Why Historians Have a Responsibility to Condemn the Jailing of David Irving


Mr. Lemisch is Professor of History Emeritus, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

An Austrian court has sentenced historian David Irving to three years in prison for Holocaust denial. This constitutes a moment of crisis for historians and in particular for the American Historical Association. How should historians react?

Irving's doctrines and his history are obnoxious. I suppose it's premature to reach a conclusion about yesterday's event this soon, but my first reaction is that it is simply horrifying to see a historian locked up for a bad, wrong, dishonest or evil interpretation or misuse of sources, and that this should be opposed. The AHA has painted itself into a corner on this kind of issue. As I noted in AHA Perspectives (September 2005) and on HNN, "Historian Sees Contradiction between AHA's Stand on Holocaust Denial and Its Stand on Armenian Genocide," the AHA President at the time, Jim Sheehan, wrote: "Needless to say, the Association does not have a position on the fate of the Armenians." I pointed out that in 1991 the AHA Council had put out a statement deploring Holocaust denial. The AHA condemns Holocaust denial while presenting itself as agnostic on the Armenian Genocide. All of this seems to me to add up to a privileged position for the Holocaust, and an inconsistency which is at bottom political -- another chapter in the AHA's long record of taking political stands while denying that it has politics. An organization that defines certain historical interpretations as unacceptable is on a slippery slope.

Of course the AHA is in no direct sense responsible for an Austrian court's jailing of Irving. But by privileging the Holocaust, the AHA has contributed to an atmosphere in which the "wrong" view of the Holocaust has been criminalized, which of course brings us pretty close to the jailhouse door. Historians have a special responsibility in this situation. We, and our organizations, will be complicit in a bad episode if we can't bring ourselves to speak up.

As a kind of a First Amendment absolutist, I have long been puzzled as to where I stand on restrictions on expression in Europe after the Holocaust, but I have thought, well, they have a special history, it's understandable. But now, seeing such restrictions take concrete form in imprisonment of a (bad) historian, I feel professionally obliged to oppose this, to see what other historians think about it, and whether they are willing to take a stand.

It should be noted, without suggesting facile connections, that this takes place at a time of debate about the defense of obnoxious expression in Europe. On this side of the water, if a historian presented slavery as less bad than we know it to have been, would we want that historian jailed? Of course not.

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    More Comments:

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    My suggestion was clear and I stand by it. It was not to "wait until a more palatable and digestible version of Irving comes our way". It was to begin NOW an orderly process of systematically dismantling all these "politically incorrect bad speech" laws in all countries that have them, and without regard or UNDESERVED ATTENTION to people being tried or punished under them. What happens or does not happen to Irving need not be more than footnote to that needed legislative reform.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    Okay, so total Jewish civilians killed at the hands of Nazis was less than 6 million. And the rote repetition of that exaggerated figure went on too long. Fair point, well taken. But, what was the real number then? Spare us your tears for Irving, an obvious and squarely and fairly convicted liar. Give us the correct historical statistic and/or an objective and informed estimate, please. Don't forget to count the death marches.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    A "test case" is exactly what should not happen in my humble opinion. The muzzles on free speech should be repealed on principle, not in response to a neo-Nazi publicity stunt.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    Everyone on this board so far more or less agrees that, whatever his faults, the law that Irving has just been sentenced under is a hypocrisy which should not be tolerated by Europe or the U.S.. There is, however, a counter argument. I basically don't agree with that counter argument, but it is not entirely without merit: Denying the Holocaust was, and to some extent still is, considered to be akin to "crying fire in a crowded theater."

    30, 40, 50 or 60 years later, the theater is less crowded. This needs to be promptly recognized. Irving does not need to be feted for having jumped on that reality before most other historians, however: because his motives for doing so are different than those of most other historians.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    "we won’t see a repeal of these laws in the short term":

    Ergo my (partially implicit) suggestion, Mr. F: take the usual "way out", and pave the way for later sanity, by convening immediately a "blue ribbon" "panel of experts." And make them read Voltaire, Jefferson, Oliver Wendell Holmes etc, and make sure that someone like the most tenacious lawyer possible from the ACLU plays a decisive role in the commission. This is not a time for the usual pussy-footing around, buck-passing, and backside-covering. There are gobs of ways to fight off resurgent Nazism, anti-Semitism etc, without these asinine, harebrained and (under current geopolitical circumstances) extremely embarrasing and disadvantegeous laws.

