Tuesday, 21 February 2006

Locking up holocaust denial

An Austrian court has jailed historian David Irving for three years for the crime of holocaust denial. Now, Irving deserves many things for his views, including contempt, but jail is not one of them. No one deserves jail just for their views As No Right Turn said yesterday when offering both background to this latest trial and some examples of Irving's odiousness:
[Irving's] statements can only be described as poisonous, anti-semitic lies, but Irving shouldn't be facing court or prison for them, any more than Turks should be for facing charges of "insulting Turkishness" for talking about the Armenian genocide, or Danish cartoonists should be for insulting (and in some cases, villifying) Muslims. If freedom of expression extends only to speech the majority agree with or find inoffensive, then it is no freedom at all.
Exactly right. In the words of a commenter at No Right Turn, "Thought crime is worse than Holocaust denial." Some years ago when David Irving was banned from appearing in New Zealand I sent out a press release from Bernard Darnton saying much the same thing:
The issue brings to mind the words of Mark Twain, who advised that it was better to stay quiet and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt. In this respect, says Darnton, "when charlatans such as Irving receive the oxygen of publicity for their views - as he did in the libel action that bankrupted him three years ago - they become exposed for the fools they are. Such is the power of free speech."
You can lock up a person, but you can't lock up an idea however much you try. Locking up odious ideas with bans on free speech leaves them underground, there to fester and grow in the dark. Far better to let out in to the open and be exposed to the ridicule the deserve. Darnton again:
Banning the expression of opinions, no matter how vulgar those opinions are, costs us part of our civilization, part of our humanity. Bad ideas must be fought with good ideas. Ideas are products of our minds and our minds must be reasoned with and educated, not coerced.
In the current environment of confusion over the issue it's worth pointing out that we do not have the right to avoid having odious ideas espoused if the proponent can acquire a platform from which to espouse them. The demands of free speech however do not require that anyone provide the proponents of bad ideas with a microphone or a platform. Neither do they allow us to lock up people with whom we disagree.

Bankrupt, disgraced and now jailed: Irving sinks to new low - Times Online
Irving on trial - No Right Turn
Free Expression: How Free Should Speech Be? - Bernard Darnton
Tony Ellis an Embarrassment to Liberty - Libertarianz


  1. PC - I think your argument is imcomplete. Making holocaust denial illegal in Austria was part of the denazification program of 1945-1955. Do you think that program was justified?

  2. I don't know all the details of the post-war denazification programme, but in principle I would say that it was certainly justified in the immediate post-war environment in which a war had been fought to eradicate an evil regime.

    But not sixty years afterwards.

  3. Surely there is enough information and proof about the holocaust to make Irving's statements easily demolished with the facts?

    That Austria has enacted a law making holocaust denial illegal seems an over reaction and rather silly.

    Irving could have been challenged in open debate. To jail him is wrong.

  4. One part of the context (does not mean I agree with the ban) was that prohibiting such speech was in respect of those who survived - so they wouldn't have to hear those who would say it never happened, given the trauma they went through. I think it is likely that the law will remain, until the survivors have died.

  5. "You vill not deny ze Holocaust! Ve haff vays of keeping you kviet!"

    Really ... does no-one appreciate the irony here?

  6. Brain S.:

    Oddly enough, no "De-Nazification" programme prevented Kurt Waldheim being elected president of Austria *after* he was exposed as telling flat out lies about his activities as a member of the Nazi Party and a soldier in the armies of the Third Reich.

    You might also like to re-read some of Simon Weisenthal's obituaries, and contemplate the odium he attracted for resisting Austrian attempts to sanitise the anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi sympathies of Vienna's elites. Some of the most vocal attacks came in 1970 when Weisenthal pointed out that several ministers in the Socialist government of Bruno Kreisky - who himself was Jewish - had been Nazis when Austria was part of the Third Reich. "Don't mention the war," is a hilarious catch phrase in Fawlty Towers. In Austria - like the rest of Europe that was occupied by the Nazis - it's a phrase with more sinister undertones.

  7. Craig - Your point is that the political culture of Austria still provides some nourishment for the memes that led to the deaths of millions and almost destroyed civilization. I agree.

