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Henry Falconer gives his personal view

What are the acceptable limits of free speech in an open society? Recent events have given renewed prominence to this question. David Irving’s sentence to 3 years imprisonment in Austria for Holocaust Denial, the publication of cartoons portraying images of Mohammed, Muslim protests against those cartoons and the U.K. government’s attempts to curb freedom of expression in relation both to religious hatred and the “glorification” of terrorism are perhaps the best-known examples. It seems likely that, in the post- 9/11 world, what we have come to recognise as our traditional freedoms and liberties are coming under serious threat.

If we accept that laws banning “Holocaust Denial” in Austria and Germany are justified limitations on freedom of expression, should we not also offer similar protection to the injured feelings of Muslims? Stephen Games, in a letter to the Guardian on 22nd February 2006, thinks not. He wrote as follows:
“Laws banning Holocaust Denial do not exist to prevent Jews from having their feelings hurt; they exist to try to make sure that the politics that wiped out most of European Jewry in the 1930s and 40s does not happen again. The cartoons were not part of an evil scheme to destroy Muslims. To suggest an equivalence shows a wicked distortion of the truth”.
To Games, it seems, limitations on freedom of expression are justified if they might help prevent the bad things in History from repeating themselves (precisely HOW such limitations are supposed to achieve their objectives in practice is not explained). Are we therefore to criminalise Gulag Denial? Or to imprison Serb nationalists for Srebrenica Denial? Or punish those who marginalise the mass murders perpetrated by Mao or Pol Pot? Holocaust Denial is evil and foolish, but it should not be a crime. Games is surely wrong. There IS equivalence between the Irving case and the protests against the cartoons; both are straightforward attempts to deny freedom of expression.

Has David Irving ever been guilty of incitement to violence? If he has, the law should take its course. If he has not, he should be left alone. By the 1990s he had established a reputation for not accepting received wisdom at its face value. In the mid-1970s he asserted that no evidence existed that Hitler ever gave a direct order for the extermination of the Jews; Irving offered a reward (�1000 – a lot of money in the 1970s!) to anyone finding such an order. The reward, I think, remains unclaimed. Of course this doesn’t mean that Hitler didn’t KNOW what was going on, as Irving claimed was at least a possibility. But it DID help to promote a new understanding of how the Holocaust came about – not a long-term project but a series of ad hoc decisions in response to the wartime situation during the summer and autumn of 1941. The gas chambers in the extermination camps were destroyed by the retreating Germans before the end of the war; what visitors to Auschwitz see to-day is a re-construction. Given the nature of Soviet propaganda both during and after the war (denying responsibility for the mass murder of Polish officers at Katyn, for example) it was legitimate to question how faithfully the gas chambers at Auschwitz had been re-built. Irving was too ready to accept dubious ‘scientific’ evidence which questioned whether they had ever even existed (thereby betraying his political bias). And his unsuccessful libel action against Deborah Lippstadt in 2000 demonstrated his manipulation and distortion of historical evidence in order to sustain his point of view, thereby undermining his reputation as a serious historian. But the imprisonment of historians for stretching evidence in this way would seem to be a rather extreme form of punishment. Irving’s mistake was to do this in order to further an unpopular political viewpoint. Daniel Goldhagen, in his Hitler’s Willing Executioners, was guilty of major distortions of the evidence in order to further a political cause – Zionism, in his case – and his book is grotesquely anti-German. His reputation as a serious historian has been undermined, yet he remains at liberty. Even the great A.J.P. Taylor, when he published The Origins of the Second World War in 1961, was severely criticised for suggesting that the War was less the fault of Hitler than of those who failed to oppose him in the 1930s! That view was untenable, but Taylor’s contention that Hitler did not work to a precise timetable has stood the test of time. In all three cases, Irving, Goldhagen and Taylor, their over-stated revisionist positions have led to a better understanding of the historical process. Free and frank exchanges of view are essential if historical understanding is to be furthered.

What makes the treatment of Irving even more difficult to defend is that since the views for which he was imprisoned were uttered in 1989 he claims to have changed his mind in the light of evidence which has subsequently become available. The court refused to accept the sincerity of his recantation – and yet, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, new evidence has indeed been unearthed from KGB documents about the gas chambers at Auschwitz (ref. J-C Pressac`s book The Crematoriums of Auschwitz). If one holds an unpopular view in Austria, it seems, one is not allowed to revise it as new evidence becomes available!

If we really wish “to try to make sure that the politics that wiped out most of European Jewry never happen again”, we must first establish what happened and THEN continue to ask WHY and HOW that happened, without suppressing opinions or questions just because they are unpopular. At the same time we might devote similar attention to the prevention of any repetition of the crimes of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.


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