During my 20 years as a Liberal Democrat activist, I seem to have spent a lot of time (metaphorically-speaking) patrolling the border between libertarianism and authoritarianism. I have frequently taken fellow Liberals to task for being highly selective in their defence of liberty.
So it comes as something of a shock suddenly to find the boot is on the other foot, as has been the case over the David Irving trial, conviction and sentence. It’s not just that fellow Lib Dems are taking an ostensibly more libertarian position then me on this. On last night’s BBC1 Question Time, only one of the five panellists defended the action of the Austrian court. The mood of the audience was clearly against the conviction too. Overnight it seems I have transformed from arch-defender to arch-infringer of free speech. And all this without in any way changing my own views.
Suddenly finding myself at a point on the spectrum to which I am unaccustomed provokes a bit of soul searching. But this only reinforces my opinion and makes me worry about fellow liberals and democrats who wittingly or otherwise blind themselves to the precise nature of the menace of holocaust denial.
I have already posted extensively on this subject, both here and in comments at Forceful and moderate . I would encourage readers interested in this subject both to follow up the links already posted and to read this article from last week’s New Statesman.
To reinforce my earlier post, I would merely add the following.
While in principle one would like to support absolute free speech short of direct incitement or conspiracy, in reality societies have to respond to specific circumstances. I fail to see any moral difference between our own laws against inciting racial hatred and laws against holocaust denial. I have seen it argued that the former can only be used where violence has ensued. But even if this is true, the offence remains the same and the effects of such hate-speech beyond the offender’s control. It is perhaps worth remembering that Irving’s offence was committed via a speech at a far-right rally. He was not prosecuted for the content of his books.
Austria has laws against holocaust denial, precisely to stop a recrudescence of far-right politics, given that Nazism is part of the country’s past. Although I don’t think that a law against holocaust denial is necessary in Britain, I can see why it has been considered so in Austria.
Since that Austria has a law against holocaust denial and Irving deliberately travelled to Austria to provoke and test the nerve of the authorities there, it was the lesser of evils for him to be prosecuted and convicted. It would been far worse if Austria had been seen to chicken out of the prosecution – that really would have handed a propaganda victory to Irving. In the light of the furore over Jorg Haider's Freedom party, Austria would have been roundly criticised if it had failed to prosecute, while Irving would have been free to tour the broadcasting studios crowing at his victory.
Paradoxically, I would feel much more comfortable with the argument that Irving should not have been prosecuted if journalists, broadcasters, bloggers etc. actually took the trouble to understand the precise nature of Irving’s message of hate and to condemn it. If people writing about Irving could at least be bothered to use the word ‘disgraced’ in their references to him, as they would with Jeffrey Archer or Jonathan Aitken, that would be a start.
From the exchanges at Forceful and Moderate, I detect further signs of this tendency to view Irving as an essentially harmless eccentric – like the fascist leader Roderick Spode in the Bertie Wooster novels. References to him as a ‘pretty rubbish historian’ or an ‘idiot’ miss the whole point. His message of hate is that much more insidious because conducted via footnotes rather than jackboots and conducted by a man wearing a Saville Row suit rather than a Nazi uniform. Irving is not simply expressing an opinion. He is peddling a proven lie that can only be intended to whip up hatred towards the Jews.
This is not an academic issue. Had Irving not been convicted, his next gig would no doubt have been the holocaust conference in Iran, where holocaust denial is officially sanctioned alongside presidential remarks that Israel should be wiped off the map. In certain countries in the Middle East the notorious anti-semitic forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is widely read as if a genuine historical document. Antisemitism is threat that we cannot lightly discount or regard as mere eccentricity.
Irving is a malevolvent, dangerous and evil man. He is not a harmless buffoon. I would encourage those who for genuine reasons lament the decision of the Austrian court on the grounds of free speech at least to acquaint themselves with the poisonous nature of Irving’s life and work and to recognise that even as he sits in his prison cell, he is far more to be scorned than pitied.