Imprisonment in Austria
FOR a week I was held in Jakomini jail, one of two prisons in Graz, southern Austria. One, Karlau, is well-spoken of by veteran prisoners -- who compare prison experiences in the prison yard as if they were resort hotels; the other, Jakomini, is not.
The initial pretence used for stopping me -- the car was "reported stolen" -- was smoothly replaced by alleged offences against Austria's unique, Stalin-era Banning Law, also called NS-Wiederbetätigung (Nazi Reactivation) committed in 1989 sixteen years earlier. A warrant had been issued against me in 1989 under section 3(g) of the Act.
The law makes it an offence to challenge established history on the Holocaust and Nazi Germany; its section 3(h) allows sentences of up to twenty years in jail, and in some cases -- repeat offenders -- life imprisonment. It is a very elastic law; in its sixty years of enforcement, more than two thousand terms have been deemed to fall under its clutch, including even harmless words like "system" (as in, referring to a current government as a "System Regime").
Since there is little prospect of a Nazi movement re-emerging now, it is widely used to zap political opponents.
The prison staff at Jakomini could not have been more embarrassed at their new arrival. It took a day or two for the penny to drop.
On the second or third day several officers knocked on my cell door, unlocked it, and brought in my books from their homes, for me to autograph. I have sold probably two million books in Germany and Austria, including 67,000 hardback copies of Rommel (Hoffmann & Campe) alone (it was serialised in Der Spiegel for five weeks).
Several of my books were in the prison library -- I remember seeing Hitler's Krieg -- Die Siege (Herbig Verlag), and Schlacht im Eismeer (Bertelsmann). On the third or fourth day a delegation of half a dozen senior officers brought in all four of the prison's copies of books written by me and invited me to sign them too.
The justice system was less accommodating. My requests to speak to a lawyer or to Bente in London were fruitless. Six weeks or more would pass before I could phone my family from Vienna. The illegality of this was obvious.
I remained philosophical: It was much harder on Bente. In London, they feared I was dead; when I did not return on time, she and her friends phoned the embassies, the police, the hospitals, the car hire firms; nobody knew what had happened to me. Unable to contact me to access bank accounts or use key system passwords, she lost our home and possessions. Nacht und Nebel was the system, as invented by Reinhard Heydrich and his police. One vanished bei Nacht und Nebel.
Three times a day the hatch in the door was banged open, and five slices of brown rye bread were stacked onto a plate; nothing else. A bowl of soup came at midday, and a mug of pink fruit-tea which -- being an Englishman -- I sluiced straight down the toilet. I did not trust the tap-water, but I was still violently sick.
My initial room-mate, a Romanian telephone-thief -- now I knew why it had taken so long to find a working telephone in Vienna the morning I arrived -- was in a poor psychiatric state. He begged me in Spanish to write a letter in German warning that he was contemplating suicide, and he was not joking.
I took three Captain Hornblower books from the library, and began a year-long reading campaign, devouring a hundred books or more, since I had no radio or TV or newspapers for six months.
I caught up on all the books I should have read a lifetime ago: Hornblower in the West Indies -- now I could see what had intoxicated Winston Churchill about this fictional navy hero. I discovered the works of P G Wodehouse and Graham Greene.
As books ran out, I read The Collected Works of Sherlock Holmes twice. I set myself the task of counting how often Holmes actually uttered the famous catchphrase, "Elementary, my dear Watson," to his long-suffering partner Dr Watson. The surprising answer: not once, the phrase must have grown up elsewhere. Even the word elementary occurs only once, as a stray adjective.
Evidently we cannot believe all that we are told, I decided. But whom could I tell of these discoveries?
The Romanian had been snatched away as a suicide risk, I was alone; after he had been taken away, two hours later, I found in his empty locker a knotted "rope" of torn sheets, with a noose he had fashioned at one end.
Welcome to Jakomini jail: that was the only one other way out, and I wondered what drove men to do that. In Vienna's jail, there were quite a few suicides, it turned out, though the newspapers were not told: two prisoners hanged themselves in our block in the last two weeks I was there, probably newcomers, because it is in the first two weeks that desperation strikes worst. The whole block was locked down all day without exercise, so that nobody would learn what had happened.
"Don't do it, Dave," urged Bernhard, an armed car hijacker -- seven years, because his accomplice, a Jugo, was carrying a gun -- rather superfluously the day I was transferred back to Vienna. "Nobody is impressed, and they (the screws) just laugh among themselves afterwards."
I had no intention of doing it. I reasoned to myself that the prison staff were kindly shutting the whole outside world out for me; I thanked them pointedly each time they closed the door, and sometimes if they lingered I asked them if they would be so good as to oblige. I was in control. Others might go mad, but I would not: many already were mad, and visibly belonged in an institution, not jail.
One old man displayed his madness by walking clockwise round the yard -- in prison, all prisoners must walk anti-clockwise; or he stood in a corner, head bowed like a small boy being punished; or walked around stooping, and clawing up sodden fag-ends from the muddy ground.
I regarded this whole new world, this submerged world, this world behind strong-room doors and steel bars, in the same way that Jacques Cousteau would have regarded a new ocean bed. I decided I would spend the months, perhaps even years, exploring this microcosm and recording every detail of the fauna I encountered (of flora there were none: no -- once I did find a dandelion in the yard, and I grabbed it before it was trampled by the shuffling crowd of Eastern European and Balkan prisoners, and I mailed it to a lady in Hungary who had come to visit me).
"You see them all in the papers when you're outside," philosophised Bernhard, an otherwise likeable Austrian. "But only for a few weeks: the murderers, bank robbers, hijackers, dealers. Then they're on trial, and they disappear - you don't hear nothing about them any more." He paused significantly, rolling yet another disgusting cigarette, then lowered his voice overwhelmed by the drama of it all: "They're all here, Dave. They're here!"
Fortunately the British Consul had sent over a girl to visit me in Jakomini. Embassies are very limited in what they are permitted to do but I asked her to phone Bente.
"What's the message?"
"I think Copenhagen would be a good idea."
Bente is Danish (and so is my fifth daughter, born in London: the Pakistan-born official at the British Passport Office refused to allow her a British passport -- another weird bit of chicanery).
"Copenhagen?" asked the girl, raising a diplomatic eyebrow. It seemed an odd message. "Copenhagen," I repeated. "She's Danish." I did not explain.
COPENHAGEN was the codeword we had arranged; Bente was to watch for it. However it was used -- if I said it to a journalist, or on TV, or on a postcard message, it meant I had been arrested and was unable to contact her, and she was to take certain steps. Just like the BBC's "Verlaine" messages to the French Resistance before the Normandy landings.
Before every recent speaking trip to the Continent, as we English still call Europe, to Denmark, Hungary, Greece and elsewhere, we had actually prepared a detailed website announcement of my "arrest", just in case it should transpire. Such is the decline of freedom in the European Union now.
Hearing the codeword, Bente and Jessica -- who at eleven was the more computer-savvy of the two --at once uploaded the page to the Internet and most every newspaper in the world carried the news. I had a visitor from Klagenfurt a few days later, an elegant Austrian cripple in her sixties whom I had last seen as a demure twenty-year old, sharing a train journey across France. Her grown up son, touring China with the Berlin Philharmonic, had read of this violation of human rights in a Chinese newspaper.
Austria had actually hoped to conceal the fact of my arrest until that moment. The Government now had to admit that yes, the British historian was being held in one of their jails, though no charges had yet been brought.
Der Spiegel and other magazines and newspapers suggested that I had expected to be arrested, that I was out to provoke; they might see this COPENHAGEN preparation was proof. In fact I was just prepared for the worst: I was a Boy Scout in my youth, and BE PREPARED was on our belt-buckle, just as some Germans, including Günter Grass as it now turns out, had MEINE EHRE HEIßT TREUE on theirs.
