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April 2, 2001
Books, Arts & Manners
Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial, by Richard J. Evans (Basic, 318 pp., $27)
NATIONAL character may have more to do with historical writing than some historians would care to admit. Consider England. English historians have always regarded it as their duty to shock and astonish their readers-whether it was A. J. P. Taylor declaring that Hitler blundered into the Second World War, or, more recently, Niall Ferguson contending that Britain should never have battled Wilhelmine Germany. Tory and Marxist camps ensure that idiosyncratic and ideologically driven history is the rule, not the exception, and it sometimes even shapes government policy. Top-flight conservative historians such as Ferguson, Michael Burleigh, Andrew Roberts, and others ensure that history is fun and fractious. The conservative clique at Cambridge's Peterhouse College was even the subject of a television sitcom in England. Can anyone imagine an American sitcom based on the Harvard history department?
Perhaps it shouldn't be altogether surprising, then, that the English Holocaust denier David Irving has positioned himself as the bad boy of World War II historians, one whose skill at ferreting out documents makes him impossible to ignore. Couple that with the fact that few historical interpretations are set in stone and that historians are understandably reluctant to condemn someone for expressing unpopular views, and you have a fairly open field for the likes of Irving. Irving has won praise from big historical guns like Gordon Craig, who observed that "such people have an indispensable part in the historical enterprise." Even after Irving's failed libel suit last year against the American historian Deborah Lipstadt, who singled him out in her book Denying the Holocaust, the military historian John Keegan lauded him, as has Donald Cameron Watt (formerly of the London School of Economics). The idea seems to linger on that, whatever his failings and excesses, Irving is a serious historian.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth, as Richard J. Evans (right) shows in his superb Lying About Hitler. A professor of history at Cambridge, Evans has written a number of books on Germany and served as a key defense witness for Lipstadt. Evans is a man of the Left, but he has produced substantial works of history, and attacked trendy postmodernist relativists in his recent In Defense of History. Indeed, to Evans, Irving's libel suit seemed the perfect opportunity to explore the boundary between justified historical reinterpretation and outright falsehood. And though Evans does not say so, the sheer theatrics of the trial itself must also have proved irresistible. With Irving as the accuser, the American Jewish historian Lipstadt as the defendant, and Princess Diana's former lawyer, Anthony Julius, as her attorney, the trial could have been made in Hollywood, which it perhaps will be.
Evans's book, based on a 700-page report for the defense, is never less than absorbing. A sure-footed writer, he allows the story to tell itself, eschewing rhetorical flourishes in favor of a clinical dissection of Irving's works and statements. He begins by explaining the stakes of the trial, then moves on to Irving's depiction of Hitler's role in the Holocaust, which Irving believes was negligible. He examines Irving's first book, a 1963 volume on the Allied bombing of Dresden, in order to show that his elastic understanding of historical truth was apparent from the outset. In perhaps his most exciting chapter, Evans describes the atmospherics of the trial itself, before concluding with a discussion of Irving's British defenders.
As Evans reminds us at the outset, Lipstadt's victory was anything but a foregone conclusion. In contrast to the United States, British libel law favors the plaintiff, who has only to show that the defendant published statements damaging to his or her reputation. Only three possible lines of defense existed for Lipstadt. The first was to dispute the meaning of the statements to which the defendant objected. The second was to admit their meaning, but deny that they were defamatory. The third was to show that Lipstadt's contentions were, in fact, true. The last is what Lipstadt and her attorney chose to prove.
Thus, Evans (left), with the assistance of several researchers, sifted through the large corpus of Irving's writings in order to establish that he had indeed systematically denied not only Hitler's responsibility for the murder of the Jews but the existence of the Holocaust itself. Evans starts by showing how closely Irving identified with Hitler, arguing that Irving's goal was to normalize Hitler, to portray him as an ordinary human being. In his 1977 book Hitler's War, Irving deemed Hitler a "patriot"who had tried to lead Germany to deserved greatness. Indeed, Evans quotes a statement of Irving's in which he declared that destiny had selected him to be the Fhrer's biographer. As Evans observes,
"Irving saw himself in the end not as a neutral, objective historian but as Hitler's representative in the world after his death, as the historian chosen, as it were, by the Führer himself."
