Wednesday, February 22, 2006

David Irving and free speech

If you're remotely interested in the David Irving/free speech debate, Daniel Finkelstein has a good article in today's Times. Meanwhile, the Times also reports that the Austrian prosecutors are seeking to have Irving's jail sentence extended. Which statement I was tempted to put an exclamation mark after.

Well, I think it's all perfectly simple. David Irving is a fruitcake. He's been known to be a fruitcake, in the UK at least, for several decades, and has been treated as such. Since he's a historian, of sorts, he's been dealt with by professional historians, in recent times most notably by the American Deborah Lipstadt (who has a blog, by the way).

But three years in the slammer for having a peculiar interpretation of the facts? Hellfire, on that basis we should all be in the clink. Lisptadt has a more valid point when she says (on her blog) that there may be an element of perjury in Irving's testimony to the Austrian court, and that judges take a dim view of being jerked around.

Irving's books do at least serve one useful purpose. They demonstrate to those training in history that the same facts, more or less, can give rise to widely different interpretations. Fifty-odd years ago, when I entered the History Remove (yes, it really was called that, but we didn't have a fat owl), our teacher ordered us to read two short books about Luther. One book portrayed him more or less as a second son of God, sent down to end the corruption of the Roman Catholic church and to show us all the way to salvation; the other book portrayed Luther as the son of the devil, leading countless souls to perdition, and, incidentally (and coincidentally in terms of today's discussion) giving rise to rabid anti-semitism and leading directly to the rise of Hitler.

Same historical facts, different interpretations. Our shoolmaster made the point that it was up to each student of history to weave his way through the undergrowth and to try to discern the truth. But he didn't mention anything about three-year jail sentences.


Martin said...

My own 'alternative history' lesson came from the Ladybird series of history books. I grew up in Loughborough, where Ladybird books came from, so they had an extra force in my life. their Charles II history had Cromwell as a villain, their Oliver Cromwell volume saw hm as a kindly hero.

I moved on to live in the Old Rectory in Rempstone, where Cromwell was schooled. The warts and all portrait of Cromwell now in Sidney Sussex College used to have to hang on the wall of the house according to the deeds. A royalist duly did so, but with the portrait turned to face the wall.

And David Irving? I was ready to feel sorry for him. But I couldn't. The grief of the holocaust came through to me again with real strength, and denial of it is growing and is horrific. We're not so touched by it in the UK, we can harbour and correct a dotty old man. In Austria it's a diferent case. They can keep him locked up as long as they need. - Martin Goodman

Gary McGath said...

Martin: Feeling sorry for Irving is irrelevant. The Austrian government has declared, in effect, that history is to be decided not by open debate, but by jail sentences. If it can lock Irving away for disagreeing with the prevailing view, it can lock anyone away.

Creationism denial used to be a crime in Tennessee. Maybe you'd say that Scopes was right and Irving was wrong, but do you really want courts making that decision?

Anonymous said...

Austria and other countries have a law against stating certain opinions/interpretations of history; Islamic law does not permit the reproduction of images of the Prophet. Where is the country with free speech?

Melly said...

Holocaust denial is libel not only against those millions who died, but also against all of us.

Libel is a punishable offense sometimes even with a prison/jail term.

This has nothing to do with freedom of speech.

Anonymous said...

I think libel isn't the corect term at all.

archer said...

(Warning: Rant)

Does anyone think a jail term will deter the next Irving from spouting his pernicious drivel? Or deter the present one from doing it again? Or disable him from his antics? Or exact retribution from him for his acts? Those are the generally accepted purposes of criminal punishment. Not one of them is served.

So what is the purpose of the law under which Irving is imprisoned? I suggest the purpose is expiation. Austria publicly adored Hitler. It welcomed the Anschluss with open arms. Austrians beat Jews in the streets of Vienna. Now Austria has laws showing it really really really DOES think what happened was dreadful, in case you had any suspicions otherwise. (Just possibly, you do.)

Anonymous said...

European speech laws restrict a lot more than holocaust denial. It's not a question of slippery slope. The speech laws slipped long before Holocaust denial. If you don't believe me check out the following links,

"Nils B. must not be imprisoned for accusing Bremen authorities of racism"


Man charged with defaming the state in Germany,

In short, Europe has a long, long way to go before they can claim they have free speech.

Anonymous said...

I do not think Irving is an idiot, rather he and the other Holocaust deniers are trying to rehabilitate Nazism and promote the far right. In order to do this they need to try and minimise the crimes of the Nazis, particulalry the Holocaust.

As the judge in the UK libel trial said Irivng is " a racist, anti-semitic, holocaust denier". The judge did not say Irving was an idiot.