What should we do about Dr Fredrick Töben, detained at Heathrow this week under a fast-track EU arrest warrant issued by the district court in Mannheim?
Dr who? I know, it’s been a busy week, and I hadn’t heard of him either until he popped up to be remanded in custody by Westminster magistrates. By the time you read this he may be on a plane to Germany – or home to Australia.
Töben is a 64-year-old German-born historian who runs something called the Adelaide Institute. He denies frequent accusations that he is a Holocaust denier, but judging by some of the things he says and writes he makes a pretty good job of passing himself off as one. Phrases like “Holocaust racketeers, the corpse peddlers and the Shoah business merchants” characterise some of his scholarship.
In other words he believes that the six-million-dead German Holocaust which took place during the 1933-45 Hitler regime, a well-documented narrative accepted by most historians, did not occur, or did so on a much smaller scale. If you challenge the Holocaust you must expect persecution and abuse, he says.
Well, plenty of people, not all of them Jewish, have pursued him during a teaching career on three continents – from New Zealand to Nigeria. In 1999 he served nine months in a German prison for breaching the Holocaust law there that forbids the “defaming of the dead” in this way. Needless to add, Töben attended the Holocaust revisionist conference held in Tehran in 2006.
A nasty piece of work by the sound of it, and some nasty websites are exercised on Töben’s behalf.
Why should we care? Two strands of the affair trouble me. One is the restriction on free speech inherent in the laws that some countries – not Britain – have against Holocaust denial. We have broader laws against racial incitement in general, which seems acceptable to me, though not to those who believe that older public order laws would have proved sufficient.
I can see why the Germans felt the need to enact such specific legislation. After all, they did it, and have an obligation to discharge the historic debt, something, incidentally, they have done pretty well – at least in the old West Germany – over the years.
In other countries, several across Europe, such law smacks of “exceptionalism”, special pleading in a world where diverse historic injustices abound. In Turkey you can get into trouble for saying there was a holocaust against the Armenians in 1915. In Iran they call us hypocrites for being selective in our championship of free speech.
The other problem I have with this is process. When the European Arrest Warrant came into force in 2004 to help police fight cross border crime – and post 9/11 terrorism – more effectively it abolished the “dual criminality” principle.
That had meant that a suspect could not be extradited for an alleged offence that was not an offence in the country where he/she had been detained. When Britain joined the new procedure ministers assured critics who feared Kafkaesque possibilities that no one would be extradited for actions legal in Britain, let alone crimes they didn’t know existed.
But here we have it: Töben taken off a plane at Heathrow and quick to protest that he is the victim of a legal ambush, an abuse of process in a country which has not – yet – succumbed to Germany’s “witch-hunt mentality” in this matter. Food for thought there that makes me uncomfortable.
I am also aware of German courts, in cases involving disputed custody cases where one parent is German, behaving pretty badly towards the claims of a non-German spouse. Catherine Meyer, wife of Chris Meyer, former British ambassador to both Bonn and Washington, did not see her “kidnapped’ children for years.
Holocaust denial is a lesser offence than involvement in war crimes themselves. Britain has a different problem here in that, in the chaos after 1945 when it was often hard to sort victim from persecutor, a lot of bad people slipped into this country and led quiet, guilty lives.
In 1991 Margaret Thatcher used the parliament acts to override the House of Lords, which had thrown out her war crimes bill, passed by the Commons. The average age of current MPs in 1939 was six, one peer remarked during the debate: let it go. But some 300 suspects live on in the UK, countered the bill’s supporters.
At the time I sympathised with the critics. It was all a long time ago, witnesses and accused were old, far away or even dead, their memories faulty at best. We should not forget, but it smacked of retrospective legislation, pandering again.
Last time I looked there had not been a single successful prosecution. Other more recent war crimes dominate the headlines. Who’s right?