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Irving at the Lit & Deb: A reply to Prof Schabas

The Holocaust History Museum
Hall of Names, Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Memorial, JerusalemSince writing my previous post, I have read (hat tip: Ninth Level Ireland) a trenchant statement of the opposite view by Prof William Schabas, Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway. His argument is twofold. First, he refers to the EU Framework Decision on racism and xenophobia (pdf). Second, he argues that, whatever about that Decision, Ivring should not as a matter of principle be granted a prestigious platform by the Lit & Deb. He illustrates this second point with a rhetorical flourish:

There are also cranks who believe that the earth is flat, but we don’t invite them to deliver seminars in the geography department.

And he concludes that

… any reasonable reading of the EU Framework Decision should lead to the conclusion that he cannot be welcome in Ireland, or at the University.

First, the reference to the Framework Decision is a red herring – its langauge is quite flexible in precisely what the Member States are obliged to do; even in Prof Schabas’s description, Member States can decide to punish only conduct which is carried out in a manner likely to disturb public order, and whatever may be said about Iriving, it is not his words but those protesting against him that have often been likely to disturb public order. More generally, for those who have read the previous post, it will come as no surprise to learn that I disagree in principle with the Framework Decision. I’ve already said so on this blog (see here, here, and here). Conscious that today is Memorial Day, my view is that the best way to ensure that we never forget the Holocuast is to debate it, not to shroud it in silence. With Jonathan Sacks, writing in today’s Times, I believe that all faiths must stand together against hatred, but I also believe that the best way to do so is to meet the hatred head on, not to censor it.

This in turn leads to Prof Schabas’s second objection, that Irving should not be a given a platform. I accept – as Pádraig Reidy (news editor of Index on Censorship, and a commentator with whom I usually find myself in agreement) has argued – that there a great deal of difference between censoring Irving and not inviting him. But if the best way to deal with him is to confront him, then the Lit & Deb is exactly the right place to debate and debunk Iriving’s odious ideas. History is full of examples where truth has been legislated, and proof has been imposed and accepted, simply on the basis of authority rather than rational argument on the basis of the evidence. One example will suffice: the Catholic Church sought to suppress Galileo’s heliocentric view of the solar system,* an attempt which in retrospect we find risible. Now, I’m not saying that Irving is a Galileo, or that his views in retrospect will come to be vindicated. Rather, I’m saying that if we allow the idea of legislating truth in the case of Irving, if we accept that proof can be imposed simply on the basis of authority, then we can legislate truth and impose proof where-ever we like, simply because we are offended by an idea. If an idea is offensive, or ill-founded, the best response is to demonstrate this, if not to the misguided speaker, then at least to everyone else. We are never going to change Irving’s mind; but with debate, we can prevent others from coming to the same conclusions.

At the time of the persecution of Galileo, not only did the Church teach that the sun moved around the earth, it was also widely believed that the earth was flat;* to the medieval mind, these truths were obvious, even ineffable. To our modern eyes, with the benefit of evidence, we quite rightly reject these falsities. But if someone were to seek to reassert the old views, then we should indeed invite them to deliver seminars in the geography department, not because they are right, but because in contending with them and relying on the evidence to demonstrate that they are wrong, we improve the quality of our scientific debate. In this year of the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin, this principle is all the more crucial: the best way to answer creationist claims is not by censoring them, but by marshalling the evidence for natural selection.

In making our arguments, Prof Schabas and I are exercising the precious democractic right to freedom of expression; we must not deny Irving the same democratic freedom simply because we find his views odious; else how would we meet an argument that we in turn should be censored because someone in authority disagrees with us!

* Update: There is much discussion in the comments on the validity of these examples, and that is as it should be. It demonstrates the power of debate and discussion. I accept the points made in the comments; if I were writing this post again, I would not have used them in this way; and when I’m discussing these kinds of issues again, I’ll certainly use different examples. However, as explained in the comments, I’ve chosen not to amend the text. As to Galileo, there was a trial, even if the issue wasn’t as black and white as is popularly believed; and as to a supposed medieval belief in a flat earth, I was simply picking up and running with Prof Schabas’s point. Either way, the examples build towards a point about Irving’s views, and I stand by the basic point that we cannot legislate truth. We should not even try, as the attempt is as likely be misconceived as it is to be misconstrued, as the commentators argue that the trial of Galileo has been. Instead, we should debate such issues, as the commentators have done in the comments below, and – at least in relation to Galileo and the flat earth – the discussion has resulted in a development of my views. This is what freedom of expression is all about.

