BORN: Calmbach, Germany • 24 April 1939
It would be much easier to think of Ernst Ziindel as a German than as a Canadian. It would be much easier to pretend that he occupies the lunatic fringe and that hardly anybody pays any attention to him. It would also be wrong.
Zündel is the exception that proves the rule that Canadians of influence have been mostly forces for positive change in the world. Since he first openly identified himself with neo-Nazi and anti-Jewish organizations in Toronto in 1979, he has been the public face of racial hate in Canada—and for much of the world beyond.
Ziindel was part of the flood of immigrants that escaped war-torn Europe for Canada in the 1950s.He settled in Montreal, married a Quebecois, and worked as a retoucher of photographs. In circum¬ stances that remain unclear, he also became friendly with Adrien Arcand, the notorious Quebec fascist who was interned by the Liberal government during the Second World War.
Arcand was an aging, obscure anti-Semite by the time he met Ziindel, but the pair hit it off at once. Arcand introduced the young German immigrant to his Nazi ideas and Nazi friends, and it was here, it seems, that a career as a hatemonger was born.Ziindel kept his hate hobby secret when he first moved to Toronto in the 1960s.
No one, in fact, associated him with the extreme right when he emerged from the shadows and had himself nominated for the federal Liberal Party leadership in 1968. At a convention that would eventually anoint Pierre Trudeau, he wound up without a single vote.
Working for himself, Zundel became a very successful photo retoucher in Toronto. He did work for Maclean’s and Homemaker’s, and earned enough to subsidize a growing propaganda distribution business. He began by publishing pro-German rants, but descended rapidly into pure anti- Jewish hate. In the guise of history, Zundel specialized in denying that the Holocaust ever happened.
He first came to the attention of the local public and police in 1979 after organizing a series of pro-Nazi demon¬ strations. It became known that the basement of his down¬ town Toronto house was the centre of a pamphlet, book, and video distribution operation that dispatched hate mate¬ rials around the globe.
At the same time, there was a hidden aspect of his anti-Jewish activity that the public rarely heard about: harassing letters were regularly sent by Zundel to Jewish groups and leaders across the country. Many times, he mockingly offered to participate in a “constructive debate” on Germany and the Holocaust.
These overtures were mostly ignored, but they did result in the Canadian Holocaust Remembrance Association initi¬ ating criminal proceedings against Zundel in November 1983 for “willfully” spreading “false news.” The attorney general of Ontario agreed to prosecute the case and, over the next eight years, a Zundel trial and appeal, then another trial and appeal, were heard by the courts of Ontario. Each time, Zundel was convicted.
For those sickened and disgusted by the man’s message, however, this was not really a victory. The trials brought more publicity for Zundel and his ideas than he ever could have paid for himself: for days at a time, an obviously pleased Zundel made the television news and the front pages of newspapers.
Whether the Holocaust actually occurred was debated in the courtroom and, inevitably, in the media as well. The Supreme Court of Canada rendered the final verdict on Zundel’s legal fate in 1992. It ruled that the “false news” section of the Criminal Code violated the guarantee of freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and, therefore, that Ziindel was not guilty.
The hatemonger had won twice: he had gained unprece¬ dented exposure for his views through trials and appeals, and he had been exonerated by the Canadian justice system.The notoriety pushed Ziindel into the major leagues of racist and hateful publishing in the world. Neo-Nazi skin¬ heads in Germany read his publications, and anti-Semitic American fringe groups cite Ziindel as a major influence.
He has been convicted in Germany, in absentia, of publishing hate. His worldwide mailings have increased exponentially; many suggest that “donations” bring in much more money than the production and mailing cost him. Authorities worldwide now consider him to be among the international leaders in hate literature dissemination.
Ziindel’s influence at home and abroad is incontestable. Though his application for Canadian citizenship has been repeatedly rejected, he has been a permanent Canadian resi¬ dent since 1958. Canada is his home, and to a large degree he is a product of Canadian society.
Ziindel’s fellow Canadians are left with lingering doubts about how their society has dealt with him. Would his influence have been diminished if he had been consistently ignored—by Jewish groups, by the courts, by the media?
Or has the publicity surrounding Ziindel been a useful reminder that Canadian society has hateful, destructive elements lurking in its dark corners? Those questions haunt us all.