Irving case prompts Austria law debate

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The trial of the British historian David Irving has unleashed a debate in Austria about the country's Holocaust denial law, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail.

The law was enacted after World War II, and was meant to prevent any further Nazi activities.

Austria had been annexed to Nazi Germany in 1938, and was deeply involved in the crimes of the Third Reich.

A few Austrians, such as Lothar Hobelt,

an associate professor of history at the University of Vienna, believe it should never have been set up at all.

"This is a silly law by silly people for silly people," he said.

"In fact, having a law that says you mustn't question a particular historical instance, if anything, creates doubt about it, because if an argument has to be protected by the force of law, it means it's a weak argument."

But many other Austrians believe that not having the law would lay them open to the charge that they were not confronting their country Nazi past.

For many years, Austrians saw themselves as victims not perpetrators. The legacy of this reluctance to admit responsibility still casts a shadow here.

Professor Theo Ohlinger, an expert in constitutional law at Vienna University, says the law is a sensitive issue.

"It is so clear that the Holocaust existed that everybody who denies it is considered a fool. But abolishing this law could signal that Austria may not be really active in fighting against any National Socialist activities, and that is a problem."

Before World War II, 200,000 Jews lived in Vienna. Nowadays, the community is only a few thousand strong.

Vienna's chief Rabbi Chaim Eisenberg says denying the Holocaust is dangerous.

"All this is very ugly, despicable," he says.

"I am not sure if people should go to jail, but there should be some measure to make sure that this does not happen."

In Vienna's cobbled Judenplatz stands the stone memorial to the 65,000 Austrian Jews who died in the Holocaust.

These days, few Austrians dispute the genocide, and historian Tina Walzer says the debate has moved on.

"The discussion is on a completely different level," she says.

"Today we are talking about compensation payments, we are talking about restitution. This is much more concrete than just talking about 'did the Holocaust happen or did it not?'"

The fact that people are daring to debate the Holocaust denial law shows that Austrians are less afraid to confront the past.

But sensitivities still run very high, and as long as that is the case, the law will remain in force.

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