by emma hatton
As Solidarity went to press, the Nazi apologist “historian” David Irving was a couple of days into a three year sentence imposed on him by an Austrian court for the crime of Holocaust denial.
Irving went on trial for two speeches he delivered in Austria 17 years ago, in which he described the Auschwitz gas chambers as a “fairytale”, dismissed Holocaust survivors as “psychiatric cases” and claimed that there were no death camps in the Third Reich. He has been in jail for three months awaiting trial after returning to Austria to deliver more speeches — despite being barred from the country and an arrest warrant against him.
Irving’s defence that he no longer subscribes to the view he held in 1989, and now accepts that several million Jews – but not nearly as many as the widely accepted figure of six million – were exterminated by the Nazi regime is pathetic. Whether or not he has genuinely changed the details of his opinion, he is clearly a liar in the service of historical fascism, with numerous links to modern far right groups.
But, uncomfortable as it may be for socialists to say, this is not the only issue raised by Irving’s sentence.
However much we may sympathise with the majority of its supporters, Austria’s law banning holocaust denial (similar laws exist in nine other European countries and Israel) is a law against free speech. It strengthens the repressive powers of the state – powers which, particularly in a social crisis, will be used not against the far right but against the socialist left and the labour movement. It allows the bourgeois authorities to set the terms of historical debate in a way which is unlikely to benefit the victims of oppression and exploitation. In addition, it is difficult to see how such legislation can do seriously achieve its stated goal, since anyone prosecuted under it will inevitably present themselves as martyred champions of democracy.
Socialists believe in historical truth, but generally speaking we do not believe it can be arrived at by sealing off whole areas of history from discussion. When scum like Irving deny the barbarism of the Nazis, we are in favour of challenging their arguments and “evidence” on the basis of rational discussion, not allowing the ruling class to tell us what is and what is not fact.
In a country like Austria, which was the birthplace of Nazism, there may be different nuances to the argument, and socialists should hardly make repeal of the law a priority demand – much less organise any defence of David Irving. There is a debate to be had about to what extent Holocaust denial automatically constitutes a form of incitement to racial hatred. But we cannot support someone being jailed for three years simply for stating an opinion, particularly when that opinion was stated 17 years ago.