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Of all the people whose misfortunes made news this past week, few inspire less sympathy than David Irving. The British historian who has fashioned a career out of questioning the Nazis’ slaughter of millions of European Jews was sentenced to three years in prison on Monday for violating Austria’s ban on Holocaustverleugnung, or Holocaust denial.

The man had it coming: He was aware of the country’s anti-Nazi law and deliberately chose to flout it during a lecture tour there in 1989, admitting as much in court. Yet in a broader context — how to respond most effectively to a Holocaust denier, be it Irving or any other — the jailing of this belligerent individual is not so easy to agree on.

In fact, the Irving decision has caused nearly as much head-scratching as the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, over which debate still rages on the merits of a newspaper’s right to publish contentious material vs. people’s right to criticize its judgment. Last week’s ruling in Vienna caused a similar clash of priorities, as Austria’s right to outlaw Nazi activities on its own soil collided with the view — expressed even by some Jewish observers — that this particular sentence might have been ill-advised.

Note that we have not said the ruling collided with the right to freedom of expression, which is the argument offered most often on Irving’s behalf, even by those who denounce his views.

“Curbs on free speech are always regrettable,” the Times of London commented tersely. It is significant that Irving’s own defense lawyer suggested no such thing, arguing instead that the man no longer denies that the Holocaust took place and, in any case, poses no threat to a stable democracy 60 years following the demise of Nazism.

Free speech is not the issue. The 67-year-old Irving has enjoyed extraordinary freedom over the years, lecturing widely and publishing numerous books. He even found German translations of his books in his Austrian prison library, to officials’ embarrassment. And Austria is hardly China when it comes to the Internet: Any Austrian with a computer can discover Irving’s opinions in a minute.

Austria is neither alone nor unjustified in maintaining its law against any form of Nazi revivalism, including acts of denying or minimizing Nazi crimes. Irving’s sentence has ignited debate on the issue in Europe. Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Switzerland have similar laws — Israel for obvious reasons and the others because, presumably, they want to prevent the re-emergence of probably the most noxious ideology ever to take root on European soil. Flareups of anti-Semitic violence across the Continent in recent years give officials little reason to think it would be a good idea to repeal the law anytime soon.

Besides, Austria has particular reason to distance itself from Nazism: It has a long history of anti-Semitism: It produced Adolf Hitler and other top Nazis, and was part of the Third Reich for seven years. Its stance on this issue is one that many Japanese will understand, since it matches in some ways the rejection of militarism enshrined in this country’s postwar Constitution. People just want to disown some things. It is all very well for outsiders to advise “moving on,” but often their arguments lack the context provided by a nation’s historical memory. Such memory should not be jettisoned lightly.

Irving is not really a concern for Austria — unlike its own marginalized but by no means moribund neo-Nazi movement — but his rabble-rousing in Graz 16 years ago could not be ignored. Irving essentially invited prosecution, so he was in no position to complain when Austria obliged him. In fact, he got off lightly with his three-year sentence. Under the law, he could have been handed 10 years.

That said, the court could have done a better job of downplaying Irving’s provocation. He certainly should have been prosecuted, but perhaps a suspended sentence would have been in order — not out of deference to his “right” to mislead and vilify but out of consideration for real-world consequences.

Truth be told, such sentences make martyrs. Why risk that, especially when the trial had already elicited a retraction from Irving that is certain to take the wind out of his followers’ sails? As a British rabbi put it last week, “Personally I prefer to treat him with disdain than with imprisonment.”

Imprisoned he is, though, with few to shed tears for him. Unfortunately, even as Irving appears to be losing sway in the Holocaust-denial movement, a new spokesman has arisen in the form of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Expressions of disdain won’t silence him, and imprisonment is not an option. Still, his toxic speeches should at least silence those who suggest that Austria was wrong to take David Irving seriously.

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