Freedom of speech? Sure – just don’t mention the war
I am not a racist. In fact, I’m something of a sensitive multi-culturalist: the more complex the cultural stew, the better. But a vile bigot I may turn out to be if, in the eyes of the Hu-man Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, I’m found guilty of “repeated racial vilification” for dissing, of all people, Germans.
The accusations have been levelled by a German-Australian in a document that as hysterical as it is histrionic. Yet the commission regards it as grave enough to have written me demanding a response and threatening sanctions.
And so I find myself in a free-speech trial. The complainant asserts that I’ve maligned the German people by uttering “extremely disturbing and racially offensive remarks” in several articles written for the Weekend Australian magazine.
Now, I’m enough of a sensitive centre-leftie to believe in the notion of racial vilification as embodied in the Racial Discrimination Act. On the other hand, I’m enough of a realist to want the law’s purview restricted to races (not nations) that may be tangibly harmed by acts of repeated vilification and manifest “hatred”.
As I write these words, a copy of the HREOC complaint lies open on my desk. It includes three photocopies of the offending articles, incendiary passages underlined. The first contains the line: “The Germans have always had the gift of killing to music.” I wrote this on May 29, 2004. Or, rather, I cited it. The line is a quotation by the Austrian writer-journalist Joseph Roth in a 1938 essay in which he warned of “the political terror that Hitler contrives to exert over his European colleagues”. The beauty of Roth’s “killing to music” phrase is that it goes to the paradox of National Socialism: how does the Nazi killing machine sit with the culture of Bach and Mozart, heir to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment? I’d defend his use of it in this historical context, and my re-use of it in the same context, a thousand times. How have we come to the point where a writer risks drawing down upon himself the weight of the Racial Discrimination Act by quoting a 1938 article about the rise of the Hitler machine? The questions raised by Roth in this taut and elegant phrase will plague mankind for eternity. And yet the Canberra bureaucracy appears sympathetic to the view that they should not be uttered in public.
The other claims in the dispatch from HREOC are based on overheated and neurotic misreadings of my articles, including one in which I refer to “German shame” in the context of a war cemetery.
This is the problem with any discussion of Germany’s behaviour during the war. Hitler was voted into office by 37 per cent of the population and his plans were carried out with alacrity by many ordinary Germans, as illustrated by Daniel Goldhagen in his book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners. A nation, a race, a people were involved both explicitly and tacitly in the Nazi machine. The historical facts lead one to consider a degree of collective German shame: to do otherwise is to not have the discussion.
Recently I had reason to write again about Joseph Roth as I was reviewing a collection of his journalism (1925-39). Roth was a fierce opponent of Hitler and his writing foreshadowed the disaster. I found myself drawn to his reflections on Germany and the Germans of his time (reflections that draw on the memories of World War One and of Prussian militarism). I stalked them warily, and moved on. I had been bullied, finally, into self-censorship.