The Civil War began 150 years ago this week and there is still debate about the interpretation of its causes and its outcome. From one point of view, it was the War Between the States, a conflict about states’ rights and home rule; from another, it was a war to rid the nation of the scourge of slavery. In one version, the North was the villain, in the other it was the South.
Was Lincoln’s primary motivation in executing the war the preservation of the Union? In his first inaugural address he reiterates, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Yet before the end of the war, Lincoln envisioned a multi-racial society in which the Declaration of Independence’s commitment to equal rights applied to all.
Good arguments have been made on many sides about Lincoln: a product of his time and a racist; a wily, pragmatic politician who reluctantly came to emancipating the slaves; a dedicated democrat who did the best he could to bring about a just society.
Differences in interpretation about the war’s aftermath also exist. One of America’s great historians, David S. Muzzey, published A History of Our Country, in 1936. This high school textbook was for many years the most widely used schoolbook in the country. A History of Our Country offered two interpretations of Reconstruction in two separate editions, one for the South and the other for the rest of the country.
I find that I am most moved in thinking about this bloody period in American history by an offhanded remark of Whoopie Goldberg who on TV the other day said, “I’m glad the North won.”
History is always viewed through contemporary eyes. There are new ways of understanding, new facts uncovered, old assumptions discarded. This is the work of historians and why they sometimes disagree with one another—or in Muzzey’s case, disagrees with himself. It is the free pursuit of knowledge and the freedom of speech that fosters such spirited inquiry and changes in attitude.
The European Union as a whole (and Israel) has provisions criminalizing Holocaust denial or trivialization, with maximum prison sentences of one to three years, although individual countries may impose longer sentences. Since 1998, 14 people have been fined or imprisoned for denying the Holocaust, from 6 months in France to 5 years in Germany.
Holocaust denial is deemed hate speech in Europe and a criminal act. The same reasoning that accepts the criminalization of an opinion, no matter how fringe, hateful, cruel or unsubstantiated, has been turned back on its original supporters.
Since 2020, if you are in Lithuania or in Hungary, freedom of speech is further eroded with an ironic twist on the Holocaust denial laws. Legislation recently adopted in these two countries criminalize the view that Soviet mass murders in Eastern Europe during WWII weren’t acts of genocide. It is now the official view that the Soviet Union committed genocide and those who deny it may be punished as criminals.
Many, most notably Jews, who understand the Holocaust as a unique event and don’t see Nazi exterminations and the mass murders by the Soviet Union as moral equivalents, are subject to two-year prison sentences.
Speech that incites violence is another matter, as a journalist from Kenya who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for his broadcasts leading up to violence after the disputed presidential election there has learned. But denying the Holocaust isn’t incitement to violence and neither is denying that the Soviet atrocities were genocide. Curbing offensive speech may garner favor in some quarters for seemingly good reason, but sooner or later it will be used for ignoble purposes.
My own opinion is that I don’t think that Soviet atrocities and the Holocaust are morally equivalent. Others disagree. But if I were to visit Lithuania or Hungary, I could now be arrested for having published this opinion and you could be if you agree with it.