    But are saying that the denazification programs were ineffectual and should never have been attempted? If so, I disagree.

    The denazification programs were instituted for self-defence. Recall what happened following WWI? That force was used during denazification was right and proper. But, given the point we are agreed on, I am not sure that it is now no longer necessary to continue using force to suppress holocaust denial, Nazi salutes, and the display of the Swastika in countries such as Austria and Germany.

    It's a tricky issue. Certainly I would be against holocaust denial laws in countries like Australia, New Zealand, and America. But Germany and Austria have a different history, one that led directly to genocide and holocaust denial in those countries in inextricably bound up with whatever it is in the culture of those countries that led to genocide.

    This, by the way, is the Simon Wiesenthal Centre Statement on the David Irving sentence.

  8. Brian S.:

    In the Soviet zone, over 120,000 members of the Nazi Party (and not all implicated in war crimes by any measure) were interned in camps administered by the forerunners of the KGB. There was no right of appeal, and about 40,000 of them died in those camps by the end of 1950.

    Even in the American, French and British zones it was admitted that (in a now declassfied report to the US Zone Military Government) that "the present procedure fails in practice to reach a substantial number of persons who supported or assisted the Nazis". By the late 40's, the Allied Governments were more interested in the Red Menace that documenting and bringing to jusrice war criminals or removing Nazi ideologues from positions of influcence in business, the civil service or politics. That's a subject Austria still doesn't much like talking about. And that's what drives out bad ideas - the light of inquiry, debate and criticism.

    Look, I wish throwing David Irving in prison would end the poison of eliminationist anti-Semitism. If that was true, I'd say never let the bastard see daylight again. But using bad laws to try and suppress ideas (good, bad or indifferent) doesn't. To the contrary, I have to wonder if it makes bad ideas even worse. In fact, it's interesting that both Catholic and Islamic theo-cons see one aspect of democracy their like very much - so called "religious vilification" laws that are used to harass, intimidate and silence their critics. Whoops...

  9. Thursday, 9 Feb- PC argues against UK libs and Lindsay Perigo by saying that Al-Masri was rightly arrested in the UK for using his free speech as a tool for insighting hatred.

    Tuesday, 21 Feb- PC is back to argueing for free speech when David Irving is arrested in Austria for using his free speech as a tool for insighting hatred.

    Hmmm. What's up with that?
    Is it the content of the free speech which justifies it as a right? The varacity of exercising the right?

    Surely one of the above's got to give?

  10. You've made an inaccurate summary Rick, and dropped too much context to make your challenge worthwhile.

  11. Challange? Inquiry!

    I'm sure you know what you mean and could clear that up for the rest of us who dont.

    Confused people are going to think you're part of some "anti-free speech brigade!"

    (of course you're not that. but perhaps mistaken this time.)

  12. Craig -

    To take another tack on this: Holocaust Denial is inherently anti-semitic. The rhetoric of Holocaust denial is exactly the sort of rhetoric that can be used to justify violence against Jewish people. Given that Germany and Austria have a history of such violence, it is not unreasonable that they have enacted holocaust denial laws as a safeguard (and it is also not unreasonable that we have no such laws). Free speech and democracy are sometimes not enough to drive out bad ideas - Germany had both prior to the rise of Hitler, but that did not prevent what was about to happen. No doubt you can find much to criticise about how the denazification program was implemented, but that is a different thing from whether it was justified or not. And you have not answered that question.

  13. Brian S.:

    No. It was a poorly designed and unevenly executed concept than many involved admit was a failure. It's bad enough to argue the ends justify the means - the morality of thugs and despots throughout history - but when you don't even achieve those ends what's left? Sorry, but I can't shrug my shoulders and say 40,000 corpses at the hands of Stalin's executioners was worth it.

  14. There is a difference between incitement and denial.
    Al-Masri was inciting - calling for the killing of people.
    Irving was denying that an historical fact actually happened.

  15. There is a difference between incitement and denial.

    Al-Masri was copped not for his crimes but, officially, for exercising free-speech.

    It's like Al Capone being done for tax.

