David Irving interviewed from his Viennese prisonHistorians in the News
As darkness descends upon the thick walls of Vienna's ancient Josefstadt courthouse, the adjacent prison compound comes to life. Shouts and cries echo across the inner courtyard as the inmates talk to each other in a plethora of languages. The elderly Englishman in Block C looks up briefly from the stack of papers that is lying on the small wooden table in front of him and listens before he resumes his writing.
'I'm writing my memoirs - about 20 pages each day,' David Irving tells me the next morning when I visit him in the Viennese prison that has been his home since the Austrian police arrested him in November last year on charges of denying the Holocaust.
I had been sitting in a squalid little waiting room for an hour together with large families arguing with each other and teenage mothers pushing prams around. One of their relatives is behind bars for threatening to kill his wife, another has been arrested for drug offences. 'If only all the inmates were as well behaved as he is,' a prison guard sighed when I asked him about Irving. No, I think, as my number comes up and I enter the high security meeting room, you wouldn't normally expect an historian and writer among the thieves, pimps and drug dealers held here.
But there he is, sitting behind a thick pane of bulletproof glass, smartly dressed in a dark blue suit and tie, telephone in hand. 'It's nonsense to put someone in prison for his views,' he says in impeccable, accent-free German. 'It's like having a law that prohibits wearing yellow collars.'
Irving is referring to Austria's Verbotsgesetz, a constitutional law dating back to 1945 which not only bans National Socialist or neo-Nazi organisations but makes incitement to neo-Nazi activity and the glorification or praise of National Socialist ideology illegal. It also prohibits public denial, belittlement, approval, or justification of National Socialist crimes, including the Holocaust. While other countries such as Germany and Poland have anti-Nazi laws too, Austria's Verbotsgesetz is particularly strict, carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years. With an average of 25 convictions each year, it is also enforced vigorously by the judiciary.
In 1989 the Austrian public prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for Irving, who had claimed during lectures in Vienna and Leoben that the 'gas chambers in Auschwitz never existed'. Austria's then Federal Chancellor Franz Vranitzky publicly warned the British historian that 'if he should ever turn up here again, he'll be locked up immediately'.
When I ask Irving why he still accepted the invitation to speak before a right-wing Viennese student fraternity, he feigns surprise. He has been to Austria twice since 1989, he says, to visit Goebbels's ex-lover, Lída Baarová, and there were never any problems. 'Helsinki Sanomat ran an article on it with pictures. You can look it up there,' Irving adds, ever fond of citing obscure sources to bolster his claims.
They treat him well in prison, but, Irving confides, he lacks money and equipment: 'Thank God someone sent me some ink.' Then again, when he doesn't show himself off as an innocent victim pursued by the powerful forces of what he calls the 'enemies of truth', Irving likes to show off his wealth. He may have had to sell his spacious Mayfair townhouse after losing the case against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin in 2000, but now, he boasts, he has something even better. 'We just moved into a enormous luxury flat near Downing Street. I did that deliberately in order to provoke.' Irving, it becomes abundantly clear, hates Blair, New Labour, and the multi-coloured society of today's Britain.
'My little daughter,' he adds with a sheepish grin, 'of course thinks it's cool that daddy is in prison'; and somehow one cannot help feeling that daddy himself relishes having another big fight on his hands. Irving loves to cast himself as an innocent maverick single-handedly taking on powerful governments, the mighty press and influential lobby organisations. He signed 60 blank cheques before leaving London, and packed six shirts for what was supposed to be a two-day trip.
'The boy scouts, you know,' he says, solemnly. 'Always be prepared, that's my motto.' It is as if his lifelong 'revisionist' mission has been nothing but a Boys' Own-style adventure for an eccentric who never quite grew up. In fact, Irving once praised his fellow revisionists as 'staunch and unflinching soldiers in what our brave comrade [fellow revisionist historian] Robert Faurisson has called "this great adventure".'
