Irving Loses Again
A few years ago I had lunch with David Irving, now sentenced to three years in an Austrian prison for the crime of what in this country is called exercising free speech. Wouldnt you know it, the Holocaust came up. He joked that in America, Holocaust memorials were sprouting up like McDonalds. He added seriously, Im not a Holocaust denier. Im a Holocaust skeptic.
Ive seen Irving several times since then, twice speaking at conferences hed arranged, and never heard him say anything close to Holocaust denial, the crime he has pled guilty to. The plea spared him a full ten-year sentence.
It has become routine to refer to him as Holocaust denier David Irving, but nobody ever seems to quote him actually uttering a thought crime. In court the other day he confessed the mistake of saying there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, but added, In no way did I deny the killings of millions of people by the Nazis.
And what if he really had denied it? Ten years in prison for an opinion? His lawyer called the proceedings a message trial. Actually, of course, it was a blasphemy trial.
The rationale, such as it is, for the Holocaust-denial laws of Austria (and several other countries) is that if people are allowed to deny that it happened, it may happen again. By this logic, the Holocaust is most likely to recur in the United States, since we have no such laws here. Freedom of speech could lead to a second Holocaust! Thomas Jefferson has a lot to answer for.
Does that sound just a wee bit hysterical? It reminds me of the incredible uproar over Mel Gibsons film The Passion of the Christ, which, we were assured (in advance, by people who hadnt seen it), would cause hatred of Jews and even violence against them.
Now that was a pretty clear test case of this peculiar theory of historical causation. And the result? Though the movie was a huge hit, it resulted in not a single incident of violence against anyone. Even one such incident would have made headlines. See what we told you?
But when no pogroms occurred, nobody expressed surprise, relief, or the disappointment a prophet of doom experiences when things turn out all right. Mel Gibson made a lot of money, Abe Foxman made a lot of money, nobody got hurt. Youd think everyone would be contented with the outcome.
Even the people who predicted violence didnt really believe it, of course. Nobody in his right mind expected violence. We are so used to prophecies of violence against minorities, especially Jews, that we dont bother keeping track of them, any more than we keep track of astrologers predictions. In the real world, things dont happen that way. Predicting another Holocaust is like predicting another Reichstag fire.
Deep down, we know this sort of talk is usually absurd. But we also know that it can be risky to say so. So we let the blowhards blow. Thats how they exercise their freedom of speech.
Nobody says, or thinks, that what Irving may have said in Austria in 1989 the site and date of his alleged crime caused any violence to occur. Some rabble-rouser. He may have expressed his skepticism with rude bluntness (that would be just like him), but that wouldnt even have tended to inspire harm. It may have inspired more skepticism, but why is that a crime?
Because to some people, on some subjects, skepticism is blasphemy, and the Holocaust is one of those subjects. Austrias law is aimed at whoever denies, grossly plays down, approves, or tries to excuse the National Socialist genocide or other National Socialist crimes against humanity in a print publication, in broadcast, or [in] other media.
Whew! That gives the prosecutor a lot of discretion, and the whole premise of the law that expressing an opinion of a calamity can cause the same calamity to recur under entirely different conditions is screwy.
No doubt Irvings lawyer advised him to cut a deal in exchange for a show of contrition. He avoided ten years in the slammer, but from now on he will be, in the media, not just a Holocaust denier, but a convicted Holocaust denier or confessed Holocaust denier. Not much hope of reformed, repentant, or recovering Holocaust denier, I suppose.
Meanwhile, the Holocaust Prevention Confederation can claim another triumph. Over freedom of speech.
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