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February 27, 2006

David Irving holds absurd views about the holocaust and his dislike of Jews comes straight from the Munich beer halls of 1923 - but he should not have been imprisoned, argues William D. Rubinstein

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and the author of A History of the Jews in the English-speaking world: Great Britain (1996), The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis (1997), and Philosemitism (1999) - argues that David Irving holds absurd and offensive views, but that he should not have been imprisoned for them. The dangers of legally-enforced politically-correct conformity of any kind - even when that conformity is so obviously correct, as it is in the case of the Holocaust - far outweigh any benefits which might accrue from criminalising Holocaust denial, argues William D. Rubinstein.

As everyone knows, David Irving was recently jailed for three years in Austria for propagating the denial of the Holocaust. His conviction raises many very serious questions about both Irving himself and the nature of free speech, and deserves a close discussion. The issues here are, I think, much more complicated than is apparent at first glance.

First, as to Holocaust denial, there is no doubt that it is one of the most offensive and shocking of all aspects of modern anti-semitism. It is also absurd. Hitler himself, in the Will he dictated just before his suicide, admitted that he killed the Jews of Europe, attempting to justify his actions by claiming that this was revenge for the Allied bombings of German civilians and, as well, that he did not want a repetition of the situation in 1918 when Germany lost the War but the Jews "won". (Although one seldom encounters Hitler's remarks in books about the Holocaust, he was here offering a perfectly straightforward account of why he turned to genocide.) Hitler's admission of the Holocaust comes, as it were, straight from the horse's mouth.

There were over three million Jews in Poland in 1939 but only a few hundred thousand left (if that) in 1945. Either mass murder occurred, or these Jews were taken to Mars in UFOs. Despite its absurdity, Holocaust denial has entered the armoury of contemporary right-wing anti-semitism with the evident aim of whitewashing Hitler and the Nazi regime and of further tormenting the survivors of the Holocaust, upon whom it unquestionably has a deleterious effect.

It has also entered, even more dangerously, into the rhetoric of Islamic anti-semitism, most recently in the statements of the appalling President of Iran. I state these self-evident propositions here purely to show that I fully understand the evil nature of Holocaust denial.

Secondly, there is David Irving. Irving is such a complex character that writing about him in a brief space is very difficult. As an historian - and entirely apart from any question of his views on the Holocaust - he has been a highly energetic and arguably important researcher of primary evidence about the Nazi period whose judgments are often reasonable.

Nevertheless, he is also evidently full of deficiencies. Like most non-academic historians, he fails to place his narratives in a wider contextualized framework. He is, indeed, an archetypal example of an autodidact of the type described by me in a recent column. His bias towards Hitler and against Winston Churchill (his bete-noire) is all too glaring; his publications are often highly tendentious and misleading. For instance, as Richard Evans has pointed out in his excellent account of the Irving-Lipstadt trial, Telling Lies About Hitler (2002), Irving has deliberately exaggerated the number of victims of the Allied bombing of Dresden in February 1945 from its actual figure of about 21,000 to 250,000, evidently to make it seem a crime against civilians on a par with anything committed by the Nazis.

Then there is the question of the Holocaust and of Irving's attitude towards the Jews. Contrary to popular belief, Irving has never written a book about the Holocaust, and his examples of Holocaust denial have consisted largely of spoken statements or outbursts, made many years ago or more recently at the Lipstadt trial. There are some exceptions to this, for instance his ludicrous claim that Hitler ordered "no liquidation" of a particular group of Jews, but Irving has certainly written no considered work denying the Holocaust, unlike some other notorious neo-Nazi propagandists.

It seems clear, however, that Irving has a chronic, deep-seated, ideological problem (to put it no more strongly) about Jews, whom he often refers to on his website as the "traditional enemies". Irving dislikes the Jews - although not necessarily individual Jews - and his attitude towards them seems to come straight from a Munich beer hall in 1923 - they are all Marxist revolutionaries, international financial swindlers, white slavers, and so on - to which he has added a particularly venomous hostility towards Israel and its policies more commonly associated in the Western world today with the extreme left. All of this is evident from reading Irving's website over a number of years.

Exactly what Irving has against the Jews is difficult to understand. The Jews have done him no harm. He is an intelligent man, and must be aware that his stance is perverse and nonsensical. In contemporary Britain, the Jewish community is utterly different from his beer hall image of them. According to survey research, about two-thirds of British Jews are, normally, Conservative voters, and most are far more concerned with left-wing anti-Zionism than with hostility from other parts of the spectrum. Far from consisting of old Bolsheviks, the Anglo-Jewish community has produced a range of right-wing gurus and high achievers in recent years such as Sir Keith Joseph, Nigel Lawson, and Michael Howard. It is largely an upper middle class community of professionals and businessmen which minds its own business and pays its dues to society. Its internal divisions are largely over religious issues and its attitude towards Israeli policies, and it is losing numbers through intermarriage and assimilation.

There is a widespread belief - which is utterly fallacious - that it was Deborah Lipstadt and the Anglo-Jewish community who sued Irving for propagating Holocaust denial in the famous trial held in London in 2000. This is the very opposite of the truth. It was Irving who gratuitously sued Lipstadt for libel, a claim which was obviously without merit. It was Irving who then insisted on using the courtroom to purport to show that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, although Irving also admitted that the Nazi Einsatzgruppen had murdered thousands of Jews in Russia. Irving is thus a highly complex, rather unattractive character, although, in his way, an interesting and even useful autodidactical right-wing contrarian of a kind a surprising number of people - even if they are perhaps not totally outside of the spectrum of English eccentrics - secretly admire, even if they mumble this in whispers. His views on Hitler and the Jews, however, are deliberately perverse, as well as puzzling in their absurdity and venom.

