Holocaust denier: 'I'm no Nazi'

David Irving claims he has undergone a conversion in prison. But is it too late to save him from the force of Austrian law?

It will be a chastened-looking David Irving who appears in the dock of a Vienna court tomorrow. The right-wing historian and notorious Holocaust denier will present himself as a changed man who has seen the light about the Nazis' attempt to exterminate the Jews. But even his defence lawyer does not believe it will do him any good.

"He'll most likely be found guilty, and he knows it," Elmar Kresbach, Mr Irving's counsel, told The Independent on Sunday. "It's almost impossible for him to win - the case is a clear breach of the law on Holocaust denial."

Irving, 67, was arrested on an Austrian motorway in November last year, 16 years after a warrant was issued. He is charged with denying the existence of the gas chambers at Auschwitz concentration camp in lectures he gave in Austria in 1989. Rather than contest the charges - Mr Kresbach is not expected to call any defence witnesses - the strategy is to seek a suspended sentence rather than the 10 years in jail which is the maximum penalty.

The case, which will be heard tomorrow before three magistrates and eight jurors at Vienna's state court, centres on two lectures Irving gave in November 1989. In the first, he told a 300-strong audience in Leoben that Kristallnacht - the night in November 1938 when 1,350 synagogues were destroyed - was carried out by "unknowns" dressed up as members of the SA, that Anne Frank could not have written her diary herself, because the Biro wasn't invented until 1949, and that Hitler never gave an order to exterminate the Jews.

He cited research by the (now discredited) American execution technician, Fred A Leuchter, which concluded that no significant traces of cyanide gas were found at Auschwitz, and accused the Jewish World Congress of spreading the "legend" in 1942 that the Third Reich was preparing its Final Solution.

During the second lecture, a day later, in the back room of a Vienna pub, he went even further. A tape of his speech contains such views as "Auschwitz is a legend, just like the Turin Shroud", and "the existence of witnesses proves that there was no mass extermination".

Christa Zöchling, an Austrian journalist who attended both lectures, will be the prosecution's only witness. Irving gave Dr Zöchling an interview shortly before his second lecture, telling her: "I stand by what I said. There were no gas chambers at Auschwitz."

Irving's reputation was shredded when he lost a libel action in Britain in 2000 against the American historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books. The judge, whom he addressed during his closing statement as "Mein Führer", called him an anti-Semitic neo-Nazi sympathiser and "falsifier of history", and he was later declared bankrupt after failing to pay £150,000 in costs. This time, says Mr Kresbach, there will be no such grandstanding. "He'll talk a little, but not a lot," said the lawyer. "It doesn't make any sense for him to hold a great lecture."

Mr Irving has been in Vienna's Josefstadt prison since his arrest on 11 November. According to supporters he is "being treated like a star" by prison guards, and is using the time to write his memoirs. But he now says he recognises his previously expressed extremist views are untenable. "He said that's all over now, and I intend to draw a line under them in the trial," Mr Kresbach said.

His conversion, according to Irving, came in 1992 after his discovery of two documents - a discovery he kept to himself until recently. One was a radio message sent to Adolf Eichmann in 1943, reporting that during the previous 12 months more than a million people had died in Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec concentration camps.

But his critics are having a hard time believing he has changed his spots.

"It's entirely implausible in my mind ... especially if he's citing documents found in 1992," said Professor Richard Evans, a Cambridge University historian who spent months researching his historical methods for the Lipstadt case. During the libel action, he added, "we spent many days hearing him continue to trivialise the Holocaust and play down the numbers that died. One shouldn't believe a word he says."

Professor Evans does not want to see him behind bars, though. "Irving has absolutely no interest in the freedom of speech," he said. "It would be a sad irony if he was made a martyr for it."

THE WARPED WISDOM OF A HOLOCAUST DENIER

And gradually the word is getting around Germany. Two years from now, the German historians will accept that we're right. They will accept that for 50 years they have believed a lie.

Speech, Ontario, Canada, 1991

Ridicule alone isn't enough. You've got to be tasteless about it. You've got to say things like, 'More women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.'

Ontario speech, 1991

I'm unhappy with the way that the Holocaust legend is packaged... When you give a word a capital H then it begins to look like some kind of brand name that's been very slickly packaged and marketed.

TV interview, New Zealand, 1993

Seventy-four thousand died of natural causes in the work camps and the rest were hidden in reception camps after the war and later taken to Palestine, where they live today under new identities.

Speech in Vienna, 1989, on the loss of six million Jews

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