BERLIN — Historians, a top Jewish leader and a major newspaper have criticized a court in the central German city of Naumburg for letting a far-right politician off easy after his conviction for Holocaust denial.
A state supreme court annulled the fine levied by a lower court against Hans Püschel, effectively overturning his conviction. The move is viewed by some as an unprecedented challenge to German law, which requires punishment for trivialization of the Holocaust and glorification of Nazi crimes.
The decision was announced locally in October 2015, but became public on Wednesday after inquiries by the German daily newspaper Die Welt.
Historians have expressed astonishment at the ruling, and observers expect courts to run into trouble when trying to prosecute future cases.
Püschel, who was forced to step down in 2013 as mayor of the German village of Krauschwitz, had questioned the numbers of those murdered at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and claimed that conditions at the camp were not as bad as reported. He questioned the overall number of six million murdered Jews, claiming that the Holocaust memorial in Berlin exaggerated the extent of the genocide.
Püschel went so far as to say that “the German crimes we were told about from an early age are lies.”
Pope Francis, who visited Auschwitz-Birkenau last Friday, said Wednesday that he could feel the souls of those murdered there.
“The great silence of the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was more eloquent than any word spoken could have been,” he said Wednesday during his weekly public audience at the Vatican.
Püschel had appealed a fine of about 3,000 euros levied by a lower court.
Now the Naumburg court, the highest in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, has nullified that penalty, saying that Püschel’s statements, while illegal, did not amount to broad trivialization of the Holocaust.
Court spokesperson Henning Haberland told JTA that it was a complete acquittal, and that there are no charges remaining. He added that it was unlikely that the case would set a precedent for other Holocaust denial cases since the verdict was specific to the particular case.
Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told Die Welt on Wednesday that, while he respects the German justice system, he would have expected the courts to be “highly sensitized to all attempts to rewrite German history or to mock victims of the Nazis through an unacceptable trivialization of Nazi crimes.”
Though the former mayor’s blog is no longer online, Die Welt points to a text by Püschel that can still be found on the Internet, in which he refers bitterly to attempts to silence his views on the Holocaust and accuses Jews of making up stories. “Jews can do anything in Germany, including lie and betray? They are untouchable?” Püschel asks.
Holocaust historian Christoph Jahr of Humboldt-Universität in Berlin has called the court decision “scandalous.” Other historians are following suit.
The decision will “change the climate of public opinion” in Germany, Die Welt observed, because the judges failed to uphold the law that orders a fine or jail time for anyone convicted of “approving, denying or downplaying” crimes committed under National Socialism. It will be harder for high courts to convict for such crimes in the future, the newspaper concluded.
Püschel, 67, had been a member of the Social Democratic Party until 2010, when he switched to the far-right extremist National Democratic Party of Germany.