After 13 months in prison, the holocaust denier David Irving is back in the UK, painting himself as the victim of an atrocity. The sad thing is that in this case he is telling the truth.
Atrocities are, of course, relative. 11 million people died in the Holocaust (or 14 million, or 20 million, or seven, depending on whom you ask) and by comparison 13 months in prison is small beer.
But there remains a qualitative link between banning a man’s freedom of speech (whether or not you think he is crazy or evil) and other, more savage, forms of oppression. The Nazis thought they were making the world a better place – for thoroughbred Aryans, at any rate. Undoubtedly a similar confidence filled those who criminalized Holocaust denial in Austria, Germany, France and elsewhere.
I can think of few justifications for these laws, most of them weak. That deniers are able to ferment fascism is unlikely; the most effective recruiting ground for the far right these days is anti-Muslim rhetoric, and it would take a truly masterful storyteller to tie Al Qaeda in with the Zionist Conspiracy. That it denigrates the memory of the dead or exacerbates the suffering of the living may be true, but this is no reason to ban free speech; we must all tolerate views that we dislike. As for the suggestion that these lies might confuse poor innocent minds that do not know better, this is both condescending and prevents people learning the most vital lesson of history, which is how to be discerning.
By comparison, I can think of a couple of very solid reasons for permitting free speech. The first is that the best way of exposing lies and mistakes is through refutation; by imprisoning those with whom we disagree we pass up an opportunity both to expose them and to sharpen our own arguments. We also give them a veneer of martyrdom. The second reason is that it makes a mockery of our exhortation to others to respect freedom of speech – either by allowing their own citizens to speak or at least not to fume when ours do so.
There are echoes here of the furore over the recent conference in Iran questioning the holocaust. We should have treated this with contempt, but by and large ignored it. It was a political stunt and by rising to the bait we played into the hands of Iranian hardliners. In the process we look like hypocrites. Earlier this year liberals across Europe were calling for tolerance of freedom of expression after a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, and great amounts of angst ensued when Muslims across the world, including in Iran and the UK, were seen to argue that blasphemy was a sin punishable by death and that Western liberalism was mistaken, a contradiction of the word of God, or still worse a cynical excuse to justify attacks on their religion. We must prove at least this last concern wrong by applying freedom of speech impartially. If we defend one group’s right to offend Muslims we cannot then condemn another group for offending Jews.
Having said all this, my argument remains that of a remote observer. I am neither a Jew nor a Nazi nor a Muslim nor a cartoonist. I am passionate about freedom of speech but it is not my people’s suffering that is being denied by Mr. Irving. So if I have not convinced you, or if you are in the mood to be both moved and uplifted by somebody who did suffer first-hand, watch last night’s BBC 10 O’clock News and listen to Roman Halter. You will need to scroll 10 minutes and 40 seconds into the programme to hear this Jewish immigrant, who survived the concentration camps but saw his whole extended family wiped out, explain why Mr. Irving should be allowed to speak and publish, even if what he is saying is repulsive. In so doing, he speaks so lyrically of the freedom of expression that we all tend to take for granted that it is truly humbling.