Sunday 25 November 2007

I feel sorry for David Irving

This is sparked by the news that David Irving is to speak at the Oxford Union, together with watching "The relief of Belsen" on TV last night.

When it comes to giving freedom of speech to those whose words are poison to my ears, I find I have to think carefully about each case. I have always been uneasy about the speech implications of race relations legislation. But I'm not an absolute libertarian. I believe the freedom of movement of your fist ends some way short of my nose, because a swinging fist carries threat as well as physical force. The problem is where to draw the line in each case. I believe that preventing racists from speaking is justified if the pernicious results of their speaking outweighs the pernicious results of denying them freedom of speech. Having said that, I think that, on balance, the Oxford Union has taken a justifiable decision.

In my view, the world became a different place after 1945, when the full scale and style of the Holocaust became public. The human race had to confront the issue of evil in a way that had never been brought home to us before. The Holocaust was a unique event in human history. It was not unique because of the cold bloodedness or the scale of the act. There have been plenty of calculated and large scale massacres both before and since. Though, in many cases, the actual killing is not done nearly as cold bloodedly as it is often portrayed to be.

The uniqueness of the Holocaust lies in the way in which it was done. It took the pinnacle of capitalist development, the rational bureaucracy of the process of capital accumulation, and it turned it into an instrument for the killing of people and the removal of an entire race from the face of the earth. They turned genocide into an industrial process. And then, because rational bureaucrats in pursuit of growing and ordered prosperity record what they do, they kept meticulous records of their achievements - numbers of shoes, spectacles, sets of false teeth, and so on and so on and so on. If you read the records, you see how, in the relentless, rationalistic, bureaucratic pursuit of efficiency, they lose sight of what they are processing - human bodies and human lives.

Thus we had to confront the fact that what some thought of as the most civilised people on earth - western, rational, sophisticated, capitalistic Europeans, with all their development through history, with all the civilising influence of classical art, literature, music - were capable of unspeakable evil.

Then eventually, when we were ready, we had to confront the fact that the people who did this were just like us. They didn't do it because they were Nazis and therefore different from the rest of us. They didn't do it because they were Germans and therefore different from the rest of us. They did it because they were human, and just the same as the rest of us.

And then we have to confront the implication of that, which is that we all carry within us the capacity for that level of evil. We have to acknowledge that if we were put in that situation, some of us would resist, but many of us would acquiesce, and some of us would carry out, possibly with greater and greater enthusiasm, the orders we are given.

We have to accept that knowledge, that truth about ourselves, and somehow accommodate that into our own self images - we like ourselves (most of us), we think we are basically nice people. Our view of ourselves has to stretch to accommodate the knowledge that there is such a dark side, and then it has to maintain that while continuing to believe that we are worth something. That's quite a tall order, but most of us manage it. That, ultimately, is why I feel sorry for David Irving. He may have a political or personal agenda, I don't know, and I won't comment on that. But I think that he has become what he is because his own self image, his own hold on his own personality, is so tenuous that he cannot accept the implication of the Holocaust - that he, just like the rest of us, is capable of that. So he has to try to rewrite history to get rid of it. The history that is written in hundreds of thousands of letters, diaries, accounts, factory ledgers, documents, even photos and newsreels like those we saw in "Relief of Belsen" has to be written out because the implications of accepting the truth are too great for him to deal with. I teach history because I want people to know about these things. I do not want to rub their noses in it, but I do want them to *know*, so that they will never shrink from the truth the way David Irving does.

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