Hooray! We have had our problems with Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt before—last year we had to call her out for defending the dangerous notion of what her critics call “Jewish exclusivism” as genocide victims. But in the current poisonous atmosphere, she has been one of the few voices to defend free speech without double standards or equivocation—and this includes free speech for her most bitter enemy, the notorious Holocaust denier David Irving. From the Globe & Mail, Feb. 20, emphasis added:
Hitler’s defender gets some unlikely allies
Historian’s trial widens Europe’s divide over acceptable limits to free expression
LONDON — When the world’s best-known Holocaust denier goes on trial in Vienna today, he will have some surprising defenders: his most outspoken opponents.
Six years ago, British historian David Irving launched a libel suit in London against a historian whose books accused him of being one of the world’s leading defenders of Hitler’s regime. Deborah Lipstadt’s works showed that Mr. Irving, a biographer of Hitler and a renowned scholar of the Nazi era, was a defender of the Nazi dictator and a denier of the mechanized killing of six million Jews under Hitler’s orders.
The result was devastating for him: The judge ruled that Ms. Lipstadt, a U.S. historian, was right, and that Mr. Irving is “a racist, an anti-Semite and an active Holocaust denier.” Mr. Irving was also forced to pay the cost of the trial, estimated at $6-million.
It reduced the historian, who had been the author of bestselling works about the Third Reich in the 1960s and 1970s, to a fringe figure in the world of scholarship. From that point on, he issued only self-published books, and spoke only to groups on the extreme neo-Nazi right in Europe.
It was on such a speaking tour in November, when he travelled to Austria to visit young Hitler sympathizers, that Mr. Irving was arrested under a 1947 law that outlaws any utterances that “deny the National Socialist [Nazi] genocide or other National Socialist crimes, minimizes them, gives them approvals or seeks to justify them.”
Mr. Irving, who has argued that the Holocaust is a lie and part of a Jewish plot, was warned in the 1980s by Austrian officials that he would be arrested if he entered the country. The threat was often questioned, since Austria failed to bring charges against major Nazi figures from within its own borders (Hitler was Austrian-born, as were several high-ranking Nazis). But Mr. Irving, who has recently described the pleasure of speaking to crowds of Nazi sympathizers, was arrested and jailed without bail.
During the past three months, he has become a minor celebrity in prison, writing his memoirs and entertaining interviews from the European media.
Today’s trial is likely to be closely watched across Europe, a fact that horrifies many of his outspoken opponents. Even more offensive, for many, is the law that is likely to land him a 10-year prison sentence.
Laws that ban ideas, no matter how vile the ideas, are distasteful to academics, and even those academics who ended Mr. Irving’s mainstream career have come out to defend him today.
“If you had told me, a few months ago, that I would be demanding David Irving’s release one day, I would have called you insane,” Ms. Lipstadt told the German magazine Der Spiegel this week.
But she is defending him. “I’m against censorship — no one stands to benefit from the throwing of this guy into prison.”
The trial occurs at a moment when Europe is concerned with fundamental questions of freedom of speech. The attack by fundamentalist Muslims on Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed has raised a question that has long dogged the German and Austrian anti-Nazi laws: If you prohibit certain topics of speech, can you really say you have a free society?
For English-speaking scholars, the question became even more pointed last week when Britain, which does not have an anti-Nazi law and had allowed the publication of Mr. Irving’s books, passed a law that bans the “glorification” of terrorism. Many scholars fear that this law, aimed at the backers of terrorism, could end up silencing legitimate scholarship.