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Last Updated: Monday, 20 February 2006, 18:38 GMT
Irving tests Europe's free speech
By Clare Murphy
BBC News

David Irving arrives at the High Court in London
Mr Irving may well say he has changed his mind on gas chambers

The reputation of David Irving, the Holocaust-denying historian, was shattered at a libel trial six years ago, to the delight of those disgusted by his revisionism.

But as Europe proudly flexes its freedom of speech credentials in the ongoing row over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, even some of his enemies were uncomfortable that he faced incarceration for his unpalatable historical views.

The Briton has now been sentenced to three years after being found guilty of Holocaust denial at a trial in Vienna.

He had pleaded guilty to the charges, which were based on a speech and an interview he gave in Austria in 1989 in which he disputed the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz.

While a number of European countries have laws against Holocaust denial, nowhere has the ban been more sacred than in Germany and Austria, whose very identities have been forged from the rejection of what was perpetrated in the middle of the 20th Century.

And yet among Vienna's chattering classes, the case has sparked debate.

At the heart of the matter is whether the distortion of such a fundamental period of history is a greater problem than the suppression of the right to express contrary interpretations - however unpleasant, and indeed inaccurate, they may be.

Democratic censorship?

If Austria wants to prove itself a modern democracy, argues Christian Fleck, a sociologist at the University of Graz, you use argument not the law against Holocaust deniers.

Irving is a fool - and the best way of dealing with fools is to ignore them
Christian Fleck
"Are we really afraid of someone whose views on the past are palpable nonsense, at a time when every schoolchild knows of the horrors of the Holocaust? Are we saying his ideas are so powerful we can't argue with him?" he asks.

"Irving is a fool. And the best way of dealing with fools is to ignore them."

If anything, Professor Fleck contends, a trial endows such ideas with a certain credibility.

"By outlawing such opinions, inevitably we give them the frisson of the banned. We run the risk of turning them into an attractive proposition."

The sociologist may not be inundated with supporters. "But we are talking about it," he says, "and that's a start".


Nonetheless, even those in favour of Mr Irving's trial agreed that hauling the man before a court was not a risk-free endeavour - potentially providing a Holocaust denier with a platform.

At a colourful, three-month libel trial which he instigated in 2000, he illustrated that he was capable of putting up an engaging fight.

The Briton had brought the case against American academic Deborah Lipstadt, who in her book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, branded Mr Irving "one of the most prominent and dangerous Holocaust deniers".

In Germany and in Austria there is a moral obligation to fight the kind of propaganda peddled by Irving
Hajo Funke

Arguing that Professor Lipstadt and others were out to silence him by ruining his professional reputation, Mr Irving fought his own case, surrounded by a mountain of material.

Burrowing through his papers and cross-examining witnesses, he argued that while the Nazis may have killed up to four million people, there was no systematic annihilation involving gas chambers.

These, he argued, were used only to de-louse corpses and objects. He failed - the judge concluded he was an anti-Semitic, active Holocaust denier, and his reputation has been in pieces in since.

Revising revisionism

This time, Mr Irving opted for apparent repentance.

What about freedom of expression when anti-Semitism is involved? Then it is not freedom of expression. Then it is a crime. Yet when Islam is insulted, certain powers raise the issue of freedom of expression.
Amr Mousa
Arab League Secretary General

He said his views had changed since 1989 and that he no longer disputed the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz.

"History is a constantly growing tree - the more you know, the more documents become available, the more you learn, and I have learned a lot since 1989."

Asked if he admitted the existence of the Holocaust, he replied: "I would call it the Jewish tragedy in World War II."

But if he hoped his retraction would help him avoid prison, he was mistaken.

The risk remains that Mr Irving will seem a martyr to free speech and that his trial will further fuel the anger of those who accuse Europe of double standards - apparently ready to cite freedom of expression when it comes to printing cartoons offensive to Muslims, while incarcerating those who insult Jews.

For Professor Hajo Funke, a German historian who testified at the 2000 trial, that is a risk worth taking.

"In Germany and in Austria there is a moral obligation to fight the kind of propaganda peddled by Irving. We can't afford the luxury of the Anglo-Saxon freedom of speech argument in this regard," he says.

"It's not that I don't understand it, it's just not for us. Not yet. Not for a long time."

Profile: David Irving
18 Nov 05 |  UK


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