    That won't happen either you might well say. But, if it doesn't, then there is no excuse. The relevant politicians within the relevant European governmental entities will have demonstrated their collective and individual historical stupidity.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    Go to the other "Irving" page this week on HNN, and you will see some examples of the "crowded theatre" argument and variants thereof. I am not persuaded that these arguments suffice to justify the anti-denial laws, but it would be ahistorical not to recognize that there is a long history of subterranean neo-Nazism, not to mention more overt incidents like desecrated synagogues etc., which partly explain how these laws were deemed necessary (in some minds). It certainly was not the case that a bunch of European out of the blue decided one day: "Let's dream up a cute way to abridge free speech."

    re echo: try a light touch on the return button.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    I am less sanguine, Julian. The threats to Western civilization are more practical than either "emotional" or "intellectual." The opportunity for America to invade the Mideast, as a last resort to prevent nuclear proliferation there, was largely if not totally squandered by Bush's deceitful wolf-crying over Saddam's non-existent WMD. To cover up that massive and corrupt blunder, he then upped that ante by pretending that our mission all along was to bring democracy to the Mideast. Now, in turn, that "hearts and minds" advantage of western democracies is being cravenly and recklessly squandered as well.

    If Iran successfully goes nuclear, because its demogogical leader is less stupid and more ruthless than European leaders or the incompetents running Washington D.C. that would be a degree of "slack" I would prefer to do without. And the Iranian troublemaker needs no hyperbole or deceit to persuade his people of the justice of such a move. He simply needs to reiterate the glaring facts that (a) Europeans allow insults of Moslems (b) Europeans do not allow insults of Jews (c) Europe and America claim the right to have nuclear weapons and (d) Europe and America deny Iranians the right to have nuclear weapons (and defacto don't deny the right to Israel).

    Only a little bit of "irrationality" (as you call it, I might call it lazy and decadent cowardice laced with ineptitute and crass inconsistency) stands in the way of removing 50% of Ahmadinejad's rationale (as outlined above).

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    Being blatantly hypocritical (allowing gross insults to Islam without the slightest punishment while jailing a non-citizen for 3 years based on a 10 year old non-graphic opinion (albeit an obnoxious and malicious anti-Semitic lie) is not only far less effective than hundreds of other possible measures for "protect our jewish citizens from being attacked by islamists, either physically or through antisemitic propaganda denying holocaust," it is almost sure to be counterproductive.

    The best way to limit the damage from these wrongheaded Holocaust-denial censorship laws is to repeal the themas soon as possible, but not apply the repeal retroactively.

    (Maybe Irving could be let out of jail early if he were to agree to go a tour of the Mideast with a group of Jewish and Arab scholars explaining to audiences why anti-Semitism has historically been such a bad thing for non-Jews).

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    I can understand the why anti-Holocaust denial laws were adopted in Europe, especially in Austria where so many Nazis got away with murder (literally) for many years after 1945, but these laws are untenable in the long run, and fundamentally hypocritical. The Iranian President is going to make great hay with this latest absurd application of the law, and at Europe's (and America's) expense. The laws have to be scrapped and the sooner the better.

    But please, not with David Irving leading the charge as some glorious martyr for the neo-Nazis. He is a gold-plated troublemaker who must have known quite well what he was in for visiting Austria. He needs a sentence of more than three years to correct all the mischief and disinformation in his many prior books anyway.

    Let the laws be swiftly and irrevocably repealed, after careful and sober examination by an outside panel of experts of some kind, but without the slightest connection to Irving.

    Richard Newell - 3/2/2006

    I think what you meant was the European Convention on Human Rights, which Justice Breyer cited in his concurring opinion in Lawrence v Texas. That despite the fact it isn't law in the US.

    The relevant part is:

    "ARTICLE 10

    1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. this right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
    2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or the rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary."

    I think we can agree that in words, as in practice, Section 2 in effect takes away much of what Section 1 gives. Given that denying the Holocaust is a crime or tort in ten European countries, I would bet that Irving's conviction will pass muster in Europe. Sadly.

    Steve Broce - 2/26/2006

    Yes, Peter, but the question that these laws beg is: Does making it a crime to deny the Holocaust make it more or less likely that these sub-terranean Nazi groups will flourish?

    I say there is little or no evidence that the laws are effective at preventing the spread of neo-Nazism. In my book, the bar for laws that abridge free speech is verry high.

    E. Simon - 2/26/2006

    To veer back from the utterly tangential 23-paragraph rant above, I think the answers to Mr. Feuerbach's question would lie with the temporal proximity of the Holocaust to the founding of the state, the sense of moral obligation implied by the relationship between those two events in the minds of post-war Europeans, and the lack of any similar sense of such obligation among many in the Middle East. I think the lengths that many Arab and Muslim-world newsdailies, cartoons and politicians go to in order to trivialize the Holocaust - as part of a continuting vehicle for deligitimizing Israel's existence - bears this out.

