– March 25, 2019
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Imagine that in 1946 the general-secretary of the United Nations had submitted a resolution to the General Assembly stating that Nazi crimes were so horrendous and despicable that the countries of the world needed to impose a blanket censorship on any public reference to or discussion of Hitler or his henchmen. Only the names of victims were to be mentioned or discussed. And the U.N. member countries, then, unanimously passed this resolution. 

If such a resolution had been proposed, passed, and fully enforced, what would we know today about the Nazi regime, the German history of that period, or the origins, premises, logic, and implied conclusions of national-socialist ideology and policies, both domestic and foreign? Without open and public discussion and debate through mention of Hitler’s name and unrestricted access to and use of his papers, speeches, and all other related documents, from whom would the world know why and what the Nazi system had done?

Imagine Only Government-Approved Nazi History

The global public would be dependent upon what the governments of the world decided people should know. A select committee of appointed “experts” in a variety of fields would be given full or abridged access to all the relevant material. They would prepare draft histories of the Nazi era; their drafts would be gone over and “edited” for content and interpretation by a political cadre more directly answerable to the ruling politicians; and then with public fanfare the “official” history, interpretation, and meaning of the Nazi era would be made available to “the people.”

No doubt, there would be critics after such a release of the approved history. They would want to know more, and whether everything relevant had really been included and explained. But, surely, the governments of the world could not allow just any Tom, Dick, and Harry to have direct access to and use of those millions of pages of Hitler- and Nazi-related documents. How do you know who is a “nut” or a Hitler apologist and advocate wanting to whitewash the ideas and actions during the Nazi period?

No, any additional users would have to be interviewed, vetted, and judged to make sure that they would not take advantage of their access to the archives to glorify and espouse those hateful ideas. In the name of historical justice and sympathy for all those who had died at the hands of the Nazis, which facts and documents and what range of interpretations officially permitted would have to be decided by those in political authority and their bureaucratic appointees. Why? For the public good, so there would be no legitimizing of such evil ideas.

The history of the Nazi era and all references to him, whose name must not be said in public, would be sanitized, with the formal stamp of approval by the government’s OHFA (Office of History and Fact Administration). 

Seem crazy? In fact, something like this was attempted by the occupying Allied powers in Germany immediately after the Second World War. Then, after 1949, the newly constituted West German government implemented a form of it. Indeed, for 70 years the publication of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (My Struggle) was banned in Germany. And the public display of Nazi (and some communist) symbols was prohibited, except for certain legally ambiguous artistic or historical research purposes. An approved history of the Nazi epoch was taught in all West German schools.

Official Soviet History Ended and Reborn

For the nearly 75 years of its existence, the government of the Soviet Union had its own official history of the Russian Revolution, of the building and workings of the socialist paradise under Lenin, Stalin, and their successors, and of the enemies of the regime at home and abroad.

With the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the new Russian government partially opened various secret archives to Russian and foreign researchers. Truths became known about Soviet socialism-in-practice: the terror, the tyranny, and the tragic deaths of tens of millions to make the bright, beautiful collectivist future. Also found out were some embarrassing revelations and confirmations of who and how many in the West had been spies, agents, or fellow travelers of the Soviet government and its secret police and intelligence services.

But under Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia today all such archives are once again closed to the prying eyes of researchers other than those approved by the authorities. Once more, there is an official history, one in which Stalin is portrayed as not really all that bad. He industrialized the backward Soviet economy; he saved the world from Nazism in the Second World War; and he made the Soviet Union a “great power” facing enemy number one, the United States. As for the mountains of the dead, well, who really knows how many or why? Why obsess about some “negatives” from the past? Let’s focus on the positives and the future.

What Are We to Know About the Christchurch Massacre?

The recent mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which a 28-year-old named Brenton Tarrant killed or wounded at least 100 people at two mosques, has sent shockwaves through the local population and aroused strong condemnation and sympathy from around the world.

So what do we know about him and his reasons for killing innocent and unarmed men, women, and children? He came from Australia and had been living in New Zealand. He possessed firearms that seemingly were obtained lawfully, and was not on the radar screen of the police or anti-terrorist agencies in either Australia or New Zealand.

He posted a live video feed on social media of his entering and shooting in one of the mosques. And he posted on social media a lengthy “manifesto” outlining his worldview and the motivations behind his violent actions. The video was soon taken down, and the manifesto is not downloadable off the internet, either.

Newspapers like the Washington Post, or the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal, which often offer hyperlinks to original documents that they are reporting or commenting on, have not provided even one to Mr. Tarrant’s manifesto that I have been able to find in any of their online articles about the tragedy in New Zealand that I looked through.

