Freedom of dissent is essential.jpg

Freedom of dissent is essential


THERE IS a dangerous double standard pervading Europe at the moment. Those who championed the rights of the Danish press to express their “freedom” through satirical cartoons have supported the trial of historian David Irving for expressing opinions about World War Two.

Irving was arrested for speeches he had made about the Holocaust in Austria, where it is a crime to minimise Nazi atrocities. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in jail. Throughout his career, Irving has sought to rehabilitate Hitler’s reputation by downplaying the scale of German atrocities and the Nazi leader’s complicity in them. Irving gained international prominence in 2000 when he unsuccessfully sued American academic Deborah Lipstadt for describing him as a “Holocaust denier” in her 1994 work Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.

Irving’s case against Lipstadt was doomed from the outset, but, maybe, in his twisted way, he figured it was worthwhile in order to drum up more anti-Semitism. Marching into court, almost hidden behind a mountain of his own hardback biographies (a nice theatrical touch), Irving pretended to be a scholarly historian victimised by shadowy Jewish networks. But it was all to no avail. Judge Gray rejected Irving’s libel action and described him as “an active Holocaust denier, anti-Semite and racist” – an opinion most objective observers would share.

Some historians have praised Irving for the fastidiousness of his scholarship. But he has also addressed Combat 18 meetings (a British Nazi paramilitary group) and befriended numerous other neo-Nazis. Among Irving’s comments on the Holocaust: “More women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz.” Here’s another gem: “It’s the most interesting thing that’s ever happened to them (the Jews).” He claims to find the Holocaust “infinitely boring”, but his website is almost exclusively devoted to discussion of the “Jewish question”.

Irving should not become

another martyr

It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that Irving is a nasty, paranoid racist. So it would be tempting to agree with the head of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Lord Greville Janner, who has expressed satisfaction at Irving’s arrest and trial. Janner said that Holocaust denial was not a matter of opinion. “Austrian law demands incisive action to protect its citizens from a repeat of the past,” he said.

If Irving endured a painful death, it would not bother me one iota. Neither do I have a problem with him standing trial for inciting racial hatred – if the evidence justified such a charge. But that is not the basis of his arrest in Austria. Hence, though it grieves me to say it, I have to disagree with Janner. Specifically, I do not believe that anyone should stand trial for “denying the existence of gas chambers” or expressing any historical opinions about the Holocaust. Irving’s views may be abhorrent, but he should be able to express them just as historians should be free to re-examine any period in history.

If I wanted to argue that the earth is flat, that the moon landing took place in a Hollywood film studio, that George Best was a lifelong teetotaller, or that Mrs Thatcher was a communist, then I should be allowed to say so. Most people would think I was mad but I should be free to express these views. There are those who say that the Holocaust is unique and that it is not open to discussion or, more pertinently, reinterpretation. But this misses the point. Once we feel obliged to adopt a particular viewpoint on any historical subject, then political freedom evaporates.

Irving’s enemy in his court action, Deborah Lipstadt, has spent years exposing the arguments of Nazi sympathisers. She warns historians must “remain ever vigilant” against those who say the Holocaust was a hoax. Quite so. But, significantly, she is also opposed to Irving’s incarceration. “I am uncomfortable with imprisoning people for speech. Let him go and let him fade from everyone’s radar screens,” she says. As it is, Irving will receive more publicity and then languish in an Austrian jail, providing him with the opportunity to pen another sympathetic biography of the Nazis he idolises.