The government's statement against racism declared that the denial of the Holocaust would be criminalised in Finland's legislation. Prohibiting the public use of Nazi symbols is a contemporary concern, and celebrating the memory of Holocaust victims is undoubtedly a commendable idea. However, criminalising Holocaust denial presents a different kind of issue. It is not primarily a question of freedom of speech because this right is not absolute and cannot legitimise hate speech.
This proposal implies that the law would dictate the singular truth about a historical event that occurred far in the past. This is not a matter for criminal lawyers but for historians. Laypeople might believe that history consists of indisputable facts, but in reality, history is subjective, imprecise, and subject to controversy, influenced by time, place, and culture.
Dictatorships, such as Russia, tend to impose their version of history as the only truth, while democratic Western societies do not. Dictators often justify their power and actions using historical arguments, as seen in recent events in Ukraine. Due to their own history with totalitarian regimes, some democratic nations have also taken steps in this direction. In Poland, asserting that Poles participated in the Holocaust is discouraged. In Turkey, acknowledging the Armenian Genocide is a crime, and in France, denying the Armenian Genocide is prohibited. Holocaust denial is a crime in many European countries, and the EU expects its members to enforce such laws. Interestingly, this policy regarding the Holocaust emerged only in the 1990s and may be connected to the rise of cancel culture.
The Historikerstreit in Germany, which debated the Holocaust's relation to other historical genocides, concluded that the Holocaust is unique and extraordinary, and should not be compared to other cruel historical events. However, the German discussion's background is complex, marked by the shadow of the Nazi regime. The participants mainly focused on evaluating factual events and comparing them to other historical occurrences. My point is that the legal control of scholarly results, independent of the Holocaust itself, was not part of this German discussion.
Finland does not share the same history of Jewish persecution as most of Europe, given its historically limited Jewish population. Finland's history between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union also differs significantly from the Continental experience. Therefore, careful consideration is needed before opening this Pandora's box. The issue is not denying the suffering of the Jews, as very few sane individuals do that, but rather how far laws and lawmakers should intrude into the realm of science and scholarship as arbiters and dictators of truth. The logical next step could be using this option to reshape human history to suit national or group interests, potentially limiting academic freedom in the future.
History has often been manipulated as political scholarship to legitimize power, ideologies, religions, various agendas, and group interests. Scholarly presentations of history have, at times, justified killings, genocides, mass destruction of cultural and human heritage, persecutions, humiliations, and various forms of discrimination. In Finnish history, we often refer to the ceded Karelia to describe the areas the Soviet Union acquired during WWII. However, with historical facts, one could argue for the concept of "liberated Karelia" from the Russian perspective.
Given that existing laws in Finland already allow prosecution for contempt towards specific groups, insulting individuals, or disrespecting the memory of the deceased, it might be wise in our Scandinavian democratic and pluralistic society to leave history and its interpretations to historians and enthusiasts who appreciate the complexity of historical narratives. In history, what matters most is not just the facts but understanding its subjective nature, its relativity, and the importance of not taking it too seriously.
Professor of history
University of Eastern Finland