June 4 and the crimes of Nazism
Chang Ping says outrage over a German article highlights the suffering of those silenced by history
Ding Zilin, the founder of the support group Tiananmen Mothers, asked recently: "Would Mr Frank Sieren please ask his ancestors what Nazism means?"
She said this after Sieren, the Beijing correspondent of German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, published an article titled "From Tiananmen to Leipzig" on the broadcaster's website on June 4. In the article, he likened the Tiananmen crackdown to a mere "slip" in Chinese contemporary history and said "we might never know what actually happened in Beijing 25 years ago".
He said Western media had treated the Chinese communist government unfairly over the issue, which should be looked at fairly and realistically.
Sieren's article angered many people, including the then leaders of the student movement Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi, human rights lawyer Teng Biao and members of Tiananmen Mothers, who suffered as a result of the crackdown.
Many have issued petitions and statements in protest, and made the link to Nazism in their objections. Former student leader Zhou Fengsuo put it this way: "Sieren's article is an insult to the victims of the Tiananmen crackdown. It's the equivalent of a denial of the Holocaust in Germany."
Some German people have also signed the letter of protest, but would they agree that the June 4 crackdown is essentially the same as the Holocaust?
This is questionable. In its reply to protesters, Deutsche Welle emphasised that it welcomed a plurality of values and supported different opinions. It said Sieren's view - which differed from those denouncing the Chinese Communist Party - was also very important.
While the German broadcaster did not deny the fact that 25 years ago the Communist Party had ordered the tanks to roll into the streets and square of the capital city to brutally suppress the peaceful protests of students and ordinary people, it apparently thinks that the crackdown is different from the Nazi oppression and therefore open to debate.
After all, as it well knows, it is a crime in Germany to deny the Holocaust and defend the Nazis.
Take English historian David Irving, who wrote many books, including the controversial 1977 Hitler's War, to try to vindicate the Nazis. He did not use the word "Holocaust" in the book because he believed Hitler had been treated unfairly as there was, according to him, no evidence to show he had actually ordered the mass murder of Jews.
Irving asked whether six million Jews were really killed, and said that Hitler's pain at the sacrifice of his countrymen was proof that he was not so hard-hearted.
The revisionist historian has been banned from entering Australia, Canada, Italy and Germany. He was convicted in Austria for denying the Holocaust and sentenced to three years in jail (he served 13 months).
Some commentators have also compared Mao Zedong with Joseph Stalin and Hitler.
In one essay that got him into trouble, economist Mao Yushi noted that during the 30 years of Mao's rule, some 50 million Chinese had died as hunger and turbulence rocked the country, a death toll approaching that of the second world war. Mao Yushi and his supporters no doubt think Mao Zedong was guilty of a worse crime than Hitler.
Perhaps this is something that victims of the Holocaust would rather not hear. To them, Hitler was the ultimate villain and Nazism an evil unequalled in human history.
Pain and suffering cannot and should not be compared, of course. The comparison with Nazism stood out only because the crimes of the Third Reich have been properly accounted for and denounced. More importantly, proclaiming the innocence of the Nazis is a crime punishable by law in Germany, France, Austria, Belgium and other countries, with the backing of the European Commission of Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
Chinese protesters can only hope to see similar laws in their country.
However, the reality is that whenever a June 4 anniversary comes around, activists continue to be rounded up and free speech curtailed. Dissent is dangerous in China, now as then. By contrast, those who defend the crackdown and the ruling party's record these past 60 years can expect to be treated as good friends of the party.
No doubt this is like rubbing salt into the wounds of the family members of those who were killed in the crackdown.
History has given full account of some events of the past. Yet, for some others, such closure has been denied and the pain remains fresh. For the sake of those still suffering, the media should be more humane.
Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese