The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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Freedom of hate speech
By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist  March 1, 2006

FUNNY PEOPLE, the Austrians. If you're Kurt Waldheim -- a former Nazi
military officer linked to a genocidal massacre during World War II --
they elect you president. But if you're David Irving -- a British author
who claimed that there never was a Nazi genocide during World War II --
they throw you in the slammer.

On second thought, not funny at all. Austria disgraced itself when it
elected Waldheim president in 1986, apparently unconcerned by the
revelation that he had served in a German military unit responsible for
mass murder in the Balkans and been listed after the war as a wanted
criminal by the UN War Crimes Commission. In a very different way it
disgraced itself again last week, when a Vienna court sentenced Irving, a
racist and an anti-Semite, to three years in prison for denying that the
Nazis annihilated 6 million European Jews.

Irving is a man of great intellectual gifts who devoted his life to a
grotesque and evil project: rehabilitating the reputation of Hitler and
the Third Reich. Necessarily, that meant denying the Holocaust and
ridiculing those who suffered in it, and Irving has long done so with
relish. ''I don't see any reason to be tasteful about Auschwitz. It's
baloney, it's a legend," he told a Canadian audience in September 1991.
''There are so many Auschwitz survivors going around -- in fact the number
increases as the years go past, which is biologically very odd to say the
least -- I'm going to form an association of Auschwitz Survivors,
Survivors of the Holocaust, and Other Liars, or A-S-S-H-O-L-S."

Presumably Irving had in mind people like my father, whose arm bears to
this day the number A-10502, tattooed there in blue ink on May 28, 1944,
the day he and his family were transported to Auschwitz. My father's
parents, David and Leah Jakubovic, and his youngest brother and sister,
Alice, 8, and Yrvin, 10, were not tattooed; Jews deemed too old or too
young to work were sent immediately to the gas chambers. His teenage
siblings, Zoltan and Franceska, were tattooed and, like him, put to work
as slave laborers. Zoltan was killed within days; Franceska lasted a few
months longer. Of the seven members of the Jakubovic family sent to
Auschwitz in the spring of 1944, only my father was alive in the spring of

So on a personal level, the prospect of David Irving spending his next
three years in a prison cell is something over which I will lose no sleep.
He is a repugnant, hate-filled liar, who even as a child was enamored of
the Nazis and had a pronounced cruel streak.

But as a matter of law and public policy, Irving's sentence is deplorable.
The opinions he expressed are vile, and his arguments about the Holocaust
are ludicrous. But governments have no business criminalizing opinions and
arguments, not even those that are vile or ludicrous. To be sure, freedom
of speech is not absolute; laws against libel, death threats, and falsely
shouting fire in a crowded theater are both reasonable and necessary. But
free societies do not throw people in prison for giving offensive speeches
or spouting historical lies.

Austria, the nation that produced Hitler and cheered the Anschluss, may
well believe that its poisoned history requires a strong antidote.
Punishing anyone who ''denies, grossly trivializes, approves, or seeks to
justify" the Holocaust or other Nazi crimes may seem a small price to pay
to keep would-be totalitarians and hatemongers at bay. But a government
that can make the expression of Holocaust denial a crime today can make
the expression of other offensive opinions a crime tomorrow.

Americans, for whom the First Amendment is a birthright, should understand
this instinctively. ''If there is any principle of the Constitution that
more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle
of free thought," wrote Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in
1928. ''Not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the
thought that we hate."

It is popular in some circles to argue that the United States should do
certain things -- adopt single-payer health insurance, abolish capital
punishment, etc. -- to conform to the practice in other democracies. Those
who find that a persuasive argument might consider that Irving is behind
bars today because Austria doesn't have a First Amendment. Neither do
Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania,
Poland, Romania, Slovakia, or Switzerland -- all of which have made
Holocaust denial a crime.

"Freedom for the thought we hate" is never an easy sell, but without it
there can be no true liberty. David Irving is a scurrilous creep, but he
doesn't belong in prison. Austria should let him go free -- not for his
sake, but for Austria's.

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