On April 10 and 11 at the University of Rome 3 (Dipartimento Fisolofia, Comunicazione, Spettacolo) the SISSCO, (Società Italiana per lo Studio della Storia Contemporanea), will hold an important academic conference about the role of contemporary historians confronted with Holocaust denial on the web.
Should legislation be voted in Italy contrasting Holocaust Negationism? And, more generally, should History, when unable to build a firm culture of the past widely accepted in societies, be ruled by legislation?
These issues have been discussed in many European countries; some laws aiming at governing legally the past and telling about politically correct memories and what exactly is the truth about the past, have been voted in France, in Spain, and in other countries. Professional historians are generally against the idea to force societies to adopt a so-called “correct history of their pasts” defined by law and, in France, a committee was born using its own very active blog to contest the idea that telling the truth in history could be enforced by the law: the Comité de vigilance face aux usages publics de l’histoire (Committee of vigilance on the public use of history) wrote a manifesto on June 17, 2005 against the “entrepreneurs of memory” and political uses or misuses of history.
The debate has entered the public sphere in Italy too and the main association of contemporary history academic historians, Sissco, collected a “dossier” analyzing the press debate about holocaust denials and promoted an official petition signed by many contemporary historians against the use of the law in history: “Modifiche all’articolo 414 del codice penale in materia di negazione di crimini di guerra e di genocidio o contro l’umanità e di apologia di crimini di genocidio e crimini di guerra“.
But the Holocaust of the Jews during the second world war is unique: should historians and the civil society accept that the Shoah be openly and publicly contested and denied and hate speech widely diffused through the Internet? Is it possible to use a penal legislation against negationist web contents published everywhere in the world and accessible also in Italy? Should the Italian legislator vote a law defending the truth against offensive, racist and anti-Semitic revisionist propaganda and condemn hate speech legally?
These activities and also the academic conference promoted in April in Rome described below, are showcasing the direct participation of academic historians in the policy in Italy, what was in the early ’90 defined by Nicola Gallerano as being part of the “uso pubblico della storia”. Will these political and academic activities be able to maintain also for the young generation the awareness of what happened in Europe during WW2 and about keeping alive a correct memory of the holocaust using properly the web?
It is of course my opinion that academic conferences are important but are not enough and that we need to act in the virtual space and promote the digital public history of the Shoah and of other genocides perpetrated by the Nazi and their allies looking at how best presenting the evidences of the Holocaust and engaging different communities about these issues.
Building awareness of the past using a public history approach is being done by the ERIH project (European Holocaust Research Infrastructure) in Europe to support the Holocaust research community, provide access to the primary sources dealing with the Holocaust and encourage collaborative research in the field. What could be the role of public historians in maintaining a correct perception of what has been the Holocaust and engage with fighting negationism on the web? How could the web itself, and social media, in close contact with other public activities, fight back an aggressive negationist approach like what is diffused online in Metapedia, the so-called alternative encyclopedia if you look for the non-existing keyword “holocaust”?
Metapedians redirected the keyword “holocaust” -nothing to read about in a specific entry- to another Metapedia entry called “Jewish casualties during World War II” avoiding the use of what they call a useless and mystifying buzzword, the Holocaust of the Jews.
So I quote here a full paragraph (accessed on Wednesday March 12, 2014) of this entry in order to understand how far the negationist propaganda in the web can go, contradicting all the basic evidences of historical research and the memory of who suffered in the nazi camps. Reading this paragraph and the whole entry online, you will discover another history, the kind of narrative which is banned by law in other countries like in France and would be banned in Italy too voting a new legislation: “Some Jews controversially claim the German government had an “official policy” of extermination, where “6 million” were killed in homicidal gas chambers and turned into soap or lampshades. Confidence trickster, Elie Wiesel, applied the religious term “The Holocaust” to this framing in the 1970s. Since then, the construct has been used as a political weapon to promote Germanophobia and Europhobia in general. It is used as moral justification for the Zionist war on the Palestinians, as well as part of an illustrious money-making industry. In some countries it is illegal for historians and investigators to openly state a dissenting view and some have been incarcerated for thought criminality as prisoners of conscience.”
Digital Public Historians are present in other countries and monitoring this “negationist web” which engages -systematically in the case of Metapedia- in rewriting the past, all the past and supports nationalistic, fascist and Neo-Nazi ideologies. These holocaust deniers are using the web from many years now. They have embraced the web as their elected media to communicate a false narrative of many pasts in the Metapedia, not only about the Holocaust, and remove memories and evidences of scientific historical research from the web, when these results are not supporting their goals. These political propagandists are using the architecture and stylistic presentation of Wikipedia together with the so-called “objective way to present facts” that Wikipedia has promoted from its creation in 2001 to give a semblance of truth to their discourses and misuses of memories.
ERIH has already organized an important international conference in July 2013 about Public History of the Holocaust: Historical Research in the Digital Age “that was hosted by the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Facilitated by EHRI and two other European infrastructure projects supporting humanities research, DARIAH and TextGrid, and sponsored by the German Ministry of Education and Research, the conference brought together policy makers, archival and memory institutions, and academics to reflect on the challenges and opportunities the digital age offers for the public history of the Holocaust.”
Negationism in the digital realm was one of the central issue of this discussion. Georgi Verbeeck, Professor of German History at the University of Leuven, “…reflecting on the continuing problem of Holocaust negationism, arrived at a nuanced assessment of the efficacy of current research and educational practices to prevent similar atrocities from re-occurring. Many small narratives of concrete experiences may provide powerful mirrors that can spur individuals to effective responses and positive actions….” What is important to quote from Verbeeck’s speech about how to use and promote the sources and memories of the Shoah in the digital realm, reflects on the fact that “the web is particularly suited to organise and publish […] small narratives“.
The concluding debates were saying about “the effectiveness of legal tools to counter internet hate speech; the opportunities and limits of the digital environment for tackling new historical questions; the ever present danger of a (digital) de-historicisation and de-contextualisation of Holocaust discourse.”
We may hope that the Rome conference in April 2014 will engage with the later issues dealing with in the making digital public history of the Holocaust.
Measuring the presence of contemporary history in the web, the use and misuses of history in the digital realm, was the aim of a project started at the end of the 20th century between 1999 and 2000 in Italy. The results were published by the IBC (Istituto per I beni Artistici, Culturali e Naturali dell’Emilia Romagna) in Bologna, in 2004, after three years of researches done by an interdisciplinary team of historians and public historians which looked at the Italian history web and collected Italian contemporary history web sites and proposed a critical method for analyzing them systematically. The project and the book were coordinated by Antonino Criscione, Serge Noiret, Carlo Spagnolo and Stefano Vitali: La Storia a(l) tempo di Internet: indagine sui siti italiani di storia contemporanea, (2001-2003)., Bologna, Pátron editore, 2004. The authors verified that an active revisionist narrative was populating the web and promoting alternative memories of WW2. Memories of the militias of the Salo Republic, allied with the Nazi between 1943 and 1945 and co-authors with the Germans of the deportation of Italian Jews, was finding a media and a place to proliferate without boundaries, these boundaries that Italian academic historians and European public historians are now discussing.
The web is easily accessible for everybody to produce its own vision of the past and is able to promote and diffuse alternative memories, something that I have explained in my essay in French, La digital history : histoire et mémoire à la portée de tous.
So, the important conference in Rome will go forward in an extended academic reflection dealing with how the web could be used and misused to promote everybody’s memory and vision of the past and contrast hate speech and holocaust deniers activities in the digital realm.
This is the full program of the conference: