David Irving: Behind bars, but liberals defend Irving

Historians in the News

Behind the neo-gothic town hall in the heart of Vienna sits the Josefstadt jail. This large prison, attached to the city's main criminal court, is a constant cause of complaint from the well-heeled burghers of the district, who would prefer to see the low life accommodated elsewhere.

Now the 1,200 inmates have been joined by an infamous foreigner; David Irving will be confined to a Josefstadt cell over Christmas and the New Year, pending trial on criminal charges deriving from his discredited views on the history of the second world war.

Irving, the controversial British historian and Nazi apologist, stands accused of denying the Holocaust happened, a criminal offence in Austria. He was barred from the country but, an inveterate risk-taker, he flew from London to Basle in Switzerland this month, rented a car and drove to Vienna.

The idea was to meet up with a bunch of student radicals from an extreme right fraternity. Their hobbies include dressing up in funny clothes and little pillbox caps, then drawing blood by slashing one another's cheeks in fencing duels. They've been at it since Bismarck's day.

The Austrian police have tape recordings and 60 pages of transcripts of two speeches Irving delivered in Austria in November 1989 and a newspaper interview he gave at the time.

The Guardian has a copy of the indictment which cites copiously from the speeches Irving made in 1989. "There were no extermination camps in the Third Reich," he declared. "Is it not time once and for all to put an end to this fairy tale of the gas chambers." Adolf Hitler "held out his hands to protect the Jews", and knew nothing of the Final Solution. Thirty thousand people were murdered at Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland - as opposed to the accepted figure of 1.5 million. After the war, the Poles fabricated the gas chamber evidence at Auschwitz to match the "fantasies" of survivors. The billions paid in reparations after the war by Germany to the state of Israel were unwarranted. "That is, of course, embarrassing. It was all a huge swindle ... Why does the German people let itself be slandered thus?"

The arguments advanced may be contemptible. But are they criminal? Is the prosecution of Irving justified, or is the looming jury trial and the prospect of a 10-year jail term if found guilty an assault on free speech?

These are some of the questions being asked here. "Dragging fools and falsifiers of history before a court is unworthy of a liberal democracy today," said Christian Fleck, president of Austria's association of sociologists.

In a long commentary in the liberal Standard newspaper, he noted that the Irving case was particularly ill-judged when contrasted with Austria's poor record in apprehending ageing war crimes suspects living in the country.

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