Posted Monday, July 22, 2002

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 [Prof. Richard] Evans originally had pungent words for Penguin in his British edition, but last summer he . . . sold a big new book on the Third Reich to, well, Penguin. The attack on Penguin has since been excised. -- US journalist Don Guttenplan, writing on the saga of Prof Richard Evans and his book on the Lipstadt Trial

London, Monday, July 22, 2002

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Book Reviews

"I shall tear him to shreds"

D D Guttenplan


Telling Lies About Hitler: the Holocaust, history and the David Irving trial Richard J Evans (Verso, 326pp)


ON 28 October 1999, I sent an e-mail to the not-yet-disgraced historian David Irving. Even then, Irving was an extremely controversial figure, denounced as an anti-Semite and apologist for the Nazis, yet defended by some of the leading historians on both sides of the Atlantic as an indefatigable researcher and a valuable provocateur. Sir John Keegan, defence editor of the Daily Telegraph, had described his book Hitler's War as "indispensable". The same book carried a blurb from Donald Cameron Watt declaring: "Irving's mastery of the German sources is superb." More recently, Christopher Hitchens had assured the readers of Vanity Fair that Irving was "not just a Fascist historian. He is also a great historian of Fascism."

David Irving comments:

The Evans book In Defense of History, which I found had been presented to me months before the trial and lay unnoticed on my desk throughout that time, has long since been remaindered as unsaleable by the US booktrade (Source: Scholars Bookshelf). I did look into it once but found it possessed all the literary qualities -- i.e., unreadable unless under penalty of concentration camp -- and none of the humour of Mein Kampf.
As for Don Guttenplan, readers should compare what he writes here about "Evans's meticulous dismemberment of Irving's reputation [which] proved every bit as devastating in the courtroom," with his far more positive assessment of my demolition of Evans in the witness box as given in his own book The Holocaust on Trial.
  Just one example of Evans's troubles with the truth. He writes, says Guttenplan, that he "quickly revealed a mass of distortion and manipulation." In fact it took him and his team twenty man-years to identify what they claimed were a dozen tiny errors in my thirty or more books.
   Guttenplan repeats Evans's comfortable lie that his first publisher, William Heinemann, "did actually withdraw the book in the face of Irving's threats." He knows full well that I had no contact with Heinemann whatever; they cancelled production plans on receiving their own legal advice that Evans's book was libellous (i.e. defamatory and untrue).
   Note once again that in the wonderful world of journalism everybody who criticises me is a "scholar", even Götz Bergander, a good friend over more than forty years: a Sender Freies Berlin journalist and Dresden survivor, he borrowed all my files and wrote his own very good account of that "other holocaust"; nor does Guttenplan mention the very long reply to Kai Bird in 1981 which the New Statesman published soon after Bird's attack on me (the gist of which was that I was probably a concealed Soviet agent, as I had been given access to Moscow and Hungarian communist sources for my book on the 1956 Budapest Uprising).

The American academic Deborah Lipstadt had been a good deal less complimentary, and Irving was suing her for libel.

Reporting on the eve of the trial for The Atlantic Monthly, I interviewed both Irving and Lipstadt at length. I spoke to Lipstadt's lawyer, Anthony Julius, and was granted a brief pre-trial interview with the judge, Charles Gray, who worried about the "risk of one's being asked to become a historian. Judges aren't historians."

Gray's diffidence was important. In her book Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt had accused Irving of twisting historical evidence "until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda". Unless Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin, could prove Irving guilty of deliberate distortion, Irving would win. Lipstadt had also called Irving "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial". But Irving claimed that the term "Holocaust denier" made no sense. The whole idea that Jews had been murdered in large numbers in gas chambers at Auschwitz was, he said, a hoax. How could he be guilty of denying something that never happened? Legally, Lipstadt had to prove him wrong. History -- not just the way historians assemble facts, but the facts themselves -- would be central to this trial.


PROFESSOR Richard Evans (above) was principal expert witness for the defence. In Telling Lies About Hitler, he describes the trial as "raising in an acute and . . . practical form many of the problems with which I had been wrestling in my book In Defence of History". The book combines a blow-by-blow account of the 28 hours Evans spent on the stand with a much-abridged version of his 740-page report on Irving's use of historical sources. It was that report which prompted my e-mail to Irving:

"Having read all of the Evans . . . in all frankness it seems to me that he's done a pretty thoroughgoing demolition job on your scholarship. Presumably you disagree. Please feel free to explain why at any length you like."

Only a few weeks before the trial began, Irving replied with characteristic bluster: "I have now begun reading the Evans report. I am eagerly looking forward to the cross-examination. If he ventures into the box, I shall tear him to shreds."

In the event, Evans's meticulous dismemberment of Irving's reputation proved every bit as devastating in the courtroom as it had appeared on paper. "Penetrating beneath the confident surface of his prose quickly revealed a mass of distortion and manipulation," wrote Evans. Evans devoted 70 pages to unpicking the distortions in Irving's 11-page account of Kristallnacht, the anti-Jewish pogrom on the night of 9 November 1938. Another 250 were spent debunking Irving's "chain of documents" -- the nine instances where Irving falsely claimed that Hitler had personally intervened to aid Jews. Professing himself shocked at "the sheer depths of duplicity which I encountered in Irving's treatment of historical sources", Evans also flayed his colleagues in the academy for never bothering to look beyond Irving's surface plausibility. Evans left little doubt that Irving's defenders could -- and should -- have known better.