Why did he risk going on a journey that he knew might get him into trouble? 'I'm from a family of officers, and I'm an Englishman. We march toward the gunfire,' he snarls into the receiver. Now that he is doing his rounds in a prison yard, however, he finds that he didn't pack the right marching equipment. 'I have very expensive shoes,' he sighs, 'but they are coming apart from walking outside in the yard.'
On 20 February, the day of his trial, Irving tells me, he will wear his blue pinstripe suit. It's the same £2,700 suit tailored at Savile Row for his London trial six years ago, the costume he uses when he plays his other stock role, that of the serious historian and successful businessman, for whom travel bans and anti-Nazi laws are nothing but an infringement of free trade and competition.
'I'm only responsible for my books,' Irving exclaims. 'But I even found a copy of my Hitler biography here in the prison library.' It is a classic Irving manoeuvre. He is a master conjurer of red herrings. By pointing to an apparent inconsistency in the authorities' behaviour, he elegantly glosses over the question of whether he isn't also responsible for the things he says in seedy backrooms and provincial diners. The trouble with him is that, often, three out of four things he says are right. There are few others as adept as Irving at harvesting lies from seeds of truth. The prison library did stock one of his books, the governor tells me later, but it is the one on the Hungarian uprising.
'They burnt my books,' Irving sighs. He knows only too well that book burning is taboo and swiftly slips into the victim's role. When I remind him that some of his books were pulped by the publishers because of legal actions, which isn't quite the same as 'burning books', Irving swiftly moves on to another topic. After all, he has never been reluctant himself to drag his critics to court. He admits that if he is not released in February, things will get difficult for him. But then he feels he's not alone. 'I have received many letters of support already,' Irving claims, proudly.
In the afternoon, I meet his lawyer, Elmar Kresbach, who produces a bundle of letters from his briefcase. Kresbach, a smartly dressed, formidable barrister who normally represents murderers and Mafia members, shakes his head at the incoherent and confused hate mail that has clogged his letterbox since he took over Irving's mandate. 'He doesn't understand that himself,' Kresbach says of his client. 'I think he is becoming fed up with these nutty people, too.' Kresbach maintains that his British client cannot be expected to be familiar enough with the Austrian political scene to know where the groups and societies that invited him stand politically. Irving himself claims to be ignorant of the extreme right-wing ideology of his hosts.
It is a claim that is hard to believe when you visit Willi Lasek in the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance. A balding and softly spoken middle-aged man, the archivist looks every inch the opposite of the bullish Irving as he sits behind his desk in an office crammed to the ceiling with files. And Lasek, unlike Irving, is extraordinarily cautious with his statements. 'I cannot tell you whether Irving actively denied the holocaust recently,' he says as he picks up two bulging files labelled "David Irving" from the shelf, 'but this will show you that his contacts to the Austrian and German neo-Nazi scene go back all the way to the early 1980s.' The boxes reveal a stack of yellowed flyers announcing a 1984 Irving lecture, in which 'the courageous taboo-breaker of history' would reveal 'sensational secrets' about the Third Reich. At the bottom of the page there is a rallying call for 'solidarity with Rudolf Hess', Hitler's one-time deputy.
In 1984, Irving had been invited to Austria by the convicted right-wing extremist Norbert Burger, an honoured alumnus of the Olympia student fraternity, the same society that Irving was supposed to address last year. But then as now, his lecture never took place. As Irving tried to give a press conference in Vienna's Cafe Landtmann, he was arrested and thrown out of the country. 'This gentleman is not welcome here,' a police spokesman told the public. Irving successfully appealed against the decision, but when he returned to Austria in 1989 for a lecture series, his notoriety was already such that all but two of the talks had to be cancelled because of -public protests.
At around that time, Irving notoriously asked why it never occurred to Jews 'to look into the mirror and say, why am I disliked?' Did he ever look into the mirror, I inquire, and ask himself the same question? 'I know what I'd have to do in order to be liked again,' he replies with a grim look, 'but they're not going to get it.' Irving is as obsessed with detail as he is with being right. Then again, he sometimes throws all pretence of being a serious scholar away for a publicity stunt.
