Yesterday in Austria, David Irving, a once-respected British scholar, was sentenced to three years in jail after being convicted of denying the Holocaust. Before his arrest in November, Irving had already banned in both Austria and Germany because of his views. He further cemented his reputation when he unsuccessfully sued an American historian, Deborah Lipstadt, for calling him a racist in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.
Among other things, Irving had claimed in his book Hitler’s War that Hitler knew nothing of the Jewish genocide, and that the majority of deaths during the Holocaust resulted from the diseases such as typhus. Within two weeks of his arrest, however, Irving said that he was misinformed, and that both the Holocaust and gas chambers did in fact take place. But despite presenting himself as a changed man, Irving was convicted under Austria’s 1992 law which criminalizes anyone who “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 other media.”
The sixteen year old warrants were issued in response to a 1989 speech during which Irving toldan audience of 300 that the mass destruction of 1,350 synagogues under Nazi Germany was actually committed by “unknowns” dressed up as members of the SA. He then added “that Anne Frank could not have written her diary herself, because the Biro wasn’t invented until 1949, and that Hitler never gave an order to exterminate the Jews.” Irving also concluded—citing a now-discredited technician on executions that “no significant traces of cyanide gas were found at Auschwitz, and accused the Jewish World Congress of spreading the ‘legend’ in 1942 that the Third Reich was preparing its Final Solution.”
Holocaust denial is currently a crime in Austria, France, Germany, Israel, Belgium, Poland, Lithuania and Switzerland. But does respect for the atrocities of World War II come at the price of limiting free speech? One could argue that Irving, despite his allegations, has become a martyr for this right. But whereas the U.S. holds the right of free speech to be (nearly) inviolable, there are obvious historical reasons why countries such as Austria have criminalized expressions such as the Hitler salute and the swastika. With World War II still not a very distant memory, Austria must make small compromises in civil liberties to cut off any channels that could potentially lead to neo-Nazism.