    Frederick Thomas - 2/24/2006

    Thank you for your comments, but something is being missed. To get to the truth, one must follow the money.

    The standard "evidence" of the holocaust is first "4 million dead at Auschwitz, of deliberate gassing." This "evidence" was tortured out of Rudolph Hoess, the 1942-43 commandant who was fired for permitting about 200,000 to die of typhus. Hoess held out as most of his bones were broken, but threats to send his wife and kids to Siberia, or shoot them, convinced him to perjure himself. His "confession" was written by his torturers, as his hands were broken. It contained many deliberte falsehoods, such as a nonexistent camp, to make his accusers look stupid. He later repudiated it.

    The real camp toll for 3.5 years was 1,160,000, of typhus, based upon the records released by the Russians when the Soviet Union fell, and accepted by Poland, which runs the camp.

    All monuments have been changed to reflect the lower figure. Of those deaths, about 990,000 were Jews. The same conditions were present of the other camps, including Bergen-Belsen, where Anne Frank died - of typhus.

    All of the camps were slave labor camps, which were essential to NAZI war production. Every healthy worker was invaluable, or German soldiers died. Production was king, hence Hoess' firing, and deaths from any source were anathema. The contrary version is Soviet show trial nonsense.

    Typhus is a rikketsial bacterium which blooms in the guts of lice and is transmitted by their feces. During winter particularly, when inmates lay close together on plank beds for warmth, the lice passed quickly from body to body. Infection occurred by scratching, which would expose louse fecal matter to the bloodstream. The victim quickly loses all investinal fluids and dies of dehydration and malnutrition, thus the emaciated looking inmates in photos.

    German attempts to control this by delousing clothing with Zyklon B were ineffective. Typhus has taken a huge toll of mankind over thousands of years, and reached epidemic level in eastern Europe during the latter days of WWII.


    Beyond camp deaths, something over 500,000 Soviet officials and families, mostly Jews, were murdered by shooting during the initial NAZI thrust into Russia. These were the only recorded mass-murders.

    Why keep up the old Soviet show trial propaganda when better information is available? Because the "6 million by gassing" assertion is the basis for a great deal of undue income for Zionists and related groups.

    This adds up to hundreds of billions of dollars, taken from the taxpayers of the US, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, etc. in compensation for the alleged 6 million gassings. Big bucks indeed.

    Professor Norman Finkelstein's "The Holocaust Industry" details what a huge shakedown this is, benefitting Zionist bigwigs personally, and how it is used to cover up for horrific human rights abuses by Israel.

    If there was no gassing, and if the victims died mainly of disease, the emotional argument for huge fund raising is lost. For this reason those benefitting most financially have created such human rights horrors such as Austria's repeal of free speech, just to keep the dirty cash flow coming.

    Follow the money. Free speech is trumped by greed.

    The group which is behind the Irving atrocity must be concerned. Even Jewish sources such as Yad Vashem no longer advertise the Soviet lies as truth. They affirm the 1,160,000 figure for Auschwitz as correct.

    London Daily Times, 1990:

    "Poland has cut its estimate of the number of people killed by the Nazis in the Auschwitz death camp from 4 million to just over 1 million . . . "

    Toronto Globe & Mail, April 1990:

    "Shmuel Krakowsky, head of research at Israel's Yad Vashem memorial for Jewish victims of the Holocaust, said the new Polish figures were correct:

    SK: "The 4 million figure was let slip by Capt. Rudolf Hoess, the death camp's Nazi commander. Some have bought it, but it was exaggerated."

    [P]laques commemorating the deaths of 4 million victims were removed from the Auschwitz museum earlier this month."

    It must be getting lonely trying to pretend that most of the traditional holocaust claims were false. Most reputable Jewish sources have bowed to the obvious, and shown real integrity. Against that are those who have made false claims for money their lives' work.

    I believe that "historians" deliberately following a known false historical line is shameful. Perhaps the horrific abuse of Mr. Irving will resonate enough that this shakedown will be brought to an overdue end.

    J. Feuerbach - 2/24/2006

    "Irving blackens the names of historians." I agree. I’ve even seen historians’ countenances turn pale out of shock.

    Dean Bedford - 2/24/2006

    Whether the laws on Holocaust denial in Austria are good ones is one issue. I tend to think they're not.

    But this incidence raises no particular issue for historians because Irving is not a historian. It's been proven - including in a court of law, but now in several books too - that Irving is a liar, a falsifier of history, a man who mistranslated documents, who picked out sentences of others while ignoring sentences alongside, a man who had strong political views in sympathy with the Nazis, and chose to try to use historical methods to support these. That he used historical methods does not make him a historian. If an ex-cop uses their police knowledge to rob a bank does that make them a law enforcement officer? If someone wrote a thesis in the style of a court judgement, just making up all their references and quotations as they went along, does that make them a judge?

