British Holocaust denier David Irving has been sentenced to three years in prison in Austria for denying that the Holocaust occurred. As the author of a number of books on the military history of World War II, Irving is the most historically sophisticated of the deniers, yet he is not a trained professional historian.
The trial raises the question whether Irving has recanted and whether jail time is justified for this violation. Fabricating history is a threat to the way all groups pass on their history from one generation to the next. That is why it is so pernicious. The Jews of Europe went to great lengths to ensure that what happened would be not be forgotten, not only for the sake of the Jewish people, but for the world.
At his trial, Irving acknowledged that the Nazis had attempted to systematically murder the Jews of Europe, and that there were homicidal gas chambers at Auschwitz. This is an important admission. At the David Irving/ Deborah Lipstadt trial in London in 2000, Irving asserted that the gas chambers were used to gas “objects and cadavers.”
After Irving concluded that there were no homicidal gas chambers at Auschwitz in 1988, he did not visit the archives or the archeological remnants at Auschwitz to determine if this was true. He could not go, he said, because it was under communist rule. Yet this did not stop others from doing research in Poland during that period. Later Irving argued that Auschwitz authorities would not allow him access to the camp for fear of what he might find.
Was his guilty plea to this criminal offense in Austria a ploy to preclude being imprisoned for the maximum of 10 years as the law allowed or did it signal a change in Irving’s thinking?
According to Ha’aretz, after pronouncing the sentence, Peter Liebetreu, the presiding judge at the trial, said, “The court did not consider the defendant to have genuinely changed his mind. The regret he showed was considered to be mere lip service to the law.”
Irving’s willingness to concede historical errors he once held when confronted by a prosecutor in a courtroom is not new. In the Irving/Lipstadt trial, Justice Charles Grey found that “a striking feature of the case” was that “Irving made, or appeared to make, concessions about major issues,” that were different to those he alleged prior to the trial. Previously, he claimed for example, that the mass shooting of Jews in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere in the East had not been officially authorized, but were the actions of small groups of criminals, and that Hitler had limited information about the killings. At the trial, Irving agreed that conceivably 1.5 million Jews were systematically killed under orders from Reinhard Heydrich.
Robert January van Pelt, a key expert on Auschwitz for the defense, also notes that Irving was forced to change his claim “on the basis of probabilities,” that Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka were extermination camps.
Justice Grey concluded that he was “unable to accept Irving’s contention that his falsification of the historical record is the product of innocent error or misinterpretation or incompetence on his part. ” It appeared that “for the most part the falsification of the historical record was deliberate and that Irving was motivated by a desire to present events. consistent with his own ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence.”
Should Irving be incarcerated for this transgression or should his views be seen as an act of free speech? In Austria and German the situation is different than in the U.S. In these countries, Holocaust denial, Nazi symbols, literature and music are banned.
Hans-Ulrich Wehler, one of Germany’s most esteemed historians, is quoted in Spiegel Magazine as favoring of Irving’s incarceration. “The Holocaust,” he said “is a matter of the industrially organized mass murder of six million human beings. And to brazenly deny this, in the peculiar manner of the current Iranian government, is unbearable at least in the German public sphere.” After the initial success of the (neo-Nazi) NPD “in the late sixties, right-wing radicals began to pose as ‘avengers’ of a sort,” prompting a ruling that one could be prosecuted in Germany for denying the Holocaust. This has been “a gradual process,” which did not begin immediately after 1949.
Those who fear that this will make Irving a martyr should know that after the trial in London, his followers greeted him as a hero. To the true believers, he will remain their champion.
At the end of the London trial, Richard Rampton, the British defense attorney, bemoaned that the victory did not make a difference: “The judgment doesn’t bring the dead back, it doesn’t bring them back.” That was never the point as London reporter James Dalrymple observed. “Historical revisionism,” he observed, “has only one subject-the Holocaust. Here “doubt can be planted like seed in the wind, to grow and fester as the screams of history grow fainter with the years.” The trial exposed Irving as a falsifier of history. It is imperative that we not allow those who wish to distort our history be given free reign to do so. Our ancestors urged that we “know how to respond.” That is our task.
Dr. Grobman is co-author of Denying History: Who Says The Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? University of California Press, 2000.