February 20, 2006

Chilling "Feel Good" Experience

Today's leading article from TimesOnline:
Denial denied

The misguided fool who realises the error of his ways would usually be a cause for celebration. In the case of David Irving, the biased and dogmatic “historian”, though, it is not quite that simple. Irving is certainly a fool, though how much he has been driven by idiocy and how much by malevolence in seeking to deny the Holocaust is unclear. Yet to hear him revise his own revisionism when faced with the threat of a ten-year prison sentence was a notable moment.

Irving had already lost his reputation as an historian in the High Court, six years before performing yesterday’s somersaults before an Austrian judge. He was no longer a Holocaust-denier, he said, because “new” research allowed him to conclude that there were such things as gas chambers in Hitler’s Germany, and that millions of Jews did indeed die in them. Yet the man who has immersed himself in the Third Reich for more than four decades confessed that he was “not an expert” on the Holocaust and could therefore not estimate the numbers killed. As a spectacle, Irving’s squirming while pleading, unsuccessfully, for his freedom would have been entertaining if the subject matter were lighter. Yet it remains significant. It is not often that the influential are forced publicly to recant odious views. Yesterday was such a day.

And yet, because of the manner in which Mr Irving’s new views were elicited and the three-year sentence he received, there are serious reservations. Curbs on free speech are always regrettable. Austria has its own understandable reasons for criminalising “whoever denies, grossly plays down, approves or tries to excuse the National Socialist genocide”, as does Germany. But even in its local context the wisdom of such a law is debatable. Such a ban can give the false impression that the crimes of Nazi Germany have somehow been dealt with. This is not necessarily so. It may simply disguise that deep cultural issues are being swept under the carpet. Germany has, belatedly, undergone an agonising public debate about its Nazi past. In Austria, some 724 charges were brought under the so-called Banning Law in 2004 alone. In the previous five years there were 158 convictions. Yet there remains the sense that the law is used to mask an inability among Austrians to come to terms with their history, and that the country has not experienced the same level of national soul-searching as Germany.

The Irving case presents a dilemma. Without such a law it is very possible that Irving would still be arguing that the gas chambers of Auschwitz did not exist, or that those who rampaged against Jews on Kristallnacht were not Nazis but “unknown” people, or that Hitler had in fact protected Jews. It is welcome that Irving has been forced to change his tune. Yet the price is high. His jail sentence will no doubt earn him martyrdom among the twisted ranks of neo-Fascists. And his crime is minor in comparison with the daily abuse of Jews in the Middle East, where far too many argue that the Holocaust never happened, but call for the destruction of Israel.
What an extraordinarily perceptive article. The emphasis to the key sentence was added by me. Why? Because the point is not whether this man goes to prison or not, the point is that this will be just another one of those (Austro-)German "feel good" things, like the megalomaniac Holocaust Memorial that was pushed through by one embarrassing crone and a couple of chums and for which it was difficult to find contractors without a Nazi past in their corporate history. The German dilemma at its finest!

But they managed to push it through -- for themselves -- with most of the German Jewry nodding helplessly in public and gnashing their teeth in secret.

That said, one judicial aspect was largely neglected in the entire debate about Irving's case, namely that of the danger of "special legislation", what we call spine-chillingly "Sondergesetze" in German". I am against it on principle because it is one of the big, clandestine, creeping threats to the rule of law. Defamation- and other already existing laws would have perfectly sufficed and without triggering off the endless "free speech" mantra from Holocaust deniers and -revisionists to boot.

Is Irving driven by idiocy or malevolence? Yes, what remains is the enigma how a formerly respected military historian came to victimise everything over the years, his career, his scientific reputation and entire fortune for an idée fixe. My theory personified, that antisemitism is a brain disease, which wreaks havoc among the intelligent and able as well as among the dumb and wretched. No, nobody would do anything like that out of malevolence.

Not that it matters much.

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