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World: Holocaust-Denial Case Highlights Free-Speech Issues

David Irving (right) and his lawyer, Elmar Kresbach, in court today (epa) Right-wing British historian David Irving went on trial today in Vienna for denying the Holocaust. Irving could face 10 years in jail if found guilty. His trial comes amid a growing international debate on freedom of expression, following the publication in Europe of controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

PRAGUE, 20 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Irving is notorious for claiming Adolf Hitler knew little of the Holocaust -- and that there is no evidence the Nazis carried out their "Final Solution" to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population.

Today, appearing before a court in Vienna, he pleaded guilty to the charge of denying the Holocaust in two 1989 speeches in Austria.

'Telling Them What To Write'

"Of course, it is a question of freedom of speech," Irving told journalists outside the courtroom before the hearing. "Obviously, you can't trust German historians, you can't trust Austrian historians if they are constantly writing the history with the law over their shoulder, telling them what to write."

Amid the recent storm over the Muhammad cartoons, many Europeans have supported their publication as a free-speech right -- even as the cartoons, like Irving's opinions, are offensive to many people.

"It is 17 years since he held this lecture, and he had a lot of time to think about it."

“[Irving’s] actual thoughts, and views, are actually a deep affront to those who actually survived or lost loved-ones in the Holocaust," says David Dadge, who studies freedom of expression issues at the Vienna-based International Press Institute.

Dealing With Objectional Ideas

Dadge says free societies must allow freedom of expression, even when it offends, such as the Muhammad cartoons. He says the free exchange of information lets the public challenge questionable ideas and facts -- and that, in turn, helps marginalize them.

“You cannot, with views and ideas, keep them from being discussed," Dadge says. "And such laws as the ones that Austria actually has, tries to prevent that. But of course, through the Internet, people are going to be able to access those types of views; you can get on a train and go to another country in Europe to hear the likes of David Irving actually give speeches on those subjects. So having laws that locally try and prevent that kind of discussions is in essence kind of pointless, because it doesn’t prevent those discussions and those views from actually getting out."

The Auschwitz death camp (epa)

Some in the Muslim world criticize Europe for being hypocritical on free speech. That is, while some in Europe may clamor for the right to publish the Muhammad cartoons, at the same time people like Irving face the prospect of jail for simply expressing their opinions about the Holocaust.

Dadge doesn’t agree with the Holocaust denial laws in Austria, Germany, and some other European countries. But he says they were put in place in hopes of preventing a repeat of what happened during World War II and the Holocaust.

“These laws were put there to stop the virus of Nazism from spreading," Dadge says. "You can see that from a historical point of view; there’s a kind of fear about that.”

ECHR Strikes Down 'Free Speech' Defense

Many Holocaust deniers say their writings fall under a “universal right to free speech,” citing the European Convention on Human Rights. But the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly struck down this argument.

According to the court’s judgments, invoking free speech to propagate denial of crimes against humanity, such as the Holocaust, goes against the spirit of the document.

On his way to court today in Vienna, Irving told reporters he had changed his mind -- that he no longer questioned the Holocaust.

Elmar Kresbach, his lawyer, said Irving conceded that he had erred in contending that the Nazis had no gas chambers at Auschwitz.

"It is 17 years since he held this lecture, and he had a lot of time to think about it," Kresbach said. "And so, [this] is a first time to talk about this discussion in Austria, which had been 17 years ago."

If found guilty, Irving could face 10 years behind bars -- a possibility he dismissed.

"I think Austria would be very stupid, indeed, to put me in jail for several years," Irving said today.

The trial’s prosecutor, Michael Klackl, says the jury of six women and two men is likely to reach a verdict soon.