To illustrate this, let me give a parallel example: in the earlier years of my marriage, which lasted twenty years, we travelled from England to Germany by the North Sea ferry, because we could not afford to fly. I secretly took a two-meter length of cord with me, in case the ferry sank: then I could tie our lifejackets together, and we would not drift apart. I never expected the ferry to sink, but I was prepared. (I never told my wife. I suspect that if I had, she might have taken a pair of scissors). This was many years before the Herald of Free Enterprise Channel ferry disaster of March 1987 which took so many lives.
AFTER a week of solitude in a four-man cell at Jakomini -- freshly repainted, as a prisoner had set it on fire two weeks before -- I was interrogated over a video link by a "judge" in Vienna. He appeared on the screen wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and was younger than my local newspaper boy. It was all a farce, a done deal, as I told him, and the outcome was foregone. I was not to be released. They decided that I should be transferred on Thursday back to Vienna.
The future tailed off into an uncertain darkness now. On Thursday forty of us were loaded in handcuffs into a dark green, windowless, prison bus. Seasoned prisoners called it the Krokodil. The journey took ten hours as we zigzagged across the country, picking up and depositing prisoners at jails around the country. There were ten locked cells in the Krokodil. We sat four to a cell with interlocking knees, in a space smaller than an airplane toilet, blasted by air that was alternately icy cold and volcano-hot. My travel companions were two murderers and a multiple rapist. I did not speak; in rail compartments we English never do. It is part of being English.
But I listened. The veterans knew all about our transport's history -- the Krokodil had been bought from Germany, where it had been declared illegal and unsafe because of the holocaust that would occur if it caught fire or ran off the road. Only the officers would get out alive.
But then mostly everything about the Austrian prison system is illegal under European Union legislation: the Josefstadt prison in Vienna pays a substantial daily fine to Europe because it is overcrowded, with over 1,400 prisoners instead of 800; the windows are not large enough; there is illegal fine-mesh wire netting outside the window bars; there is illegal razor wire in the yards; the exercise yards are too tiny; the prisoners still sleep in bunk beds (which Europe has banned in jails); remand prisoners get to shower only twice a week; the cement floors of each cell are covered with toxic black paint; and there are half a dozen other infractions.
The thugs in the yard complained indignantly to each other about all this lawbreaking, which is how I know about it.
LONG after midnight the Krokodil drove into the covered reception yard of the Josefstadt prison in Vienna. The older hands told me this was right in the heart of the capital, next to the City Hall, but there was not a sound that would confirm this. No traffic noises, birdsong, planes, or sirens penetrated its walls. After a few months it was easy to believe we were nowhere near Vienna, just as it is hard to accept that the museums and Harrods are up above, as your underground train passes through South Kensington and Knightsbridge stations.
A few days later I was escorted before the custodial judge, a Dr Seda. He had a falsetto voice of such a high pitch that the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung made fun of it in its opening words of a report on my arrest. To use Graham Greene's words, "He was like a Pekinese who has been insulted by an Alsatian."
His voice rose to an indignant squeak when I replied in frank terms to his more inane questions during this interrogation. He asked what lecture I had planned to deliver to the students in Vienna. I replied, Die finanziellen Verhandlungen 1944 zwischen dem ungarischen Judenführer Joel Brand und Adolf Eichmann zur Rettung der ungarischen Juden vor Auschwitz, im Spiegel des britischen Entzifferungsdienstes. (The 1944 financial dealings between the Hungarian Jewish leader Joel Brand and Adolf Eichmann to save Jews from Auschwitz, as seen by the British decode service).
"You're doing it again," trilled Dr Seda, shocked to the core; and then one full octave higher: "Wiederbetätigung! Reactivation!" Baffled, I was led back to Cell 19.
For many weeks I brooded on where the Pottersman Factor fitted into all this. [See earlier chapters, not yet posted]. Apart from the first Glock-toting police officers who had been informed I was a car thief, the Austrian prison officers could not have been friendlier. As word spread round the Josefstadt jail on who I was, I received a stream of uniformed, if not official, visitors. Jailers brought me packets of good-quality coffee or gifts. At Christmas, one unlocked my cell, invited me to his room, and gave me a glass of whisky -- "This remains strictly between us, Mr Irving."
