Behind bars, but liberals defend Irving
Ian Traynor in Vienna
Monday November 28, 2005
Behind the neo-gothic town hall in the heart of Vienna sits the Josefstadt jail. This large prison, attached to the city's main criminal court, is a constant cause of complaint from the well-heeled burghers of the district, who would prefer to see the low life accommodated elsewhere.
Now the 1,200 inmates have been joined by an infamous foreigner; David Irving will be confined to a Josefstadt cell over Christmas and the New Year, pending trial on criminal charges deriving from his discredited views on the history of the second world war.
Irving, the controversial British historian and Nazi apologist, stands accused of denying the Holocaust happened, a criminal offence in Austria. He was barred from the country but, an inveterate risk-taker, he flew from London to Basle in Switzerland this month, rented a car and drove to Vienna.
The idea was to meet up with a bunch of student radicals from an extreme right fraternity. Their hobbies include dressing up in funny clothes and little pillbox caps, then drawing blood by slashing one another's cheeks in fencing duels. They've been at it since Bismarck's day.
According to Mr Kresbach, Irving smelt a rat in the shape of Austrian plainclothes police after a chat with the student leaders in a Vienna coffee house. He headed south to Graz and was stopped by motorway police on the return journey to Vienna. As a result, this morning he is sitting in Josefstadt.
The Austrian police have tape recordings and 60 pages of transcripts of two speeches Irving delivered in Austria in November 1989 and a newspaper interview he gave at the time.
The Guardian has a copy of the indictment which cites copiously from the speeches Irving made in 1989. "There were no extermination camps in the Third Reich," he declared. "Is it not time once and for all to put an end to this fairy tale of the gas chambers." Adolf Hitler "held out his hands to protect the Jews", and knew nothing of the Final Solution. Thirty thousand people were murdered at Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland - as opposed to the accepted figure of 1.5 million. After the war, the Poles fabricated the gas chamber evidence at Auschwitz to match the "fantasies" of survivors. The billions paid in reparations after the war by Germany to the state of Israel were unwarranted. "That is, of course, embarrassing. It was all a huge swindle ... Why does the German people let itself be slandered thus?"
The arguments advanced may be contemptible. But are they criminal? Is the prosecution of Irving justified, or is the looming jury trial and the prospect of a 10-year jail term if found guilty an assault on free speech?
These are some of the questions being asked here. "Dragging fools and falsifiers of history before a court is unworthy of a liberal democracy today," said Christian Fleck, president of Austria's association of sociologists.
In a long commentary in the liberal Standard newspaper, he noted that the Irving case was particularly ill-judged when contrasted with Austria's poor record in apprehending ageing war crimes suspects living in the country.
The Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem reckons there are more than 40 Nazi suspects still alive in Austria and complains that Austria has the worst of records in dealing with this issue.
In Britain last week, Lord Greville Janner of the Holocaust Educational Trust applauded the Austrians for arresting Irving. But Austrian liberals beg to differ. While despising Irving for his views, they defend the 67-year-old's right to express them.
Separate from the Irving case, Mr Kresbach, his lawyer, argues that the ban on Nazi revivalism under which Irving is being prosecuted is outdated. The ban was promulgated in 1947 and last amended in 1992.
"This is the only country in the world with this kind of banning law. It's very broad and very harsh. It was necessary back then to clean house legally and politically. But there's no longer any danger of a Hitlerite putsch. Any fool should be able to say what he wants. We don't need a thought police," said Mr Kresbach.
Dozens of cases are heard every year in Austria, resulting in an annual average of 35 convictions for questioning or belittling the horrors of the Nazi era. The Germans, Poles and French also have laws penalising Holocaust denial, though they are not as draconian as in Austria.
Defenders of the free speech curbs argue that demeaning or denying the suffering of the millions of Hitler's victims still needs to be outlawed as the victims are unable to challenge the falsifiers.
Whether Irving is still the Holocaust denier so clear from the 1989 speeches may emerge in court in Vienna in January. That he is guilty as charged is inarguable, his lawyer admits. But it is the outdated law that is the problem.
But if Irving, according to the verdict, is a racist, an anti-Semite, and a wilful twister of the historical record, is he also now a martyr to free speech?
Irving will plead guilty before a Vienna jury, then show repentance, argue he is a changed man, and hope for leniency from the judge. And given the attention it is attracting, the case could have a wider impact, resulting in a public debate and reform of the anti-Nazi laws.
The second world war
How the Guardian reported the war
Focus: the Holocaust
Focus: VE Day
Imperial War Museum
The Second World War Experience Centre
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