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22 Responses to “Irving at the Lit & Deb: A reply to Prof Schabas”

  1. Niall says:

    Hi Eoin, I agree with most of your points but your choice of examples in Galileo and the flat earth are unfortunate.

    See the following:
    http://www.galilean-library.org/manuscript.php?postid=43820
    http://www.asa3.org/ASA/topics/history/1997Russell.html

    It’s quite shocking that these myths continue to exist and it’s mildly amusing that they turn up in an argument inspired by a poor historian. While most academics have almost always accepted that the popular accounts of Galileo and the Flat Earth myth are without basis, that hasn’t stopped the public from believing them. Not for one minute do I believe that Irving has a legitimate argument, but I suspect that even if he had, it would probably not impact on the public consciousness to the extent that some suppose.

  2. Eoin says:

    Dear Niall,

    Thanks for your comment, which has caused me much pause. That is the problem with argument by example; subsequent discussion often becomes about the example rather than about the general point. However, having considered the issue, I have decided not to strikethrough (thus) the lines about Galileo and the flat earth myth.

    Although the trial of Galileo was as much political as it was doctrinal, it did turn on the Church’s antipathy to Galileo’s support for the heliocentric Copernican model of the solar system, even if this issue has subsequently been encrusted with myths and legends. So I think it’s safe to leave the Galileo reference intact.

    In fact, from among the range of possible examples, I chose Galileo to allow me to segue into Prof Schabas’s rehetorical reference to the flat earth. And whilst I accept that a supposed medieval belief in a flat earth is largely a retrospectively applied Victorian conceit, I think I can safely leave the reference in, as I was simply picking up and running with Prof Schabas’s point.

    As for you point about the limited purchase of Irving’s argument, I suspect that you are right, but since it does has some impact, it must continue to be refuted at every turn. For example, today’s Irish Indpendent has a story headlined Students remember Holocaust victims about how study projects are increasing awareness of the Holocaust in Irish schools. The more the memory of the Holocaust is maintained, the easier it is to counter Irving and his ilk.

    Many thanks,

    Eoin.

  3. Henry Barth says:

    Eoin,

    Why repeat the myth that medieval folks thought the world was flat: “At the time of the persecution of Galileo, not only did the Church teach that the sun moved around the earth, it was also widely believed that the earth was flat; to the medieval mind, these truths were obvious, even ineffable.”

    Any mariner looking at the horizon would know and did know the world was round.

    “The first known world map in the classical world appeared in 5th century Athens. Borrowing from Alexandrian models, the Romans with their imperial responsibilities, recognized the practical value of cartography. A world map was commissioned by Julius Caesar, probably as part of a triumphal monument he built on the Capitol in Rome, which showed him in a chariot with the world, in the form of a globe, at his feet. Augustus commissioned his deputy Agrippa, to work on a more detailed world map, the Orbis Terrarum (“globe of the earth”.) This showed hundreds of cities linked by Rome’s network of roads.”

    The map reached from Britannica to Taprobane (Sri Lanka.)

    See also:

    “Russell conclusively shows how the ‘flat earth’ myth was concocted and popularized by Washington Irving and a French erudite and how the ‘flat error’ was declared by Darwinist historians, who compared the denial of Darwin’s theory to Columbus’s struggle for acceptance by his scholastic religious contemporaries. The book is a delightful, provocative, and persuasive interpretation about a myth that has flitted in and out of popular history.”– Colonial Latin American Historical Review

    Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (Paperback)
    by Jeffrey Burton Russell (Author)

    As for David Irving, I think a reading of what he has said and published will only show that his major crime is that he has alleged that Hitler did not order nor know of the mass killings of Jews.
    Given that no one has produced any scrap of paper showing a Hitler order or comment, the matter is still worthy of discussion.

    Irving has discovered and produced (through original research) many documents showing the mass murders of Jews by various SS and related groups in the east.