    If you want to put up an argument that experienced and clever liars and racists do not deserve imprisonment, that's one thing. But let's not suggest Irving deserves protection as a historian. Irving blackens the names of historians.

    David I Lieberman - 2/24/2006

    The "mein fuehrer" story is accurate. It occurred in Irving's closing remarks on 15 Mar 2000, and is available in the transcripts:


    Irving clearly refers to the judge as "Mein Fuehrer" rather than as "My Lord." At the time, Hitchens reported that Irving had privately admitted to him that he (Irving) had indeed made this mistake.

    J. Feuerbach - 2/24/2006

    I think you are missing the point.

    Holocaust denial isn't a Jewish issue. Holocaust denial is mainly a problem of the countries that actively or passively participated in the genocide that, thanks to Mr. Irving's recantation, we now know for sure it took place. (Man! It's amazing what people do in order to avoid serving time...) Again, if Jews want to host a Nazi figure, they have all the right to do it. I don't think that means they are unaware of his/her resume. Maybe inviting Mr. Vorster was was a conscious political decision made because of his Nazi leanings. But even if they chose to be in denial, I think they earned that right. Don't you think so?

    However, I really don't understand why Israel itself criminalized Holocaust denial. Here are two dubious hypotheses. First, it has to do with the fact that Israel is one of the few democratic countries (the only one?)in the Middle East, and that Jews have already learned from the West that although democracy might be a cool concept, overdosing on it should be avoided at any cost. Second, maybe it has to do with the fact that the younger generations of Jews are having short-term memory problems. My 2 cents!

    David I Lieberman - 2/24/2006

    Apparently I need to revise and extend. According to an article Hitchens published shortly after the trial, Irving privately confided in him that he had, indeed, addressed the judge as "Mein Fuehrer" rather than "My Lord," which Hitchens, at the time, lead him to conclude that Irving was a lost cause. In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, however, Hitchens comes to the defense not merely of freedom of speech and inquiry in principle, but of David Irving himself, at least with qualifications.

    On the whole, I sympathize with Hitchens's argument that Irving shouldn't be jailed for bigotry. But Hitchens also raises two side issues: a) that there's a meaningful distinction between Holocaust Denial and Holocaust Revisionism, and b) that Irving falls into the latter category. The first point is debatable. On the second, Hitchens is completely out to lunch.

    David I Lieberman - 2/24/2006

    The "mein fuhrer" story is accurate. It occurred in Irving's closing remarks on 15 Mar 2000, and is available in the transcripts:


    Irving clearly refers to the judge as "Mein Fuehrer" rather than as "My Lord." At the time, Hitchens reported that Irving had privately admitted to him that he (Irving) had indeed made this mistake.

    Rowan Arthur Berkeley - 2/23/2006

    I think this "mein fuhrer" story is actually borrowed from the film "Dr Strangelove", where Peter Sellers (in the title role) says it to the President.

    Orest Slepokura - 2/23/2006

    When the South African prime minister John Vorster made a state visit to Israel in April 1976, it began with a tour of Yad Vashem, Israel's great
    Holocaust memorial, where the late Yitzhak Rabin invited the old Nazi collaborator, unabashed racist and white supremacist to pay homage to Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

    As an old Nazi collaborator, Vorster should, of course, have been put on trial after he set foot on Israeli soil; instead he was graciously welcomed by his Jewish hosts.

    Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi reports that [The Israeli Connection, Random House: Toronto, 1987, p.x] "For most Israelis, the Vorster visit was just another state visit by a foreign leader. It did not draw much attention. Most Israelis did not even
    remember his name, and did not see anything unusual, much less surreal in the scene [a Nazi diehard invited to debauch the memory of the Holocaust]: Vorster was just another visiting dignitary being treated to the usual routine."

    And there you have it; Holocaust denial, Israeli style: Freighted with total impunity.