    Doesn't go down well with those of us who find that this strikes a chord with them.

  16. Craig - the denazification project in the Soviet zone was out of the control of Western governments and it is wrong to judge the denazification projects in the Western zones on the basis of what happened in the Soviet zone.

    I think some of the commentators on this issue fall into the trap of utopianism. There is no single yes/no answer to the question of whether it is right or wrong for a government to ban advocacy of a historical position. Whether it was right or wrong depends on the time and circumstances. If you rule it out for all governments at all times then you also rule out the original denazification projects. But what were the alternatives to denazification? (note that I don't intend to defend Soviet denazification).

  17. It's certainly true that context is important. It's certainly true that things change in particular emergency situations.

    But it is in the nature of things that emergencies are temporary, otherwise they would not be called emergencies, and life as we know it would be very different.

    This is why general principles are not made for or derived from emergencies but for normal life. On thst basis then we can say that as a general principle it is always wrong for goverments to ban advocacy of an idea.

  18. This is why general principles are not made for or derived from emergencies but for normal life.

    Sounds like you got yourself a fair-weather philosophy there.

    The only kind of philosophy I'm interested in is the sort that, when the shit hits the fan, is still as robust and reliable as ever it was. What use there is for any other kind of "principle" I fear I'll never understand.

  19. I agree with Rick's comment. If our principles do not stand up in emergencies, then what good are they? And it is from emergencies and extreme situations that we should learn how our principles need to be modified.

  20. PC, we agree that context is important. What is missing in this discussion is a full understanding of the German/Austrian context.

    The Jewish holocaust originated in German anti-Semitism that extended back many years before the start of WWII and the "Final Solution" had been proposed and discussed nearly a century before Hitler rose to power. This tradition of anti-Semitism persisted in the face of government efforts in the 19th century to emancipate the Jews and neither free speech nor democracy did nothing to eliminate it from Germany society. It is too simplistic, therefore, to claim that bad ideas left out in the open necessarily whither away.

    The German tradition of anti-Semitism is why holocaust denial today in Germany is so dangerous: German culture has changed, but it has not changed so much that it still does not support significant trace amounts of exactly the type of anti-Semitism that led directly to the holocaust. Other societies like Britain have this type of anti-semitism too, but it has never been a tradition nor has it led to genocide. This is what holocaust denial really means:

    "Holocaust denial is a contemporary form of the classic anti-Semitic doctrine of the evil, manipulative and threatening world Jewish conspiracy. It was this doctrine that was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the Holocaust. What is on the surface a denial of the reality of genocide is, at its core, an appeal to genocidal hatred."

    (from http://www.adl.org/holocaust/theory.asp)

  21. Oh come on Brian, you've stopped shifting the goal posts and replaced them with a basketball hoop.

    Did the "de-Nazification" programme meet it's stated goal of removing those who actively assisted the Nazis from positions of influence in Austria? Well, it didn't in 1970 or 1986 - where activist members of the Austrian Nazi Party after the Anschluss were at the very heart of political power.

    And, Brian S., you owe the victims of Soviet de-Nazification camps a little better than a shoulder shurg and looking the other way. The simple reality is that 120,000 human being were interned without trial or right of appeal; one in three of them died. Sorry, but that wasn't justice but revenge and one handed down on the basis of being on the wrong side of a demarcation line or surrendering to the wrong army.

  22. Craig - I would agree that the denazification program in Austria has been unsuccessful in many respects. In Germany, though, I would argue that it has been far more successful.

    No, I haven't changed the game. My comment above was an attempt to give some context to what holocaust denial in Germany and Austria means. As I noted, holocaust denial is in fact in the same tradition as that heinous form of anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. It is an incitement to genocide, and given that Nazism and anti-Semitism are on the rise in Austria it is right that force still be used to suppress it. Do you really think that repealing those laws will make it go away or that Irving's purpose in Austria was merely to question an aspect of history?

    If you have any doubt about this vile man's intentions, note that he could have been flying to Iran where the Iranian president is organising a conference questioning the truth of the Holocaust.

    You owe it to the victims of the Holocaust and the Soviet denazification to make sure that these things never happen again.


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