David Irving, as no doubt we all know, is beginning his new career as a jailbird, in the great grey walls of the Josefstadt prison next to the even greater and greyer Landesgericht between Vienna’s city hall and its university. Now, there are plenty of facile things to say about this: freedom of expression is vital, dammit!/Nazis must be suppressed!/What if he was a Muslim? But I hope to raise some others.
Total disclosure: I participated tangentially in Irving’s lawsuit against Deborah Lipstadt. At the time I was a student of the world Holocaust authority, Professor Peter Longerich, who was one of the team of historians who acted as expert witnesses under the direction of Professor Richard J. Evans. Whilst Longerich was known to be preparing for one of his court appearances, he asked me to borrow various works of reference from the Bedford Library at Royal Holloway for him. I was not pleased, some time later, when the librarians demanded I pay fines on the books, although Irving’s defeat was some relief.
Irving is a liar who deserves nothing but contempt. (Richard Evans’s book on the case is strongly recommended for detail.) It cannot go unremarked that he has always chosen to “challenge conventional wisdom”, in the charitable way people put it, in front of audiences who are both already converted to his point of view and willing to pay well for confirmation of theirs. His lecture circuit – mad US militias, western European fascists, apartheid South Africa – speaks for itself, as do those who admit to financing him.
And there’s the rub. In Britain, his nonsense might just be tolerable. But this is in a sense a luxury afforded by a lack of fascists. I can think of many countries where this is so:
Germany is one. Austria, though, is not. David Irving’s speaking in Austria would have been a political act of the first order and one of considerable consequence. This is because – well – Austrian politics is very different to German politics. In what other European country could you have to hastily pass a law of dubious constitutionality to keep a man from becoming speaker of Parliament who publicly accuses the survivors of the anti-Nazi resistance of being “murderers of their comrades”? Or be unable to enforce a supreme court decision to erect bilingual roadsigns for 38 entire years for fear of violent resistance? Or have to tolerate a citizen-initiated referendum petition against “foreigners,” or put up with an obscene twit like Reinhold Gaugg, who having campaigned against “privileges”, after telling his party colleagues that they must be NAZIs (for “Neu, Attraktiv, Zielstrebig und Ideenreich” – New, Attractive, Goal-Oriented and Rich in Ideas), got his chums to appoint him as a director of the public pension system on a special contract that made him unsackable.
When Gaugg finally ran into trouble (criminal trouble), he sued vice-chancellor and right-hand woman of JÃ¶rg Haider, Susanne Riess-Passer, for the payoff promised him in the contract. Party friend and federal senator John Gudenus returned from a career in the army to start a party-run private police force in his constituency before having to give it up after an embarrassing conviction for drunken driving. That didn’t stop him from polluting the air with various imbecile remarks (a favourite: regarding the Holocaust, “I believe what I am officially ordered to believe”) until he finished himself off by declaring that there were no gas chambers in the Third Reich. Only in Poland, he later relativised. Sadly for him, Auschwitz-Birkenau lay inside Germany at the time (like he cared). Helene Partik-Pable distinguished herself by explaining to parliament that babies instinctively flinch from a black silhouette (well, they do from any large silhouette overhead, including – say – Helene’s lily white hand). Peter Westenthaler (who changed his name from the Carinthian-Slovene Hojac for career reasons) accused the Green MP Peter Pilz of being a “terrorist”. Pilz replied that “all that’s missing is ‘Sieg heil!’” and Westenthaler accused him of neo-Nazism.
Ewald Stadler, appointed by the far Right as one of three People’s Attorneys (VolksanwÃ¤lte), advised Austrians to “practice a new treatment of contemporary history, as Horst Mahler has done”. Horst Mahler is better known as a convicted Baader-Meinhof terrorist who swung over in jail from the far Left to the far Right, where he now runs a weird entity called the Deutschen Kolleg, “the thinktank of the Germanic empire” according to its website. Mahler’s strangeness is that unlike the various pseudo-left or pseudo-postmodern routes to the Right, he has gone from being a nouveau-marxist to being a pre-Nazi, blood and soil fascist (he refers to Austrians as “mountain-Germans”). Claus Nordbruch, an ex-Foreign Legionnaire (he says) who is banned from Germany and lives in South Africa (from where he spouts gun-crazed fantasies about shooting black people) was welcomed by far-right students in Vienna without fuss – except from me, in the demonstration outside.
Is there anywhere else in Europe where anything at all like this would be tolerated for ten minutes consecutively? Certainly, it meant that as a student there I could go on a demo every week and a good political row every night. But seriously. It’s a testament to the stability of the state that all this absurd and occasionally vicious stuff can have gone on without achieving anything substantial, although one may reasonably wonder whether there was a connection between it and the amount of 1970s and 80s terrorist activity against Jewish targets in Vienna. You can see why, firstly, Irving was in Austria despite being persona non grata, and secondly why the Viennese court wanted to send him down.
But what is it with Austria?