The enemy -- above all the Greens -- screamed with fury about my "Nazi" books being in the prison libraries, over a hundred and twenty as it turned out; the Minister of Justice, a Frau Garstinger, assured Parliament that all my books had now been withdrawn. (They would be burned soon after.) This would surely convince the world that modern Austria was not a Nazi state.
When I was told that this was reported in the newspapers, I remembered the passport barracks of the People's Police inside Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin through which I trekked on my visits to Potsdam or Köpenick in the then Soviet Zone of Germany in the 1970s and 1980s: "Where they burn books, they finish by burning people," ran the quotation from Heinrich Heine in large letters along the inside wall of the building.
Filmed by German television after being fined 30,000 Deutschmarks by a Munich court in Jan 1993, Mr Irving repeats the allegations about a fake gas chamber building shown to tourists in Poland. In the center, his first lawyer Dr Herbert Schaller, behind Irving the WW2 Knights Cross hero Hajo Herrmann, his second attorney in the action.
ON the morning after my arrival in Vienna, I was summoned upstairs to the lawyers' visiting rooms. I had sent a letter to Dr Herbert Schaller, who had acted for me in the great Munich battles of 1989-1993, where Germany had used against me its equally oppressive and ill-named law against "Defaming the Memory of the Dead". These laws for the suppression of free speech still operate in Germany, and if I were to set out here the allegations against me, and our corresponding defence, I would probably be arrested all over again.
It is a ticklish subject. By way of proof of this, I might mention that Dr Schaller is representing another accused in Mannheim, Germany on the same account, even as I write; and Schaller, the attorney, has been threatened by the Judge with arrest and imprisonment if he even makes certain written submissions to, or asks certain questions of, the Court.
Suffice it to say that in a 1990 lecture I had said that a particular building in Poland that was being (and still is) shown to tourists was not a genuine wartime construction; in January 1993 I was fined 30,000 Deutschmarks, a lot of money in those days, for saying this, and banned permanently from setting foot on German soil; and in January 1995 the Polish government admitted officially that the building concerned was in fact built three years after World War II ended.
The Munich lawyer who was to act for me that day in 1993, Klaus Gobel, arrived at court but only to show me a letter he had received from the city's professional attorneys body, the Anwaltskammer, that morning, threatening him with instant dismissal from the bar if he represented me. In England, that would be unthinkable.
In Vienna now, 2005, I found that Schaller had never received my letter; evidently it had been intercepted by the Austrian justice authorities and blocked. He had come of his own accord, having read in the newspapers of my arrest -- one positive result of our Operation COPENHAGEN. I hired him on the spot. Although now 83 years old, he was fit, active, and above all an expert on these political cases.
I then made a big, big mistake. As I stepped out of the interview room I was accosted by another lawyer, Dr Elmar Kresbach, a 46 year old Viennese society-lawyer. He had thick, long, wavy hair, a lean face and an engaging manner, with a thick Viennese dialect which I often found very difficult to understand. Luring me into another interview room, he persuaded me within ten minutes that Schaller was the wrong choice: he would be vilified as a rightwinger, it could only damage me in Court: the "Nazi historian with the Nazi attorney", was how he charmingly put it.
He himself on the other hand was on first-name terms with the country's leading journalists -- he mentioned several to me -- and it was the support of the media I now needed. He was a media lawyer, he said. That made a lot of sense, and I hired him too.
Then came the bombshell. Although the new lawyer admitted that Schaller was far better informed on the Banning Law than he, and had handled innumerable cases, he refused to sit at the same table as him or even to listen to, let alone accept, advice from him.
It became disturbingly evident over the next weeks that Kresbach himself was a left-winger, and would represent me purely for the huge international publicity it would bring him and his law office. When I mentioned his name soon after to the Social Services female in the prison -- they had asked me who was acting for me -- she grimaced eloquently, bit her lip, and said nothing, but that was after I had taken the decision.
It was an awful decision. Kresbach assured me that he knew the judges personally, and would arrange a deal behind the scenes (that was a lie). Schaller, he said, could never do that. I withdrew the formal instructions from Dr Schaller -- he took it like the gentleman that he is -- and I had a whole year to regret the decision after that.
