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It is wrong to remove David Irving's books because he is controversial


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This week, news of an attempt to remove the works of the historian David Irving from the shelves of Manchester University’s library emerged. Irving is a biographer of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich but is politely labelled ‘controversial’ by the media because he openly admires the Nazi regime.

His many books on the subject, most notably Hitler’s War, can be found in most British universities and many bookshops, though they are more difficult to get a hold of overseas, especially in countries in which Irving is himself banned from visiting.

Manchester University defended its decision to house Irving’s work, saying in a statement that it is ‘committed to allowing our students to have access to challenging and controversial works on many different subjects in order to pursue their studies.'

I shouldn’t need to say anything more, but now the campaign has been backed by a high-profile public figure, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Doctor Rowan Williams, and because it is the latest incident in a worrying trend in which universities are becoming increasing censorious places.

This case is particularly tricky in that Irving is himself very difficult to defend. As well as openly admiring the Third Reich, he frequently expounds his loathing of Jews, women, and people of colour, and as the judge concluded in the Lipstadt Trial which exposed him to a wider audience, is an active Holocaust Denier.

The trial was letter dramatised in the 2016 film Denial.

I would contend slightly with the judge’s decision, having looked into Irving for a university history essay on Holocaust Denial last year, one which I couldn’t have written without unfettered access to his work. But let me be clear in that I am defending Irving’s right for his books to be freely available, and not his character or views.

Irving has been researching the Third Reich since he was a young man, using his fluent German to gain access to minor figures from the period, such as Hitler’s doctors or Goebbels’s personal staff, and uncovering information many other historians failed to find.

More conventional students of the period, such as Ian Kershaw, regularly cite Irving in their work. They know, as would anyone who would take out an Irving book, that his findings must be read with extreme caution, and that the wheat must be separated from the chaff. But anyone who studies history must, in fact, do this all the time.

It has also been suggested Irving’s books be labelled or shelved separately to alert readers to the nature of the contents. The patronising idea of a ‘restricted section’ to a library sounds like it has come from Harry Potter, while the suggestion that some books are controversial is simply an obvious one.

Many books in a wide variety of academic fields are hotly disputed by those involved in the debate, while many authors themselves are no saints. If we censor Irving for his views on Jews then logically we must do the same for J.D. Salinger for his relationships with underage women, or for Enid Blyton for being a terrible mother.

Rowan Williams's views are extremely foolish but he is automatically afforded respect because he is of the cloth. He has a track record of coming up with completely false solutions to genuine societal problems, once advocating Sharia Law be introduced for British Muslims in order to promote ‘multiculturalism.’

‘The measurable rise in the expression of extremist views,’ as he windily put it, is a real problem, but making free speech martyrs of already toxic people tends to only further inflate their egos. Irving enjoys wallowing in self-pity about how much he is despised. Banning his books is an entertainment to him, not a defeat.

The education secretary Jo Johnson, to whom Williams addressed his concerns, also rightly raised the subject of the alarming increase in anti-Semitism in British universities. This runs on a parallel track with the increasingly sinister way university student societies attempt to silence even mildly controversial ideas.

In recent years, Cardiff University attempted to ban feminist Germaine Greer from speaking for her views about transgender people, a London university, famed for its journalism school, disallowed the sale of right-wing newspapers (though this was later overturned) on its campus, while my own university of Strathclyde in Glasgow denied the right of pro-life activists to set up a society for themselves, out of the absurd belief that they would go around terrorising pregnant students (not that pregnant students couldn’t do with a wake-up call).

The old idea of in loco parentis, that universities replace the caring hands of your parents and introduce you, without condescension, to new and shocking ideas, is dying fast. It is being killed by a spurious culture in which feelings are put before facts and even basic honesty, where students are patronised as if they were still five-year-olds.

It is vital that the campus remains open to all ideas, no matter how ‘controversial.’ If they aren’t, bubble-dwelling students will graduate not knowing how to confront the extremists like Irving, who are never happier when told they are too hot to handle.

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