Friday, February 24, 2006

David Irving - not just an 'idiot' but an evil man

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.


Paul Leake said...

> 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.

Where he would have been taken to bits by journalists and real historians.

Iain said...

But in practice this is not what happens. Few if any real historians would agree to debate Irving since they would be aware that doing so would add to his credibility.

He would therefore end up being interviewed by broadcasters who couldn't hope to match his knowledge of the subject matter and he would run rings round them.

This is essentially what happened after the Lipstadt trial where Irving all but pretended the verdict hadn't happened and revelled in the publicity.

If only the media had the discipline not to give Irving the oxygen of publicity...

Where do you think Irving would rather be - in an Austrian prison or touring the TV studios prior to packing his bags for the conference in Iran where he would get more publicity and very little tough questioning?

Alex Wilcock said...

I generally go with your instincts on free speech, but I just can't here. He is an evil man, but how do you quantify that into law? I agree that he shouldn't be treated as just a figure of fun, or described as an 'historian'; I'd prefer 'propagandist'. Yet I recoil from where laws that prevent argument, however heinous, unless they're direct incitement can take us. Of course he's useful to the far right, but law's got to be on the basis of proven lines, not how nasty your friends are. I see Holocaust denial as similar to an act 'preparatory to terrorism'; something too easily misused and able to be used as justification for laws that each of us would be horrified by in precisely the sort of countries you're saying Irving has become a hero in. Do you think his jailing will have done the remotest smidgeon to counter them? Do you really think they won't be portraying him as a martyr and the West as hypocrites?

How instead to deal with it? I don't have an easy, glib answer like shutting people up, and while helping bolster a climate of hate is heinous, where does it stop? The state's role might be in education, so the Holocaust can be repeatedly laid bare by the power of the state, so the evidence is given why such people as Irving are liars with their own agenda. People like us should speak out and harass news programmes not to call him an historian but to expose him for what he is. But when Liberals call for the state to put people in the slammer because a free press does a crap job or historians lack the moral fibre to make the argument, how do you complain when they lock people up for views that are heinous-but-not-quite-so-heinous, and who does the judging? I read the New Statesman article. His views are disgusting, and the article communicated that well. But there's got to be a firmer basis for law. Lies have to be met with facts, not prison sentences that those taken in by them will take as confirmation of their conspiracy theories.

The Holocaust will always be a live issue when thugs, propagadists or tabloids are still attacking Jews, or gypsies, or gays. Violence and the threat of violence has to be met with the full pressure of the law, and I've had arguments within the Lib Dems when I put policies to Conference toughening our stance on hate crime. The way to take on the climate that makes such violence possible, though, can't be such nebulous laws that they're directly equivalent to state-sponsored suppression of disagreement elsewhere. It gives oppressors excuses and instead of knocking down fascists it lets them pretend to be victims.

Femme de Resistance said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Femme de Resistance said...

Idiot doesn't mean thick or laughable. It's just an expression of contempt which, I'm sure you'd agree, Mr Irving warrants.

Few if any real historians would agree to debate Irving since they would be aware that doing so would add to his credibility.

Yes, but they should. The problem with 'depriving people of the oxygen of publicity' is then it looks like a media conspiracy to silence an 'eminent gentleman' [sic].

The best way of dealing with him is getting some real historians on a platform with him and, as Alex says, encouraging the media to greet him with the contempt he deserves. Unfortunately, we live in an age of cultural relativism which doesn't help.

Iran is a red-herring - it's not exactly the most reputable platform in the world...

Angus J Huck said...

Something which neither you nor your correspondents seem to have noticed thus far is that so-called "holocaust denial" has been pursued for several decades by individuals and groups on the cranky authoritarian right, but with negligible impact.

The fuss about Irving has been generated, not by Irving himself, but by Judaeo-centrists, who have an interest in making it appear that the Jewish community is under threat from a resurgent anti-Semitism (to cement their own positions and to deter assimilation).

Irving is simply a writer about history. He has never held an academic post, he has never been published in a peer review journal (as far as I know). Why is he accorded this status? Why is he treated as a somebody when he is actually a nobody?

Far from benefiting in any way from his failure to obtain judgment against Penguin Books, Irving made himself look a blithering fool on "Newsnight", when he (a) failed to muster a single argument in his defense and (b) accused Jeremy Paxman of being Jewish (which Paxman isn't, incidentally).

I have met people with views far more extreme than Irving's, including one who believes that Hitler was right to kill the Jews (a former SDP candidate) and another who thinks that gays should be put to death (a former Lib Dem candidate).

To describe Irving as "evil" is frankly unhelpful. He is a man with deeply unpleasant opinions, but he has never killed anyone, he has never started a war on a false prospectus, and probably hasn't raped or robbed anyone.

Education will do little to help. Firstly, the holocaust is almost never out of the news, because there are those who have an interest in keeping it (or their version of it) in the public eye. Secondly, there will never be agreement as to what the truth actually is. Judaeo-centrists will object to the inclusion of Gentiles (such as Roma, Russians, Poles, etc) as holocaust victims, and will resist any attempt to put genocide in context (ie, to make comparisons with other mass killings).

By the way. The Turkish government continues to deny the early 20th century genocide of the Armenians, yet this is a country some of us want in the EU! (It was, after all, the failure of the international community to punish theTurkish perpetrators which convinced the Nazis that they could get away with it.)