Opinion: Silence Hate With Truth Freedom of speech must apply equally to those with loathsome as those with virtuous views
March 16, 2006 issue
Friends thought I would be celebrating last week after an Austrian court sentenced British writer David Irving to three years in jail for denying the Holocaust.
Several years ago Irving sued me for describing him as doing just that, and for calling him a "Hitler partisan." I had good reason. Describing Hitler as "the best friend" the Jews had, he claimed that "More people died in Senator Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than in gas chambers in Auschwitz." He also threatened to form an organization called Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust, and Other Liars, and call it by its acronym: ASSHOLs.
The judge ruled for me and, describing Irving as anti-Semitic and racist, denounced his claims as "perverse," "misleading" and "unreal." Irving last week tried to convince the Austrian court that, as a result of new evidence, he had changed his views. But the three presiding judges dismissed the about-face, comparing him to a "prostitute who has not changed her ways for decades."
Still, I don't feel like celebrating. I dislike curtailing free speech. Only last week, London's Mayor Ken Livingstone was supended for a month after likening a Jewish reporter to a Nazi prison guard.
The violence accompanying the publication of the Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad have caused many Europeans to wonder whether those doing the protesting (and particularly those calling for the death of the cartoonists) understand the nature of democracy and free speech.
Like many, I winced when other European papers republished them. But they had every right to do so. To jail someone for denying the Holocaust, while supporting the right of the cartoonists to lampoon other religions, smacks of a double standard.
David Irving is no poster boy for free speech. He has a legal action pending against a reporter who has criticized his work. He once threatened to sue an American scholar and his publisher if they did not remove critical remarks about him from a book. When it finally appeared in the U.K., after a long delay, those statements were gone or greatly toned down.
Now this same man sits in jail protesting the violation of his free speech. To be sure, denying the Holocaust has a different resonance in Germany and Austria. But would it not be more effective if they shunned and marginalized those who glorify Hitler or deny his wrongdoings, rather than banned them?
I countered Irving's hate speech—for that is what it is—with honesty. In court we proved that every one of his claims was bunk. The judge's overwhelming ruling in my favor was devastating for all Holocaust deniers, as their core arguments collapsed under the light of day.
Ironically, had there been an English law against Holocaust denial, we might never have had the chance to demonstrate that denial is just a web of lies. My defeat of Irving was sweet because it was based on reason.
Instead of looking to the law, let those with a fidelity to historical accuracy fight these liars and haters using facts and genuine research as their weapons. Greater openness, not less, may sometimes cause pain. But in the end societies will be stronger for it.