As a historian, I want to have access to the sources I may need for my research. It is not the task of a government to select what I am allowed to see and what I am not allowed to see. Since we are all interested in history – it is not the privilege of a small class of scholars – access to historical sources has to be free to all people. Of course there are documents that need to be secret for some time; they are usually declassified after, say, fifty years.
So far, so good. The Dutch Royal Library is currently making available online all newspapers from the Second World War, which includes Nazi propaganda. Now the Dutch department of Justice has advised the library not to make digital versions of these publications, because it is possible that the Public Prosecutor might accuse the Royal Library of distributing publications that incite hatred.
This creates lots of problems. In the first place, “improved versions” will start to circulate. It is already possible to download versions of Mein Kampf that lack certain key passages, making it look less dangerous than it was; or alternatively, sections may be added to make it sound more convincing (compare the fake translations of the Cyrus Cylinder). If you want to neutralize the dangers of National Socialism, show the beast, don’t hide it.
In the second place, where to draw a line? If we allow that our governments discourage historians (professional or amateur) to study National Socialism, what’s next? Stalin? Lenin? Marx? Christian and Islamic texts about Jews may be the next target.
However, there is no need to hide sources from the public. What the people of the Dutch Justice Department appear to be unaware of, is that the majority of people is reasonably capable of critically reading historical texts – placing remarks in context and understanding a debate about it.
Of course, the Dutch universities have remained silent. It’s holiday, and who cares about censorship?
GIven the state of history education in schools and the political climate, one might doubt if “the majority of people is reasonably capable of critically reading historical texts”. Nevertheless, no reason should prevent publication. Maybe the lawyers of the Department should read the Constitution before riding the waves of easy publicity.