Any limit on freedom of speech is wrong and almost always achieves the opposite to that which it is aiming for. But in the case of Holocaust-deniers, sticking them in prison is an especially bad idea.
The question of whether Frederick Toben should have been arrested last Wednesday at Heathrow, on an EU-wide warrant, for a crime that doesn't even exist in Britain, will keep Eurosceptics and Europhiles busy for the next few weeks. One thing is certain, though: the arrest will now allow Toben and his cronies to present themselves as human-rights martyrs. Which, thanks to the British and German authorities, they now are. We should all applaud the Lib Dem's Chris Huhne for being brave enough to defend Toben's right to spew his drivel.
There is something faintly ridiculous about Holocaust-denial. How can anyone seriously deny the existence, or even main details, of one of the best-researched and -documented events in history? Just for that reason, those who claim that Nazi Germany's pre-meditated extermination of the Jews is a hoax concocted by the perfidious Zionists should be treated with the same kind of pity and derision we reserve for those who believe the Earth is flat. But we should not waste taxpayers' money prosecuting them.
There are, however, two other types of Holocaust-denial - not denial, really, since they don't deny the Holocaust ever happened - which makes them much more dangerous.
There is the David Irving (in his later, more refined version) school of thought that concedes that many Jews - perhaps even millions - were exterminated, but that this was just one aspect of the global war in which similar, wholesale atrocities were carried out by all sides. So Auschwitz is comparable to the fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo. And besides, Adolf Hitler never gave the order to implement the "final solution": it was simply the initiative of a few enterprising SS colonels. This approach is also easily debunked by use of serious historical research.
The third type of Holocaust-denial doesn't even try and dispute the generally accepted historical version, but instead tries to use it against the second-largest Jewish community in the world. Its arguments goes like this: the Holocaust was the best thing that ever happened to the Jews. They exploited the world's guilt to occupy another nation's land and get away with carrying out their own holocaust against that nation.
The "International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust" in Tehran two years ago included speakers representing all three brands of Holocaust-denial, but focused mainly on the third. This is obviously the most difficult to deal with, not least because it contains a tiny grain of truth - pro-Israel advocates have always been too ready to press the Holocaust button. That doesn't mean that it can't be countered, by basing all arguments on the facts and plain, decent common sense.
But criminalising all or any kind of Holocaust-denial - aside from not serving to answer any of these spurious claims - not only transforms men like Toben and Irving into proud knights of the sacred cause of freedom of speech; it also lends them a certain notoriety, which causes some people to take them more seriously.
I was inclined in the past to think that making Holocaust-denial illegal in Germany, Austria and Poland made some historical sense. But a couple of years ago, when Germany held the EU presidency and Chancellor Merkel tried to push through legislation that would forbid it throughout the EU, I started wondering why it was so important for Germans.
For the last decade or so, in books, films and public discussion, Germans have begun talking a lot more about their own suffering during the Second World War. This was especially evident in the later works of Gunter Grass. There is nothing historically inaccurate about this; of course the German population suffered deeply because of their (elected) leaders. But the next step was to demand recognition as belonging to the long list of Hitler's victims and, along with victim-status, also reduced responsibility. Many, though not all, young Germans say quite clearly today: why should we have to continue paying for sins committed three generations ago, as it is our grandparents who also suffered?
Holocaust-denial is too much for these Germans to deal with. It forces them to contend once again with the uncomfortable past, denied of any statute of limitations. Much easier just to outlaw it, and try to force other countries to follow suit through pan-European legislation and arrest warrants.
The deniers should not be fought through the prison system nor the courts (unless, like Irving, they are unwise enough to serve libel writs). They will only emerge with more vigour and encouragement. We must fight them in the open, gladiatorial arena of public opinion.