David Lewis vs. Cape Times, Independent Online


Fri, Feb 5, 2016

Ruling by the Press Ombudsman

5 February 2016

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr David Lewis and those of Abigail Oliver, the latter on behalf of the Cape Times newspaper and Independent Online.

Lewis includes Independent News and Media in his complaint. However, individual publications subscribe to the Press Code and not media houses as such – which precludes me from including Independent News and Media in this finding.

He complains on behalf of himself, the Katsef family of Maitland and the Lewis family of Woodstock and Salt River (Cape Town); he says he is a journalist, writer, publisher, war resister and anti-apartheid activist, as well as a secular humanist and a progressive Jew.

Complaint

Lewis is complaining about two articles in the Cape Times of 16 November 2015 and 23 November respectively, headlined Former Hitler Youth, 87, reflects on creating a positive legacy and A tale of serving Hitler – and surviving.

He says that these stories discriminated against him, since they represented:

·        an extraordinary serialisation of a self-confessed member of the Hitler Youth (Mr Peter Plum, 87, now living in Hermanus);

·         a reiteration of the philosophy of Nazidom and its antecedents in German philosophy, albeit within a critique of Hitler, that amounted to hate speech and incitement to hatred (which is outlawed by the Constitution of this country);

·         a failure to moderate, publish, consult and include the narrative of Jews, Jewish and other working class families in South Africa whose lives were affected by the war, in particular the lives of those with struggle memories and also memories of the Holocaust;

·         inappropriate content considering world events and especially the events of 13 November 2015; and

·         incitement of hatred against the Jewish community and other cultural, linguistic and religious communities (as illustrated by a statement about God), since Plum attacked the standing of these communities in terms of the law in his many statements crafted to paint his comrades and especially himself in a more positive light.

Lewis adds that the journalist did not get comment from the Jewish community.

The texts

The stories were both written by Francesca Villette.

In her first article, Villette focused on a young Plum – he had been 11 years old when World War II (WW II) broke out, and was “obliged” to become a member of the Deutsches Jungvolk, a section of the Hitler Youth organisation in Nazi Germany for boys aged 10 to 14.

As a motivation for her text, Villette mentioned that 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the end of WW II (when Plum was 17 years old).

The journalist quoted him, amongst other things, as saying that he did not believe in God. “If there was a God … millions would have been saved from dying… But on the other hand, I believe I have been reborn in my children and my grandchildren … and … I would like to live a better life hereafter. I am trying my best to create a better world while I am capable of doing so.”

The reporter stated that Plum had contacted the International Court of Justice “to lay charges against those states that participated in events that led up to the conflict”.

The follow-up text concentrated on Plum’s early experiences with shooting a rifle, and quoted him as saying, “The world blames Germany for many things that happened during the Hitler period, but the world does not ask what effect it had on its own people – even those who were obliged to join Hitler’s camp.”

The arguments

Lewis presents his complaint to this office in the form of two affidavits.

In his first, Lewis calls the newspaper’s reportage an “unprecedented serialization” of Plum’s life and times.

He notes that this story was published within two days of the murder of fans at the Paris Club le Bataclan – a venue once owned by Jews. He says instead of publishing his piece on that matter, the newspaper opted to pursue a series “glorifying the Nazi era, especially its purported ‘positive aspects’ which included the creation of some form of legacy aggrandising Plum, who proceeded to reflect on the creation of an endowment around his conversion to a philosophy consistent with the works of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche”.

He adds that a subsequent letter to the editor, dated 23 November 2015, was similarly ignored.

Lewis argues that Plum’s purported complaint or indictment (for which he claims to have received acknowledgement) has arisen some 70 years after World War II ended. “It appears to not revolve around the atrocities of the Nazi Regime … nor his own account of the war, and his participation in war crimes, but rather upon a popular perception within South Africa’s German community and especially Namibian Germans, that the Allies and Russia, were chiefly to blame for the conflict, and therefore, ‘had they not intervened, World War 2 would not have occurred, and/or such iterations consistent with a poltical (sic) project of the revision of history, a revision which is not supported by any contemporary history books’.”

He adds that Plum’s purported “legacy”, as recorded by Villette, did not stem from his involvement in the Hitler Youth and German Wehrmacht, and thus his conscription into the Nazi war machine (a state of affairs which he had not opposed at the time, and he thus lived to tell the tale of summary executions by the regime), but rather on his existential philosophy, viewing his own offspring and bloodline as uniquely part of his own racial identity.