    Irving has never “denied the Holocaust,” a crime in many European nations – just like blasphemy was a crime once.

    But you’d have to actually read what he’s written to know that.

    How can people in a modern university be so afraid of ideas and words that they propose to ban them?

    HB

  4. Eoin says:

    Thanks for your comment Henry. I agree with your last rhetorical question. Moreover, I accept your point about the flat earth myth; Niall made a similar point (above); and I have dealt with it in my reply to him (which is just above your comment).

    As for your middle point about exactly what Irving claims, the best discussion of his views is the judgment of Mr Justice Gray in Irving v Penguin Books Limited, and Deborah E Lipstat [2000] EWHC QB 115 (11th April, 2000); the defendant in this case, Deborah Lipstat maintains an excellent blog on these issues, here; and the Nizkor website has a careful and comprehensive rebuttal of claims not only about Irving (here) but also about other Holocaust deniers.

  5. Steve Cohn says:

    Irving is a hate monger. He doen’t even know history! All these Holocaust deniers should be sent to a mental hospital — for good!

  6. Eoin says:

    Thanks for your comment Steve, but I’m not sure it advances the discussion in any way. It’s a stronger version of the usual claim that there should be no free speech for fascists. On that standard what’s to stop someone saying that there should be no free speech for you, and that you should be sent to a mental hospital?

  7. Balder says:

    Exactly what does one have to say to qualify as ‘a holocaust denier’?

    That of course depends on the definition of ‘The Holocaust’.

    If ‘The Holocaust’ is defined as ‘the planned industrial killing of 6 million Jews on direct orders from Adolf Hitler, mainly with the help of gas chambers’, then there are many ‘official holocaust historians’ who are ‘deniers’.

    Professor Yehuda Bauer, of Hebrew University and Yad Vashem estimates that the number of Jews killed was between 2.5 and 4 million.

    A Danish holocaust archeologist, like professor Yehuda Bauer, connected to an institute which aims at remembering ‘the holocaust’ says:

    “During the time close to Germany’s capitulation, keeping track of the number of inmates, amongst others in Auschwitz was done less conscientious.

    Since at the same time the six million number is based on inaccurate Soviet figures, today there is no evidence to conclude that six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. The number is probably closer to four million” source

    As far as Irving goes I think I remember him quoting a number of something around 3 million.

    About Hitler’s direct orders to exterminate all Jews:

    The argument for this being the case, used by ‘holocaust myth promoters’ is almost exclusively the so called Wannsee Conference.

    Also this argument is debunked by well the same Yad Vashem professor Yehuda Bauer.

    The existence of the gas chambers:

    There were delousing gas chambers for linen and cloth in a large number of concentration camps, also in camps which are no longer thought to have gassed people. This is not revisionism, but accepted knowledge among mainstream historians. The Zyklon B pellets were produced for extermination pests such as lice etc. and it is still produced for this purpose today (In the Czech Republic, as far as I remember).

    That it has never been clearly proven that gas chambers (Auschwitz) actually were used for killing humans, is accentuated by the fact that ‘believers’ are clamping on to every newly found straw which might indicate that this is the case. The before mentioned Danish holocaust archeologist for example, found a poker and ‘imitated showerheads’ and presented this triumphantly as evidence for the gassing of people. When blueprints for a concentration camp were recently found in a flat in Berlin, this was immediately hailed as the final proof for the existence of gas chambers for killing humans.

    If the evidence of the gas chambers used for this purpose is so strong, why than do researches need to use these questionable pieces of ‘evidence’ to make their case?

    The fact remains that the evidence for gas chambers used for killing humans is based mainly on about 20 ‘witness accounts’ most of which are highly controversial, because they are full of contradictions and highly improbable occurrences. ‘Confessions’ made by German former concentration camp commanders are also very improbable. They were extracted under torture, and some of them confessed to unbelievable numbers which have no relation to reality. Some even confessed to killing Jews in non existing camps. These witness accounts are equally unbelievable and useless.

    The Nobel Prize awarded survivor Elie Wiesel, one of the ‘prime witnesses of the holocaust’, never mentioned gas chambers in any of his books…

    The allied forces had broken the German communication codes and listened in on communications between camps and Berlin etc. Also from these communications there was nothing which suggested gassing of people in gas chambers.

