Austrian justice

Posted: Feb 22, 2006 8:05 PM

Well, what do you know! Three years in jail for professor David Irving. One part of us wishes they would construct a little cell for him at Auschwitz. Been there, and know just where it should be placed. Just opposite the one (there were four) remaining crematorium where dead Jews were consumed at the rate of one every four minutes, dragged in 15 yards from the gas chamber. The remains were, for a while, dropped into the handy river a kilometer away, until the sheer bulk of human cinders brought complaints that touched the heart of the Gestapo, who found other means of disposal.

The other part of us has to say: What is going on -- contemporaneous with the general indignation, in the educated set, over the publication of those cartoons in Denmark? Muhammad departed this Earth 1,400 years ago, but concern for his image extended to protests around the globe at mere caricatures in a small newspaper. One defender of the faith has offered a million-dollar reward for anyone who kills one of the cartoonists. Not many people have applauded their publication -- why do something that offends the faithful of another religion? But there has certainly been unanimity in Europe on what is thought the transcendent point, namely the right of several cartoonists, an editor and a publisher to decide for themselves what taboos to observe, which to ignore.

Two things are certain. One, that it will be a very long time before any editor in Europe (and, for that matter, in the United States) publishes lighthearted depictions of the prophet. The other, that everyone will defend the proposition that in the free world, people are entitled to express themselves as they choose, even if they choose malevolence or goofiness.

Well, where was Austria during the Muhammad uproar? We don't, in general, know. But it is likeliest that Austrian editors and intellectuals took the Western party line. Free press is free press, and what is your next question?

But then, last November, Mr. Irving was driving in Austria and showed his passport at a routine checkpoint. Clickety-clack, the computers whirred, and he was placed under arrest. A warrant had been issued in 1989, after Irving delivered two speeches reiterating his position on Hitler's genocide. He was charged with having violated a law that applies to "whoever denies, grossly plays down, approves or tries to excuse the National Socialist genocide or other National Socialist crimes against humanity in a print publication, in broadcast or other media."

Auschwitz was liberated 61 years ago. Hitler was born 117 years ago. But the wretched man was born in -- Austria. Perhaps if he had been born in Missouri, we'd have tried to enact a law that held criminally liable anybody who doubted that millions of Jews were killed under Hitler's command. But in order to enact such a law, we'd have needed to amend the Constitution.

Mr. Irving testified to a court of three judges and eight jurors that in fact he had revised his position on genocide. He had lately been convinced by the evidence that he had been mistaken, that indeed, at Auschwitz (and other camps), Jews had been slain by the millions. Before that, Mr. Irving, a historian who has published many books, contended that what had happened at Auschwitz was that a lot of prisoners had succumbed not to poison gas, but to diseases such as typhus.

But the jury did not consider Mr. Irving as having expunged the crime of denying the Holocaust in his book, "Hitler's War." You cannot, the prosecutor successfully contended, undo a crime by regretting it. He might have been sentenced to 10 years in prison. In deference, it is said, to his age (67) and his profession, he was given three years.

We will perhaps hear many protests about what has happened under Austrian justice. Henk Ruyssenaars of the Foreign Press Foundation is burning with indignation and points out the dangers of ordained history. The journalist cites, of course, Galileo, "who is closely associated with the scientific revolution but who 373 years ago had to stand trial for what he thought, said and wrote. It took the Vatican's 'Ringling Brothers' in Rome 359 years to agree with Galileo. On 31 October 1992, Pope John Paul II officially announced 'that the Church had mishandled the case.'"

Austria is wrong, of course. Though one can still believe in the free press and take discreet pleasure that, when it is violated, things can happen to the David Irvings of this world.