Lewis says the second article carried similar themes, but appeared to cast Plum as the “victim” – continuing a train of thought consistent with a general denial of the Holocaust, in particular a denial of the instrumentality of the Holocaust, and thus amounted to the deprivation of the victims of the Final Solution by instead focusing on a topic which could best be stated as The Nazis, innocent victims of der Führer.

He argues, “In this way, Plum’s involvement in war crimes is recast as blameless, while the victims, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, are wrong, because of their faith or belief system, which admittedly, is opposed to [his] own views.”

Lewis says his is not a complaint against the philosophy of Nietzsche per se, but rather against its influence amongst the Hitler Youth and in particular as to how this philosophy is related by Plum. “It is one thing to deny the existence of God, or to say God is Dead, but another issue entirely, if one expects that everyone must die as a result, or the interlocutors and heroes of the battle of Normandy, are somehow, missing the point.”

He objects to replacing God with a Führer, or a Führer with the image of Plum.

Lewis concludes that the stories discriminated against him, since they represented:

·        an extraordinary serialisation of a self-confessed member of the Hitler Youth;

·         a reiteration of the philosophy of Nazidom and its antecedents in German philosophy, albeit within a critique of Hitler, that amounted to hate speech and incitement to hatred (which is outlawed by the Constitution of this country);

·         a failure to moderate, publish, consult and include the narrative of Jews, Jewish and other working class families in South Africa, whose lives were affected by the war, in particular the lives of those with struggle memories and also memories of the Holocaust; and

·         inappropriate content considering world events and especially the events of 13 November 2015; and

·         incitement of hatred against the Jewish community and other cultural, linguistic and religious communities, since Plum clearly attacks the standing of these communities in terms of the law, in his many statements crafted to paint his comrades and especially himself in a more positive light.

In his second affidavit, Lewis cites Article 16 of the Bill of Rights, as well as the SA Press Code, stating that press freedom does not extend to advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

He argues the Jewish community in South Africa comprises, inter alia, a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition, as well as a religion.

He says the journalist did not try to get comment from the Jewish community – there “was no attempt at balance, or equal reporting of views which may have served to anchor or moderate the opinion of Plum”.

He questions the newspaper’s “editorial agenda” in this regard (seeking out Plum’s views and publishing them in the aftermath of the Bataclan massacre). He asks, “Why such an exclusive manner, and why no similar interview canvassing the opinion of members of the Jewish community, who may have similar memories of World War Two and also the Struggle?”

He also wants to know why Plum himself did not seek out support from within the Jewish community, “for what appears to be little more than a sad campaign, casting himself (and other Nazis) as agents of reconciliation – and thus the Nazi epoch in positive and glowing terms – not as the reconciler between Nazi and Jew, but rather as the intermediaries between Nazidom and History, and with little regard to the historical facts?”

He adds that the “serialization” of the life and times of Plum, “perversely” included the latter’s views and opinions regarding the “subject of the Jews” and argues, “Hence, the reduction of ‘The Jews’ and thereby the Jewish Community, collectively … to mere ‘objects of history’ instead of persons … is extremely offensive, hurtful and amounts to advocacy of hatred and incitement to do harm as defined in Article 16 (of the Bill of Rights).”

Lewis complains this serialisation attacked the dignity and reputation of Jews in a number of ways, including attacks on:

·         those Jews who may believe in God, by denying the Covenant;

·         the status of the Jews as “God’s Chosen People”;

·         all Jews, including those who may not believe in God, or who may reject the Covenant, by referring collectively to the community in that manner.

He explains that it would have been better if a Jew, a theologian or a philosopher had raised this issue, rather than a former Nazi.

Lewis says the articles glorified a war against those with faith (including Muslims, Jews and Christians) by relating details of the Hitler war machine. “That one has to troll through sickening details about Plum’s prowess, or lack thereof, in the art of warfare and his success in shooting with a service rifle, also undoubtedly used, to shoot his fellow comrades and anyone who stood in the way of the Hitler war machine beggars belief.”

Moreover, the two articles referred in “glowing terms” to Plum’s commander, Oberstleutnant Baerenfaenger, as well as to an unnamed instructor.