    If one accepts the definition of ‘The Holocaust’ as given before, many serious scholars as well as holocaust icons such as Elie Wiesel could be classified as ‘holocaust deniers’.

    To every sane person all of this must suggest that there is a whole lot of more research to be done.

    So what are the reprehensive part of Irvings views’ really, and is he ‘a holocaust denier’, because he doesn’t think there is conclusive evidence for the 6 million number, the use of gas chambers for killing people, or for Hitler giving direct orders?

    As to the last point; one of the most respected holocaust historians, I think it was Raoul Hillberg, suggested that Hitlers orders were given by telepathy!

    Does all this mean there was not a terrible persecution of Jews?

    Of course not. The crime still remains.

    But it is time to get to grips with reality, and separate the propaganda myth from historical and scientifically proven facts.

  8. Eoin says:

    Thanks for this Balder. On the reality of the Holocaust, I think I have covered it in the second paragraph of my reply to Henry, above.

  9. Eoin says:

    There’s another news story about Irving’s invitation to NUI Galway in the Galway Independent:

    Holocaust denier to speak in Galway

    Written by Marie Madden
    Wednesday, 28 January 2009

    Controversial right-wing figure David Irving is set to speak at NUI, Galway this March, after a large majority voted in favour of him delivering a lecture at the college. At the meeting of NUI, Galway’s Literary and Debating society, a packed 300-seat Kirwan theatre of Galway students debated and voted on the motion ‘That This House Would Allow David Irving to Speak at This House’. The majority sided with the proposition.

    The society had previously been in correspondence with this prominent right-wing figure, who spent three years in an Austrian prison under Holocaust Denial Legislation.

    Mr Irving had expressed an interest in visiting the longstanding society to speak on his theories about the Nazi Holocaust. Due to the strong views surrounding Irving, the committee felt it right to place the decision in the hands of its members.

    On holding a secret ballot for the motion, Vice-Auditor Jacqueline Driscoll said, “There are few people who have tested the boundaries of the right to free speech more than David Irving. This is a referendum, of sorts, to see where our members think those boundaries of free speech in university lie.”

    The Literary and Debating Society have declined to comment on security strategy for security reasons but have assured that a contingency plan was put in place prior to the ‘referendum’ in the case of a positive outcome for the proposition. The provisional date the society has set for Irving as a guest speaker is Thursday 19 March.

  10. A. Halsey says:

    In any university (over time) there will be dozens of talks given where you will find only a handful of people in the audience. If the \flat earth society\ gave a talk, that would be the result. It seems what worries our \against Irving speaking\ comrades is that Mr. Irving can draw a full house. If he were the nobody that they portray, then there would only be a few stragglers in to listen to him – ergo nothing for those who hate him to get so exercised about. Many apparently think that freedom of speech should only be granted to people who they don’t disagree with too strongly, especially if that person can draw a crowd. BTW, David Irving is a strong supporter of freedom of speech and that will be the topic of his speech, not the Holocaust.

  11. tom hollingsworth says:

    “At the time of the persecution of Galileo, not only did the Church teach that the sun moved around the earth, it was also widely believed that the earth was flat; to the medieval mind, these truths were obvious, even ineffable. To our modern eyes, with the benefit of evidence, we quite rightly reject these falsities. ”

    Not quite accurate. Gallileo was not persecuted by the Church. In point of fact the Church gave a respectful hearing to his ideas. She was willing to recognize that heliocentrism might be true, but all agreed that Gallileo did not have enough proof to establish that theory of planetary motion beyond reasonable doubt. So they forbade him to publish the theory as if it were indisputable true. The geocentric theory is once again under consideration. No one can prove that such a model is not true.
    As for David Irving- The long and the short of it is this. He was considered one of the foremost authorities on the Third Reich by most of his peers, until he had the temerity to suggest that Jews were not gassed at Auschwitz /Berkinau. Then his stock suddenly plunged. I think he’s right, viz. more human beings died in the back seat of Ted Kennedy’s car at Chappaquidik, he once said, than were killed by gas in German concentration camps. I object to ‘truth speech’ being called “hate speech.”

