Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Power of Words

The British Nazi historian, David Irving, will be spending Christmas and New Year behind the bars of a Viennese jail after being remanded for four weeks pending trial in January, for allegedly lying about the Holocaust.

Irving was arrested two weeks ago and has been charged with denying there were gas chambers at the Auschwitz death camp in speeches he made in Austria 16 years ago.

At the recent custody hearing the magistrate dismissed Mr Irving's lawyer's request for bail on the grounds he was a “flight risk” and that Britain might “refuse extradition back to Austria for trial”.

He is to be tried under a 1947 Austrian law banning Nazi revivalism and criminalising belittling or justifying the crimes of the Third Reich. Irving faces a jail term of one to ten years if found guilty.

Mr Irving intents to plead guilty, but also to declare his remorse and insist that he has changed his views on the Third Reich since he made the speeches back in 1989. Irving said “after researching the Russian archives in the 1990s, I've repented. I've no intention of repeating these views. I fully accept this [the holocaust], it's a fact. The discussion on Auschwitz, the gas chambers and the Holocaust is finished - it's useless to dispute it."

Mr Irving’s case highlights a potent risk for any writer; the power mere words can have, no matter how long ago they were written.

Whatever the subject matter, every writer goes through the same process when they are writing about something that others may construe as being controversial or taboo.

In modern days, novelists still have difficulty introducing certain subject matters into their work, not just because it may be economically suicidal, but also because writing about something society finds hard to accept, means you are handing over a part of your soul to it, and that can be the problem.

For instance, I could never write about the subject of paedophilia. From a personal point of view it disgusts me and I would wish castration on anyone involved in such activities. Writing about it connects me to it on a level I would not want to go to. I would have to address it emotionally, attempt to understand it and then through my words, I would be emitting an opinion, however subtle. I simply could not do it.

When Mr Irving wrote those speeches about the Holocaust sixteen years ago, who knew what was going through his mind. Maybe he had a connection somehow, or maybe he was just interested from a historical point of view. But no matter how he came to his conclusions back then, his misguided views became greyed and he published his opinion, which he surely must have known would be highly controversial.

The subject of Mr. Irving’s right to a freedom of speech is naturally a concern, but not the point here. That’s for another article and it probably won’t concern Mr. Irving. I’m thinking Salmon Rushdie; victim or suicide in the cause of free speech? You see where I’m going with this.

The fact that Irving has since done more research and has changed his opinion doesn’t take away from the fact that his thoughts were made public. They were published and that is how he will be forever remembered. He said it, therefore the scar will remain forever no matter how he tries to remove it. Whether a jury will see it like that remains to be seen. He may end up paying a hefty price for his opinion expressed through the medium of literature.

In short, don’t write anything you might never want people to read some day.


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