This brings us to his jailing in Austria. One can understand why Austria, Hitler's homeland, should make Holocaust denial illegal. Holocaust denial is, however, not illegal in Britain, America, or (so far as I am aware) elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Nor, I think, should it be, unless its exposition is clearly linked with an attempt by an organised group at incitement against the Jews. Guarantees of free speech exist to guarantee free speech for those with whom we disagree, not those with whom we agree. Obviously, I fully understand (and understand from a personal perspective) the anguish of Holocaust survivors and their relatives who encounter such propaganda, but there is no rational reason to punish the exposition of Holocaust denial while leaving other perhaps equally offensive forms of expression untouched. Criminalising Holocaust denial simply invites all other groups to lobby for enacting similar legal penalties against their pet hates - most obviously, the Muslims over alleged insults to the Prophet Mohammed - and to ask why the Jews alone are so privileged.

In the United States, the First Amendment almost certainly makes the criminalisation of Holocaust denial legally impossible - to America's credit. That its enunciation is legal in the UK has not resulted in any increase in its acceptance; indeed, its propagandists seem over the past decade or so to have vanished without trace. I might well change my mind if there were a clear and present danger of a neo-Nazi revival, but, as things stand, the dangers of legally-enforced politically-correct conformity of any kind far outweigh any benefits which might accrue from criminalising Holocaust denial. I have, incidentally, changed my views on this subject almost diametrically over the past decade or so; the world has moved on.

In my view, too, David Irving was simply the wrong target for the Austrian government's legal proceedings. Contrary to widespread belief, Irving is not the leader, or indeed a component member, of any international neo-Nazi political movement, but is very much a lone wolf who has actually eschewed direct association with neo-Nazi groups. The statement for which he was prosecuted was made seventeen years ago, and has had no effect upon wider events. Irving is not a national or resident of Austria. The Austrian government acted unwisely in prosecuting him, although I might have a different view if he could be shown to be working with Austrian neo-Nazis. It will also be interesting to see what would happen if the odious President of Iran ever visits Vienna - not a lone wolf autodidact, but the head of state of a country of 70 million people which is developing nuclear weapons and wants the State of Israel destroyed - he is also a Holocaust denier. Let us then see if the Austrian government has the courage of its convictions over this question.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth.

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According to the last George Will column:

"Holocaust denial, which is anti-Semitism tarted up with the trappings of historiography, is a crime in Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland."

So Holocaust denial is, in fact, illegal in parts of the English speaking world.

Posted by: Benjamin Bilski at February 28, 2006 11:10 AM

I don't believe Holocaust denial is a crime in Australia. Racial vilification is a crime in some jurisdictions, but I think it would be possible to be a Holocaust denier without being a racial vilifier. It wouldn't necessarily be a coherent or a sane position, but that's not the point.

As for the merits of prosecuting Irving, I can't understand how Professor Rubinstein can conclude that David Irving was "the wrong target". He *is* a Holocaust denier; he apparently travelled there as something of a provocative gesture in the full knowledge that the law applied to him. He was prosecuted and found guilty. If Austria is to have a law against Holocaust denial then it must be applied to cases such as these, or it will have no place at all. My sentiments about the law are probably those of Professor Rubinstein: I understand why Austria has the law, but I wouldn't want to have it here in Australia.

Finally, I respectfully disagree with the Professor's view that Holocaust denial is on a par with most other offensive statements. It has a practical difference in that Holocaust denial is typically one premise of a syllogism which concludes "Therefore we must attack the Jews". To some extent it is therefore not merely offensive but inflammatory, and is worthy of judicial scrutiny. The appropriate parallel for this is not someone publishing cartoons depicting Mohammed, but someone claiming that Moslems are engaged in a conspiracy. Under the right circumstances this would be a prelude to an incitement to riot, or an invitation to a conspiracy to engage in violent acts. I don't believe these circumstances presently exist in Europe, but they did exist there within living memory. The fact that the law would not be justified now does not mean that it was not justified then.

Posted by: Joe in Australia at February 28, 2006 11:53 PM

The trouble is, there's far too many people in denial all over the world. Many Russians are in denial about how bad Stalin was, and accept the line (put so well in Eisenstein's "Ivan the Terrible") that he did it for the sake of the country. The Japanese are in denial about their atrocities in the Far East during WW2, the Turks over the Armenians.

Nearer to home, so many of our lefties are in denial about Stalin & co (unlimited). That's what worries me (in advance) about George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck". What McCarthy was up to was kid's stuff and tiny compared to what was going on in the Soviet Union and China, and as Ronald Reagan knew so well, the American entertainmentariat of the time was fullaloadsacommies.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 3, 2006 05:27 PM

Did Hitler admit to killing the Jews of Europe? This is the nearest I can find (from

"I further left no doubt that this time we would not permit millions of European children of Aryan descent to die of hunger, nor millions of grown-up men to suffer death, nor hundreds of thousands of women and children to be burned and bombed to death in their cities, without the truly guilty party having to atone for its guilt, even if through more humane means."

Close but not quite, I'd say.

Posted by: Patrick Crozier at March 4, 2006 12:40 AM
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