    Lars Bjorn Nielsen - 2/23/2006

    When discussing, whether mr Irving should be punished or not, two questions must be asked:
    - did holocaust occur ?
    - if it did, shold denial of holocaust be punished ?
    As to the first question, there are lots of evidence. Thousands of victims have witnessed, there have been endless trials, investigations were run by the allied powers just after the liberation of the camps and so forth. If all this evidence is fabricated, then it must be part of a conspiracy including governments, media and the academic establishment all over the world. And if that was true, mr. Irving would never have had the oppurtunity to publish his opinions.
    So mr. Irving is wrong. Whether he believes his own theories or not, we cannot know. But we may discuss, if he should be punished by asking this simple question:”Is he harming anybody through his publications” ?.
    The answer is yes. He is harming the victims by denying their pains and sufferings. Therefore, it was right to punish holocaust denial just after world war II, but this argument cannot hold forever. Most victims are dead now, so they cannot be hurt any more.
    But then, they have descendants. Is it not harmfull to all jews to deny the suffering of their people ? Yes it is, and therefore jews should be protected from such rubbish.
    Especially, if holocaustdenial is used to defame the jewish people..
    But has mr. Irving used holocaustdenial to defame the jewish people ?
    No, he has not, but others are using Irvings theories in their antisemitic propaganda !
    Well, but what harm can old nazis or even new ones do the jewish people ? Not much, so why bother ? And if worried, why not leave it to free debate to prove holocaustdenial wrong ?
    Because, nazis are no real problem today, but islamist are. And islamists deny holocaust as a part of their struggle against the jewish people. Because they hold all jews responsible for the creation of Israel.
    Now, we may have different opinions upon the legitimacy of the jewish state, but no one can deny, that we must protect our jewish citizens from being attacked by islamists, either physically or through antisemitic propaganda denying holocaust.
    We may also consider, that free debate is not enough to stop the islamists, because islamists use terror to silence their opponents. So therefore, fighting holocaust denial must be a case for public prosecution and not only a topic of free debate.

    Frederick Thomas - 2/23/2006

    Mr. Safranski:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments on "bad precedent." This is such a bad precedent that I cannot imagine it standing. It directly and flatly contradicts the European "Bill of Rights," not to mention ours, all this to torment a 67-year old man with 22 major works behind him.

    Couple of comments:

    Irving makes no argument about "the holocaust," whichever version. What he says, verbally, and not to my knowledge in writing, is that there is no documentary evidence of the version of it dreamed up by Soviet Kommisars in Neuremberg, tortured out of Hoess, etc. for their show trial.

    That is the horrific version which Austria (and France, and Israel) locked onto as revealed religious truth, like glassy-eyed fanatics, and it is absolute s***, like anything else out of the Soviet Union. Irving's version is consistent with the official version of Poland, and of any sensible historian. If you don't have the facts, say so, and don't make em up.

    Have a good weekend!

    J. Feuerbach - 2/23/2006

    (I meant to reply to you and not to myself. Too much insanity!)


    Good diagnosis, wrong treatment. You are prescribing an intellectual cure for an issue that is purely emotional. Anyways, I think we should cut ourselves a bit of slack. We, proud inheritors of the Enlightenment, sometimes indulge in irrational behaviors. Or, as my great-
    grandfather Sigmund would always remind me, "We don't do irrational things; we are irrational."

    I guess that these laws will remain forever in the books and that sooner or later they will be used again. There will always be someone stupid enough to create them and someone stupid enough to break them.


    J. Feuerbach - 2/23/2006


    Good diagnosis, wrong treatment. You are prescribing an intellectual cure for an issue that is purely emotional. Anyways, I think we should cut ourselves a bit of slack. We, proud inheritors of the Enlightenment, sometimes indulge in irrational behaviors. Or, as my great-
    grandfather Sigmund would always remind me, "We don't do irrational things; we are irrational."

    I guess that these laws will remain forever in the books and that sooner or later they will be used again. There will always be someone stupid enough to create them and someone stupid enough to break them.


    mark safranski - 2/23/2006

    Actually, I'm not unfamiliar, having read a number of Irving's books. He writes prolifically and unearths new information. That isn't the point

    The operative question about Irving's views on the Holocaust are not his book sales but the argument he makes and his motivations for making them.

    Irving has had, as you pointed out, a long career and those historians who have sung his praises in the past probably never imagined that one day Irving would be denying the use of gas chambers at Auschwitz:


    That being said, jailing Irving for his Holocaust denial views is a bad precedent for a host of reasons that relate to the political health of a free society.

    Steve Broce - 2/23/2006

    There seems to be an electronic echo in here

    Steve Broce - 2/23/2006

    "...but it is not entirely without merit: Denying the Holocaust was, and to some extent still is, considered to be akin to 'crying fire in a crowded theater.'"

    Peter, how , precisely, is denying the holocaust anything like crying "fire" in a crowded theater?

    One is the expression of a patently ridiculous and false idea, but is not likely to cause physical harm.

    The other is an utterance that is likely to cause immediate harm and loss of life.

    That kind of argument can be used to justify any offensive speech.

    Steve Broce - 2/23/2006

    "...but it is not entirely without merit: Denying the Holocaust was, and to some extent still is, considered to be akin to 'crying fire in a crowded theater.'"

    Peter, how , precisely, is denying the holocaust anything like crying "fire" in a crowded theater?

