Professor Richard Evans' comments on David Irving
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It's only because he's a political figure and does not believe in free speech that he took it to court. -- Prof Evans about David Irving

Varsity Online

Cambridge University, May 2000

Evans Evans on Irving

'It was a Freudian slip. He was in his final speech, and he just ploughed on as if nothing had happened, but the court collapsed in total hysteria, because it was so revealing. It was worth sitting through five hours of his interminable closing speech just for that. Even the judge allowed a smile to pass his lips.' Richard Evans recounts one of the lighter moments of 'Holocaust denier' David Irving's failed libel trial against historian Deborah Lipstadt, when Irving accidentally addressed the judge as 'Mein Fuhrer'. Irving began the court action against Lipstadt and her publishers, Penguin, after she wrote that in his work on the archives of Nazi Germany, he deliberately falsified history.

Evans, Professor of Modern European History and a fellow of Caius, says the case eventually proved much more. He has spent the last two and quarter years delving into archives across Europe, assembling a 740 page report for the defence to show that Irving is the liar, racist and falsifier of history Lipstadt had suggested he was. It culminated in a high-profile week giving evidence at the High Court in London, when he suggested Irving's work was so outrageously manipulative that the man could not properly be called a historian. And as everyone now knows, the judge, who heard the case alone after both sides agreed the issues were too complex for a jury to understand, found damningly against Irving.

skunk'I know of no historian who has ever sued another historian for what they've said about him or her. Historians can be extremely fierce about each other and say all sorts of terrible things, but nobody sues!', says Evans. 'It's only because he's a political figure and does not believe in free speech that he took it to court. . . What Irving was trying to do was suppress criticism of his own work. His lawsuit against Lipstadt was undertaken in order to get her book withdrawn, pulped. He has another lawsuit going against Gita Sereny and The Observer, he has threatened to sue anyone who publishes John Lucaks' book Hitler and History in this country. Had he won. . . a great deal of debate about the holocaust would have been suppressed.'

Irving, naturally, disagrees. His claim is that he is battling a Jewish 'conspiracy' to prevent him publishing the truth about the Holocaust. He says the judge misunderstood the case, and that the defence team was dishonest, effectively buying expert testimony for 'obscene' sums of money (Evans received about £70,000 for his work). On Evans personally he is vitriolic; a 'little dumpy scowling Welshman', 'clearly motivated by malice from the outset' who in court 'ducked and dodged every significant direct question, reading out instead pages of the sludge of which his dreary report consisted'. He intends to appeal against the verdict. But Evans believes Irving, now facing bankruptcy, is finished. 'I think that the judgement has discredited him completely as a historian, and I think that the trial has discredited him amongst the holocaust deniers and the far right as well, because when he was under cross-examination he was forced to make one concession after another when presented with an overwhelming mass of evidence. . . he's really lost credibility on all sides'.

It's not quite that simple yet. During and after the trial, several pieces appeared in the press which appeared to defend Irving. Evans says that they seriously missed the point that the case was not so much about Irving's views as the methods he used to support them. 'The press covered the case very poorly. It is a kind of spectator sport for the British media. . . they couldn't really grapple with the detailed instances of the falsification, which involved reading German handwriting, translating documents and so on.' He describes a piece which the military historian John Keegan wrote in the Telegraph after the verdict as 'scandalous'. In it Keegan claims Irving has 'much that it interesting to tell us' and appears to contrast him favourably to Lipstadt. Evans says even Keegan failed to appreciate Irving's duplicity: normally 'you assume that a fellow historian is on the level, that even if you disagree violently they're not actually giving a deliberately falsified account of the documents.' This approach, 'very close [to] tampering with the source material', combined with restrictive British libel laws, 'a serious threat to free speech', to make the task of the defence an extremely difficult one. At present in law 'the cards are stacked very highly in favour of the plaintiff; the entire burden of proof rests on the defence'. In common with the Hamilton and Aitken libel actions of recent years, he says this case should really never have been brought. Another problem which Evans' side had to deal with, less reported in the press, was the claim, held by a small but vociferous fraction of academics in the historical community, that notions of historical truth cannot exist at all. We only discover the past through second-hand documents; isn't our reading of them inevitably determined by our political convictions? his bookEvans has written in the past against such beliefs - his In Defence of History is staple undergraduate reading - did this case not challenge his views at all? 'There was the inevitable letter in the Guardian from a postmodernist who said this is all nonsense because we invent history, or words to that effect. But I think the trial did vindicate the possibility of obtaining accurate historical knowledge approaching the truth about the past, about past events, and did make it very clear where the line can be drawn.'

Evans enjoyed his research into Irving's work. He says that there should be more argument about the Holocaust. 'There's enormous room for debate. It was clear for example that two of the defence witnesses [in the Irving trial], Longerich and Browning, did actually disagree on some matters of interpretation on the decision making process which led to the extermination of the Jews, both in terms of dating and the mechanics of the reasons for it'. He thinks that the opening of new archives in Eastern Europe since the collapse of the USSR will add to that. But he doesn't accept that the event's fundamental significance has been overplayed, at least in the UK. In fact, 'I still think that WWII is seen essentially in terms of British participation on the Western front; what's very striking is the small role that the Holocaust has played in British public memory'. He feels it demands more: 'It has a universal significance. Because of the way in which these camps were set up purely in order to put into action the factory like, machine like processing of human beings, the killing of human beings. There is no real parallel to that; it is an extraordinary event which challenges the historian's imagination.'

Related items on this website:

David Irving answers requests of Cambridge University newspaper Varsity for comments on Evans
Index on Richard Evans
A learned reviewer suggests that Professor Richard Evans's book is unscholarly, ignorant, and sloppy
Richard Evans' response to some of his critics
Richard Evans was one of the expert witnesses hired by Prof Deborah Lipstadt for her defence of David Irving's libel action

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