The biblical book of Proverbs (Mishlei) instructs us “Do not be happy when your enemy falls, and do not rejoice when he fails” (Chapter 24, verse 17).
But it was hard to resist a sense of joy and satisfaction, when the news was publicised early this week that Ernst Zundel, one of the most prolific and persistent Holocaust deniers, had died in Germany at the age of 78.
The efforts to silence Zundel went on for decades in Canada, the United States and Germany, and the history of this case offers us insights into the effectiveness of laws outlawing Holocaust denial and the nature of the struggle against these lies in different countries in North America and Europe.
Zundel was born in Germany in 1939, and moved to Canada in 1958, by his own admission to avoid serving in the German Army. He lived in Canada for more than 40 years, during which he was active in promoting neo-Nazi ideas and denying the Holocaust, thereby earning international notoriety.
Among his more well-known publications was The Hitler We Loved and Why, and he also operated Samisdat Publishers, one of the leading distributors of Nazi propaganda.
Despite his efforts, Zundel was never able to obtain Canadian citizenship, and he was convicted twice of publicising false news which caused, or was likely to cause, harm to the public interest, which the authorities interpreted to relate to Canada’s commitment to tolerance.
The problem was, however, that in each case, the verdict was later overturned, once on a technicality, and in 1992 by the Canadian Supreme Court, which ruled that the law was unreasonably limiting Zundel’s freedom of expression.
Zundel left Canada in 2000, and moved to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where he lived with his third wife, Ingrid Rimlaud, and continued his ideological crusade via his website. Three years later, Zundel was arrested by the American immigration authorities for overstaying his visa and was deported back to Canada, where he was detained by the authorities on the grounds that based on his ties to neo-Nazi groups, he was a threat to national security.
In 2005, he was deported to Germany, where Holocaust denial is illegal and was convicted by a court in Mannheim in 2007 of 14 counts of inciting hatred and one count of violating the memory of the dead, and sentenced to five years in prison. A recent request by Zundel to go to Tennessee to care for his wife was rejected by the US Department of Homeland Security on the grounds that he distributed books, tapes, videos and broadcasts to deny the Holocaust and which “agitated for aggressive behavior against Jews.”
Zundel, according to the Americans, “has been a leader in these activities for decades and has shown no regret or remorse for his actions”.
After Zundel’s release from prison, he refused to comment on his views about the Holocaust, adding that he intended to “be careful not to offend anyone and their draconian laws.” This quote is perhaps the best indication of the effectiveness of legislation to specifically ban Holocaust denial.
If Zundel had not violated his visa in the US, he probably would still be there, busy disseminating his outrageous views and the same applies to Canada. With no law on the books to outlaw Holocaust denial, people are free in these countries to not only deny the historical facts, but also to spread what is basically a new form of anti-Semitism and dangerous incitement against Jews.
A lot of people dismiss the Holocaust deniers as foolish cranks, not realising that their real agenda is not so much to convince the public of the accuracy of their alternative historical narrative, but to defame and besmirch the Jewish people, with potentially horrific results.
The good news is that in the Western world, the fight against Holocaust denial has been fairly successful to date, thanks to the defeat of its most dangerous advocate David Irving’s libel suit against Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, and the punishment of persons like him and Zundel. And, as of this week, at least we no longer have to worry about the latter, which is, indeed, a legitimate cause for joy, despite the admonitions of the book of Proverbs.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.