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Holocaust denier David Irving draws a friendly crowd in Budapest
Discredited British author David Irving spoke in front of some 250 people at a small theatre on Szabadsag ter last Monday. He was warmly greeted by the kind of rhythmic clapping that is one step short of a standing ovation in Hungary. Irving was released from jail in Vienna only last December, having served 13 months of a three-year sentence imposed on him for breaking an Austrian law that makes it a criminal offence to deny the magnitude of the crimes committed by the National Socialists during the Second World War. A warrant for his arrest was issued following a speech and an interview given in 1989, in which he denied the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz. He was picked up by police in November 2005 while driving to give a speech to a far-right student group in Vienna and sentenced the following February.
When the sentence was passed, the US academic Deborah Lipstadt, whom Irving had previously unsuccessfully sued for libel, said "I am uncomfortable with imprisoning people for speech. Let him go and let him fade from everyone's radar screens." She warned that the far right would find a martyr if he went to jail.
Irving, who will be 69 on 24 March, was in Hungary to promote his latest Hungarian-language publication, which deals with the 1945-1946 International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. He was also a guest of the nationalist Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP).
At the Szabo Dezso Theatre, he began with a joke about the similarities between his own country and Hungary, as both are being run by liars. This was enthusiastically received, as were all of his comments and gags. The English interpreter failed to turn up, so Irving spoke chiefly in fluent German. He said that while in prison, he wrote 2,000 pages for a book on Himmler, and 2,000 pages of his memoir. "I can recommend prison to writers," he quipped.
The audience consisted mostly of middle-aged men and women, with some pensioners and twenty-somethings mixed in. There were no stereotypical extreme right supporters: no skinheads, no swastikas. In Hungary, the far right parties, especially MIEP, tend to draw crowds of moustachioed men in leather jerkins and stern-looking housewives.
After admitting that he has been in Hungary, where he has a number of "good, special friends", for the past month - "and no one knew I was here, I'm glad to say" - he went on to rail against what he sees as a growing curtailment of freedom of speech in Europe. "I have to behave myself," he said, bitterly. He added that the war was fought for freedom but now "some are more free than others"
He told his audience how the criticism of his work started when "things I uncovered during my research did not conform" to the opinions of conventional historians. He has no formal training as a historian, and used to hanker after acceptance from the academic community. He reportedly said during the Lipstadt libel case that drove the last nails into the coffin of his reputation that he has "no academic qualifications whatsoever".
Irving is now widely regarded as a crank, but is an almost iconic figure in the world of extreme-right fringe politics. He campaigns for what he calls "Real History" and is in demand as a speaker. Having no serious publishing deal, he has put his works online for free download. His connection with Hungary goes back to the 1970s, when he was researching his 1981 book Uprising! about the 1956 revolution. That book has been criticised for implying that rebels were chiefly motivated by anti-Semitism and for ignoring events that took place in the years immediately preceding the 1956 revolution.
Irving said Austrian authorities would only allow him to see his twelve-year-old daughter for 15 minutes through a reinforced glass screen whileﾊin prison. The Hungarian audience applauded him warmly in sympathy. Many warned that imprisoning him would only heighten his importance to those sympathetic to his marginal, extremist views. To the small audience that came to hear him talk in a subterranean theatre in Budapest, people who like to think of themselves as victims living in a police state, David Irving was, at least for one night, a hero.
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