Free speech in Europe: it’s all or nothing

As British historian David Irving is imprisoned in Austria for Holocaust denial, read this spiked article first published in December last year.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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This article was first published on spiked on 20 December 2005.

Two European writers have recently fallen foul of European governments for expressing their views about genocide. Both are threatened with trial and imprisonment for something they said or wrote. Yet one is supported by EU politicians and the international literati – who have rallied around to defend him from censorship and to champion the right of writers to speak freely – while the other has been ignored, or even told that he got what he deserved.

This is bad news, because when it comes to free speech it’s all or nothing: we either have it or we don’t. And if we were to have free speech for one writer but not for another, then we wouldn’t have free speech at all.

The writers are Orhan Pamuk and David Irving. Pamuk, a Turkish novelist, faces trial for questioning the official Turkish line on Armenia. The Turkish authorities argue that their killing of Armenians during the First World War cannot be classed as a genocide, and have taken umbrage at the following comment made by Pamuk in an interview earlier this year: ‘One million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares talk about it.’ With those words, Pamuk apparently ‘insulted Turkishness’ and faces up to three years behind bars if convicted (1). His case has become an international cause célèbre.

Irving, a British historian, is currently languishing in jail in Vienna, awaiting trial in February next year for denying the Holocaust. He was arrested in November while on a speaking tour of Austria for comments he made in the country over 15 years ago. Back then he allegedly made two speeches in which he denied that there were any gas chambers under the Nazis (he has apparently since revised his views and now accepts that there may have been a few such devices). Holocaust denial is a crime in Austria, and if found guilty Irving could be jailed for up to 10 years (2). His case has not become an international cause célèbre.

The writers could not be more different. Pamuk is an internationally acclaimed novelist. His work has been translated into more than 20 languages and he is hotly tipped to win the Nobel Prize for Literature one of these years. His ‘crime’ was to question Ankara on the touchy subject of Armenia. Irving, by contrast, is a racist crank, an historian whom no one outside of small fascist sects takes seriously. He denies the facts of the Holocaust, once claiming that ‘more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz’ (3). And as someone who uses England’s illiberal and undemocratic libel laws to try to punish his critics – including Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust, in a case he lost in 2000 – Irving is not in a good position to complain about being robbed of his right to free speech.

Yet their cases are the same: both could be incarcerated, not for physically harming another person or for damaging property, but for the words they spoke; both could have their liberty removed because they expressed views that the authorities – in Turkey and Austria – decree to be distasteful. And both of their trials are an outrage against the principle of free speech. You may or may not agree with what Pamuk said, and you probably are disgusted by Irving’s weasel words. But this isn’t about what either author said; it is about whether they should have the right to say it, and we should have the right to hear it. Freedom of speech, as its name suggests, does not mean freedom for views that go down well in polite society but not for views that stink: it means freedom for all speech, the freedom to think, say and write what we please and the freedom of everyone else to challenge or ridicule our arguments.

The fact that Pamuk’s and Irving’s trials have occurred around the same time provided a tough test of Europeans’ commitment to free speech. The fact that many rushed to defend Pamuk while ignoring – or giving the nod to – the imprisonment of Irving means Europe failed that test.

In both cases – in the trials themselves and the reactions they have provoked – the big issue is not so much freedom as EU etiquette; it is less about defending open debate than about defining what it is to be a good little EU state and how best to please the bigwigs in Brussels. So Turkey is put under pressure to call off Pamuk’s trial to demonstrate that it is the modern European state it claims to be and is fit to join the EU, while Austria is congratulated for its tough stance on Holocaust denial which is taken as evidence that it has overcome its shadowy Nazi past as the birthplace of Hitler and is moving towards a new dawn. EU officials demand that Turkey let Pamuk speak if it wants to be taken seriously, while Austria is taken seriously by refusing to let certain people speak. This is about ensuring we have the right kind of speech, as defined by Brussels.

