David Irving on trial for Holocaust denial

Well, today’s the day. After all the waiting, it’s finally here.

David Irving is going to stand trial for Holocaust denial in Austria today.

Those of you who have read my old blog a while know what a despicable human being I consider David Irving to be. He’s clearly an anti-Semite, most famously having said that “more women died in the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz” and being known for repeating anti-Semitic doggerel. He’s spent decades in essence falsifying history, denying that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz, that the the Nazis had a plan to systematically exterminate European Jewry. And, his pretentions otherwise notwithstanding, he is no champion of free speech. Indeed, when the historian Deborah Lipstadt referred to him as a Holocaust denier in a book, he waited until her book was released in Britain, which has the most plaintiff-friendly libel laws in Europe or the U.S., and then sued her there in 2000.

He lost and was humiliated. The final judgment found that Irving was indeed a Holocaust denier.

I do have to admit to feeling a fair amount of schadenfreude when Irving was arrested in Austria last November. Irving knew damned well that there was a warrant for his arrest for denying the Holocaust in a speech he gave in 1989. He even worried about it on his own website and took precautions before he left, such as leaving behind 60 signed blank checks and bringing eight shirts, even though he was only supposed to be in Austria for two days. He knew what he was doing and what risk he was taking.

Still, as an advocate of free speech, I found (and still find) the entire affair very troubling. Yes, Irving’s views are odious. Yes, he has spent decades promoting Holocaust denial. Yes, in recent years he has associated with some really scary people on the far right. Yes, in the three speeches he gave in Austria, he told an audience in Leoben that Kristallnacht was carried out by “unknowns” dressed up as members of the SA; that Anne Frank could not have written her diary herself because the Biro wasn’t invented until 1949; and that Hitler never gave an order to exterminate the Jews. He cited research by the discredited Fred Leuchter claiming that the Auschwitz gas chambers couldn’t have been used to gas Jews because he couldn’t find cyanide residues in the bricks. Yes, he asserted that “Auschwitz is a legend, just like the Turin Shroud” and that “the existence of witnesses proves that there was no mass extermination,” among numerous other statements clearly denying the Holocaust.

Even so.

Upholding freedom of speech is not difficult in cases of views that are mainstream or that don’t offend. Upholding freedom of speech is difficult in case like David Irving. The bottom line, as far as I’m concerned, is that Irving should not be in prison. Imprisoning him achieves nothing other than raising his stature and letting him plausibly don the mantle of free speech martyr. All it does is lead him to make such ludicrious “recantations” that he now believes there were gas chambers at Auschwitz:

His conversion, according to Irving, came in 1992 after his discovery of two documents – a discovery he kept to himself until recently. One was a radio message sent to Adolf Eichmann in 1943, reporting that during the previous 12 months more than a million people had died in Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec concentration camps.

Odd that he never mentioned this before, even though he supposedly discovered it 13 years ago and especially since, as recently as 2005, he was still denying that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz. No one can see his sudden “conversion” as anything other than a transparent attempt to obtain leniency. If he is imprisoned for a harsh sentence (and the penalty for Holocaust denial in Austria can be as long as 20 years), he becomes a martyr. If he is released with time served, he will likely return to Britain and renounce his recantation. By arresting him and vowing to try him, Austria has placed itself in a no-win situation.

Of course, not all see it this way. Indeed, in The New Statesman was published an impassioned defense of jailing Irving and keeping him there, written by Roger Boyes. Too bad it’s full of logical fallacies and poor reasoning typical of the arguments for suppressing free speech:

Even so, a courtroom is as close as most Holocaust deniers come to heaven. A captive audience, those chilly metallic blondes from CNN, the right to rant. Judging by his website, Irving is relishing his moment in the spotlight: even a lost court case represents a triumph of publicity for his malign deceptions on Hitler and his crimes. Hitler used his stint in jail to write Mein Kampf; for Irving, too, imprisonment is a kind of state-financed sabbatical.

Advocates of the absolute right to free speech say that Irving’s obvious enthusiasm for courtroom confrontation is a powerful argument for letting him go. Take away the courtroom and you take away his theatrical props. Ignore him, and the netherworld of Irving and the unsavoury club of Holocaust deniers withers away, killed by our oppressive tolerance. He may be – no, he is – hopelessly and deliberately wrong but he has the right to proclaim his crazy views, just as we have the right to plug our ears with cotton wool.

Geez, talk about the fallacy of the excluded middle (a.k.a. the false dilemma)! We either have to jail Irving or ignore him? Are there no other options, such as, for example, speaking out against his lies and countering his lies and distortions with facts? And so what if Irving is “relishing the spotlight”? There wouldn’t be any spotlight for Irving to relish if Austria hadn’t arrested Irving in the first place. There wouldn’t be a media circus with 50 television crews and the need for riot police to prevent protests by neo-Nazis.

The rest of the piece appears to consist of an argument that we must respect the “word” (whatever that means) and that the interests of Irving and other Holocaust deniers are are “merging with those of the anti-Semitic ideologists of Arab nationalism and Iranian theocratic rule.” Boyes expresses concern that, “if Irving walks free from the Wien-Josefstadt Prison next week he will soon be packing his suitcase for the Holocaust conference in Tehran.”

So what if Irving heads for Iran? That’s not an argument to put him in jail for his speech, nor is it an argument to revoke the passport of the vile neo-Nazi Horst Mahler to prevent him from traveling to Iran, something Boyes refers to as “wise.” The anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial of the Arab nationalist and Muslim fundamentalist regimes of the Middle East would still exist and be just as virulent without David Irving and his fellow deniers. It’s not as though Irving would gain respectability by going to Iran’s conference to question the authenticity of the Holocaust or that he in his disgrace after the Lipstadt trial could lend respectability to this farce of a conference.

Nonetheless Boyes concludes:

We are not making Irving into a martyr by jailing him. We (or the Austrians on our behalf) are making the world a little bit safer – and defining the limits of tolerance.

I propose a counterexample. I’d ask Boyes a question, given that he points out that the Irving case should reveal the “limits of tolerance.” Who gets to decide what the “limits of tolerance” are for free speech? Let’s take an example from the good old U.S.A.: the rabid far right winger Ann Coulter. She provides red meat rhetoric for extremists. Indeed, she uses eliminationist rhetoric, as David Neiwert (of Orcinus) has pointed out time and time again. She made an infamous statement after 9/11 in which she said about Muslim countries that we should “invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity,” not worrying about how many civilians we kill in the process. She most recently gave a major speech where she referred to Muslims as “ragheads” who need to “face consequences” if they “talk tough” and joked about killing Bill Clinton. Her speech was so foul that even Michelle Malkin (who, as you may recall, is best known for writing a book defending the mass internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II) felt obligated to offer up a rather tepid criticism of Coulter (while dismissing her remarks as Ann just “going for a cheap laugh”).

Should Ann Coulter, as vile as much of what she says is, be thrown in jail for “hate speech”?

My guess is that Boyes would probably say “yes.”

I say no. Our freedom depends on free speech, and one price for that freedom is tolerating offensive speech from people we don’t like, no matter how much our dislike of them, what they say, and what they stand for might tempt us just to throw them in jail.