Has the German dictator become a surrogate father figure for Irving, who grew up without his father? 'I wouldn't go that far,' Irving answers warily. But what does he make of Hitler? 'He's like the curate's egg - good in parts,' comes the somewhat quaint reply. 'I'm not right-wing, you see,' he continues. 'I do enjoy reading The Guardian.'
Perhaps what some of Irving's critics have claimed is true after all: that the man has no real convictions and no consistent ideological programme. Robert Jan van Pelt, who was a witness in the London trial, thinks Irving is a hysteric. 'He is a fairly good speaker,' van Pelt explains over the phone, 'but he gets all the energy from his audience, and then he says what they want to hear.' And over the past years, van Pelt adds, Irving's company consisted only of right-wing extremists and Holocaust-deniers.
I ask Irving about his spectacular U-turn on the Hitler Diaries in 1983, when, after first denouncing them as fakes, he changed his mind and endorsed them as genuine in a Sunday Times article a fortnight later. 'It was just a joke. It was entertainment. All that had nothing to do with historiography,' Irving grins. 'It's not important who wins, but how you play.'
It comes as no surprise that Irving's view of history is totally devoid of moral considerations. He is too amoral to even comprehend that his statements about the Holocaust may hurt survivors. His view of history is not unlike that of the National Socialists. History, like nature, is red in tooth and claw. The stronger win, and it is only the strong that Irving reserves his admiration for. Someone like 'Bomber' Harris. With his first book, the young David Irving drew attention to the horrors of the Allies' bombing of Dresden in 1945. Yet he admires Sir Arthur Harris as a 'great man'. 'I'm referring to him as a commander, like Dönitz,' Irving exclaims. 'If you can send 20,000 young men to their deaths each day, then you are a great commander.' Small wonder that Irving admires Hitler too.
Suddenly, it all begins to make sense: The Third Reich as a vast playground, his fellow 'revisionists' as brothers in arms and enough material for a host of adventure novels like the ones Irving enjoyed as a child back in the Essex of the Forties. A time when England wasn't a multicultural society yet, the Empire still existed and a small boy listened with dreamy eyes to the stories about his uncle who served in the Bengal Lancers.
Irving misses the Empire and the lost sense of security offered by a society in which everyone knew their place. He is 'naturally, a monarchist' and thinks that the Austrians are 'simply jealous of our monarchy'.
What about your outrageous statements, I ask, like the one about more people having died on the back seat of Ted Kennedy's car than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz? Doesn't he think that's deeply offensive? 'It's the English way, and it's not always polite.' Irving likes such tasteless jokes; he finds nothing wrong with making fun of Holocaust survivors and dressing it up as prankish humour. His desire to cause outrage seems rooted in the sort of reckless arrogance you find in some public school boys who think the world belongs to them. It may not be a coincidence that he hails from a country where jokes about the 'Führer' are still beloved by the tabloid press and where what passes for polite society enjoys cracking jokes about Hitler. There is no doubt that Irving has as many critics in Britain as elsewhere, but he also thrives on the tolerance of the liberal majority in Britain, who tolerate the most tasteless of statements in the name of free speech.
Since Irving's arrest, Austria, too, has witnessed a new debate on Holocaust denial and free speech. The sociologist Christian Fleck, Lord Dahrendorf and others have spoken up against criminalising opinions even if they are as vile as those of David Irving. Even Deborah Lipstadt has suggested that Irving should be let go. 'If you had said to me a couple of months ago that I would be asking for David Irving's release,' she says, 'I would have said you are crazy.' But Lipstadt doesn't want to be on the side of censorship, she says, and she doesn't want Irving to become a martyr to free speech.
The smartly-dressed prisoner behind the thick glass couldn't agree more. 'I would be less hopeful about the outcome of my trial if I didn't know that every intellectual in the world is on my side,' Irving exclaims triumphantly.' In an instant, Irving has changed his costume again and now enters the stage as the reckless gambler who, by deliberately risking his arrest in Austria, has confounded his critics. They now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of appealing for the release of the man whose views they detest. It's a high but perhaps necessary price to pay. Let Irving talk, and he will unravel himself. Perhaps his last costume will be that of the court jester.
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