Freedom of speech, again! Oh Lordy Lord it’s all a-comin’ at once. By now most of you will have heard about David Irving’s three year jail sentence for holocaust denial. Essentially, disgraced British historian Irving claimed the gas chambers had not existed, which contravenes Austrian law – the country in which he was interviewed when he made his assertion. A libel case six years ago destroyed his reputation and most of his enemies were placated by this verdict alone. He was branded an active holocaust-denier, an anti-Semite and a racist.
However, yesterday many were stunned when the three year sentence was handed down to Irving, who pleaded guilty during the trial in Vienna. Irving has already announced his plan to appeal. So what should we make of all this?
In Europe opinions are split. At the crux of this controversy is the fact that Irving broke the law. We, as Brits who have a deep respect for freedom of speech, can denounce the Austrians for locking up someone who said something silly. But then again, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland have laws against holocaust denial as well. It’s hardly a case of one loonie country having a loonie law. Indeed – two of these countries, Germany and France, were recently praised by many of the people who are now wringing their hands at the severity of this sentence. Why? Because they published those cartoons and upheld that legendary freedom of speech. Had this verdict been handed down in France or Germany, what would public reaction have been?
In fact, holocaust denial carries a maximum sentence of TEN years in Austria, so Irving could be thought of as having got off lightly.
The law itself could be thought of as a knee-jerk response to the deep unease former Nazi countries felt after the War. However, as you can see, they are not the only countries with the law in place. But Irving has merely stated an opinion, he has not incited anyone to murder, he has not glorified terrorism. Should his freedom of speech be curtailed?
Within Austria, a debate is now taking place over the holocaust-denial law. The strongest argument for the law is that it is instrumental in curbing neo-Nazi or anti-Semitic activity. Germany has been far more active in cracking down on far right groups than Austria, but both are acutely aware of the large swathes of anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant sentiment that lingers on. Fears are now that he will become a far-right martyr.
The BBC highlights a few quotes:
Vienna’s chief Rabbi Chaim Eisenberg:
“All this is very ugly, despicable. I am not sure if people should go to jail, but there should be some measure to make sure that this does not happen.”
Professor Theo Ohlinger, an expert in constitutional law at Vienna University:
“It is so clear that the Holocaust existed that everybody who denies it is considered a fool. But abolishing this law could signal that Austria may not be really active in fighting against any National Socialist activities, and that is a problem.”
Czech Republic’s Mlada Fronta Dnes:
“He should not have been brought before the court. The European countries should shake off the Holocaust taboo and the Muslims should stop hating those who make fun of the Prophet… There only appears to be a difference between the rioting of furious Muslim activists and a sophisticated court in Austria.”
Germany’s Die Tageszeitung:
“What David Irving said yesterday in the Vienna court represented a first-class burial of the myth of the “Auschwitz-lie”: Irving apologised for his earlier views and withdrew the statements that brought him before the court… Neo-Nazis around the world have lost an icon.”
Noah Klieger, 80-year-old Holocaust survivor:
“This is a big day for Israel and all Jews, as the Pope of Holocaust deniers has finally been brought to justice. The sentence is not important. What is important is to send out the message while we, the Holocaust survivors, are still alive.”
Lothar Hobelt, an associate professor of history at the University of Vienna:
“This is a silly law by silly people for silly people. In fact, having a law that says you mustn’t question a particular historical instance, if anything, creates doubt about it, because if an argument has to be protected by the force of law, it means it’s a weak argument.” [Link]
From the Indy:
“Few in this country will shed many tears for an academic who never cared to hide his despicable views… But (the sentence) is three years more than anyone should have to serve for exercising freedom of speech in a democracy… We have deep misgivings about the classification of Holocaust denial as a prosecutable offence.”
“But in the last year the Government has cited the need to bring in more laws to curtail our freedom of speech. We are moving closer to Austria where a personal opinion of a historical event can not only lead to a jail sentence but attracts the oxygen of publicity to a very odious point of view. ” [Link]
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