Irving jailed for Holocaust denial in Austria

AUSTRIA: Derek Scally attended the one-day trial in Vienna of British historian and propagandist David Irving, whose name has…

AUSTRIA: Derek Scally attended the one-day trial in Vienna of British historian and propagandist David Irving, whose name has long been synonymous with denial of the Holocaust

Discredited British historian David Irving said he was "shocked" last night after a Viennese court sentenced him to three years in prison for Holocaust denial.

Irving had pleaded guilty to breaching Austrian laws banning Holocaust denial during a 1989 visit and renounced many of his controversial views on the Third Reich in a dramatic one-day trial yesterday.

Announcing an appeal, Irving's defence lawyer said it was "clearly a message trial that sent too strong a message".


Irving (67), was arrested last November on a motorway outside Vienna, where he was due to give a lecture to a right-wing student fraternity.

His arrest related to speeches and a magazine interview he gave in Austria in 1989 in which he minimised Hitler's role in the Holocaust, said the gas chambers in Auschwitz concentration camp never existed, and that the Nazis were not behind Kristallnacht, the night of organised violence against Jews in 1938.

A six-member jury ruled unanimously yesterday that these statements breached Austria's "Verbotsgesetz", a 1946 law that punishes Holocaust deniers or Nazi glorifiers with up to 10 years in prison.

State prosecutor Michael Klackl attacked Irving's 30-year career of Holocaust denial and questioned his motives for reversing his views ahead of yesterday's trial. "This is about protecting freedom of expression from misuse and to bring David Irving to account for his statements," said Mr Klackl.

He said Irving was motivated by "cynical disgust" for millions of Jewish Holocaust survivors, whom he called living proof that there was no systematic murder programme. "He just uses words, but words are used by right extremists for their ideological foundations," said Mr Klackl.

Defence counsel Elmar Kresbach said Irving was "not a classic rabble-rouser" but a "self-made man" who "overstepped the boundaries of taste to get recognised in the historical field".

"The person in front of you is not the youngest, with a sick wife at home," he said. "[ He] is not a danger, but a somewhat burned-out historian."

Mr Kresbach said the police officials who had taken transcripts of his 1989 speeches had not deemed them worth pursuing further.

He said it was "legitimate" to ask questions about the Holocaust and that Irving had apologised for his "terrible, awful statements".

After opening arguments, Judge Peter Liebetreu led Irving through a list of his most controversial claims, forcing him to recant, explain and apologise for his views. Irving said he had, in the last decade, "gradually" accepted as false his opinion that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, after conceding that a controversial scientific report on the concentration camp soil was flawed.

He said he accepted that the Holocaust was top-down Nazi policy after seeing papers from leading officials, including Adolf Eichmann, describing in detail the gassing process and gas chambers.

But it was a hard-fought, tactical retreat, padded out with conditional expressions of regret and references to what Irving called repeatedly "mistakes in methodology". Asked if he would say today that Holocaust survivors "belong in psychiatric care", he said, "I must excuse myself".

Irving said he would "not express himself" as he regularly did in the past, that unknown rowdies in Nazi uniforms and not actual officers were responsible for Kristallnacht.

He admitted "putting too much value" on dubious documents distancing Hitler from Jewish suffering, and said he was wrong to suggest that less than 30,000 were murdered in Auschwitz.

Irving said he had made "a big mistake" by suggesting the Holocaust was a "huge swindle" used by Jews to extract billions in reparations from Germany.

But his conciliatory tone dried up as the questioning continued.

"I'm not a Holocaust denier, I just question the details," he said, adding that he returned to Austria last November because he assumed the 1989 charges had been dropped. "I was of the mistaken opinion that there are free speech rules here," he said.

In his sentencing, the judge said neither he nor the jury were impressed by Irving's professed change of heart on the Holocaust, what the state prosecutor called "a performance for this trial only". The only witness was Christa Zöchling, an Austrian journalist who interviewed Irving at a 1989 extreme right rally, testified that there was "lots of applause and mocking laughter" about Jews in gas chambers. American academic Deborah Lipstadt, whom Irving unsuccessfully sued for libel in 2000, said: "Irving's attempt to plead guilty and say he'd changed his spots backfired on him."

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin