WASHINGTON -- In some recess of David Irving's reptile brain, he knows that his indefensible imprisonment is helping his side. His side consists of all the enemies of open societies.
Irving, born in England in 1938, was a prodigy of perversity, asking for a copy of "Mein Kampf'' as a school prize. He grew up to be a "moderate fascist'' -- his description -- historian who has made a career of arguing, in many books and incessant speeches, that although many Jews died of disease and hardship during the Second World War, nothing like the Holocaust -- 6 million victims of industrialized murder -- occurred.
Holocaust deniers, from crackpots to the president of Iran, argue that the "so-called'' gas chambers were only for showers or fumigation; that Zyklon B gas was too weak to produce mass deaths; that it was too strong to be used -- it would have killed those emptying the chambers; that the crematoria were built after the war by Poles as a macabre tourist attraction, or by Jews to extort compensation; that Germans concocted "evidence'' of "genocide'' to please their conquerors; etc.
Holocaust denial, which is anti-Semitism tarted up with the trappings of historiography, is a crime in Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland. And in Austria, which criminalizes speech that "denies, grossly trivializes, approves or seeks to justify'' Nazi atrocities.
In 1989, in two speeches in Austria, Irving said, among much else, that only 74,000 Jews died of natural causes in work camps and millions were spirited to Palestine after the war. An arrest warrant was issued. Last November, Irving was arrested when he came to Austria to address some right-wing students. Last week, while Europe was lecturing Muslims about the virtue of tolerating free expression by Danish cartoonists, Irving was sentenced to three years in prison.
What folly. What dangers do the likes of Irving pose? Holocaust denial is the occupation of cynics and lunatics who are always with us but are no reason for getting governments into the dangerous business of outlawing certain arguments. Laws criminalizing Holocaust denial open a moral pork barrel for politicians: Many groups can be pandered to with speech restrictions. Why not a law regulating speech about slavery? Or Stalin's crimes?
Some defenders of the prosecution of Irving say Europe -- and especially Austria, Hitler's birthplace -- rightly has, from recent history, an acute fear of totalitarians. But that historical memory should cause Europe to recoil from government-enforced orthodoxy about anything.