//Irving trial snared in debate over freedom of speech

Irving trial snared in debate over freedom of speech

From Melanie Haape in Berlin, Sunday Herald, 19, Feb 2006,

TALK about denying the Holocaust, and you hit a raw nerve among Germans – even 60 years after the fact. At least that’s the impression you get when discussing it with the educated middle-aged, middle class.

However, when it comes to the opinions of right-wingers or the young, it’s sometimes a different story. Freedom of speech – even if it includes saying gas chambers never existed – wins the day. When controversial British historian David Irving takes the stand in a Vienna court tomorrow for denying that gas chambers existed at Auschwitz, the 11-member jury could jail him for up to 10 years.

Of the nine countries with laws to punish those who lie about the Holocaust, Austria is the most stringent. Irving is being charged with breaking a law which forbids lying about, denying or belittling the Holocaust .

Banned from Germany, Canada and Australia, Irving, a 68-year-old from Essex, knew there was a warrant for his arrest in Austria dating back to 1989, when he toured there and made his Auschwitz claims. Despite this, he returned there last November, only to be caught while driving on the motorway. Since then, he has been awaiting trial in detention.

Stringent security will be in place in an attempt to control the flood of right-wing supporters who are expected to swamp the court. German pensioner Fred Duswald said: “If I was in Vienna I’d go to the court to show my support. They should let him free.”

He cites historians and critics such as military historian John Keegan who have underlined the “valuable input which Irving made to our understanding of the second world war”.

Duswald added: “Everyone should be allowed to voice their opinion – whether Irving or the Muhammed caricature artists. One can dispute their view – whether it’s religious or about the gas chambers – but I’ve been to a few of Irving’s talks, and I believe he only voiced his opinion which was built up from his deep research into Hitler and the Holocaust.”

In one of a string of articles against Irving’s jailing, Germany’s extremist right-wing weekly newspaper National Zeitung recently made much of the key figures who are against Irving’s arrest. These include “one of the leading representatives of Western Liberalism” Professor Dr Ralf Dahrendorf, and Professor Deborah Lipstadt, one of the best known Holocaust historians and one of Irving’s biggest critics. Lipstadt has said that nobody wins if Irving is incarcerated.

Other than this, Irving’s imminent trial has been given little prominence in the German media, but is being followed by many across every section of German society. Together with the controversial Muhammed cartoon saga, it has illustrated the limitations and complexities regarding the principles of press freedom, one of the pillars of Western values.

Among the more liberally minded, it is not unusual to find people willing to advocate freedom of speech in the Muhammed cartoon case, but inclined to put their foot down when it comes to Irving’s right to speak his mind.

Inge Masopust, a 38-year-old musician, said: “There are jokes about all the religions, and obviously there should be limits as to how far these go, but the Holocaust is a fact and trying to lie about this deserves punishment.”

Many German youngsters don’t believe jailing Irving achieves anything. Potsdam student Hendrick Reichhalt said: “If you send him to jail you could send all the right-wing youngsters worldwide to jail because they also idolise Hitler and his actions.”

It is the interpretation of the law itself that preoccupies many intellectuals such as German historian Professor Hajo Funke from the Free University in Berlin. Funke said: “This [Holocaust denial] law is part of our political culture, and the majority of the public and the political elite are sticking to it, here in Germany and in Austria.”

Funke, who testified at Irving’s London trial, argues that one simply can’t compare Holocaust denial with the Muhammed cartoon debacle.

He said that Irving clearly provoked the Austrian authorities with his speeches there: “The core of the law forbidding Holocaust denial in the 1980s was aimed at stopping the blatant and aggressive humiliation which part of the extreme right-wing were undertaking against Jewish survivors. Once we’re free of this part of our history we can re-visit the statutes.”

Funke believes that while Irving should not necessarily be sent to prison for the full 10 years, it is important that the law should show its teeth.

When the liberal Spiegel magazine printed a massive article on Irving last week, he was depicted as a “swastika-wielding provocateur” who plays on being a rebel. Irving’s lawyer, Elmar Kresbach, a well-known criminal defence attorney , told journalists he plans to underline his client’s naiveté and says that Irving has found new documents which convince him of the gas chambers in Auschwitz. He is hoping for a suspended sentence when the jury give their expected ruling on Tuesday.

19 February 2006