In the witness box, Evans emerged as a pedant's pedant, demanding to see documentation before answering the most innocuous question. Querulous and arrogant, he made a tempting target for Irving's mounting frustration, especially after the judge, in response to Evans's complaints, reminded him that, as a witness, he was "there to be shot at".

Yet, in the end, Evans held his ground. He may have lacked charm, but his conclusion that Irving was not to be trusted on even the smallest particular was convincing. The judge, who at first seemed put off by Evans, ended with a complete endorsement of his damning assessment.

In writing my own account of Irving v Lipstadt, I confess that I considered Evans's unsympathetic personality a great gift. In my view, Irving richly deserved the doom he brought on himself. But he was less a monster than an opportunist; that his opponents were not cartoon heroes made for a more intriguing tale. Although the human confrontations enhanced the drama of the proceedings, the trial mattered for reasons that had very little to do with Irving's reputation or with the integrity of professional historians. Or, indeed, in Evans's phrase, with "the issue of the falsification of the historical record", which was why I called my book The Holocaust on Trial.

Evans did not care much for my title, or for my portrayal of him. To him, the idea that the trial was anything more than "a battle between real historical scholarship and an attempt to distort the past" was just the sort of vulgar error you would expect from a journalist. In Telling Lies About Hitler, the lamentable crudity of journalists becomes a leitmotif. Irving's attitude to his sources was more like "a journalist pulling off a scoop than a professional historian". As the trial ends, Evans finds "the journalists . . . more and more at sea".

Evans at home

ANOTHER theme, not so much of the book itself as the publicity around it, is Evans's perceived heroism in taking on Irving and the pathetic failure of the British publishers who withdrew Telling Lies About Hitler when confronted with libel threats from Irving. Some of this is true. Evans was there to be shot at. One publisher, Heinemann, did actually withdraw the book in the face of Irving's threats. But the publishing story of Telling Lies About Hitler is a story without heroes. Evans only took his book to Heinemann after Penguin, which had already paid him an estimated £70,000 for his trial report, declined to offer an additional advance. When Heinemann cut him loose, and another publisher turned him down, Evans went to Granta (which had already published my book, prompting a miffed Evans to describe me as "having some sympathy with Irving", a canard he has recently repeated in Private Eye). Granta, which had earlier published In Defence of History, agreed to take on the new book. It also reached verbal agreement with Evans over three others. But, after "talking to friends and acquaintances in the publishing world", Evans decided that the money "was not much by current standards for history" and pulled out -- but neglected to mention his doubts to Granta until Telling Lies, which he still expected the firm to publish, had been typeset. Confronted by the possibility of large (and, given that Irving is bankrupt, irrecoverable) legal fees, and feeling that Evans had been less than candid, Granta declined. Evans originally had pungent words for Penguin in his British edition, but last summer he acquired a new agent,who sold a big new book on the Third Reich to, well, Penguin. The attack on Penguin has since been excised. The vendetta against Granta continues; but that, as they say in Little Italy, is "just business".

Prof Richard EvansVanity leads Evans to overstate his own originality. At one point, he claims that "it was only when I subjected all of this [Irving's writings] to detailed scrutiny" that his work "was revealed as a house of cards". And yet his own footnotes credit Martin Broszat, Charles Sydnor and Götz Bergander, the first scholars to follow Irving's paper trail back in the 1970s. Evans does not mention Kai Bird, whose exposé of Irving occurred in the pages of this magazine. But then Bird was a mere journalist.

None of which makes Telling Lies a bad book. Indeed, for anyone still in any doubt about the extent to which Irving was a bent historian from the very beginning, Evans's book is essential reading. He is interesting on the difference between legal and historical evidence and on the experience of hostile cross-examination. He has even abandoned his insistence that history was never at risk, admitting that the distinction between the evidence for the Holocaust and whether the Holocaust had actually happened was "almost impossible to maintain. The trial seemed to be about both issues."

On his own patch -- the use and abuse of historical sources -- he is superb. Off his patch, Evans is less reliable. He gets small facts wrong, claiming that Lipstadt said nothing in public about the case after 1995; in fact, she had applauded when Irving lost his American publisher in 1996, and had spoken to me in 1999 about Irving. He gets some big facts wrong, too, describing the evidence for "the 6 million dead" as "overwhelming, indisputable", though Raul Hilberg has long placed the total at 5.1 million.

He also has trouble with big ideas, tying himself in knots over historical objectivity, when Irving's problem was simple dishonesty. To compare Sir Frank Kermode's defence of the literary canon with Evans's defence of history is to be struck by the difference between a mind supple enough both to assimilate and to winnow through Continental thought, and a mind too narrow for complex ideas to penetrate.

Holocaust deniers have a political, not a postmodern, agenda. But then Evans does not actually know very much about the Holocaust. At the trial this didn't matter, because the witnesses who were experts on the destruction of European Jewry -- Christopher Browning, Peter Longerich and Robert Jan van Pelt -- did their jobs as well as Evans did his. The result was a defeat for Irving, not just on how history should be written, but on how the particular history that he -- and indeed, most of those paying attention to the trial -- cared about would be written. Telling Lies About Hitler tells half that story very well indeed. 

D D Guttenplan is London correspondent for The Nation and author of The Holocaust on Trial (Granta). He is working on a biography of the American journalist I F Stone


 Evans reviews Guttenplan book in Daily Telegraph (Mar 20, 2001), calls it "A controversial account of the Irving libel trial"
  Radical's Diary
 Sunday Telegraph: Irving's home is repossessed as libel debts mount
 Michael Burleigh writes: It is time for the David Irving libel case to be consigned to history
The Führer, The Jackal, The Professor and his Publishers

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