When it came to the Jews, however, Irving took the opposite tack. Evans, who tracked down many of Irving's citations, provides a lesson in historical accuracy as he details how Irving massaged, or disguised, his sources so as to present German Jews in the worst possible light. Thus Irving claimed in his 1996 biography of Joseph Goebbels that the Third Reich's propaganda minister was "unfortunately not always wrong"in identifying criminals with Jews; in 1932, 31,000 cases of fraud, mainly insurance swindles, had been carried out by Jews. Checking Irving's references, Evans learned that Irving had relied upon a news agency that was a mouthpiece of the Nazi leadership, and that the source article itself relied on a news conference given by an SS officer. The truth was that for the year 1932, a total of 74 persons, Jewish and non-Jewish, had been convicted of insurance fraud in all of Germany.
The crux of Lipstadt's case, however, was to prove that Irving was a Holocaust denier, and it is here that Evans is at his most convincing. Irving seems to have deployed every species of denial. According to Evans, Irving dismissed the notion of mass murder by claiming that overzealous SS officers had padded the death toll in order to curry favor with Heinrich Himmler. But this, Evans writes, "was pure speculation, unsupported by any documentary evidence. This was characteristic of Irving's methods in disposing of inconvenient documents."At other points, Irving maintained that the Jews who died in Auschwitz perished from disease; that diesel engines couldn't be used for killing operations; that gassing never took place. There was no systematic attempt to murder the Jews; instead, "individual gangsters and criminals"had attacked them. All this was in marked contrast with the sworn court testimony that "it is denied that the Plaintiff has denied that gas chambers were used by the Nazis as the principal means of carrying out that extermination."
Had Irving merely drifted into Holocaust denial, a good egg gone bad over the years, as some of his fellow historians seemed to think? Evans demonstrates that this is quite wrong. In his examination of Irving's book on the bombing of Dresden, Evans discusses Irving's inflation of the number killed in the Allied raids in the spring of 1945. According to Evans,
"it was clear to me that Irving's overriding purpose was to drive up the figure of those killed in the raids by any means until it became many times greater than the actual number, and began to achieve implicit and in the end explicit comparability with the mass murders carried out by the Nazis at Auschwitz and elsewhere."
Evans (right) states at the outset that his aim is not to discuss Irving's connections to the German far Right or even to supply a comprehensive account of the whole libel case. Instead he believes that the "central issue ... is the falsification and manipulation of the historical record that Lipstadt alleged Irving had committed."Still, this leaves one wanting more. The question of the support that Irving managed to garner from some historians remains.
One reason for the reluctance to attack Irving is that scholars obviously feel minority positions should not be anathematized. A historian may have unorthodox views, but that does not mean he is necessarily incorrect. This kind of professional loyalty can, however, devolve into relativism. Donald Cameron Watt, writing in support of Irving, declared, "What happens when the witnesses are all dead, if the reality has not been thrashed out? The truth needs an Irving's challenge to keep it alive" -- as though the reality of the Holocaust had not been "thrashed out"already. Like many, Watt missed the distinction between our knowledge that the Holocaust occurred and legitimate dispute about why.
Another reason for the sometimes benign treatment of Irving may be that not until the 1980s did the Holocaust come to occupy the central position it now commands in historical literature. Irving's foremost American defender, Gordon Craig, for example, never mentions the Holocaust in his otherwise superb Germany, 1866-1945; the word Auschwitz does not appear. This is not to say that Craig or others sympathized in any way with Irving. Quite the contrary. But Craig appears to feel that Irving's peculiar views are incidental to the work he has done in unearthing Nazi documents.
Evans provides several tantalizing clues about the reasons for the fairly benevolent treatment Irving has received from the British historical profession. No doubt, the British tolerance for eccentric views has played a part. Evans also seems to suggest that Lipstadt was seen by John Keegan and other British historians as a Jewish-American outsider, while Irving was a John Bull figure: In Keegan's words, Irving
"is a large, strong, handsome man, excellently dressed, with the appearance of a leading QC."
