Amid trying to catch up with correspondence after a weekend away yesterday's verdict and sentence in the David Irving trial passed me by.
I suppose as a free speech zealot I should lament the verdict and sentence on Irving and defend his right to express his opinion, however repulsive. Yet on balance, I applaud the decision of the Austrian court and believe that Irving has got what he deserves.
Here's why! Even free speech purists admit of some limit to freedom of expression – at the very least when it comes to direct incitement to criminal activity. In Britain we have laws against inciting racial hatred and few people in mainstream politics argue that they should be repealed. Presumably the rationale for such laws is that racial hatred denies people's humanity and leads to racial violence and ultimately to murder, war and even genocide.
If holocaust denial isn't incitement to racial hatred, I don't know what is. It means saying that the murder of six million Jews and the attempt to wipe out the Jewish race entirely are matters of no importance, events that we can all simply pretend didn't happen and wipe from the historical record. In fact many holocaust deniers don't claim that no Jews at all were killed by the Nazis but that somehow they brought what happened upon themselves and have exaggerated the number of victims for political gain.
Were a group of pseudo-scholars in Britain and America, with support from far-right groups, to start arguing that the slave trade was a fraud invented by black people to gain better housing and affirmative action policies, I think we would have rather less difficulty in accepting that this was not a case of putting forward a minority viewpoint, but a deliberate attempt to create racial hatred.
I would have more sympathy with free speech purism in this case if I had some confidence that journalists would be a bit less indulgent to Irving. For example, I note that the BBC website persists in describing Irving as a 'historian' rather than, say, Nazi apologist or, if you want something neutral, 'writer on historical subjects'. (I am grateful to James Graham for drawing attention to Ann Atkins' disgraceful reference to Irving as a 'significant historian' on this morning's Thought for the Day).
The term 'historian' implies, or ought to, a degree of scholarly integrity, respect for sources and commitment to truthfulness that Irving's work entirely lacks. So much was proved by Professor Richard J. Evans' famous report on Irving's work during the Irving vs Lipstadt libel case. This showed that while Irving wrote on historical themes and, like historians, carried out research, he was a liar and falsifier who systematically manipulated evidence in the service of his anti-semitic and pro-Nazi opinions. He was a propagandist not a scholar.
Sadly, I suspect that there is a section of British intellectual society, largely to be found on the political right, who regard Irving as a largely harmless eccentric and possibly a useful corrective to political correctness. Such people criticised the Lipstadt libel case verdict as an infringement on Irving's free speech, overlooking the fact that it was he who had sued. For an example of this school of thought see the article published by the right-of-centre historian Sir John Keegan on the outcome of the libel case.
The whole point of Irving's life and work is to promote racial hatred of Jewish people by implying that the Nazis' attempted genocide is of no consequence and the lives of six million people were of no value whatever. The Austrian court has reached the right decision.
POSTSCRIPT: I recommend Professor David Cesarani's opinion piece in today's Guardian.