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David Irving and Freedom of Speech

David Irving and Freedom of Speech

Irving's opinions are vile, and his arguments about the Holocaust are ludicrous. But he doesn't belong in prison.

by

Funny people, the Austrians. If you're Kurt Waldheim -- a former Nazi military officer linked to a genocidal massacre during World War II -- they elect you president. But if you're David Irving -- a British author who claimed that there never was a Nazi genocide during World War II -- they throw you in the slammer.

On second thought, not funny at all. Austria disgraced itself when it elected Waldheim president in 1986, apparently unconcerned by the revelation that he had served in a German military unit responsible for mass murder in the Balkans and been listed after the war as a wanted criminal by the UN War Crimes Commission. In a very different way it disgraced itself again last week, when a Vienna court sentenced Irving, a racist and an anti-Semite, to three years in prison for denying that the Nazis annihilated 6 million European Jews.

Irving is a man of great intellectual gifts who devoted his life to a grotesque and evil project: rehabilitating the reputation of Hitler and the Third Reich. Necessarily, that meant denying the Holocaust and ridiculing those who suffered in it, and Irving has long done so with relish. "I don't see any reason to be tasteful about Auschwitz. It's baloney, it's a legend," he told a Canadian audience in 1991. "There are so many Auschwitz survivors going around -- in fact the number increases as the years go past, which is biologically very odd to say the least -- I'm going to form an association of Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust, and Other Liars."

Presumably Irving had in mind people like my father, whose arm bears to this day the number A-10502, tattooed there in blue ink on May 28, 1944, the day he and his family were transported to Auschwitz. My father's parents, David and Leah Jakubovic, and his youngest brother and sister, Alice, 8, and Yrvin, 10, were not tattooed; Jews deemed too old or too young to work were sent immediately to the gas chambers. His teenage siblings, Zoltan and Franceska, were tattooed and, like him, put to work as slave laborers. Zoltan was killed within days; Franceska lasted a few months. Of the seven members of the Jakubovic family sent to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944, only my father was alive in the spring of 1945.

He is a repugnant, hate-filled liar, but as a matter of law and public policy, Irving's sentence is deplorable.

So on a personal level, the prospect of David Irving spending his next three years in a prison cell is something over which I will lose no sleep. He is a repugnant, hate-filled liar, who even as a child (so his twin brother told the Telegraph, a British daily) was enamored of the Nazis and had a pronounced cruel streak.

But as a matter of law and public policy, Irving's sentence is deplorable. The opinions he expressed are vile, and his arguments about the Holocaust -- perhaps the most comprehensively researched and documented crime in history -- are ludicrous. But governments have no business criminalizing opinions and arguments, not even those that are vile or ludicrous. To be sure, freedom of speech is not absolute; laws against libel, death threats, and falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater are both reasonable and necessary. But free societies do not throw people in prison for giving offensive speeches or spouting historical lies.

Austria, the nation that produced Hitler and cheered the Anschluss, may well believe that its poisoned history requires a strong antidote. Punishing anyone who "denies, grossly trivializes, approves, or seeks to justify" the Holocaust or other Nazi crimes may seem a small price to pay to keep would-be totalitarians and hatemongers at bay. But a government that can make the expression of Holocaust denial a crime today can make the expression of other offensive opinions a crime tomorrow.

Americans, for whom the First Amendment is a birthright, should understand this instinctively. "If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought," wrote Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in 1929. "Not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate."

It is popular in some circles to argue that the United States should do certain things -- adopt single-payer health insurance, abolish capital punishment, etc. -- to conform to the practice in other democracies. Those who find that a persuasive argument might consider that Irving is behind bars today because Austria doesn't have a First Amendment. Neither do Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, or Switzerland -- all of which have made Holocaust denial a crime.

"Freedom for the thought we hate" is never an easy sell, but without it there can be no true liberty. David Irving is a scurrilous creep, but he doesn't belong in prison. Austria should find a way to set him free -- not for his sake, but for Austria's.

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What do you think? Let us know using the comment section below.

Published: March 4, 2006


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Visitor Comments: 90

(90) Don Krausz, January 2, 2014 11:21 AM

Be practical. The issues are life or death.

People have intelligence and emotions and usually emotion overrides intelligence. How else to explain that Naziism was promoted from its start by the German universities?

The fewer Irvings that are around to indoctrinate the emotional, the better.

Jonathan Rosenblum argues persuasively. Israel has been acknowledged as having the safest air travel in the world, but at the price of inconvenience to the passengers. That applies to the Palestinians waiting at checkpoints as well.

Rosenblum describes this as a victory for the terrorists.

Let them gloat over their victory. I would sooner be assured that suicide bombers have been prevented from boarding my plane, than lose sleep over the infringement of their constitutional rights.

(89) Lorral, August 26, 2012 8:05 PM

I can't believe that we have such bleeding hearts in society these days. Austria is right in locking up this guy. We are all accountable before God on what we say and do. Why not with man as well? To deny the Holocaust, is to deny the 6 million innocent Jewish people who lost their lives to a truly monstrous act. Yes we should be allowed free speech, to a certain extent, but there are certain things that are left better unsaid. We are not free to say anything we want to say. It's called human decency, in which we have so little of these days. Maybe if this guy spends the next three years in prison, it may not change his views, but hopefully it will help him think twice about things he knows nothing about, and keep his mouth shut, and his views to himself, after all we are not free to hurt other people.

(88) Zvi, August 18, 2012 5:18 AM

Lying can be a crime IMO

Ok, time for another opinion: If Jacoby had written lies about Irving (or anyone else), he could potentially be sued and/or fired from his job as a journalist – i.e. punished; for merely writing/telling a lie. Irving is also telling a lie, although perhaps only verbally. Does it not seem consistent that Irving be punished? Is shouting fire in a crowed theater (when there is no fire) a lie that endangers the citizens who hear the lie? Well, Jacoby agrees that lying about a theater fire is clearly wrong. I have seen enough numbers on arms to be thoroughly convinced that the holocaust/shoa was a fact. If I write that the Titanic sunk not from a collision with an iceberg rather a leaky hull that may be a lie however it is not a propaganda tool. I believe that holocaust denial is a form of hate crime as it is a lie intended to promote hate toward a particular group.

(87) Steve Skeete, December 6, 2010 8:24 AM

There is a part of me that wants to disagreee with Mr. Jacoby. This part says that people like David Irvine do more harm than good. The lies they tell are hurtful to the individuals and families who suffered under Hitler's tyranny and barbarism. Often I feel as if glorifying Hitler and the "Third Reich" is almost a crime in itself. However, another side of me says it is a very dangerous thing when we begin locking people away simply because we do not agree with their outrageous views. What do we do then with the David Irvine's of this world? We answer them, logically and conclusively. We rebut everyone of their arguments one by one. In the case of the holocaust we still have exhibit "A", those who were the direct recipients of Hitler's brutality. Like someone said "facts are stubborn things" and they do not go away so easily. My fear, like that of Mr. Jacoby's is that sometimes the truth can be just as inconvenient as lies. So what happens when the powers that be do not like the truth we are telling? Will we go to prison too?

(86) Reizl Fink, November 21, 2010 6:01 PM

Legitimiizing holocaust denial

Irving should have been ignored. The fact that he was persecuted and prosecuted for his utterances made him more brazen.and caused others like him.to take up his "cause" Had he been ignored, he would have never been "news" and his holocaust denials would have stopped.in its tracks.

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