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Why Romania had to ban Holocaust denial twice

A Romanian Roma victim of deportation during World War II, Marin Safta, 89, cries as he recounts in January 2012 his experience. Romanian Marshal Ion Antonescu, an ally of the Nazis, oversaw the deaths of about 280,000 Jews and 11,000 Roma people during the war. (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, Romania made Holocaust denial illegal. President Klaus Iohannis signed the legislation into law on Wednesday, meaning that public denial of the systematic slaughter of Jews by Nazi Germany, along with a number of other offenses, would now be punishable by up to three years in prison.

The move earned praise from the World Jewish Congress, an international federation of Jewish communities and organizations. “We congratulate President Iohannis for his strong stand against fascism, anti-Semitism and racism,” WJC President Ronald Lauder said in a statement on Thursday. “Only by fighting Holocaust denial and fascism at the highest levels can a nation effectively counter the troubling spread of anti-Semitism across Europe."

Romania is far from the only country to put in place laws that explicitly ban Holocaust denial. A large number of European nations, including Germany and France, have laws that prohibit Holocaust denial, as does Israel. However, looking over the list of countries that have banned Holocaust denial, you might discover something surprising: Romania had already banned Holocaust denial in 2002.

So why exactly would a country ban Holocaust denial twice? The answer to that question shows some of the difficulties that lie behind enforcing such measures.

In 2002, Romania's government pushed through legislation, known as Emergency Ordinance No. 31/2002, that stated that public denial of the Holocaust could be punishable by up to six years in prison. The ordinance had been created, in part, as a reaction to a growing movement to rehabilitate Gen. Ion Antonescu, a pro-fascist dictator who had overseen the deaths of about 280,000 Jews and 11,000 Roma people during the war — more than any other country except Germany. Antonescu was executed as a war criminal in 1946.

Despite Antonescu's role in these deaths, by the early 2000s, streets had been renamed and statues erected in his honor as Romania struggled to rediscover its national identity after decades of harsh communist rule, during which fascist organizations had been banned and World War II history distorted and suppressed. An anti-Semitic Romanian group that existed until 1941, the Iron Guard, also was reevaluated and celebrated by some groups.

In 2003, Romania's Ministry of Public Information even told the Associated Press: "We firmly claim that within the borders of Romania between 1940 and 1945 there was no Holocaust," though the statement was swiftly withdrawn.

In response to international criticism from Jewish groups, Romania's government, then led by the center-left Social Democratic Party (PSD), drew up the ordinance. In 2005, the country set up an institute, led by Nobel winner Elie Wiesel, to examine Romania's role in the Holocaust. Despite these moves, there were concerns from a variety of groups that there had been little actual change. As early as 2002, groups that monitor anti-Semitism in Romania warned that Emergency Ordinance No. 31/2002 "lies forgotten in the drawers of the Parliament commissions." A report from the Wiesel institute published a few years later noted that "Holocaust denial literature continues to be published and sold freely."

Paul Shapiro, director of the U.S.  Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, says part of the problem was that the 2002 ordinance was "vague" and couldn't stop groups from denying the Holocaust or publicly using the symbols of World War II fascists. Another major issue was a disagreement in Romania over what constituted Holocaust denial. “Most Romanians believe the Holocaust happened, but many still think Romanians did not perpetrate it,” Liviu Rotman, a historian at the University of Bucharest, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last year. “To them it was the Hungarians or the Germans, but never Romanians, despite a wealth of evidence.”

Far-right Romanian politicians attempted to change the wording of the 2002 ordinance so it referred only to the acts committed by Nazi Germany. Even mainstream politicians tripped up: In 2012, Dan Sova, a spokesman for the PSD, said in a TV interview that “no Jew suffered at the hands of Romanians” during the Holocaust, despite the findings of the Wiesel commission clearly stating otherwise. Sova was sent to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to learn about Romania's role in the Holocaust.

Last week's amendment was drafted with the help of the D.C.-based museum and Wiesel's commission. Shapiro feels that it represents a true shift in the nation. Noting that, unlike the 2002 ordinance, the 2015 law cleared parliament, Shapiro says "it really is quite striking" because not so long ago Romania "could easily have been labeled a total denial country." The new law not only specifically outlaws the use of fascist symbols from World War II, but it also makes clear that Romania's role in the Holocaust should be acknowledged.

"We've seen a commitment to ensure that civil leadership and military leadership of the country understands the reality of the Holocaust and the Holocaust in Romania," Shapiro says.

It is remarkable that 70 years after the Holocaust, denial of the state-sponsored persecution and murder of million of Jews — and others — by the Nazis and their collaborators still exists. Yet there's also considerable disagreement over the logic behind bans on Holocaust denial. Such bans are incompatible with the concept of freedom of speech, for example, and even in countries such as France where Holocaust-denial laws have been on the books for some time, the measures remain controversial. Given concerns about rising levels of anti-Semitism in Europe, these are fraught debates.

The Romanian example may show that even where these laws exist, they have to reflect the appropriate local context. Shapiro believes Romania is on the right path now, but he has concerns about Hungary, which officially bans Holocaust denial but still allows far-right parties such as Jobbik to flourish.