The Verdict on Irving

Published: 2006-02-24

The sentencing of British historian David Irving to three years imprisonment for holding illegal opinions has once again brought the Holocaust to mind, coming as it does on the heels of the President of Iran's recent remarks. At the same time, Irving's sentence follows two weeks of violence over the now famous series of Mohammed cartoons, and thus raises again questions about freedom of speech.

We may expect that the right wing, which has not missed an opportunity to post the Mohammed cartoons in the name of free speech, will find some convenient excuse to not in turn post Irving's various remarks on the Holocaust or, better, the writings of several prominent revisionists. It would be trivial to accuse them of hypocrisy or double standards. Of course these things are in play, and for a simple reason: Jews are us, Muslims are them.

This does not mean that Irving's sentence, and the ongoing criminal proceedings in Germany against several other Holocaust revisionists, should be a cause of complacency. On the contrary, the enforcement of such thought crime statutes across Europe is a dangerous infringement on individual rights, and, moreover, will likely give rise to less historical understanding and even increased anti-Semitism.

David Irving in handcuffs in Austria for political incorrectness
David Irving in handcuffs in Austria for politically incorrect speech.

Holocaust Denial laws, which stipulate that one may not publicly question any aspect of the standard record of Nazi atrocity and mass murder, are unique to Europe. No other period in European history, or any history, is subject to such sanction. Dozens of people are routinely fined and imprisoned in Germany, Austria, France, and other countries for having the impudence — some say, the stupidity — to question whether Hitler knew of the Holocaust, whether gas chambers were used at such and such a camp, whether six million died or some other number, and so on and so forth.

While the laws against such opinions may seem bizarre, they really are nothing new to Old Europe. A hundred and fifty years ago, a person questioning the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth could be imprisoned. Three hundred years ago, he could have been tortured or killed. We tend to see these things as remnants of religious superstition in our proud secular age. But that is exactly what they were not. To the average European in bygone days the events of the Bible were not mere religious beliefs, but
also historical facts, which one doubted at one's peril. The only difference between then, and now, is that we have a different category of facts that people may not question.

Whatever the reasons for the current laws, they are certain to do just the opposite of what they intend. If the aim of the laws is to prevent neo-Nazism, for example, imprisoning people for their opinions about the Nazi era is bound to generate curiosity, investigation, and doubt among hitherto disinterested spectators. Since the mainstream academic establishment has been largely intimidated into silence, partly, one suspects, because of these laws, the curious student will be led to those outlets that purvey the information being sought, which not infrequently have a far-right nationalist, and even Neo-Nazi, flavor.

It will not do to say that academic historians frequently write books about the Holocaust. There is certainly no lack of bloviation about how wicked the Nazis were, but there is remarkably little analysis of what actually is supposed to have happened at dozens of camps and hundreds of shooting sites, let alone a clear and unconfused argument about the sequence of events that is not plainly copied from some "safe" analysis written decades ago. Sixty years on, we still do not even have a critical, objective and detailed treatment of the Nuremberg trials.

Because of the taboos that Holocaust Denial laws represent, mainstream historians have no choice but to either avoid rational discussion of the record of Nazi atrocity or to avoid the subject altogether, either for fear of imprisonment, as in the case of David Irving, or social ostracism, as in the case of Arthur Butz at Northwestern University. (To its great credit, Northwestern's commitment to freedom of speech and the tenure system has been so far impeccable.)

Yet the failure of mainstream historians to grapple with the minutiae of Nazi atrocities postpones indefinitely our understanding of the causes and sequences of what did happen, because it is taboo to strike from the record any enshrined datum that may interfere with coherent understanding. It is often said that to prevent future Holocausts, we have to understand the Holocaust: an admirable sentiment, but understanding is exactly what we do not have on this subject. Instead what we mostly get are caricatures, personal impressions, and a lot of moral indignation, often very sentimental, passing as eloquence.

The fact that Holocaust Denial laws are enforced mostly in European countries, along with the fact that many Jews, among them, Deborah Lipstadt, Raul Hilberg, Ronald Dworkin, and David Guttenplan, have come out against these laws, must certainly weaken the argument that these laws are in place only to satisfy Jewish sensibilities or to allow some Jewish groups to use the Holocaust for political or economic gain.

However, because no one in the non-Jewish intellectual mainstream is willing to grapple cleanly with the issues revisionists raise, the onus is placed squarely on Jews to revise their own history, a difficult, and probably heart-breaking, task. Since their failure here is therefore understandable, and probably to some degree inevitable, it further means that over time the effects of Holocaust Denial laws will be blamed on Jews, who are, after all, the perennial scapegoats. That any Jew would be so foolish as to publicly endorse these laws, in whole or in part, only worsens the threat.

A further negative consequence to Holocaust Denial laws, of course, is that it sets a precedent for current social norms on limiting free speech. Those Mohammed cartoons may well be illegal in twenty years time.

Holocaust Denial laws accomplish nothing positive. They bracket off a series of historical facts from scrutiny, ensuring that our understanding of 20th Century European history will continue to be frustrated and confused. They do nothing to enhance our understanding or awareness of the circumstances or timeline of atrocity or genocide, making it impossible to stop these things from happening again. By making revisionism a crime, they ensure that students will be drawn to those (frequently anti-establishment) sources that have no problem with dispensing revisionist studies, and much else besides. By invoking such laws in the name of the Jewish people, they in effect make the Jewish people responsible for such laws, even though many Jews are opposed to them, and thus plant the seeds for resentment and hatred of Jews.

Furthermore, such laws provide a useful template for immigrants from more closed minded societies, who will doubtless use them as a means for implementing their own laws about illegal opinions in the years to come.

Most ruinously, the laws have emasculated the academy, and the profession of history in particular. Judging by the way the Holocaust is handled, one would think that the primary job of an academician, or an academic historian, was to deliver shrill ad hominems against the holders of objectionable opinions, while delivering dull and vapid lectures about mutual tolerance.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The essence of scholarship is good will, generosity, and a constant quest to learn something new: it is not a judgmental endeavor, precisely because it is not an ego-driven endeavor. Yet what passes for discussion on this topic in the academy, judging by recent remarks and petitions, is little more than feel good pandering.

In this respect, despite his sometimes crude and unfeeling manner of expression, his flamboyance, rudeness, and obvious partisanship, David Irving has done more for the advancement of knowledge of the Third Reich than any clutch of his morally smug opponents. For his hard work, deep archival study, and robust argument, he now pays a heavy price. His peers in academia and in the mainstream, on the other hand, keep mum, leaving the mortgage on our common house of intellect to be paid by the future, assuming, of course, that it is not converted to a mosque in the meantime.

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Mandar Christopher
Title: The Verdict on Irving
Published: 2006-02-24
First posted on CODOH: Feb. 22, 2006, 6 p.m.
Last revision:
Comments: Discusses the recent sentencing of David Irving to 3 years imprisonment in Austria for words uttered seventeen years ago.
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