Irving tests Europe's free speech
The battle lines are drawn. Freedom of speech will prevail or it will not. What truth really requires the imprisonment and persecution of those who do not believe?
Irony of ironies: Would George Orwell be imprisoned for ThoughtCrimes in 2006? In his Notes on Nationalism, Orwell wrote "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear... Is it true about the gas ovens in Poland?"
Irving tests Europe's free speech
By Clare Murphy
Mr Irving may well say he has changed his mind on gas chambers
The reputation of David Irving, the Holocaust-denying historian, was shattered at a libel trial six years ago, to the delight of those disgusted by his revisionism.
But as Europe proudly flexes its freedom of speech credentials in the ongoing row over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, even some of his enemies are uneasy that he now faces up to 10 years in an Austrian jail for his unpalatable historical views.
The British academic will go on trial in Vienna next week over two speeches he made in Austria in 1989, in which he disputed the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz.
While a number of European countries have laws against Holocaust denial, nowhere has the ban been more sacred than in Germany and Austria, whose very identities have been forged from the rejection of what was perpetrated in the middle of the 20th Century.
And yet among Vienna's chattering classes, there are the first rumblings of debate.
At the heart of the matter is whether the distortion of such a fundamental period of history is a greater problem than the suppression of the right to express contrary interpretations - however unpleasant, and indeed inaccurate, they may be.
If Austria wants to prove itself a modern democracy, argues Christian Fleck, a sociologist at the University of Graz, you use argument not the law against Holocaust deniers.
"Are we really afraid of someone whose views on the past are palpable nonsense, at a time when every schoolchild knows of the horrors of the Holocaust? Are we saying his ideas are so powerful we can't argue with him?" he asks.
"Irving is a fool. And the best way of dealing with fools is to ignore them."
If anything, Professor Fleck contends, a trial endows such ideas with a certain credibility.
"By outlawing such opinions, inevitably we give them the frisson of the banned. We run the risk of turning them into an attractive proposition."
The sociologist may not be inundated with supporters. "But we are talking about it," he says, "and that's a start".
Nonetheless, even those in favour of Mr Irving's trial agree that hauling the man before a court is not a risk-free endeavour - as proven by the expensive three-month trial which took place in London in April 2000.
The Briton had brought a libel case against American academic Deborah Lipstadt, who in her book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, branded Mr Irving "one of the most prominent and dangerous Holocaust deniers".
Arguing that Professor Lipstadt and others were out to silence him by ruining his professional reputation, Mr Irving fought his own case, surrounded by a mountain of material.
Burrowing through his papers and cross-examining witnesses, he argued that while the Nazis may have killed up to four million people, there was no systematic annihilation involving gas chambers.
These, he argued, were used only to de-louse corpses and objects. He failed - the judge concluded he was an anti-Semitic, active Holocaust denier - but he illustrated that he was capable of putting up an engaging fight.
"He loves a show," says Professor Hajo Funke, a German historian who testified at the 2000 trial. "I just hope the Austrian prosecution knows what they're up against."
It may well transpire that they are not up against all that much.
For all the talk of using his trial to grandstand, Mr Irving may prove repentant.
According to his lawyer, he no longer believes the gas chambers did not exist. His strategy may well be to plead guilty, while declaring his remorse and insisting his views have changed since 1989.
He is due to don the same pin-striped suit he wore for his proceedings in London's High Court six years ago when he appears next week.
But whether he will prove the same belligerent figure as he did in those months or a self-effacing ageing gentleman remains to be seen.
Either way, the risk remains that Mr Irving will appear a martyr to free speech and that his trial will fuel the anger of those who accuse Europe of double standards - apparently ready to cite freedom of expression when it comes to printing cartoons offensive to Muslims, while incarcerating those who insult Jews.
For Professor Funke, that is a risk worth taking.
"In Germany and in Austria there is a moral obligation to fight the kind of propaganda peddled by Irving. We can't afford the luxury of the Anglo-Saxon freedom of speech argument in this regard," he says.
"It's not that I don't understand it, it's just not for us. Not yet. Not for a long time."
Original Story: BBC News