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A sect fit for the starry-eyed

Michael Gove on Helmut Kohl and the Scientologists

The Times, 10 January 1997

Holocaust denial is a perversion of history. Holocaust hyperbole is becoming almost as disreputable. Holocaust hyperbole is the casual exaggeration of a current injustice which ranks it with the genocide of Nazi Germany. The latest and most egregious example is an "Open Letter to Helmut Kohl" from a B-list of Hollywood names, comparing the treatment of Scientologists in Kohl's republic to the persecution of Jews in Hitler's Reich.

The Nazis' systematic deployment of all the tools of state terror, and the complicity of a people in the attempted extermination of an entire race the culmination of centuries of prejudice and pogrom was a crime of unequalled barbarity. It is an insult to the suffering of its victims and the dignity of its survivors to use the memory of the Holocaust to manufacture outrage. To equate it with any abuse of power in Germany today is grotesquely inappropriate. And to compare the organised murder of the Jewish race to the difficulties faced by a "Church" of hustlers stretches the limits of tolerance.

One might have thought that even in Hollywood, the home of mangled history, muddled liberalism and gullibility, it would be hard to find 34 holy fools prepared to put their name on a billboard advertising their own insensitivity. Yet actors as distinguished as Dustin Hoffman and producers as powerful as Aaron Spelling have allowed their reputations to be demeaned by endorsing the unequal equation of anti-Semitism and opposition to Scientology.

It would be bad enough if those who wrote to Herr Kohl had made their maladroit intervention out of misguided sentiment, but the ruffle of dollars and the whiff of the agent's cigar can be discerned in the background. As Giles Whittell reports on our foreign pages, the links between Scientology and the signatories are not all ties of the purest principle.

Hollywood has long been home not only to the mixed motive and the hired hand, but also to a residual anti-German feeling. Many of its finest names have known something of the real horrors of Middle-European intolerance. Modern Germany may have its faults, as the shameful treatment of asylum-seekers in the eastern Lnder shows, but it also has its virtues. One of those is its robust recognition of the ways a determined sect can exploit the tolerance of liberal society.

Our Home Office has recognised Scientology as a "bona fide religion" and opened the way to its application for charitable status. The Germans have seen it for what it is in the words of a 1995 court ruling, in Cassel, Hesse a "business organisation". But Scientology is no Sainsbury's it is a vast exercise in self-promotion and networking which robs the vulnerable of their dignity and more, peddling in return a pseudo-science that would look ludicrous in a Star Trek script. If Scientology is a Church, then Elmer Gantry is its patron saint. Its founder, the hack turned quack L. Ron Hubbard, established the sect as lucrative proof that there are, indeed, several born every minute.

Scientologists believe that Ron somehow visited Venus, although how he survived the concentrated suphuric acid rain or the surface temperature of 460 degrees Celsius remains, like so much about the cult, obscure. Hubbard believed that human beings are receptacles for immortal forces called, with all the imagination of a man who started his career in comic books, Thetans. The Thetans, according to a Scientology textbook, were brought to Earth by an evil lord called Xenn. Scientologists do not respond warmly when asked about his relation to the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

It is easy, and healthy, to laugh, but ridicule is not enough. Scientology is, if anything, more pernicious than preposterous. Like many cults it offers structure, coherence and companionship for bruised souls. The quasi-induction process of "auditing" mimics some of the soothing effects of psychotherapy and has proved much more addictive. Sessions are expensive and recruits who wish to persevere with auditing until they reach a state in which they are "clear" have to earn their treatment by pavement proselytising. They become pyramid-salesmen for salvation.

Scientology has also made money from other business involvements, not least property speculation in East Germany. Money that is handed over by converts is invested in concrete. The organisation is estimated to have made around 60 million profit in Germany alone last year from "education" material.

The young in ordered societies such as Germany and Japan are particularly susceptible to the call of closed cultures, as the terrifying success of Japan's Aum sect showed. Germany, where the Constitution is a model of rationalist legalism, erected to guarantee civil liberties in the shadow of the Holocaust, is particularly vulnerable. Liberal democracy's weakness is its willingness to extend to its enemies rights which they will not scruple to abuse.

In refusing to take Scientology at its own estimation and recognising the soi disant saviours as hucksters, Germany has done democracy a service. Herr Kohl should also be saluted for yesterday dismissing the Hollywood letter as "rubbish". His common sense suggests that 60 years after Weimar failed to stand up to intimidation, Germany is at last beginning to feel at ease with itself.

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