TVM went into PR DEFCON 2 yesterday trying to find a way out of the fact that the national TV station invited and gave a platform to a Nazi apologist to sing the praises of Adolf Hitler unchallenged by the host.
They got the presenter, John Demanuele, to apologise “to those who may have been offended” by the broadcast. I was offended, so I consider that apology addressed to me. Quite a few other people I spoke to were offended so the apology was addressed to them as well.
But you see, we’re not the problem. We’ve read enough well-sourced books, assessed the evidence, and developed the ability to discern the competence of the authors of books, to be able to intuitively tell the difference between a history book that would amount to the best possible explanation and interpretation of the facts and a book that is absolute rubbish.
When we’re offended by Ronald Bugeja’s “Mein Führer Adolf Hitler” it’s not because there was any risk that we may have been swayed by its content and misled by its claims. Nor, as the term “offended” seems to suggest do we hold our understanding of the historical facts surrounding the Holocaust and the Second World War and the Nazi administration of Germany and the territories it occupied as some form of religion. Because John Demanuele sounded like he was addressing – by way of example – Muslims offended by the physical depiction of the Prophet. Ronald Bugeja and Nazis better than him do not offend us because their “opinions” or “interpretation” or “perspective” is different from ours.
The offence to us is caused by the fact that his lies reach the ears of people who are not offended by them. Not because his listeners are keen Nazis. But because they’re ambivalent. Because they do not know how, or are not willing, to discern the competence of the historian or the scientist explaining things to them, and will give “alternative truths”, i.e., lies, equal appraisal to the well-researched, well-documented truth.
And this is not an inconsequential debate. We are not discussing whether the Greeks or the Trojans started the Trojan war. We are not debating whether there were really 300 people on one side and a million on the other in the stalemate at Thermopylae.
The debate here is on whether Adolf Hitler was “Great” or the leader, lead criminal, and principal perpetrator of the worst crime in human history. And the fact that debate exists, the fact that anyone – let alone the national TV station – could countenance that the consideration can even be made is offensive – not just to me, not just to people who have read two history books in their life, not even merely to Adolf Hitler’s millions of victims, but to humanity. It is an outrage to human values.
That’s how serious this is.
It’s like TVM inviting the local haberdashery shopkeeper to spend 20 minutes uninterrupted on TV to say why climate change is a hoax, or, to keep things within recent memory, why we should not get vaccinated for covid. It doesn’t matter if people who “believe” climate change are offended by the ‘opinion’ that it is not real. The problem is that this ‘opinion’, this denial of fact, this refutation of science, has the consequence of giving ambivalent people a license to behave in a way that harms humanity at large.
And what Ronald Bugeja’s platform on the national broadcaster does is give people in the audience who have no opinion to begin with and who are perfectly willing to rely on an unqualified and incompetent source for the judgements which they make, the license to accept that Nazism is a victim of malignant propaganda. I don’t care all that much about their revised judgement about the events of 90 years ago. I do care that this error will lead them to forget the warnings of the events of 90 years ago and put in power Nazis of today.
You see Nazis don’t care too much what you think about Adolf Hitler. They care about the fact that if you remember the history of the events he is responsible for you will not vote into power his latter-day clones. They care about you voting for some Norman Lowell because you can pick the things he says which you like (that there are too many ‘foreigners’ here and they’re a problem that needs solving) but ignore what history should tell you those solutions would turn out to be.
It’s to victims yet to be that TVM needs to apologise. Because a democracy can only survive if its institutions preserve its values, including the memory of the atrocities that alternatives to it are capable of.
This is why our law criminalising the glossing over of historical crimes is so inadequate. It only really works if the glossing over causes public disorder and an angry blog from me does not qualify. The fact is the consequences of this revisionism are not felt now. Historians better qualified than Ronald Bugeja will write about them a century from now as historians better qualified than Ronald Bugeja document today the events of the 1920s and 1930s in Europe.
In place of inadequate punitive laws we are supposed to have the positive power of democratic public broadcasting. Right.
We don’t have a public broadcaster to make Robert Abela look good in the midst of an everyday crisis. We have a public broadcaster because we need the education of the public. We need people to know what Adolf Hitler has done. We need people to know that ordinary voters just like them with a vague prejudice against people who are different in some way – homosexuals, guest workers, people of minority faiths or ethnicity – became Hitler’s willing executioners. And with some appreciation of what they were getting themselves into, they may have behaved differently.
Some people asked me if I would have reacted quite as forcefully if Ronald Bugeja’s book had been an apology for Stalin or Pol Pot. As if uncompromising hostility to Nazism is consequential communist sympathy. I’m not a communist and being anti-fascist does not make me communist. Anyone glossing over the crimes of Stalin and Pol Pot would be paving the way for clone of their regimes, no less undesirable than Nazis. Anyone apologising for Leopold II of Belgium and glossing over his crimes would be justifying some of the worst unimaginable atrocities any human could ever conceive. Hitler, Stalin, Leopold: I could approach the memory of their crimes by saying I wish more there was a hell for them than I could wish a heaven for me. But I believe in neither.