In fact, as Evans correctly notes, Irving wears ill-fitting suits. His shoes are shabby, his hair disheveled, and his manners wanting in polish. The truth is that Irving, like the Führer he so ardently admires, is a vulgar parvenu and social climber seething with class resentment who, paradoxically, craves the approbation of the British establishment that he despises. One sign of this is that he unconsciously apes the much more discreet anti-Semitism of his betters. Irving, who comes from a lower-middle-class background, apparently identifies his own battles with Hitler's struggles as a commoner who rose up to save the German empire. He despises what he sees as the destruction of Britain after the Second World War and the influx of immigrants into the country; surely an alliance with Germany, England's natural partner on the Continent, would have averted this catastrophe. In this version of history, of course, the villain is Churchill.
Evans mentions this, but he does not make enough of the fact that Churchill is Irving's bete noire. A certain segment of British opinion (conservative as well as leftist) has never accepted the postwar consensus that Churchill was a great man who rescued England. Even more fervently than British historian John Charmley, who recently argued that Churchill wrecked the British Empire by failing to reach an arrangement with Hitler, Irving sees Churchill as a loathsome figure. Nothing irks Irving more than the notion that Churchill was heroic and Hitler evil; the truth, Irving has stated, was "quite the reverse."
Similarly, Irving has claimed that Churchill
"bears at least a partial share of the blame for the tragedy that befell the Jews in Europe, because Churchill fought the war five years longer than was necessary and provided the smokescreen behind which the tragedy occurred."
This hatred of Churchill also goes a long way toward explaining why leftist Christopher Hitchens adores Irving. While some conservatives may view Churchill as a traitor to his class, for a certain kind of leftist he is still the man who did not shrink from sending in troops to crush striking miners during the Tonypandy riots, a heartless reactionary and warmonger. For both the far Right and the Left, the belief that the fight against Hitler was a patriotic war still rankles.
On April 11, 2000, Irving's libel action was rejected. Evans concludes that the "trial demonstrated triumphantly the ability of historical scholarship to reach reasoned conclusions about the Nazi extermination of the Jews on the basis of a careful examination of the written evidence." Perhaps. But on his own evidence, it may have been a task more tedious than difficult to demolish Irving's half-baked ideas. Irving himself made a complete hash of his case at the trial, even, to the titters of the courtroom, inadvertently addressing the judge as "mein Führer." In any case, at this late date, it hardly seems necessary to prove in a British court of law that the Holocaust took place-although for serious historians, Evans's book should at least put paid to the notion that Irving ever had a shred of credibility. Whether Irving really deserved this skillful autopsy, or others yet to come, is highly questionable, however, since -- as Deborah Lipstadt herself has observed -- in the looking-glass world of Holocaust denial, to put these views on trial simply hands the deniers the publicity they crave.
Mr. Heilbrunn is a writer living in Washington, D.C.
Source: National Review, 04/02/2001, Vol. 53 Issue 6, p53, 3p, 1bw.
London, April 7, 2001
REVIEWING Lying about Hitler Jacob Heilbrunn (NR, Apr 2, 2001, p.56) says that Welsh author Richard Evans describes my appearance during the Lipstadt trial "correctly" (how does Heilbrunn know?) in these words: "Irving wears ill-fitting suits. His shoes are shabby . . . and his manners wanting in polish." The rest, about being a vulgar parvenu I can live with; the bit about the "lower middle-class background" -- oh dear!
As a test of Evans' objectivity however let's look at those suits: my suits for the last thirty years have been tailor-made for me by Gieves & Hawkes of Savile Row, I picked up a new suit for the trial, a three-piece chalkstripe, seven days before it began; the black Oxford brogues, by Church's, were fully a week older.
Yes, Evans has always had trouble with reality. This is the same professor who stated in Journal of Modern History, Dec 1987, page 785: "German reunification is simply not a realistic possibility, and to talk about it or to advance historical arguments in its favour is to indulge in political fantasizing."*
That means I indulged in fantasy: I predicted at a press conference in the still-divided Berlin on October 3, 1989: "Within 12 months Germany will be reunited." Which is just what, on precisely October 3, 1990 came to pass.**
* Quoted by John
Lukacs: The Hitler of
History (NY: Knopf, 1997), 233n).