Defending free speech


An Austrian court has sentenced disgraced historian David Irving to three years in prison. But prosecutors say that isn’t punishment enough and that the 67-year-old should serve the full 10 years for violating an Austrian law proscribing anyone who "denies, grossly plays down, approves or tries to excuse the National Socialist genocide or other National Socialist crimes against humanity …"

Austria has reason to be sensitive to this, give its squalid embrace of the Third Reich and its willing participation in its crimes. But Irving should not be sentenced to jail for 10 or even three years, and Austria does Western values no favor by criminalizing his fanciful re-creation of Nazi history.

Irving is our time’s most notorious Holocaust denier, who at various times, according to accounts, has claimed Anne Frank did not write her diary, that Hitler never ordered the destruction of European Jewry and that there was never a systematic, mass-scale murder of Jews in World War II. The missing Jews, he said, either died of disease or decamped for Palestine.

Irving, again according to accounts, was at one time an extremely promising historian with great research and language skills, but his reputation and standing among his colleagues declined steadily as he waded ever deeper into the swamps of Holocaust denial.

He was ruined professionally and financially in 2000 when he lost a libel case he had brought against American historian Deborah Lipstadt when a British court deemed him a Holocaust denier, an anti-Semite and a racist. He kept speaking and writing, but in the arena of free speech and debate his books and ideas became ever more marginalized. It is one of the reasons we have a First Amendment in this country.

Irving retained a small following among anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and anti-Israel mullahs, but he was effectively consigned to obscurity until Austria arrested him last November for two speeches he had made there in 1989.

Austria has made it difficult for the West to explain to the Arab Muslim world why publishing cartoons it finds offensive is a principle worthy of protection while Irving’s own offensive musings are worthy of prison.

And as a matter of principle, Irving’s right to speak must be defended. He should not be in a position to add the honorific "free-speech martyr" to his shabby resume. "Crackpot" will continue to do just fine.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)