What I do believe is that the memory of their crimes might possibly help us prevent others from repeating them, especially because the crimes of totalitarian states are enabled by ordinary people and if ordinary people remembered that they might consider avoiding giving tyrants a helping hand.
I fully expect that the simple mission of retaining this memory will be frustrated by people like Ronald Bugeja and Norman Lowell who know the truth and wilfully deny it. I am offended, just so it’s clear why, that I find TVM enabling the Nazis instead of competent historians who testify to the truth of their crimes.
Some people reminded Ronald Bugeja that if the Nazis occupied Malta anyone looking like him would not have survived for long. I am the last man to mock another for his weight. But Nazi race theory would not have repaid his admiration with kindness.
The fact is that Nazis always, always fall short of their claims. As individuals they are mediocre, a joke compared to their fantasies of übermensch. I was reminded yesterday of the classic cartoon from 1941. The Nazis glorified the tall, muscular, slim and blonde German, as tall as Goebbels, as muscular and slim as Goering and as blonde as Hitler. Or as tall, muscular, slim, and blonde as Ronald Bugeja.
But his mediocrity is secondary, though perhaps not to the prisoners of all races entrusted to his custody by the Maltese state.
Consider the editor of TVM, Engineer Charles Dalli, who went on TV saying he was investigating what happened so it wouldn’t happen again. What could be more mediocre than that? If there has been an editorial failure at TVM than surely the editor must be the subject of the investigation, not the person conducting it. And what is there to investigate? Did TVM accidentally slip on a banana peel and pronounced an inaccuracy in an explainer in one of its programs? Or did it for 20 minutes allow someone to preach Nazism uncontested and then uploaded the program on its website and left it there until I screamed blue murder?
The editor blames ‘quality control’ for missing the content and allowing it to run. But what instructions has the editor given the quality control department on what to watch out for? Does it include anything about Holocaust denial or is their brief to watch out for something that might cause discomfort to Robert Abela (as veteran broadcaster Peppi Azzopardi told Times of Malta this morning)?
Who is going to ‘investigate’ the instructions the editor gave quality control? Ah yes. The editor. They make the Gestapo look good. Forgive the pun.
Yesterday, I had a conversation with Mark Camilleri of the National Book Council (not the rebel, his successor). He called me to complain I hadn’t asked him to react to Ronald Bugeja giving his Council “special thanks” in his book. He would have clarified to me, as the Council did in a subsequent statement, that they don’t know why he thanked them and they never gave him a penny and they actually struck him off the list of candidates for the National Book Prize.
When did they know about the book and that he had thanked them in it? Quite some time ago, actually, when he filed the book for the competition. And what did the Council do? “We took legal advice.”
I told Mark Camilleri that’s a cop out. Lawyers will give the Council advice on how to protect the Council. It’s not their job to give them advice on how to protect democracy. That’s up to Mark Camilleri and the rest of the Council.
Think about an alternative. Imagine someone submitted to the Council a book advocating child rape and excusing child rapists, nay, glorifying them for having found a “solution to a problem” and the book included special thanks to the Council. I know what the Council would have done. It would have sent the author a legal letter warning them that unless they struck off the reference to the Council from the book they would take legal action to avoid any form of association or legitimisation with anything advocating child rape.
That would be the appropriate action.
But it did not occur to the Council to do the same when someone proposed to thank them in a book glorifying the perpetrator of the genocide of the Jewish people, and the mass murder of Poles, homosexuals, gypsies, clerics, artists, intellectuals, persons with disabilities, and any number of “degenerate” minorities the Nazis considered fit for mass graves or piles of ashes.
Mark Camilleri pleaded with me that he did not have the benefit of hindsight that would have guided him to act differently. Which is true. I told him as much. I told him I don’t know what I, deprived of hindsight, would have done in his place.
But I know this. He is the Chairman of the Book Council and I’m not. That should mean he’s better qualified, endowed with the culture and history and sense of democratic values to be able to act correctly without the benefit of predicting that Manuel Delia would see the book and scream angrily from his blog.
I don’t know the answer which is why I ask the question. Did Engineer Charles Dalli sit for his ‘o’ level history in his youth and did he cover 20th Century Europe in his studies? How many books on the Nazi regime did the members of the quality control unit at TVM read in their lives? What background in history does Mark Camilleri of the National Book Council (not the rebel, but his successor) have?
Of course, generalisations are not helpful. But there’s a sense I get from this story that this is less about the prison warder who fancies himself a historian and moonlights as a Nazi propagandist, and more about the mediocrity of our state officials whose first mission should be to promote and defend democracy but whose incompetence, bereft of hindsight and of the historical memory to see the warning signs, will cost us and our children much more than they can ever imagine.