    One is the expression of a patently ridiculous and false idea, but is not likely to cause physical harm.

    The other is an utterance that is likely to cause immediate harm and loss of life.

    That kind of argument can be used to justify any offensive speech.

    Steve Broce - 2/23/2006

    "...but it is not entirely without merit: Denying the Holocaust was, and to some extent still is, considered to be akin to 'crying fire in a crowded theater.'"

    Peter, how , precisely, is denying the holocaust anything like crying "fire" in a crowded theater?

    One is the expression of a patently ridiculous and false idea, but is not likely to cause physical harm.

    The other is an utterance that is likely to cause immediate harm and loss of life.

    That kind of argument can be used to justify any offensive speech.

    J. Feuerbach - 2/23/2006

    Unfortunately at least two of your worries will come true. (1) The Iranian President, among others, will make great hay with this latest absurd application of the law at Europe's and America's expense (2) David Irving will lead the charge as some glorious martyr for the neo-Nazis. Neo-Nazi skinheads and Islamic fundamentalists would be stupid if they don’t use this situation to advance their agenda.

    The only wish that won’t come true will be the swift and irrevocable repeal of these laws. Most of the countries who have criminalized Holocaust denial --with the only exception of Israel-- had themselves in mind, and not necessary the Jewish people, when they passed these laws. They did it out of collective guilt, shame, but most importantly, out of fear that the ideology behind the Holocaust could show again its ugly face. My hunch is that the political leadership in Austria, France, Germany, Belgium, Poland, Lithuania and Switzerland isn’t persuaded that this taboo is firmly instilled in the collective moral conscience. As a result, we won’t see a repeal of these laws in the short term.

    James Spence - 2/23/2006

    Mr. Thomas, the sequence of your posts sometimes appear contradictory. In response to Mr Safranski’s ‘Why free speech beats censorship your response is ‘No, sorry…" Yet in a later post you comment that "Academic and political free speech and inquiry requires freedom, period." Were you referring to Sanfranski’s main point that "Free speech is the best cure for bad arguments" or the qualifications of Irving as an historian, which was not Sanfranski’s main point? Irving did revise his position on genocide before a court. So he admits he does make mistakes.

    Frank Halsey - 2/23/2006

    You’ve established that David Irving is a clever bastard and I suppose you are also inferring he should be should be jailed for it. It appears that Irving has become an exemption to the right of free speech in the European Union. Maybe a European version of the Patriot Act is in order too.

    J. Feuerbach - 2/22/2006


    You are asking the impossible. These laws were created to prosecute and jail people like Irving. Are you suggesting to wait until a more palatable and digestible version of Irving comes our way? Maybe the next guy who decides to publicly deny that the Nazi Holocaust took place is a more despicable character than Irving.

    But the problem isn't Irving. The fact that he is a good or bad historian is absolutely irrelevant.
    The problem is this taboo that 9 legislatures decided to turn into law to make sure that if someone was bold or stupid enough to break it, there would be a backup law that would his/her sorry ass to jail.

    Here's the million-dollar question? What's the next taboo that the West will criminalize? It's time to do away with these laws.

    Don Williams - 2/22/2006

    It seems ironical that the same country which spawned Adolph Hitler now sticks a historian in prison for 3 years because it does not like Irving's arguments. Note that Irving was threatened with 10 years imprisonment. If Irving was a Social Democrat, Goebbals would have grinned.

    I think that such a government as Austria's is more likely to spawn another Hitler --in another guise -- than anything Irving could ever write. Just as the corrupt Weimar Republic fell to the Nazis because it was viewed with almost universal contempt by Germans of all persuasions.

    The larger issue in all this is -- where is the European Union?? Austria is a member. The EU , which repeatedly preaches to Bush about human rights, allegedly subscribes to
    the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

    Article 10 of the CHarter guarantees freedom of thought. Article 11 explicitly states:

    "1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions
    and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless
    of frontiers.
    2. The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected."
    Ref: http://ue.eu.int/uedocs/cms_data/docs/2004/4/29/Charter%20of%20fundemental%20rights%20of%20the%20European%20Union.pdf

    It seems to me that Austria has just wiped it's behind on the Charter -- which begs the question of why any British subject possessing the Magna Carta would want to trust his civil liberties and rights to the Huns. Although Tony Blair --with the usual Liberal penchant for smirking sophistry -- seems to be stretching the Carta as well.

    We in the USA should not be smug. We "think" we have a Bill of Rights. But several of those rights seem to have been rendered inoperative by our Supreme Court -- right to trial by jury, ban on cruel and unusual punishment, right to be secure in our papers and persons absent a judical warrent issued on probable cause,etc.

