Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Lipstadt Interview in the BBC: "Irving? Let the Guy Go Home.... and Sink into Obscurity"

The following piece is on and has generated a great deal of comment. Many people praise my stance. [A number don't -- but that's ok.]

What I find striking is how many people are completely flummoxed [a wonderful British word meaning completely tzederte or, for those of you whose Yiddish is not up to par, it's a combination of confused and blown away] by the fact that I am not jumping for joy that he is in prison and hoping that the Austrians keep him there and throw away the key.

I wonder if, on some level, they have absorbed the image of me that deniers spread, i.e. a mean vindictive witch??

'Irving? Let the guy go home'
By Brendan O'Neill

David Irving, the infamous British war historian, is today sitting in an Austrian jail, accused of denying the Nazi Holocaust. So why is an American Jewish academic who dramatically crushed Irving in the British courts saying he should be released?

When you ask Professor Deborah Lipstadt for her thoughts on David Irving's forthcoming trial, the very last thing you expect her to say is: "Let the guy go home. He has spent enough time in prison."

Lipstadt, the American Jewish academic who exposes Holocaust deniers is not exactly David Irving's greatest fan.

But five years after she famously defended her own reputation in the High Court, and in doing so shredded Irving's, she is arguing that the Austrian authorities should probably let him go, saying the far-right will find a martyr if he goes to jail.

David Irving, 67, who made his name as a World War II historian, became infamous for suggesting that the Holocaust didn't happen.

But in November last year he was arrested in Austria for two speeches he made in 1989, during which he allegedly claimed there had been no gas chambers at Auschwitz.

It is a crime in Austria to minimise the atrocities of the Third Reich and the historian faces up to 10 years imprisonment if found guilty. Speaking after the arrest, Irving's lawyer said the historian no longer denies that gas chambers existed in Nazi death camps.

Yet Lipstadt, arguably the best-known warrior against Holocaust denial, believes that the best outcome would be for Irving to be let go.

"I would not want to see him spend more time in jail," she says. "I am uncomfortable with imprisoning people for speech. Let him go and let him fade from everyone's radar screens."

If there were to be a film of Deborah Lipstadt and David Irving, they would be presented as nothing less than arch enemies, fighting to the last - as they indeed did in the High Court.

Lipstadt has spent years exposing the arguments of Nazi sympathisers. She warns historians must "remain ever vigilant" against those who say the Holocaust was a hoax, "so that the precious tools of our trade and our society - truth and reason - can prevail".

The showdown came in January 2000 when she stood accused of libel for describing Irving in a book as "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial"; he accused her of "vandalising" his legitimacy as an historian.

The 32-day trial became a legal debate on the history of the Nazis - and the nature of truth itself.

Mr Justice Gray witheringly described Irving as anti-Semitic, racist and a Holocaust denier who had "deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence".

Irving had comprehensively lost not just his money, but his reputation. Much to the annoyance of those who have fought against him, Irving is still invited to speak both in Europe and the USA.

And Lipstadt raises questions about both free speech, and the publicity Irving stands to gain at his impending trial. "Generally, I don't think Holocaust denial should be a crime," she says. "I am a free speech person, I am against censorship."

"I don't find these laws efficacious. I think they turn Holocaust denial into forbidden fruit, and make it more attractive to people who want to toy with the system or challenge the system.

"We don't have laws against other kinds of spoken craziness. If you're a medical quack and you hurt someone, there's a law against that. "But if you're a medical quack and you stand on the street corner preaching that you have an elixir that cures cancer and saves lives, no one throws you in jail."

Holocaust deniers spread conspiracy theories such as that Anne Frank's Diary was a hoax, and that the gas chambers were built secretly built after the war.

But whether free speech should include the freedom to say such things has been the subject of furious debate on both sides of the Atlantic. Nine European countries, have laws against Holocaust denial - and supporters argue that this is the one issue that crosses the line because it is offensive to both the dead and the survivors.

In the UK, the free speech debate has focused on religious hatred: the government says it will outlaw incitement to hatred of believers. Opponents of the measure, including comic actor Rowan Atkinson, say it's an attack on free speech.

However, in the case of the Holocaust, Lipstadt says she recognises a case for laws in the lands that formed the heart of the Third Reich. "Germany and Austria are not so far past the Third Reich. So I can understand that the swastika symbol, Mein Kampf, Holocaust denial, being a neo-Nazi and all the rest have a certain potency there that they would not have in the United States," she says.