So some of the same EU officials who tacitly support Austria’s imprisonment of Irving, and who have clamped down on freedom in their own states, can still lecture Turkey about Pamuk. Take Denis MacShane, New Labour MP for Rotherham and former minister for Europe. He has taken himself off to Turkey to observe Pamuk’s trial, and says ‘Turkey is on trial’, not Pamuk: ‘As in past centuries, state authorities or religious fundamentalists have put a writer on trial to stop him or her asking awkward questions, but end up in the dock themselves’, says MacShane. ‘Turkey will not join Europe unless Voltaire wins, and the ayatollahs – secular and religious – lose.’ (4)

Who the hell is MacShane to lecture Turkey about free speech, to put the Turkish authorities ‘on trial’, to decree if and when the Turks can ‘join Europe’? His own government has ridden roughshod over free speech, recently introducing a Racial and Religious Hatred Bill that will seriously curb our right to ridicule religious obscurantism; bringing in a law that will make an offence of ‘glorifying’ or ‘condoning’ acts of terrorism (or saying other things that might be perceived as ‘attacking the values of the West’, in the words of Lord Falconer); and banning various things deemed offensive, whether it’s the newspaper of the British National Party or the music of Jamaican dancehall artists, one of whom was arrested upon arrival in Britain last year, interrogated by the Racial and Violent Crime Taskforce, and then deported (5).

Would MacShane’s time not be better spent in Vienna rather than Ankara, investigating Irving’s case? Irving is at least a British citizen, which means MacShane has some authority to enquire after his wellbeing and legal standing; certainly more authority than he has to talk down to the Turks. The Irving case is presumably too messy for MacShane, who seems to prefer the popular and clear-cut campaign to defend Pamuk. Or perhaps MacShane supports the trial and imprisonment of Irving.

That someone from a government as illiberal as New Labour can stick it to Turkey over Pamuk demonstrates that this has little to do with free speech. Various European politicians and EU bureaucrats who don’t know the meaning of free speech are queuing up to berate Turkey. One says the Turks are behaving like a ‘dictatorial regime, not a modern European state’ (6). Meanwhile, as one news report put it, Austria’s arrest of Irving – ‘in a country still coming to grips with its Nazi-ruled past’ – has won the state ‘praise worldwide’ (7). In the Pamuk and Irving cases the argument for free speech is trumped by demands that Turkey and Austria display their EU credentials for the world (and Denis MacShane) to pass judgement on – Turkey by allowing a novelist to raise awkward questions about Armenia, Austria by clamping down on anyone who questions the Holocaust. Austria is especially keen to punish Irving following events five years ago. In 2000 the people of Austria incurred the wrath of EU officials for daring to vote for a right-wing party led by Joerg Haider. Austria was effectively informally suspended from the EU and is now keen to show that it is modern and liberal by making an example of the right-wing Irving.

In the Pamuk and Irving cases, EU officials are really making a case for privileged speech, not free speech; they defend comments they agree with and authors they admire but are happy to see those they dislike banged up for expressing dodgy points of view. Pamuk’s case should be thrown out of court and he should be free to say or write what he wants. But if that happens and Irving remains in jail in Vienna then there isn’t free speech in Europe; if Pamuk is free to ask questions about Armenia but Irving is not free to say the Holocaust was exaggerated, then free speech does not exist.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Free speech

(1) Profile: Orhan Pamuk, BBC News, 16 December 2005

(2) Historian faces Holocaust charge in Austria, Reuters, 23 November 2005

(3) Mockery of Nazi victims by Irving, Guardian, 3 March 2000

(4) Why a great writer’s trial affects us all, Observer, 17 December 2005

(5) See Can music incite murder?, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) Trial of Turkish novelist on hold, Chicago Tribune, 17 December 2005

(7) Lawyer says David Irving now acknowledges existence of Nazi gas chambers, CBC News, 24 November 2005

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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