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The ugly legacy of Australia’s most notorious Holocaust denier

Ashley Browne
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Published: 12 July 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

Frederick Toben died last month after a life of ‘repulsive' anti-Jewish claims. Ashley Browne talks to the Jewish leaders who campaigned against him to give Australians legal recourse to hate speech

FREDRICK TOBEN IS DEAD and the question for the Australian Jewish community is how he should be remembered. He was this country’s most notorious Holocaust denier and the first to use the internet to spread his message.

However, it was the Executive Council of Australian Jewry’s complaint against Toben in 2000 to the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, which ruled he had breached Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, that first demonstrated there was recourse. Not just the Jewish community but Australians of any race, creed or colour now had legal protection against hate speech.

Jeremy Jones was the honorary secretary of the ECAJ who made the initial complaint against Toben. He told The Jewish Independent, “until this legislation, if someone published that Joe Blow was a thief, there was recourse. If someone published that Jews were thieves, there was not.”

Australia’s Jewish leaders had already led the way for the introduction of hate speech legislation when Section 18C was introduced in 1995.

It followed a virulently anti-Semitic speech by controversial Muslim leader Sheik Taj El-Din Hilaly at Sydney University which sparked outrage from both the Jewish and wider community.

There had been Holocaust deniers before Toben. John Bennett was well-known, especially in the 1970s and there was also the Australian League of Rights, led by Eric Butler.

Under the umbrella of 18C, HREOC had ruled against Tasmanian anti-Semitic pamphleteer Olga Scully in 2000 when Jones, as president of ECAJ, took her to the Federal court.

Toben, a relief schoolteacher, was already on Jones’ radar when he was just distributing pamphlets, which, while upsetting to those who received them, didn't have much reach or impact.

“It was like shouting on a street corner without a megaphone,” Jones said.

The Adelaide Institute, which was founded by Toben, increased its activity in 1993 around the release of the movie Schindler’s List, but it wasn’t until the internet started growing two years later that Jones became alarmed.

Toben placed an advertisement in The Australian newspaper directing people to the institute’s website to learn what “really happened” during World War II.

Once there, they would find articles denying the Holocaust, but also stories of the Russian Revolution being a front for Jewish takeover and the then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, taking her instructions from the Talmud.

Toben argued the Holocaust was a myth and that only those with limited intellect believed it happened. “With the internet you don’t only have a megaphone, you basically have the ability to offend, upset, confront and provoke people everywhere in the world and that’s when it became more of a concern,” Jones said.

“He was one of a number of lunatics who were annoying the Jewish community, but when he went on to the internet it meant that many Jewish people were upset and to many non-Jews, it was an affront to them as Australians that someone could freely behave in the way he was to spread such claims.”

The ECAJ went to the Federal Court in 2002 to enforce the ruling from the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and Toben was ordered to remove offensive material from the Adelaide Institute website and to formally apologise.

Undeterred, Toben and used various obfuscations to avoid the court order.

Ultimately, Jones and the ECAJ counted 144 clear breaches of the order, which led to another Federal Court battle, this time for contempt of court. There was no shortage of experienced legal minds from the Jewish community who got behind the ECAJ for the case, which was heard in Adelaide and dragged on for more than a year.

“It was a really important case,” recalled Robin Margo SC, the former president of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies who represented Jones in the proceedings in 2008 and 2009.

“I came in at the tail end but it was a long tail because there were deferments and we had to go to Adelaide quite a bit.”

In April 2009, Toben was found guilty and sentenced to three months in jail. Later that year he lost an appeal before the full bench of the Federal Court and served his prison time.

It was not his first jail sentence. In 1998, he served nine months in Germany’s Mannheim Prison for breaching that country’s Holocaust Law and in 2008 he was arrested at Heathrow Airport while flying from the United States to Dubai. Germany had issued a European Arrest Warrant and wanted him extradited to Germany and Toben spent 50 days in prison before the warrant was dismissed by a British court.

Toben’s motives remain unclear. Was he a German patriot who denied the Holocaust out of loyalty to the country of his birth? Or was he an unrepentant, unapologetic anti-Semite?

“I know he was a fan of the music of Wagner,” Jones said. “But was that because he liked the music or was he attracted to Wagner because of his well-known attitude towards the Jews?”

Toben had pockets of support in far-right circles both here and abroad, and was feted on trips to Iran, where the regime has, on multiple occasions, denied the Holocaust took place.

And whereas the Jewish community had access to an extensive legal team, Toben often chose to represent himself, although at times he had solid legal support.

Several Jewish community leaders recall the first of the hearings with Toben in the late 1990s, when he addressed the HRC with a rambling speech denying that the Holocaust took place, only to be rebuked and told that he was on trial and not the Holocaust.

“You can’t tear someone to pieces if you want to win the case,” Margo said of the 2009 case. “And he wasn't that sort of guy. He was mild-mannered and didn't look like a nutter. I just think he was terribly misguided and I suspect he felt guilt that the Germans could be suspected of such a thing.”

Since Toben died month at the age of 76, Jones has been asked several times how he should be remembered. “He was a vehicle for transmitting repulsive, offensive and hurtful anti-Jewish memes and themes and that’s the only reason we pay attention to him,” he said.

“And the outcome was that people who are victims of racial vilification have redress in the courts.”

The first line of Toben’s obituary on the Adelaide Institute website says, “another great truth-teller has died. He worked tirelessly to expose the fraud and tell the truth about the so-called jewish (sic) holocaust. For his efforts, he suffered persecution, including imprisonment.”

And it goes on from there.

About the author

Ashley Browne

Ashley Browne has been writing about Australian sport for the last 30 years and is currently a senior writer for Crocmedia. He was the co-editor in 2018 of People of the Boot, The Triumphs and Tragedy of Jews and Sport in Australia.

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