He calls Plum’s opinions nonsensical, argumentative, malicious, mischievous and the exact opposite of humanism (a philosophy which places humans, and consequently human life and human agency, at the centre of all things) and/or any contemporary philosophical tradition.

He says there was no legitimate public interest in gaining access to the opinion of either Plum or the Hitler Youth, especially following the bombing and massacre at the Bataclan.

Lewis also cites Section 6 of the Press Code which states, “A publication is justified in strongly advocating its own views on controversial topics provided that it treats its readers fairly by making fact and opinion clearly distinguishable; not misrepresenting or suppressing relevant facts; and not distorting the facts.”

He says that even though it was clear that both articles were written by a professional journalist, and had consequently recorded the words and opinions of Plum as being his own, “there was no attempt by the [newspaper] to distance itself from such views, in other words, the pathetic articulation of Plum’s Weltanschauung and what is essentially the advocacy of one type of Atheism, (and consequently the Nihilist’s justification for War) by an old Nazi”.

He notes that Plum did not say, “God is dead, therefore we must all wage peace”, but rather, “God is dead, and the Jews died, so what” – or words to that effect.

Lewis states the words, “The world blames Germany for many things that happened during the Hitler period, but the world does not ask what effect it had on its own people – even those who were obliged to join Hitler’s camp”, could just as well apply to a Public Relations piece published by the apostles of apartheid, or taken verbatim from those who failed to seek amnesty and yet wanted the findings to the Truth Commission to apply to them, post fact.

He argues that any casual reader could be forgiven for forming the impression that the publisher was either in favour of the Nazi version of history, or the Nazi version of atheism, or wished to create a view consistent with similar advocates of what could only be termed a non-secular, Neo-Nazi ideology well disposed towards Hitler, but equally wanting to depose of Hitler and the events of the Holocaust as unnecessary obstacles stemming from bad leadership, and all calculated to spread controversy in the conquest of readership and audience, insofar as the respondents are concerned.

In conclusion, Lewis says: “If the articles…do not comprise a form of hate speech and advocacy of violence, based upon hatred of the Jews, then I submit, they equally represent a distortion of the views of Adolf Hitler, especially in regard to the controversy over which side declared war first and whether or not there was ever a war and invasion of Poland.”

Oliver replies that the articles were reflective pieces written on Plum’s personal views and feelings, experiences and mind-set during his adolescent years in the Deutsches Jungvolk.

“The article was not written to portray Mr. Plum in a more positive light but rather to provide diverse viewpoint which is an untold story on the effect of World War II on its residents.”

The editor says Plum was a minor at the time he was involved in the Jungvolk, and argues it is “integral for readers to consider his age at the time and try to comprehend the reality of his position”.

Oliver adds that just because the articles outlined a different narrative to Lewis’s own, it did not make the narrative incorrect but rather illustrated a diversity of viewpoints. He says, “The articles were not written to romanticise or justify the holocaust but rather to provide a voice to German people who were forced to be a part of the Nazi regime. The Holocaust was an atrocity and nothing in the articles justify the Holocaust in any way, manner or form.”

The editor also avers that, contrary to Lewis’s version, Plum was in fact critical of the Nazi regime and did not excuse the behaviour of any perpetrator involved in the Nazi regime.

Also, he explains that the interview with Plum was set up five days before the attack in Paris and the journalist could not have predicted that the Paris attack would be on the same weekend as the interview with Plum – the close proximity of the two events was therefore a coincidence.

Oliver notes that Plum’s views were put in inverted commas and that they represented his personal feelings about God and the existence of a higher power. “[P]lum was quoted and his views were not represented as the views of the Cape Times or Independent Newspapers.”

The editor adds that:

·         the third largest “religious” grouping in the world is categorised as “unaffiliated”, including atheists, agnostics and people with spiritual beliefs but no link to any established faith. “Thus the view held by Mr. Plum regarding his lack of belief in God is well established in the world due to 1.1 billion people identifying themselves as unaffiliated. Mr. Plum’s view is thus not extraordinary and as a citizen of South Africa he has the right to freedom of religion as embodied in the Bill of Rights”; and

·         the phrase “His chosen people, the Jews” is not an unknown concept and is mentioned in many publications in both Jewish and Christian publications.