(Perhaps I’m just a poor Google searcher; after all, I was born in the middle of the 20th century and began all my writing in either longhand or on an old-fashioned manual typewriter; and for most of my life I read “real” books and print newspapers. So, be kind if I’ve missed such a link.)

Reporters for these publications obviously have accessed this document, on the basis of which they have offered selected summaries of what was in the shooter’s mind. It has been reported that Mr. Tarrant praised President Donald Trump; that he greatly admires the political regime in the People’s Republic of China; that he is a self-declared fascist; and that he is an “environmentalist” concerned with the destruction of the planet and its overpopulation especially due to the number of “undesirables.” He has been most frequently labeled a “right-wing nationalist extremist.”

The prime minister of New Zealand publicly called for no mention of the perpetrator’s name, only the names of the victims. No legitimacy, or recognition, or publicity, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, should or would be given to this person. In several of the news video clips of Mr. Tarrant’s first appearance in court that I saw, his face was blurred out so the viewer could not have a clear picture of what he looks like. And in New Zealand, the manifesto he wrote has been declared banned literature; the rule against possessing or sharing it is enforced by a criminal penalty of 14 years in jail.

All that already may be known about Mr. Tarrant and his actions leading up to and during the attack has been partly withheld from the media due to the ongoing police investigation. But it is clear that if Ms. Ardern and others had their way only the minimal amount of information and facts would be permanently publicized so as not to give Mr. Tarrant any “15 minutes of fame” that he might have been after, or to serve as an incentive to any future copycats and publicity seekers.

However, in my view, it should not be considered the government’s job to “protect” the population or any subsection, including the friends and family members of the victims of Mr. Tarrant’s acts, from all that may or could be known about him, his motives, or what and how these killings were done.

Knowing the Truth About Historical Horrors

Over the years, I have read many histories and survivor accounts of the Nazi and Soviet atrocities, cruelties, and mass killings. I have read about how these despicable acts were done, by whom, with what horrific methods and techniques, and the reasons behind them as rationalized by their political perpetrators and by the narrators of the histories who have attempted to make some sense out of or give some understanding to this catastrophic madness. I have also visited Nazi concentration camps, and I have seen a KGB interrogation and torture basement in Vilnius, Lithuania.

There were times when I have had to put down a book that I was reading about the Nazi period, and turn away. I could not, at that moment, read one more story or one more detailed description of what was done, to whom, and how. I felt sick to my stomach, and my thoughts could no longer handle the imageries created in my mind from reading the words on the pages. I had to step away from the nightmare of those events, one after another, endlessly committed against so many.

At the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, I approached the gate and it seemed that a terrible stench was still hanging in the air. How could that be, more than half a century after all that had happened there? Was it just in my imagination? Was my mind playing tricks on me? After going through the concentration camp in Mauthausen, not far from Linz, Austria, I sat numb and speechless with a cup of coffee in my hand for a long time in a café that had once been a small guardhouse just outside the entrance to the camp. At a nearby table was a group of young German tourists drinking beer and singing songs. Was I in some type of weird time warp?

You somehow have to reestablish a psychological balance; otherwise you will go mad reading about or seeing the places where all this madness had been done. What types of creatures do this? Are they even human? What does human mean, if people can do such things?

Wanting to Know the “Why” Behind Madness

The reader might reasonably ask, Why have I read so much, and gone to such places? My most honest and complete answer would be that I couldn’t fully explain it. I have had the desire to understand why it happened and what kind of people could do it. As a classical liberal, as a believer in and an advocate of the freedom and dignity of the individual, I have wanted to comprehend what ideas, what reasons and motives, what perverse demons in some people’s heads have made them advocate and share these ideologies, implement such policies, and support the regimes that have perpetrated this… I cannot think of the single, accurate word that in itself captures the essence and fullness of this evil.

It is not a matter of it being Jews or kulaks, gypsies or Armenians, Hutus or Tutsis, class enemies or racial vermin, religious heretics or godless infidels. Human beings have categorized, classified, and collectivized other groups of individual people under numerous headings that distinguish them as friends or foes, the chosen ones or the unredeemable damned. And some very, very bad things have then happened.

I’ve wanted to understand, why? I’ve wanted to know because I care about ideas and their consequences for humanity, and my vocation includes teaching, talking, and writing about them. However weirdly it, perhaps, sounds, I’ve wanted to know for my own peace of mind in discovering some answer to it all, as well as being able to competently and honestly share the knowledge I have acquired so I could try to explain as best I can to others, especially to my students, about these events and the people who set them all into motion. Students today often know little or nothing about these periods of history, having grown up in a blissful ignorance of all that might be “uncomfortable” for them to know.

