Respectful Insolence

Well, that was fast.

The trial took less than a day. David Irving, as expected, pleaded guilty. As expected, he was found guilty of Holocaust denial. What was not expected was the severity of the sentence:

VIENNA, Feb. 20 (AP) — The British historian David Irving on Monday pleaded guilty to denying the Holocaust and was sentenced to three years in prison. He conceded that he was wrong when he said there were no Nazi gas chambers at the Auschwitz death camp.

Mr. Irving, handcuffed and wearing a navy blue suit, arrived in court carrying a copy of one of his books, “Hitler’s War,” which challenges the extent of the Holocaust.

“I made a mistake when I said there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz,” he told the court before his sentencing, at which he faced up to 10 years in prison.

“In no way did I deny the killings of millions of people by the Nazis,” testified Mr. Irving, who has written nearly 30 books.

He also expressed sorrow “for all the innocent people who died during the Second World War.”

Mr. Irving’s lawyer, Elmar Kresbach, immediately announced that he would appeal the sentence.

“I consider the verdict a little too stringent,” he said. “I would say it’s a bit of a message trial.”

Mr. Irving appeared shocked as the sentence was read. Moments later, an elderly man who identified himself as a family friend called out, “Stay strong, David! Stay strong!” The man was escorted from the courtroom.


I have to say, I was shocked myself when I read of it. Three years in prison for nothing more than offensive speech? Is this what we’ve come to?

I understand all the arguments that Holocaust denial has a different resonance in Germany and Austria than it does in the U.S. I understand that the history of the Third Reich and the Holocaust leads to a particular sensitivity in these countries that we don’t share, that Holocaust denial is feared as a vehicle for the resurgence of Nazi-ism and fascism. I can even understand how, in the early postwar period, such laws may have been essential to protect the their fledgling democracies. But there comes a time to take the training wheels off. It’s been over 60 years since the end of World War II, well over two full generations. How much longer do they need these laws? Will they proscribe free speech in this way forever?

The bottom line is that, not only are laws against Holocaust denial an offense against free speech, but they don’t work. They suppress nothing. David Irving got more publicity in Austria than he had gotten in six years. Before, he was fading into well-deserved obscurity. Now he’s a martyr for the far right. His writings and those of many other Holocaust deniers are easily accessible on the web, yes, even in Austria. Suppressing it only confirms the claims of the Holocaust deniers that the government is “afraid” of their message.

For an example of how properly to deal with Holocaust deniers, one has only to look to Northwestern University in Evanston. There, one of the granddaddies of Holocaust denial in the U.S., Arthur R. Butz, is a tenured Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering at Northwestern who in 1976 wrote a book called The Hoax of the 20th Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry. Since then, he has used his tenured position to give stature to his denial, all the while being very careful not to give the administration of Northwestern a reason (such as preaching Holocaust denial in his engineering class) to try to get rid of him. Not much had been heard from ol’ Butzy recently, until he started defending the President of Iran for his Holocaust denial, going so far, after repeating a bunch of canards about the long-debunked Leuchter Report, to say in an editorial in the student newspaper:

That brings us to President Ahmadinejad of Iran. For many years I ignored revisionism coming from Islamic countries, because I found it inept. With Ahmadinejad, I found something else; his statements were formidable in their perspicacity. My original statement on him has to be read to make the specifics clear. He understands the intellectual terror in the West. However, the best surprise came after I wrote my endorsement. British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a routine pompous suggestion to Ahmadinejad: Visit the camps and see for yourself. Ahmadinejad replied: Good idea, I’ll bring a scientific team. He knows about the forensic issues too.

Given how inept Butz’s denial is, one has to wonder how truly poorly argued the Holocaust denial coming out of the Middle East must be for even Butz to turn his nose up at it. But I digress. Deborah Lipstadt responded with a strong article slapping down Butz and pointing out that the editors of the student newspaper had been so open minded that their brains fell out.

Also appropriate is a reaction by the very students of Northwestern called the Never Again campaign:

The Never Again Campaign is an organization started by students at Northwestern University in February of 2006. The campaign aims to increase Holocaust education, promote global tolerance, and stop genocides that are occurring today around the world and to marginalize him, given the black eye he’s given the institution.

The Never Again Campaign will bring speakers, host workshops, and offer resources to spread awareness about these issues on the Northwestern campus. Similarly, we hope to convince other universities to adopt our goals.

Recently, Northwestern engineering Professor, Arthur Butz, denied the Holocaust and congratulated the President of Iran on becoming the first modern head of state to deny the Holocaust. In response, students and faculty have come together to express their outrage and disappointment that a Northwestern professor made such an offensive and historically inaccurate declaration.

Their goal? To get Northwestern, as a private institution, to stop letting Butz use its public website to spread his lies, because doing so associates the name of the University with his denial, and to take actions to repudiate his Holocaust denial.

As I said yesterday, freedom of speech is easy to value and honor when the speech isn’t offensive. It becomes much more difficult to do when it is something as despicable and hateful as Holocaust denial. Indeed, defending free speech often means defending scum like Irving and Butz. However, it is not necessary to throw Butz, or any other Holocaust denier in jail to combat their lies. The way to combat his lies, or those of David Irving, or any other Holocaust denier is for opposing voices to make their displeasure known and to shine the light of truth on their lies.

Comments

  1. #1 Joel
    February 21, 2006

    I agree completely, but I think Irving’s attempt at “recanting” (which I don’t believe for a second is genuine) has obviated the martyrdom concerns in his case. If he had stuck to his guns, he’d be a more compelling figure of revisionist martyrdom, as it stands those looking for such an individual will have to fall back on the likes of Ernst Zundel and other assorted pond-scum.

  2. #2 TGHO
    February 21, 2006

    Orac,

    I don’t agree with you.

    I live in a country (Australia) that does not have free speech. We have laws against inciting hate crime, which includes holocaust denial. David Irving was refused entry to this country under those laws.

    I think that this is a good thing.

    There is no Nazi party here in Australia. There was, for a brief time, however it was forcibly disbanded by the Australian Government.

    Am I allowed to discuss holocaust denial, and put forward whatever views on the topic I have? To my friends at the pub, yes. To the general Australian public, in a political or major public forum, no.

    I fail to understand this American love of “Free Speech”. Not even you chaps have it completely, either, you know (yelling fire in a crowded cinema, or going up to someone and threatening to kill them).

    You have to draw the line somewhere mate.

    Cheers,
    TGHO

    (PS: Yes, I am jewish. Yes, I lost family to the holocaust. I hope Irving rots in gaol.)

  3. #3 dk
    February 22, 2006

    how about if i wear an antiwar t-shirt in the state of the union address and get arrested like cindy sheehan? does that violate my free speech? i didn’t see you posting much on that one.

    maybe we should concentrate on free speech for people who aren’t inciting hatred first. then we can worry about irving.

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