Australia, Saturday 4th March, 2000
The High Price of Free Speech
by Helen Darville
There are times when David Irving's arguments in the libel action he's brought against Deborah Lipstadt start to sound like the line out of Mel Brooks' The Producers.
"Hitler was a better dancer than Churchill. Hitler was a better singer than Churchill. Churchill couldn't even say 'Nazis'. He'd say Naahzies, bloody Naahzies".
However, the trial has sparked renewed public interest in the Holocaust. You can't buy a book on the subject in Britain.
"I'm sorry," the nice young man in Waterstones Piccadilly tells me. "All I've got is an empty shelf in the 'History' section." This in Europe's largest bookshop.
Since most books on the Holocaust worth reading are by expert witnesses to the trial, perhaps this is not surprising.
Interestingly, there's been no obvious rush to embrace neo-Nazism among the British people, despite the fact that Irving's views have been widely and respectfully reported in the British press.
I think it's reasonable to assume that, were David Irving to be admitted to Australia, the result would be similar. It's unlikely we'll see neo-Nazis goose-stepping their way around King George Square.
The case for allowing David Irving entry to Australia is a simple one. "Freedom of Speech" has been done to death in debates about him, but is no less relevant. As I see it, either everyone has the right to express their views, or no-one does. I don't think it's possible to justify exceptions in a democracy.
Irving's threat to the Australian body politic is greatly overrated. The assumption on the part of bodies like the Executive Council of Australian Jewry -- that if we allow Irving into the country, he'll "win converts" to his views -- is naive. This patronisingly assumes that people believe everything they hear or read.
Make no mistake, David Irving's views -- not only on the Holocaust, but on other matters, such as Commonwealth immigration to Great Britain -- are noxious. Among other things, he contends that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau and despises racial mixing. Nonetheless, he neither condones nor incites violence. He's banned from Australia simply because of his opinions.
For what it's worth, I think democracies need to be tested by the presence of people like David Irving. A democracy behaves like an immune system: unless it's challenged, it weakens over time. Open public debate means the invading virus of a dissenting view can be met and rendered harmless. Suppressing debate for reasons of political expediency or to avoid offence weakens the credibility of the system we in the West are so fond of exporting to eastern Europe and the Third World.
When discussing Irving's opinions, people focus almost exclusively on what he says, not what he writes. The trial has revealed a vast difference between the two. His speeches are easy to mine for racist material and tactless "Holocaust humour". Incendiary statements, by contrast, are not a feature of his published work. Scholars like John Keegan and Hugh Trevor-Roper respect David Irving the historian. By contrast, David Irving the public speaker is almost "a riot in formation."
Abstractions aside, Irving's banning also infringes the civil rights of his daughter Beatrice in Brisbane. You and I expect to see our parents -- in the words of the legal formula -- without "let or hindrance". Beatrice Irving cannot have her father visit.
Showing this small measure of sympathy for David Irving's position has earned me -- yet again -- the label "anti-Semite". This charge is not only bullshit, but by its very nature can't be disproved. My view of the Holocaust is wholly conventional. The Nazis killed approximately six million Jews and half a million Gypsies between 1939 and 1945. Many were shot by the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing squads), many were starved in ghettos and concentration camps, many were gassed in what can only be described as purpose-built factories of death. Some of the killings were carried out with sickening enthusiasm, especially when the Nazis used ethnic minority collaborators.
That this is my belief is abundantly clear in everything I've written. Yet, come Monday, you can put money on Jeremy Jones, Danny Ben Moshe, Gerard Henderson, Robert Manne etc labelling me an "anti-Semite" and a "Holocaust denier." Secure in the knowledge that I'm neither, I accepted a commission from Australian Style to cover the Irving libel trial.
An historical event as complex as the Holocaust needs to be dispassionately studied. The trial means that many major documents -- such as Eichmann's memoirs -- are aired in a politically sterile environment (a court of law) and publicly debated. This has never happened before. The mythology of Schindler's List, with its deceptive and wholly untypical happy ending is decisively refuted. History emerges, in Justice Gray's words, "out from beneath the mountains of paper".
March 4, 2000