Last winter, on a cold
and black night, I went to hear the Holocaust denier David Irving
speak at the University of Colorado. I arrived early to get a
good seat and soon after me came five huge young men, all of them
looking like skinheads. I glared at them and they glared at me
and for a moment I feared there and then I was going to meet my
maker, but it turned out that when Irving himself started to speak,
the skinheads of my fertile imagination rose as one, unfurled
an Israeli flag and announced themselves as Jewish protesters
-- a near case of me being a casualty of friendly fire.
Had it not been for
those protesters, a handful of the just plain curious, and me,
Irving could have held his lecture in a nearby broom closet. He
is a man of justifiably small following, a claque of bigots so
addled by the virus of Jew-hatred that they cannot see the evidence
before their own eyes. The many pictures of the Holocaust, the
films, the artifacts, the testimony of victims and perpetrators
alike is to them proof of a different kind: the ability of Jews
to hoodwink the world. It never happened. The Holocaust is a lie.
Now Irving has admitted
the lie is his. There were gas chambers at Auschwitz, he now admits.
The Jews there did not die of disease, but were murdered outright
and then fed into the ovens. This confession of truth was extracted
by a dilemma. Irving was facing jail time in Austria for the crime
of denying the Holocaust. His penitence got him very little. A
judge hit him with a three-year sentence.
A little delicious satisfaction
is allowed. Irving is a liar. He is an anti-Semite. He has squandered
his considerable gifts at dreary research for the glad rags of
demagoguery. He had a Web page. He gave lectures. He sued and
was sued. He picked the pockets of the gullible. Years ago, he
mistook justifiable criticism by some Jews as an attack by an
entire people. This is the odd talent of the anti-Semite: to see
all by seeing one.
Still, it is troubling
to fight fire with fire -- a fascist mentality with fascist laws.
At the very heart of totalitarianism is an absolute fear of dissent.
Dissenting ideas are not allowed. Anti-Semitism is an idea. It
is a bad one, an odious one, but it is one all the same. The current
Austrian government enforces a law against Holocaust denial but
it is the descendant of a government that once enforced the laws
of the Holocaust itself. True, the law is an attempt to ensure
that the old days do not return, but it is always a bad idea to
leave such legislation on the books. It is a precedent others
Article 48 of Germany's
pre-Nazi Weimar constitution allowed the president to rule by
decree in times of emergency. The law was abused in the Weimar
era and then, of course, by Hitler. It got him on his feet as
a dictator. The remarkable thing about bad laws is their plasticity:
anyone can bend them to their needs.
Germany, France and
other European countries also have laws regarding Holocaust denial.
These are some of the same countries who hold Turkey in sneering
contempt for its law forbidding any insult to ``Turkishness''
-- specifically references to the massacre of Armenians during
World War I and the more recent trouble with the Kurds. To many
Europeans, this is proof of Turkey's alien ways and a reason it
should not be admitted into the European Union. It does not occur
to many Europeans that Turkey is merely protecting its version
of history as Austria and the others protect theirs. Truth, of
course, matters -- but what also matters, critically if not paramountly,
is the effort to impose it by government fiat.
It is easy enough to
dismiss Irving and say he doesn't matter. Without his governmental
tormentors, that would certainly be the case. But what makes him
dangerous is not his ideas, but the official, censorious, response
to them. He is muscled up solely by virtue of the forces arrayed
against him. These governments, particularly Austria, have transformed
the imbecilic into something exotically taboo. By banning these
ideas, the various European governments accord them a certain
respect: See, why are they afraid of us? It must be because what
we say is true.
Let Irving howl his
idiocy in freedom. He doesn't deserve to be jailed. He deserves
to be ignored.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group