"And Austria is a democracy. If the citizens of Austria were against these laws, they could change them. Austria and Germany are different, but I would not support those laws being instituted elsewhere."

Lipstadt says the reason she is generally opposed to outlawing Holocaust denial is not because she fails to recognise how deeply offensive it is but because such laws tend to turn cranks into martyrs.

"I am not interested in debating with Holocaust deniers," she says. "You wouldn't ask a scientist to debate with someone who thinks the Earth is flat. They are not historians, they are liars. Debating them would be nonsensical.

"But we also should not allow them to become martyrs. Nothing is served by having David Irving in a jail cell, except that he has become an international news issue.

"Let him go home and let him continue talking to six people in a basement.

"Let him fade into obscurity where he belongs."


Ophelia Benson said...

"What I find striking is how many people are completely the fact that I am not jumping for joy that he is in prison and hoping that the Austrians keep him there and throw away the key."

I said much the same thing in a post at Butterflies and Wheels (a website I edit) today.

"No, it's not particularly astonishing that Deborah Lipstadt doesn't think Iriving should go to prison. Yes she has every reason to find him extremely irritating, but that doesn't straightforwardly necessarily translate to thinking he ought to be locked up - and it's a bit stupid to think or pretend to think it does. Don't we all find countless throngs of people extremely irritating without thinking (except for the odd passing whim) that they ought to be locked up? I know I do."

(By the way, B&W has an article by Richard Evans you might like.

B&W is about truth and reason and the forces that impede it, so naturally Holocaust denial and falsification of history are central subjects.)

Dave said...

I find myself split on whether or not Mr. Irving should spend a lengthy amount of his remaining years in an Austrian slammer.

On the one hand, I heartily agree with Deborah that he should NOT be turned into a martyr for free speech, and given more publicity than he's worth.

On the other hand, I do feel that if he gets off with a slap on the wrist...or is acquitted...he will stand on the courthouse steps and proclaim a victory over the "Jewish conspiracy" and their laws, and go on a victory tour and lap as the man who "beat the system."

I also think he must be held accountable before man and God for his manifold misdeeds in life.

From everything I've read about this guy, I don't think he's crazy...I think he's just mean. He's just a bully. And there are only two ways to defeat bullies...either make them your friends or beat the living daylights out of them, so that they can't get up and bully again.

Obviously, Mr. Irving is not going to be a friend to anyone but demented ideologues, cranks, and looney conspiracy theorists... the "six people in the basement" that he talks to.

So I don't know. But I do applaud Deborah's magnanimity of spirit, which stands in stark contrast to Irving's bullying and cruelty. Deborah is following the course of Jewish tradition, and performing a mitzvot...urging that her tormentor be freed.

I could not do that. There are people in my life who have caused me and my family unparalleled pain and some cases out of vindictiveness, some cases out of malice, some cases out of ignorance, and in some cases just for laughs. 25 and 30 years later, I still cannot and will not forgive them. And when I heard of them being in difficulties or pain, I'll have to admit...I was delighted.

It takes a special person with special ability to stand up and say, "Let him go and fade from everyone's radar screens."

Deborah ranks me, as General Sherman said of Clara Barton.

One other point: I want everyone to notice the immense absence of something.

There has been no loud effort to seek Irving's freedom. I may be wrong about this, but I have not read in the media, on the web, on history sites, from groups that monitor Holocaust deniers, any indication that Irving's supporters are making any effort to free him.

There have been no protest rallies to free Irving, there have been no statements from his supporters and ilk, no broadsides from the IHR or the National Vanguard, no action by free-speech advocates, no protesters on the courthouse steps...nothing.

The fact that the world is rolling along with its normal mix of events, weather, baseball signings, births, deaths, weddings, and so on...shows me how far Irving has fallen.

Even his supporters are ignoring him.

This is a guy who proclaims from his website that he is the definitive seeker of "Real history" and the final arbiter of the subject. A guy who wrote best-selling books on history, whose appearances generate vast crowds for and against him, who clogged up British courts with endless suits, newspapers with endless stories.

And now he's looking at sitting in a jail cell for the next 20 years (effectively the rest of his life), and nobody in the entire world cares.

The sinner reaps the harvest of his deeds...

Nick said...

Thank you very much for your wise words to the BBC. I agree completely and I have been trying to find the words but now you have done it for me.