    Frederick Thomas - 2/22/2006

    Mr. Safranski, you obviously are unfamiliar with the subject of your comment, so permit me to assist.

    Clearly Irving is popular where it counts, in book sales over 45 years and in favorable critical reviews, a few of which follow for your perusal.

    His 22 major books including huge international bestsellers such as "The Destruction of Dresden," written in 1959 when he was just 21, which was a best seller worldwide. His literary production is remarkable, on any basis, and the quality of his research the best.

    The favorable reviewers include historian John Keegan, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Gen. Mark Clark, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and Gen. Matt Ridgeway, all of whom I presume you respect, so I propose that you modify your spin that he is some kind of marginalized creep. I daresay there is no one posting to this site who has a comparable life's work, except perhaps Mr. Fleming. I would guess that, if you had half of the publishing success of Mr. Irving, you would account yourself a huge success.

    Some reviews:

    Board of Deputies of British Jews ("Hitler's War"): "The book...was thoroughly researched and employed a variety of themes . . . It also confirmed Irving's reputation as one of the world's most thorough researchers and an exciting and readable 'historian'."

    John Keegan: "Two books in English stand out from the vast literature of the Second World War: Chester Wilmot's The Struggle for Europe, published in 1952, and David Irving's Hitler's War, which appeared three years ago."

    Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper: "NO PRAISE can be too high for [Irving's] indefatigable scholarly industry. He has sought and found scores of new sources, including many private diaries. He has also tested hitherto accepted documents and discarded many of them as forgeries. His portrait of Hitler is thus, he claims, firmly based on solid primary evidence . . . Mr Irving's craftsmanship as a writer has improved immensely, and I have enjoyed reading his long work from beginning to end."

    Max Hastings, Daily Telegraph: "Congratulations on the Hitler book to add to all the others you have received. I much lament the fact that I was unable to review it for anybody, although heaven knows the big guns turned out for you."

    Times of London: "THE READER is gripped at once, because the writer is so obviously in his element; he is there . . . For he is presenting the events of 1939-45 "as far as possible through Hitler's eyes, from behind his desk". In this it seems to me he is brilliantly successful"

    Professor Donald Watt: "HIS BOOK can hardly be described as an exercise in whitewash . . . The core of this book is provided by Mr Irving's narrative of Hitler's day-by-day conduct of the war . . . This ground is traversed with a sense of immediacy and grasp of detail lacking in many of the recent Führer biographies . . . Mr Irving's mastery of the German sources is superb."

    The Spectator: "IT MUST be said at once that the book makes the most fascinating reading. Mr Irving possesses the gift of narrative and the art of arrangement. He has spent ten years researching into the subject. . . Mr Irving has achieved this [projecting the reader into the Hitlerian court] brilliantly and the publishers' claim that his description of events "give us the uncanny feeling of having been there" is fully justified."

    Professor J.E. Molpurgo, Yorkshire Post: "All this evidence he has welded into a narrative which is, for all its inevitable complexities, remarkably comprehensible and, for all that is both dense and long, surprisingly readable."

    Not bad for a kook, right?

    Frederick Thomas - 2/22/2006

    The answer is "no truth at all."

    Academic and political free speech and inquiry requires freedom, period. It is inviolable. Othewise we all become no better than the little Nazi or Stalinist propagandists we purport to despise. Fanatics are quick to in effect burn the books they disagree with. Sic incipit tyrannus.

    Regardless of whether one likes the Hollywood glitz version of the holocaust, a la "Schindler's List" etc. or the most current version supported by the Polish government, based on the camp records, which has 1.1 million dying at Auschwitz, of disease, instead of the earlier 4 million figure, by gassing, one must say that legislators pre-deciding historic fact is the stuff of dictatorship Hitler did that. Stalin did that. It is good that the US and Britain, as established democracies, have no such laws. It is abominable that others do.

    What is the basis for the "truth" which is legislated? It came from the Nueremberg trials including two weeks of torture of former Auschwitz Commandant Hoess, who was fired in 1942-43 for permitting typhus to kill 200,000 essential slave workers there. The torture itself did not work. They had to threaten his family to get the final confession, which he did not write. Indeed, with broken hands, he could not have. The rest was "testimony" from "survivors" provided by Soviet Intelligence. You get the idea-it was a Stalin show trial, and that was what was enacted into law in Austria and Germany. Anything which disagrees with the torture evidence gets you in jail.

    For any among this HNN group who have read Irving's works, which would apparently NOT include most of these cowed posters, this is an effort by those who do not believe in academic free speech or inquiry to subvert it, so that some favored political line (eg Israel's "victim status," for example) may prevail unchallenged.

