Last February, when an Austrian judge sentenced British revisionist historian David Irving to three years in prison for denying the existence of Nazi gas chambers back in 1989, a wide range of commentators criticized the verdict and Austria’s prohibition statute on which it was based. Even American historian Deborah Lipstadt, who had won a high-profile libel suit against Irving in 2000 after calling him a racist and an antisemite, warned against using censorship laws to fight neo-Nazi thought.
Last month, an Austrian appeals judge known for his right-wing views praised Irving’s “irreproachable conduct,” cut his sentence by two-thirds and set the 68 year old free. Irving returned to Britain, where he reaffirmed his views that the Holocaust never took place. He also declared that he felt no remorse. And once again, the international reaction was critical.
When it comes to dealing with the Holocaust, it seems, Austria just can’t get it right.
The country’s prohibition statute against National Socialist activities is one of the world’s harshest, but it has never truly served its purpose. It was passed in the late 1940s, when Nazi revival was still a realistic threat, but the minimum penalties were so high that few courts ever reached a guilty verdict. The penalties were reduced in the 1990s, but the inclusion of Holocaust denial put the law in conflict with the principle of free speech. Is it really necessary to throw people in jail, critics asked, just because they express outrageous ideas?
The problem with European Holocaust deniers, of course, is that their message is not about facts but about ideology. Their denial of concentration camps, gas chambers or the systematic killing of millions of Jews, all of which is as well documented as any event in the 20th century, is meant to glorify Adolf Hitler’s deeds, not to question them. Through his books claiming that Hitler was unaware of the Holocaust, Irving became a hero in international neo-Nazi circles, admired by people convinced of Hitler’s infallibility. In the process, Irving moved even further to the right and sacrificed any scientific respectability that he once enjoyed.
Irving’s record notwithstanding, the court system is the wrong forum for dealing with the loathsome phenomenon of Holocaust denial. As the Irving case shows, every guilty sentence is both too harsh, given that what is being punished is essentially a crime of belief, and too lenient, given the outrage justifiably caused by neo-Nazi ideology. Austria feels that it has a special obligation to fight these ideas with all available means, but the efforts would be better spent on youth education than on judicial prosecution.
Ironically, just a few days before Irving was set free, an Austrian resident with a very different pedigree made headlines by denying crucial aspects of the Holocaust. Moshe Aryeh Friedman, a Vienna-based ultra-Orthodox self-styled “rabbi,” was a prominent guest at a Tehran conference that drew Holocaust deniers from all over the world, including former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke. The photo of the black-hatted Friedman chatting with a radical Iranian mullah was reprinted in newspapers around the world. Friedman, an American citizen who grew up in the Satmar community in Brooklyn, is known as a radical anti-Zionist with close ties to European rightists and Arab radicals. One of those dancing at his son’s bar mitzvah was a leading right-wing Austrian Holocaust denier.
At the recent conference in Tehran hosted by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Friedman called the Holocaust a “successful fiction” and reportedly argued that only 1 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. Friedman later denied some of the quotes attributed to him, but he left no doubt about his praise for Ahmadinejad, who dismisses the Holocaust as a myth and wants Israel to be wiped off the map.
In theory, at least, Friedman now must fear arrest in Austria. Local authorities, however, are probably going to think twice before indicting an ultra-Orthodox Jew for neo-Nazi propaganda. Even more than that of Irving, Friedman’s case illustrates how anachronistic the laws against Holocaust denial are — in Austria, and in the 13 other countries that have a similar prohibition on the books.
A Nazi revival is out of the question today in Europe. In the Middle East, however, Holocaust denial flourishes. The main motive of the region’s deniers is to question the legitimacy of the State of Israel, which is widely — and, of course, incorrectly — believed to be based on the genocide perpetrated against Jews during World War II. Radical Arabs and Muslims who question the Holocaust, or who argue that Israel should be relocated to Europe because that is where the crime took place, ignore the fact that Zionism predates World War II and that the biggest influx of Jewish immigrants came from Arab countries after 1948, a development that had nothing to do with the Holocaust.
Statutes that make Holocaust denial a crime, therefore, reinforce the paranoid idea that Europeans are conspiring with Israelis and other Jews to keep a vicious anti-Muslim lie alive, and allow Ahmadinejad and other bigots to present themselves as defenders of free speech. By fighting a specter from the European past that has long since lost its force, Europe’s well-meaning lawmakers, prosecutors and judges are giving fresh ammunition to a new — and much more dangerous — breed of Holocaust deniers.
Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.