Later I met several other prisoners in the yard -- we were all in remand custody, which is far more oppressive than convict prison -- who had also been represented by Kresbach and who had fired him for incompetence or sloppiness. Zoran, a major cocaine dealer from Serbia, had parted with 80,000 euros for his defence, and still got ten years. "He did nothing for me," shouted Zoran, who later did my haircuts, one millimeter all over, convict-style. "Nothing! Just pleaded in mitigation -- no defence whatever."
An indictment was served on me in my cell, listing the allegations, all under section 3(g). It struck me as odd that as the months passed before the trial, which was soon set down for February 20, 2005, and although Kresbach had me brought up to the interview rooms three or four times a week, it was just for chats or to answer questions which he relayed to me from the media -- he did not seem to be seriously preparing any defence. After a while I asked him how I would be pleading: He replied, Guilty of course, because, "You are guilty, after all." I expressed mild dismay. That's the way things are done here, he added: you plead guilty and then they will release you. It had all been agreed. Behind the scenes. With the judge.
I assumed he knew what he was doing; after all, he did have those secret backdoor contacts with the Judge appointed to the case, Dr Peter Liebetreu, or so he told me. (I still saw no reason for gloom. I toyed with the idea of inquiring in Court, "Euer Ehre heißt Liebetreue?" but decided it would not advance my cause.)
The media coverage was good, that I will admit; the international press published editorials which, while not all supporting me personally, expressed dismay at this assault on free speech. The Italian newspapers, particularly Berlusconi's, went overboard with their hatred of Austria, and I saw newspaper photographs of a major football match at which a banner was unfurled by the crowd reading IRVING LIBERO for the television cameras. Der Spiegel ran a fine five-page article which attracted angry letters from my opponents, including Hungarian writer Paul Lendvai, who screeched that my book Aufstand in Ungarn (Bertelsmann) was anti-Semitic (my book mentioned that all the Hungarian communist monsters like Kun, Revai, Farkas, Gerö, and Rakösi were Jewish; as is Lendvai himself).
AFTER a while the visits to the interview rooms grew quite irksome. I was held in what I called a holding tank for an hour before Dr Kresbach arrived, and another hour or longer there after he left. The walls were covered with graffiti, some very sad. The other prisoners here were all chain smokers (I have never touched the stuff).
Once I was shown into the holding tank, and it contained only fifteen very disgruntled Blacks (twenty-five percent of the prisoners were from Africa, nearly all for drug dealing, some for murder or rape).
I hesitated as the steel door behind me slammed shut, and said: "Sorry, I think there's been a mistake. Where's the waiting room for Whites!"
They bellowed with laughter. It's the kind of joke that needs split-second timing, and you can only risk in certain circumstances.
AT two-thirty pm, after supper had been brought round, the guards all went off duty, leaving only a skeleton staff of three or four for the whole building. Then the "jungle" began, as the prisoners clung like spiders to their window bars, and screamed across the yards to their accomplices, getting their stories straight for the Judge -- in thirty-nine different European and African languages.
The cacophony went on until past midnight. It always degenerated into Black-and-White taunting -- "Afrika gut, Euro Scheisse!" and "Afrika! Banana!" were among the more cerebral rival efforts. I suppose I could have shut the windows -- they were soundproof -- but after exercising some days outside in winter at minus 16 degrees, the heat in the summer months became intense.
Once I heard roars of laughter and saw a single banana being lowered on a string from one floor and dangled just out of reach of the African cells below. Bananas now will always remind me of Josefstadt jail. If you bought them from the canteen, they always arrived, like most everything else, brown and beyond their sell-by date.
In the exercise hour in the little yard, the Africans clustered around me, asking for help, yammering in Spanish, French, or English, or whatever other tongues we could communicate in (I was the only Englishman in the building for fourteen months). I made good friends with one, Momo (Momodou), a youngster with Afro dreadlocks, from Gambia; it was poor etiquette to ask the other's offence, and I don't recall that I ever found out his. The really bad ones lied about the reason anyway.