Oliver denies that the articles incited violence and legitimised the Nazi regime. He says incitement can be defined as “the action of provoking unlawful behaviour or urging someone to behave unlawfully”. He says that in no manner could the articles be considered incitement to commit any offences against Jewish people, and concludes that Lewis exaggerated the effect of the articles on the ordinary reader.

Lewis reiterates that the articles were propaganda pieces written with the purpose of casting the Deutsches Jungvolk, the German Wehrmacht and the Plum family in a more positive light.

He says that Plum was not merely a “child soldier” involved in innocuous acts, depicted as such by a piece deflecting attention away from his own cowardly deeds – adding that, for the purposes of the Child Justice Act, 75 of 2008, criminal capacity begins at age 14.

He says nowhere in the texts did Plum lodge an objection to the war in question, and that Plum appeared to claim innocence – while denying the consequences of his own actions as an adolescent, in the process condoning the criminal actions of his instructor and his commander, who were undoubtedly adults.

“Not only has Plum Jnr, instructed others in the art of warfare, but he has also glamorised his own role, and especially the unique position of his commander with special ties to the Führer. As such the piece is an admission of guilt, an admission of Plum Jnr’s own role in the German chain of command. If he feels aggrieved for having followed orders, or has participated in the execution of his comrades, and acted against his own conscience, such opposition should have been lodged at the time and via the correct channels. Doing so, some 70 years after the war, merely begs the question, why now, and what is to be gained?”

Lewis concludes, “The pieces as they stand are tantamount to Holocaust denial in broad terms, as it affects everyone today, whether living or deceased, and represents nothing less than glamorisation of war. The sentimentality is enough to cast doubt on any person making the opposite assertion.

He says he rejects “with contempt” the assertion that the two pieces represent a “diversity of viewpoints” or a “different narrative”.

Analysis

As always, I am doing my best to read the texts through the lenses of both the complainant and the publication.

After having carefully read and re-read the articles, I cannot agree with Lewis’s interpretation of the texts, and therefore also not with his conclusions.

What I see, instead, is a former member of Hitler’s youth league who wants “a better world” (Plum’s words) and a person who is grateful that he could start a new life in this country.  A “better world” and being grateful for a new life presuppose that the old one (in this case, life under Hitler) was worse. That, in itself, is critical of the Nazi past.

Lewis’s arguments about Nietzsche are far-fetched, as are his arguments about a reiteration of the philosophies of Nazidom and its glorification (as well as other arguments – too many to mention). To my mind, and with respect to him, I believe that he reads (way) too much between the lines.

To expect of Plum to have expressed an anti-WW II sentiment is also not a convincing argument – the man was talking about his experiences of about 70 years ago and was not formulating a comprehensive theory on the ethics of that war.

I hasten to add, though, that Plum was entitled to his opinion – including his opinion on Nietzsche’s philosophy.

The same does not apply to the complaint about hate speech and incitement of hatred or violence against the Jewish community – while South Africans have a huge amount of freedom of speech, this does not extend to hate speech.

Section 16 of the Bill of Rights defines hate speech as propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

Given my argument about a “better world” above, as well as the total absence of even a hint of justification or approval of Hitler and all that he stood for, I do not believe that the texts amounted to hate speech.

Oliver’s argument that the interview with Plum was set up five days before the attack in Paris is plausible.

Lewis’s submission that the articles referred to Baerenfaenger in glowing terms is also not true. The only mention of Baerenfaenger in the first article said, “Plum’s commander, Oberstleutenant Baerenfaenger, had his last meeting with Adolf Hitler on April 28, 1945, two days before Hitler committed suicide. A few days later Baerenfaenger killed his wife and himself.”

The second story did not refer to Baerenfaenger at all.

The fact that the newspaper did not publish Lewis’s letters is of no concern to me – the decision to publish or not to publish is entirely up to the editor, and this office can in no way interfere.

Lewis’s question as to why Plum himself did not seek out support from within the Jewish community is irrelevant to this office – my concern is not with what Plum did or did not do, but (only) with the publications’ reporting.

His interpretation of Plum’s “perverse” views regarding the “subject of the Jews” (as “objects of history”) is just that – his interpretation. The phrases “subject of the Jews” and “objects of history” did not occur in either of the articles, nor were they implied.

His submission that the journalist did not attempt to distance herself from Plum’s views is peculiar – surely, that is not the task of a reporter in texts like the ones in question.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s