  12. Eoin says:

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for this. In my reply to Niall, above, I have already accepted that my Galileo point was overstated; and in my reply to Henry, above, I have already considered the validity of Irving’s claims.

    Eoin.

  13. Cian says:

    Excellent work,

    As someone who studies human rights law in NUIG I am horrified that there are those we seek to curtail free speech under the patronising assumption that this will legitimise Irving (Despite Lit and Deb previously inviting Anjem Choudry, a follower of Omar Bakri and pro-islamic terrorist pundit)

  14. […] Having wrapped themselves in the mantle of freedom of expression over their invitation to David Irving, they let the mantle slip last night. Having invited former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) to a public […]

  15. llloyd says:

    Until the Holocaust issue came up David Irving’s reputation was simply a dry military historian with a talent for ferreting out primary documents. An observer who has not been contaminated by modern teaching methods can only assume just like in the Gallileo case powerful interests have something to hide, Therefore a septnagarian Englishman with actually the mainstream social opinions of his generation is huffed and puffed into Mr Toad. Mr Irving loves his children. He is friendly to ethnic people but thinks there are too many in U.K. But he has never taken a political stance about it. Any Jew who wants to have tete a tete with him is welcomed. He honestly believes in the old fashioned beliefs of the rights of people to publicly express opinions without molestation. All the thuggery has come from the other side. Winston Smith in the book 1984 asked for no more.

  16. Ross Stevenson says:

    Some issues that David Irving speaks on are not the only ones that are verboten. There are many. Over the years, I’ve raised many politically incorrect arguments. These include evidence that the planet is not experiencing increased warming, that political parties subvert democracy through Member control and that fluoridation, rather than reducing decay, causes it (see dental fluorosis).

    In every case, the major media’s response is not to present or encourage sound debate. Take fluoridation – fluoridationists refuse to publicly debate scientists who support freedom of choice. Though I was on a major government fluoridation inquiry and can present credible evidence and logic, I am invariably refused the chance to respond to the hundreds of false claims in the media.

    If somehow a message bringer does gain a platform to present evidence, they are vilified – a tactic designed to prevent people examining the message they bring.

    Was it any different in ancient times?

    My advice is to leave no stone unturned in the search for truth. Otherwise one will never know whether the most violently suppressed views are true or not.

  17. Absolutely hilarious! “We are all for free speech but we can’t have forbidden speech. The only Nazis I see here are those trying to stop Irving. N.B., I happen to know Irving and do not like him personally. He is selfish, arrogant and grasping. On the other hand there is no one on this planet who researched and accumulated masses of data on the Third Reich as Irving.
    No one has ever found a single written order by Hitler for any killing of Jews. Remember, the Germans are the most compulsive record keepers on Earth
    The other thing is we are asked to believe the Germans would hold up troop trains and supplies trains to the entire Eastern Front in order to ship Jews hundreds of miles to the East just to kill them! The Germans may be peculiar but they are not insane.
    Now, as to the “das chambers” themselves, no one has ever seen one. The ones existing today were built after the war. Zyklon B was used as method of delousing clothing in Europe for years before the war.
    In every story always ask the Roman question, “Qui bono?”
    Oh, and don’t put the anti-semite label on me because I disagree with the “official” story.
    You can deny the very exitence of God, you can deny any and all historical facts EXCEPT ONE THING! Qui bono?

  18. Deals.ie says:

    Eoin, Thank for post and your opinion. I agree with many your points. Best wishes!

  19. […] should not be allowed to veto unpopular views, and none come more unpopular that holocaust-denier David Irving. Now comes news that NUI Galway’s Lit & Deb society have withdrawn their controversial […]

  20. […] censored: free speech means freedom for the thought we hate, even that of David Irving (eg, here, here, here, and here), Jean-Marie le Pen, or Kevin Myers, and even – especially! – in […]

  21. […] As with earlier attempts to legislate truth, this is profoundly misguided. […]

  22. […] image, top left, is a photo of a statute of Galileo inside the Lanyon Building in Queen’s University Belfast. In Areopagitica (1644), […]

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Me in a hatHi there! Thanks for dropping by. I'm Eoin O'Dell, and this is my blog: Cearta.ie - the Irish for rights.

"Cearta" really is the Irish word for rights, so the title provides a good sense of the scope of this blog.

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