    So I challenge the haters of free speech: Read, if you never have, Irving's "Churchill's War," which is the only detailed account of the often dirty politics of this statesman's war making, and certainly the only one based entirely upon the detailed documentary record. It is the most footnoted history I have read. Then ask yourself what in this scholarly account or his others merits three years in jail to its author.

    The issue with Irving was not his books, but rather that he has made unpolitical remarks in speeches. He has said that the KZ were "...slave labot camps with appallingly high death rates from typhus" which agrees with the official Polish position, and which is expressed in tourist guides and monuments at Auschwitz today (Google for yourself). Presumably, any Polish historian is a criminal in Austria, and that is more of a sin.

    Jefferson asserted that the Bill of Rights was created to protect not speech with which we agree, but speech with which we disagree. I suppose that all democratic forms have been repealed in Austria, and Jefferson is turning over in his grave.

    John R. Maass - 2/22/2006

    At http://www.nationalreview.com/buckley/buckley200602211443.asp, Bill Buckley has an interesting column in the on-line version of National Review.

    Hans Vought - 2/22/2006

    I am in sympathy with you, but we cannot pick and choose our test cases. The sad reality is that free speech cases almost always involve idiots saying or printing reprehensible things, precisely because their words and/or images are the ones a majority of decent people find objectionable.

    mark safranski - 2/22/2006

    Why does Irving have more traction than the garden variety neo-Nazi kook ?

    Irving has unearthed heretofore unknown documentary evidence - mostly because aging Nazi functionaries and their families viewed him ( correctly)as a sympathetic researcher and opened up their personal files.

    John Lukacs has a critical review of Irving's body of work and methodology in _The Hitler of History_

    Mike Schoenberg - 2/22/2006

    If most of what that David Irving has produced is lies and distortions then why are people still calling him a historian rather than just a shill for some personal distorted view of the world. The adage, garbage in, garbage out seems to be perfect here.

    Margaret Lavinia Anderson - 2/22/2006


    mark safranski - 2/21/2006

    Prior to the prosecution, David Irving had to contend in the court of public opinion where over time he became known first as an eccentric, then a crank and finally as an antisemitic philo-Nazi. In the scholarly community as well as with much of the public he was completely discredited.

    Now an Austrian prosecutor has made the reviled Irving a figure of sympathy - something perhaps Irving had intended in the first place. Had Irving simply been ignored by Austrian authorities the international press would not be discussing -yet again - his pro-Nazi ideas.

    Free speech is the best cure for bad arguments.


    David I Lieberman - 2/21/2006

    Even Christopher Hitchens eventually gave up on Irving after he privately admitted to "Mein Fuehrer"-ing the judge during his 2000 libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt.

    On Irving's mischief and disinformation, it's worth having a look at Andras Mink's article in the 2000 volume of The Hungarian Quarterly. Mink, a state librarian, produced excerpts from Irving's correspondence with the communist authorities in Hungary in the 1970's. Attempting to win them over and gain access to their archives, he essentially promised them a work of pro-Communist propaganda on the 1956 revolt. When his volume *Uprising!* was published in 1981, knowledgeable historians recognized it as exactly that, liberally salted with Irving's special obsession with Jews. Given that this exchange and its issue occurred during the height of the Cold War, one wonders how close Irving's compulsion to vilify Jews while pretending to commit history brought him to the brink of criminal disloyalty.

    David I Lieberman - 2/21/2006

    Is Irving's sincerity really relevant? From the perspective of the anti-denial laws, what difference would it make whether or not Irving believes in what he writes? From what I've been able to glean from reports, the *in*sincerity of his renunciation of Holocaust denial was patent. One could certainly make a case for perjury, if his protestation was proffered under oath. On the other hand, of course, there would have been no reason for Irving to be in the docket at all if he had not been charged with violating laws that imperil intellectual freedom and whose salutary social effects are dubious at best.

    Paul Noonan - 2/21/2006

    Heribert Illig is an amateur German historian who for the past ten years or so has written several books propounding a cranky notion that the history of the Early Middle Ages was forged later in the Middle Ages. A part of this theory is that Charlemange is a fictional character. Illig has apparantly spawned several followers who have expanded on this theory. Perhaps fortunately little of this pseudoscholarship has been translated into English, but you can read a brief article, inexpertly translated from the German here:


    See also:


    Why should Illig be free to spread his nonsense while David Irving goes to jail for spreading his? Of course, there doesn't seem to be any purpose related to present day politics in Illig's extravagant theories and presumably he really believes them. But can we prove that Irving does not really believe in what he writes? And, if you can put Irving in jail for his nonsense today, aren't we on a slippery slope to putting the likes of Illig in jail in the future?