Bismarck once said that no-one with an interest in laws or sausages should watch either being made. Hungary's new law banning Holocaust denial proves the Iron Chancellor right. The country's Socialist-led government has tried for years to get the legislation on to the statute books. This month it finally succeeded.
The law states: "Those who publicly hurt the dignity of a victim of the Holocaust by denying or questioning the Holocaust itself, or claim it is insignificant, infringe the law and can be punished by a prison sentence of up to three years." President Laszlo Solyom ratified the law, although noting that it was unseemly to force such sensitive legislation through parliament just a few weeks from the general election, expected on April 11.
The law was welcomed by Hungary's Jewish community, which at around 80,000 is the third largest on mainland Europe, and by many politicians. Lajos Bokros, a respected former finance minister who now heads the electoral list for the centrist Hungarian Democratic Forum, argued that the country needed the law because it was too politically immature. "Hungary cannot allow itself to interpret freedom of speech without any limits because this would violate the human rights of others and upset the sound checks and balances. Hungary is not the United States. Perhaps in 100 to 150 years it will become that. Then this law can be repealed."
More than 550,000 Hungarian Jews died in the Holocaust and the Nazi extermination of the Jews, and Hungarian collaboration, remains a profoundly sensitive topic. But the law, and Lajos Bokros, are wrong. Wrong because the way to combat Holocaust denial, even in immature democracies, is not legislation but education. Wrong because the law stifles free speech and debate about the Holocaust and other genocides. And wrong because the law turns the Nazi extermination of the Jews into a political football.
In comparison to Romania or Serbia, Hungary has made substantial progress in memorialising the Holocaust. Budapest is home to an excellent, modern and profoundly moving Holocaust museum, housed in a former synagogue. There are numerous Holocaust memorials such as that in the western city of Gyor, listing the city's schoolchildren who were deported to Auschwitz. Holocaust memorial day is commemorated each January in the Hungarian parliament. Films by a new generation of young documentary-makers exploring the Holocaust and its legacy are shown on national television.
Consider the wording of the law. What does it mean to "question the Holocaust"? The history of the Holocaust, like all history, is continually being probed, revised and re-examined. That process leads us further towards the terrible truth of the Holocaust, while laws banning Holocaust denial help stifle that essential debate.
Consider the grim arithmetic of Auschwitz - until recently some Polish historians claimed that up to four million people died at Auschwitz. The Jewish Virtual Library says a minimum of 2.1 to 2.5 million were killed in the gas chambers. The United States Holocaust Museum websites records that "at least 960,000 Jews were killed at Auschwitz". Other historians argue that recent research by the French priest Patrick Desbois, author of The Holocaust by Bullets, which investigates the Nazi Einsatzgruppen on the Eastern Front, may mean that the figure of six million may have to be revised upwards.
If historians are unclear about the numbers who perished at Auschwitz, which has been thoroughly investigated and documented for several decades, then how will they be able to catalogue the crimes of Communism to a judge's satisfaction? Because it seems they will soon have to do just that. The centre-right Fidesz party, which is likely to win the election next month, abstained after the Socialists rejected an amendment to the bill to cover the crimes of Communism from 1945 to 1989. But analysts predict that a new Fidesz government may bring the amendment back to parliament. What will happen if someone claims that the Holocaust was indeed "insignificant" compared to the crimes of Stalin?
Doubtless the relentless rise of the far-right Jobbik Party, currently polling at around 10 to 12 per cent, acted as a spur to the vote. Jobbik, which is allied to the BNP denies it is antisemitic and does not deny the Holocaust.
However Sandor Porzse, third on the party's list and the editor of Barikad magazine, which supports Jobbik, is no friend of the Jews. A recent issue showed a statue of St Gellert overlooking Budapest with a menorah in his hand, proclaiming "Wake Up Budapest: is this what you want?" while numerous articles fulminated against a "Jewish take-over".
Hungary's far-right will benefit handsomely from this law. Perhaps it will even find a willing martyr ready to be imprisoned for daring to question the truth of the Holocaust.