historical revisionist Ernst Zündel to five years in prison for denying the Holocaust. The two years he has already spent behind bars since being extradited to Germany from Canada in 2005 will be counted against his sentence.

"You're an inflammatory, racist agitator," the visibly upset presiding judge, Ulrich Meinerzhagen, told Zündel as he handed down his verdict. To illustrate his point, Meinerzhagen read passages from Zündel's racist and anti-Semitic writings, including one that called Israel "a place of refuge for world gangsterism."

The trial was a highly grotesque affair, with the defense calling a number of neo-Nazis as witnesses -- "long live the German Reich," shouted one as she was led from the stand -- and people leaving the courtroom on some days with bouts of nausea.

Zündel's lawyer Jürgen Rieger spent much of his speaking time elaborating on the details of the gas chambers and ovens in German concentration camps, arguing that "millions of people could never have died in concentration camps -- at most it couldn't have been more than a few thousand."

Rieger was not present for the sentencing, but he had previously promised he would demand a re-trial should Zündel be convicted. German commentators on Friday are not impressed with the handling of the trial and wonder whether neo-Nazis have learned to instrumentalize the courts to their advantage.

Center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung ponders whether characters like Zündel really deserve the public attention such trials generate.

"Freedom of opinion is a fundamentally far-reaching basic right," the paper writes. "It's not concerned with the validity of the thoughts expressed; it applies to any old nonsense, covering witlessness and idiocy no less than extraordinary stupidity. It is legitimate to wonder whether one should leave garden-variety right-wing blabber unpunished.

Holocaust denial, though, is not the same as an unsavory opinion, the commentator concludes: "Ernst Zündel, a fanatic anti-Semite, is not a martyr for freedom of opinion. He's more than an everyday right-winger, more than a global Nazi propagandist: He's a harbinger of violence. Even were Holocaust denial not punishable by law -- as it is in Germany -- he would be guilty of inciting the public to violence."

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is even less convinced the trial and the sentence were justified. The piece, printed on the conservative daily's front page, begins by stressing that this and previous trials -- including one in Canada which Zündel won -- have helped create a platform for Holocaust deniers.

"Ernst Zündel has become world-famous. He's become well-known not just via his publications but also thanks to court proceedings…. He was granted the same freedom of speech as every other Canadian, albeit reluctantly. But Zündel also succeeded in instrumentalizing the trials in a way never seen before … Zündel gave 'revisionism' ... a tremendous boost."

The legal basis for Zündel's conviction in a German court is questionable, the paper argues: "Guilt has now been extended to include a person's views…. In 2005, it became possible to convict and punish a person for endorsing Nazi crimes 'by way of conclusion' -- in other words, by simply successfully showing they agree with such crimes… Expanding the notion of guilt leads to a statistical increase in number of crimes in question. In addition, it likely fosters the very thing it wants to fight."

The left-wing daily Die Tageszeitung is especially disturbed by how the trial was conducted. "The trial was intolerable for all those who don't belong to the extreme right. The right-wingers associated with Jürgen Rieger -- the lawyer who is also an activist for the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) -- used the trial as a platform for their revanchism and in order to publicize their claimed scientific 'discoveries' on 'the Auschwitz lie.' The lawyers also repeatedly tried to provoke the presiding judge … and turn the court proceedings into chaos.

"Perhaps it would be better not to give Holocaust deniers and their supporters the satisfaction of taking them to court," the commentator concludes. "After all, the laws currently in place have yet to stop a single revanchist from circulating hate speech in written and spoken form. In any case, Zündel wouldn't be a right-wing martyr now if it hadn't been for this trial."

"Maximum Penalty -- What Else?" is the headline in conservative daily Die Welt. But the commentator is more concerned about the trial and its possible consequences than the title suggests.

"The circumstances of the trial were often intolerable, at least for the non-confused among us. The fact that one of Zündel's lawyers signed a document with the words 'Heil Hitler' is just one of the more grotesque lapses."

The commentator goes on to ponder a proposal currently being debated within the European Union -- that of making "racism and xenophobia" a punishable crime in all of the EU's member countries. He takes a critical view of the proposal.

"Should all Polish glorifiers of Stalinism and all French deniers of the murder of Armenians be taken to court in the EU, regardless of which country they are active in? That, from the German point of view, doesn't seem like a good idea. We should take care of our own past ourselves. What is more, it is unacceptable to in any way equate other crimes with the industrial mass murder of the Jews and other Nazi-era crimes."

-- Max Henninger, 2:15 p.m. CET


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