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Jewish World Review
March 2, 2006
/ 2 Adar, 5766
Freedom for the thought we hate
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 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. 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 1945.
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 (so his twin brother told the Telegraph, a British daily)
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 — perhaps the most comprehensively researched and documented crime in history — 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
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 1929. ''Not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we
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, 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 find a way to set him free — not for his sake, but for Austria's.
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