Posted Thursday, January 18, 2001

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The Daily Telegraph

London, May 9, 1992 UK





History notes

IF I were head of the Secret Intelligence Service -- and Sir Colin McColl's job will be up for grabs in September -- I should volunteer to monitor the global spread of Aids. The British Tourist Authority reports that North American visitors are now flocking back to Britain, having recovered from their terror of the Gulf war, which was widely thought to be nearby. No doubt they are also fleeing the violence in their own country.

The consequences for Britain's health -- particularly in the field of Aids -- are unimaginable. Obviously, I would not suggest that M16 should start another little war somewhere -- let alone sabotage an American airliner -- to encourage Americans to stay at home. Either course of action would be immoral. But they might point out that Yugoslavia, currently suffering a particularly horrible civil war, is really very close indeed. Many Americans are easily mistaken for Serbs or Croats.

It may seem inhospitable to discourage bona fide tourists in this way, but they can have a terrible influence. Ever since the end of the war, it never occurred to me to query the fact that there were gas chambers in Auschwitz. Although I had never been there or seen them, everybody -- including the political leaders of all the countries in the world -- said they were there, and I had no reason to doubt it.

Now I read that a German court has fined David Irving, the eccentric British historian, the sum of £3400 for querying this established fact. Similar laws against querying it exist in France and Austria.

Obviously, it does not influence the truth or falsehood of the original proposition by one jot that various governments are prepared to impose criminal sanctions against anyone who questions or denies it. But I cannot help asking myself what sort of truth it is that requires these sanctions. Mr. Irving's suggestion is that there were no gas chambers in Auschwitz under the German dispensation, but they were added later as a tourist attraction. I expect he is wrong, but I not think that criminal prosecution is any sort of way to win a historical argument. Tourists undoubtedly have strange tastes, after all, and host countries seem prepared to go to almost any lengths to keep them amused. Look at France and Euro Disney.

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