Saturday, February 25, 2006

Wall St. Journal Editorial on Irving's sentence

An editorial in Friday's Wall St. Journal takes a positon very similar to the one I have taken.

The Journal notes Irving's insidious influence on our understanding of history, e.g. how he has shaped our view of what happened at Dresden or Churchill's role in the lead up to World War II.

I particularly like the fact that they recognize Irving as a "pseudo-historian" and they wisely note that had Irving not gone so far as to jump on the Holocaust denial bandwagon he might have continued to have a truly invidious impact on the popular historical perceptions.

As is so often the case with this man, Irving brought the house down on his own head.

Defending the IndefensibleFebruary 24, 2006; Page W13

There are many reasons to regret the decision by Austrian authorities to prosecute, sentence and imprison for three years or more British pseudohistorian David Irving. Liberal democracies ought not to be in the business of criminalizing speech, except speech that incites violence.

Prohibitions against specified types of speech, such as Holocaust denial, have a tendency to invite further prohibitions and risk rendering the concept of free speech a nonsense. Imprisoning people for their views alone has a way of turning louts into "martyrs."

And just when the Danish government is under unprecedented attack for its refusal to intervene in the editorial decision-making of a private newspaper, it seems perverse to offer Muslim provocateurs an example of a European country
catering to one set of sensitivities but not another.

But that's the least of it. By imprisoning Mr. Irving, Austria has now forced serious people to come to the principled defense of a detestable man.

Press accounts usually describe Mr. Irving as a Holocaust revisionist" or denier. That he is, as a British court found in 2000, when it ruled against him in a defamation suit that he had brought against American scholar Deborah Lipstadt.

But Mr. Irving is something worse, partly because he is something better: A man of learning and a certain kind of intellectual brilliance, he made dishonest use of both qualities in an attempt to restore the reputation of the Nazis and blacken those of their victims.

Sometimes this has been to noted effect: When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls the Holocaust a "myth," he is doing so in large part on the authority of Mr. Irving (whom the Iranian government recently invited to speak).

But often Mr. Irving's influence has been felt in ways that we are only dimly aware of. Consider his first book, on the February 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden, in which he put the civilian death toll at between 100,000 and 250,000. That estimate -- grossly exaggerated, as later scholarship would show -- became widely accepted and helped spark a now popular perception that Germany was as much a victim of World War II as it was the instigator.

Or take "Hitler's War," Mr. Irving's attempt to rescue the Fuehrer's reputation by casting Winston Churchill as the real warmonger. Mr. Irving's Hitler revisionism never caught on among serious scholars, but the Churchill revisionism did.

Here lies Mr. Irving's real cunning. For decades he successfully presented himself as a serious historian of admittedly outre views, when in fact he was the opposite: a propagandist posing as a scholar. His methods were "controversy" and the "challenging of taboos," typically catchphrases of the left that he
adapted to his own purposes. This tactic was ultimately far more insidious -- and effective -- than his forays into Holocaust denial, calibrated as those often were.

Had Mr. Irving only restrained himself slightly, the damage he might have done to our collective historical perceptions could have been incalculably greater.

Fortunately, perhaps, anti-Semites almost inevitably out themselves: Their views flare like hives, often inadvertently and on inconvenient occasions. Ahead of the recent verdict, Mr. Irving had already been bankrupted, not only financially but reputationally, thanks to the efforts of Ms. Lipstadt and

That's where he might have remained for the rest of his life had it not been for the ill-timed intervention of the Austrian police and judiciary.

Now the rest of us have the unpleasant task of reminding ourselves of exactly who this man is -- and extending a begrudging hand of rescue.

1 comment:

Dave said...

The Wall Street Journal editorial makes a large number of excellent points, particularly the fact that Mr. Irving's tactics now force many people of good will to defend the principles of free speech by trying to get him out of jail.

I can think of better candidates to benefit from such amnesty. But failing to support efforts for Irving lends hypocrisy to efforts for others, who have equally vulgar views.

The answer, I think, is that Mr. Irving manipulated himself into this situation, and is an intellectual bully. He deliberately created this situation. He should stew in his own juice for a while.

But ultimately, he should go free on those "free speech" grounds, but he must not be made into a martyr for free speech.

As Alan Dershowitz says at the very end of the movie "Reversal of Fortune," to Claus von Bulow: "Legally, this was an important victory. Morally, you're on your own."