No, it’s not particularly astonishing that Deborah Lipstadt doesn’t think Iriving should go to prison. Yes she has every reason to find him extremely irritating, but that doesn’t straightforwardly necessarily translate to thinking he ought to be locked up – and it’s a bit stupid to think or pretend to think it does. Don’t we all find countless throngs of people extremely irritating without thinking (except for the odd passing whim) that they ought to be locked up? I know I do.
Lipstadt has spent years exposing the arguments of Nazi sympathisers. She warns historians must “remain ever vigilant” against those who say the Holocaust was a hoax, “so that the precious tools of our trade and our society – truth and reason – can prevail”. The showdown came in January 2000 when she stood accused of libel for describing Irving in a book as “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial”; he accused her of “vandalising” his legitimacy as an historian. The 32-day trial became a legal debate on the history of the Nazis – and the nature of truth itself.
Which is why truth matters. You can’t sort these disagreements out without figuring out – to the best of everyone’s ability – what the truth is. If truth and reason don’t prevail, you just get competing force. Whoever has the biggest fist wins.
Mr Justice Gray witheringly described Irving as anti-Semitic, racist and a Holocaust denier who had “deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence”.
Why does that ring a bell? Oh yes, Judge Jones – he said the Dover school board played silly games with the evidence too.
However, in the case of the Holocaust, Lipstadt says she recognises a case for laws in the lands that formed the heart of the Third Reich. “Germany and Austria are not so far past the Third Reich. So I can understand that the swastika symbol, Mein Kampf, Holocaust denial, being a neo-Nazi and all the rest have a certain potency there that they would not have in the United States,” she says…Lipstadt says the reason she is generally opposed to outlawing Holocaust denial is not because she fails to recognise how deeply offensive it is but because such laws tend to turn cranks into martyrs.
There’s that confusion again – in Brendan O’Neill, not in Lipstadt. The point is not, or not just, that Holocaust denial is offensive or even deeply offensive but that it is – possibly – dangerous. I think that’s why Lipstadt used the word ‘potency’. Being a neo-Nazi has a certain potency in Austria, surely, because it is seen as at least threatening as well as offensive. At least threatening, and possibly actually dangerous. Get the labels right.