Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt was once sued by David Irving, but that doesn’t mean she supports the jail sentence given to the Holocaust denier in Austria this week.
On Tuesday, a day after an Austrian court sentenced Irving to three years in prison for statements he made in 1989, Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, said: “I’m in principle against laws that promote censorship. I’m in principle against laws on Holocaust denial. I’m in principle against laws that prevent the publishing of cartoons in Denmark.” However, she said that she understands the need for laws on Holocaust denial in countries such as Germany and Austria, given their records during World War II.
Irving, 67, was arrested on entering Austria last November on charges stemming from two speeches he gave in Austria in 1989 in which he contended that most of those who died in the camps were not murdered, but instead fell victim to disease. He was convicted under a 1992 law, which applies to “whoever denies, grossly plays down, approves or tries to excuse the National Socialist genocide or other National Socialist crimes against humanity in a print publication, in broadcast or other media.”
Irving’s lawyer, Elmar Kresbach, lodged an immediate appeal after the sentence was announced Monday. He told reporters that the sentence had been meant as a political warning.
“Irving had expected certain strictness by the court, because he was a very well-known case,” Kresbach said. “But the sentence was too harsh. It became a bit of a message trial, and the message was too strong.”
Austrian prosecutors on the case want Irving to spend more time in jail. The prosecutors appealed Tuesday, saying that his sentence of three years is too lenient given Irving’s importance to right-wing extremists.
Irving, who faced up to 10 years in jail, had pleaded guilty to the charges. But he also had said that he had changed some of his views and that he now believes the gas chambers had existed and that “millions of Jews died.”
“I was wrong. I recognize my guilt,” he told the court in fluent German. “I have changed my ideas since 1989. History and historic research are like a tree in constant growth.”
Judge Peter Liebetreu was not convinced. “The court did not consider the defendant to have genuinely changed his mind,” he said after pronouncing the sentence. “The regret he showed was considered to be mere lip service to the law.”
Lipstadt was not alone among Jewish observers in expressing concern over the latest chapter in Irving’s well-publicized effort to deny the Holocaust.
“The sentence against Irving confirms that he and his views are discredited, but as a general rule I don’t think that this is the way this should be dealt with,” said Antony Lerman, former director of the London-based Jewish Policy Research Institute. “It is better to combat denial by education and using good speech to drive out bad speech.”
“Freedom of expression is important,” he said. “Once you start legislating about history, it could lead to a rocky road.”
Some Jewish groups praised the verdict.
“The sentence confirms David Irving as a bigot and an antisemite and also serves a direct challenge to the Iranian regime’s embrace of Holocaust denial,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement.
Irving looked shocked when the verdict was announced. “Of course it’s a question of freedom of speech,” he said. “The law is an ass.”
Austria was part of the Third Reich during World War II, and the country only began to come to terms with its Nazi past in the late 1980s after it came to light that President Kurt Waldheim had lied about his World War II activities as a soldier in the German army.
The country, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union, is one of 11 with laws making Holocaust denial a criminal offense. Britain and the United States have no laws on Holocaust denial.
This was not the first time that Irving had tangled with the law over his views.
In 1992, a German court fined Irving for having declared publicly that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. He was barred from entering Germany and several other countries.
In 2000 he lost a highly publicized libel lawsuit in London against Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, after Lipstadt called him a Holocaust denier in her 1994 book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.”
That victory, perhaps, helps support her conviction that books and not laws are what should fuel the fight against denying the Holocaust.
“We don’t need laws to fight Holocaust deniers. We’ve got history on our side,” she said.