Politicians and Media Managers as Gatekeepers

But how can any of this be done by either the interested layman or the professional scholar, in an honest, fair, and reasonable way, if governments and their agents and the accompanying politically obedient media assert a right to be the intermediary keepers of the facts about people and events — for the claimed good of the society?

Are we to return to an earlier, theocratic-type age in which the leaders of organized religion claimed that God’s truth is too profound, too complex, too easily misunderstood to allow the ordinary believer to read his word directly — that there needed to be an elect of appointed intermediaries who would read out the appropriate selected passages, interpret the words, and tell the right lessons to be drawn from God’s message to the world?

Whatever the intentions, that is the implication of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and those in the media who have acquiesced and fallen into line to not link the manifesto of the accused in New Zealand, not to clearly show his face in videos of his appearance in court, and to not allow any and all members of the interested public to know the details or his life, ideas, motives, and actions as they fully come to be known.

How do any of us who want to understand what happened in Christchurch know what the perpetrator’s thinking was? Was he a “right-winger,” a nationalist, a racist, an environmentalist, a pro-Chinese communist? Or some strange and peculiar combination of some or all of them?

If his mind is not put on display in his own words, how are his ideas to be understood, critically analyzed, and effectively refuted? Instead, what those ideas are and what any of us in the general public are to know is to be limited to the ideological and intellectual mind sieves of the ones allowed to read what Mr. Tarrant believes and why it led him to what he did.

Might his own words and ideas, if put on display for anyone to read, be found disturbing, uncomfortable, confusing, revolting, or, for some small number, appealing or persuasive? This is the nature of things, and has been the case since the beginning of recorded history. But, nonetheless, the truth and the facts should be available to whoever wants to read and decide for themselves.

 

Reality of Slavery Helped to Bring It Down

 

Should the factual, detailed, and critical accounts written about slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, including about slavery in the pre–Civil War American South, be expunged from the public stage? Should there only be allowed edited, abridged, and sanitized histories of that period? It was the unvarnished reality and truth of the capture of Africans, their sale on the auction blocks of Zanzibar and West Africa, their cruel and inhuman transportation across the Atlantic, and their life and treatment once in America on the plantations of the slave states that aroused the emotion, the ethical conscience, the moral outrage of more and more ordinary people, all of which helped set the stage for an end to this awful episode in modern world history.

Pro-slavery literature in those years before the American Civil War was generally freely available for distribution and sale in the Northern states, as was the publishing and sale of anti-slavery and abolitionist books and newspapers. The clash of ideas between those calling for a free society and those defending bondage was faced openly and directly.

It was in the Southern states that only pro-slavery literature was allowed to be sold and read; abolitionist literature was prohibited from the U.S. mail in the Old South, and if any was found it was confiscated and burned by slavery enthusiasts. Critics of the South’s “peculiar institution,” whether anti-slavery whites or rebellious black slaves, were subject to violent attack and punishment, including being murdered.

The Necessity for a Free Press and Open Access

A free press and an open intellectual environment is one that should not only challenge the words and deeds of governments in the name of liberty, but should unearth, investigate, and inform the professional and lay public about the realities and truths of the world in which we all live, in both their ugliness and their beauty, in their uplifting acts and their despicable deeds.

Neither the press nor social media suppliers, and most certainly not those in government, should arrogantly presume to protect us from ourselves, either from what they consider to be too “delicate” for the rest of us to handle or which they decide is too evil to allow any publicity. When any or all forms of the media allow themselves, for whatever reasons, to be intimidated and pressured by governments to fall into line in following explicit or implicit guidelines of what the public is to know for “society’s” own good, then history, reality, and truth become hostage to those in political power and the social elites who too often in too many areas of life presume to know what is good for everyone else.

Brenton Tarrant may very well be an ideologically twisted and psychologically disturbed person. There is no doubt that the mass killing of innocent people doing nothing more than going about their peaceful business of following their faith in houses of worship was and is a despicable act that has traumatized many around the world and left an irreparable scar on the friends and loved ones of the murdered and injured.

But covering up or censoring or abridging information about the events and its details will not reverse what happened, or take away the hurt from those touched by it all, or stop other nuts and fanatics from doing such acts again in the future, however much we may wish that good-intentioned limits on what people are allowed to know will hinder or prevent such cruel deeds.

It merely sets political precedents and social practices of imposed or self-censoring silence in the face of mass killings like this one in New Zealand that will only reduce the spirit and power of open discussion and debate for people within and between generations to comprehend and understand the causes and dangers in the actions of people tempted and guided by collectivist, tribal, and group-identity ideas.

And we shall all be left more ignorant, less powerful, and more controlled by others inside and outside government who presume to know what’s good for us, including what we should be allowed to know and feel and try to understand.

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Richard M. Ebeling

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Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina. Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.

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