We all know about the horrific events which happened during the second World War. We all know the name Hitler and what it meant. Nazi is still a widely used insult towards racist individuals (or those we deem racist). It is hard to imagine how anyone could say that the holocaust, where Nazi-Germany rounded up as much Jews as they could and made them work until they died, while the unable bodies were put in gas chambers where they suffocated horribly, never happened.
Maybe even the horrors of the Soviet Union, where people were put in gulags in Siberia where they literally worked until they froze to death and where millions of people have died of starvation, making them opt for cannibalism as a final way to survive, are still in the memories of the average person. It’s a bit easier to find apologists for this regime. But what about those that are lesser known? Like Belgian Congo where the king Leopold II murdered around 8 million people and maimed even more. Here in Belgium this is widespread and may find some recognition in other western countries. But do people know about one of the biggest mass killings in the shortest amount of time the world has ever seen: the Rape of Nanking?
Just before the second World War started in Europe when Hitler invaded Poland, there were still other countries who were already heavily in conflict. Japan had invaded Korea and China in the 1930’s. Even though they performed monstrosities during their campaign, it culminated in the taking of Nanking in China. There, the Japanese killed around 300.000 people in under six weeks, which is more that the casualties of the two atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki together. They also performed monstrous practices on the citizens of Nanking. From raping people on the streets at clear day, to shooting civilians as part of a counting game. It was a horrific event. The only way the people of Nanking were able to be safe was to go to the Nanking Safety Zone which was led (if one can believe it) by a Nazi-official named John Rabe. But even there, the civilians weren’t always safe.
What is even worse is that Japan now completely denies that the event happened or at the least that it wasn’t as cruel as people thought it to be. This is what Iris Chang calls in her book: the second rape of Nanking. Not only did the Japanese commit true crimes against humanity, but they also now deny it and those who committed the atrocities were still allowed to have powerful positions within Japan. It’s like if Goebbels would be given a chair in German parliament.
But Japan isn’t alone in denying the atrocities it has committed. Turkey still denies its involvement in the Armenian genocide. Russia denies the fact that nearly 40 million people have died during the reign of the USSR (they claim this is an over-exaggeration of the West). China as well denies at this moment that it is killing the Uyghur population of China in their own ‘reeducation camps’.
No country wants to be reminded of the atrocities that they have committed. There are few Germans who are proud of the deaths of 6 million Jews that Hitler has killed during his reign since 1933. Yet, it is actually illegal in some European countries to deny this fact. This is what is called negationism. Here in Belgium, you can get a fine if you claim that the holocaust was fake. This raises the question of freedom of speech. This rule limits it severely but we can justify this because of the horrors the Germans have committed. But there is a double standard here. Why shouldn’t other countries not be compelled to acknowledge their atrocities? Ironically, it isn’t illegal to deny the fact that Leopold II killed nearly 8 million Africans.
There are two problems that modern negationism raises. The first being: can there be rules that compel you to say certain things? The holocaust is an undeniable fact. It has happened. The evidence is clear. But should we force people to believe this? Wouldn’t it be better that people are educated about the events instead of forcing people to believe your narrative. We can justify this with the holocaust, but what if there are other facts that people want to force on other people this way. We can take climate change as an example. There is a great consensus that human induced climate change is happening and fast. Should we legally compel people to accept this premise? There is still a lot of debate on the amount of influence humans have on the climate. Criticism can easily be misconstrued as negating the facts. But we should still be able to be critical to what is being said. A thousand years ago, it was seen as a fact that the Earth was flat and that the sun revolved around us. How different things are now.
The second problem is: can we compel countries to acknowledge the atrocities that they have committed? This can easily turn into a game of pointing fingers as every country has some blood on their hands and has committed some atrocities, some of which are still happening today. Now it would be hypocritical to say that we can’t deny the holocaust, but then to allow other countries to do that exact thing.
What is the solution to these two problems? I do not know. These are complex issues, which I am still breaking my head about. Combatting negationism goes together with combatting science denial. If negationism is about denying certain facts, then nearly everything which has to do with the hard sciences can be classified as negationism. Saying the Earth is flat, is negationism. Saying that biology doesn’t influence someone’s sex, would be negationism. Still, we allow all these things because we can rationally debate these things. Even though some people, deny scientific facts and sometimes fall into absurdity, they are still allowed to do so. And they should be allowed to do so. It shows intellectual bankruptcy when one has to impose their views on the world by legislation.
I believe it is the educational system which should give an adequate view on the world. Every country should acknowledge the atrocities it has committed in its history. Only then can we know what human beings are capable of and how lucky we are that we live in the society we live in. It could be worse, far worse. Not only would it rise awareness to our own luck, but also breed tolerance towards other countries. It is easy to point the finger at another country and their moral failures, it’s harder to point that finger at yourself. We should condemn immoral actions but always with the idea that we are not inherently better than others, since the monstrosities are also in our history. With fake news, wrong facts and all kinds of other misinformation on the internet, it is now more than even imperative that we acknowledge that we make mistakes. It’s time we acknowledge that we are humans.