I bought extra coffee from my weekly canteen allowance, for the newcomers who had none. They asked me to translate their letters to the judge into German; I did so, but secretly I knew they had little hope. They were stuck inside the machine. One Black had been on remand here for seven years, and they had lost all his files. Given the chance, they would all have returned to Africa the next day; they had all been lured to Europe under false prospects and pretences.
After a few weeks I was allowed to see a duly sanitised copy of the police file on my arrest, now called the court file. It was inches thick, and went back sixteen years to 1989, when I had last toured Austria. Phone intercepts and other intelligence materials had been removed. There had also been an internal police inquiry into the fact that Austrian police officials who attended my talks at Leoben and Vienna -- at our request -- had both reported that I had said nothing that broke the law. These inquiry documents were missing from the copy supplied to me.
The Staatsanwaltschaft in Leoben, and in Kaufbeuren in Germany where I also talked on that 1989 tour, both reported that they had seen no grounds to prosecute me. The top items in the file were laborious and worryingly inaccurate transcripts of my talks in Leoben (November 5, 1989) and Vienna (November 6), received by the Staatspolizei authorities in late November and early 1990. The Socialist Student Society in Leoben University had zealously provided to the Stapo their own tapes of my talks to supplement the police officials' recordings.
Vienna's police chief Günther Bögl had issued the now faded, yellowing arrest warrant on the evening of November 8, 1989 -- the day before the Berlin wall came down, an ironic counterpoint in European freedoms. His panic was written all across the document -- the press that morning was reporting that Jewish and Communist bodies were calling for his head, for having failed to silence me completely in Vienna on the sixth.
Turning the page I came to the pivotal document that led to Bögl's warrant. The formal Anzeige, the demand for my arrest and prosecution, had been addressed to Bögl on the seventh by a Jewish and Communist-front organisation, the Document Center of the Austrian Resistance (Dokumentationsarchiv des österreichischen Widerstands). Bögl had received this Anzeige at midday on the eighth.
There were some familiar names on its letterhead, including Professor Erika Weinzierl, "doyenne" of Austria's historians according to the press; Erika had the kind of ineffable looks that could stop a ding-ding-ding full-right-up Number 15 London bus charging pell-mell down Pall Mall; indeed to stop a whole fleet of them.
The Archive's Honorary President was Professor A. Maleta. It is not an unusual name: Maleta is not Rumpelstiltskin. Still, I confess I did wonder if this could be the same Professor A. Maleta who had sworn affidavits many years ago that he had personally seen homicidal gas chambers in operation at Dachau, Heinrich Himmler's first concentration camp? The German Government has long ago dismissed that particular piece of nonsense history; there was no such installation at Dachau. A lot of people served time because of Maleta's convenient little perjury.
Deeper in this public file I came across even uglier stuff, including letters from the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde of Austria: Their chief executive Peter Grosz* was applying for a police permit to demonstrate outside my Vienna lecture in the Park Hotel on November 6, 1989, with a hate-filled coalition of three to five thousand like-minded folks: the scum of Vienna would all be there, and Grosz appended a battle-order of participating bodies.
There was something about this "Israelite Cultural Community," the equivalent of our own respected Board of Deputies of British Jews, that reminded me of that "Coalition for Human Dignity" in Oregon, the mob-spitters. Perhaps it was the news clipping I found in this police file, reporting that Grosz, in his loudspeaker address to the scummy multitudes, had called on them to use Gewaltmassnahmen, violence, if necessary to stop me lecturing. We evidently shared different cultures.
My attorney Dr Herbert Schaller had issued an immediate Anzeige against Grosz alleging criminal incitement to violence, but it was soon choked off in the conduits of Austrian justice.
Prosecutions are a one-way street in modern Austria. People like Grosz got special treatment; while I was reading this police file 16 years later in a Vienna prison cell.
* As fortune had it, my cell neighbour for a time was Peter-Paul Grosz, a major Viennese cocaine dealer; presumably no relation.
© Copyright David Irving and Focal Point, 2007