A DISCUSSION IN MAY 1996
about two books, David Irving: Goebbels, Mastermind of the Third Reich, and Daniel Goldhagen: Hitler's Willing Executioners
On 28 May 1996 in his Latenight Live program on ABC-Radio National, broadcaster and author Phillip Adams discussed, among other things, the above books with U.S. based British journalist and author, Christopher Hitchens.
Explanation: THE FAMOUS New York firm of publishers, St Martin's Press, which had previously published several books by David Irving and requested him to provide jacket-puffs to promote the works of their other authors, contracted to publish his biography Goebbels. Mastermind of the Third Reich in April 1996.
SMP came under savage assault from the Anti-Defamation League from February 1996, and their chairman Tom McCormack, who had visited Irving in London and dined with him over the previous years, suddenly became A Denier. SMP dumped the book, the product of eight years' research, in an unprecedented action of jibbering, craven, panic.
Phillip Adams: ...I must say I agree with Christopher Hitchens that much of Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners is tautological, and you wonder who Goldhagen thinks he's fighting, and he argues that many German citizens, a great many German citizens, willingly took part in the murder of Jews and that the prevailing winds of antisemitism were of fundamental importance to the Holocaust.
Well, surprise, surprise. Now, Christopher Hitchens was not impressed by the book, believing that it was not all that revelatory. But he is concerned that another manuscript on the Nazis may not, thus far has not, been published. Now the manuscript, which is the first to access Goebbels diaries is by the naughty David Irving.
Now, I'm often in trouble in this country for being one of the few to decry the ban on Irving. I think that it's madness, nonsense that actually increases his video sales here. I've met Irving, I've talked to him, I've read his books. he can be debated with. I think that it's just crazy to lock him out and, in a sense, make him a martyr of the ultra right.
But now Irving's far-right political association make North American publishing houses run scared: St Martin's Press were to publish the manuscript. At the eleventh hour they pulled out of the deal and Christopher feels this cancellation not only amounts to an infringement on our free speech but also means that we don't get a chance to read and critique Irving's research which is really quite important and interesting. Now, Christopher, can you outline the run-up to St Martin's cancelling the Irving contract.
Christopher Hitchens: Well, yes, Irving had laid hold of Goebbels' diaries which had been kept in an archive in Moscow since the end of the war and it's worth mentioning, by the way, if you or I were handed those documents, we wouldn't be able to make head or tail of them. They are written in a particular kind of script.
There are various decodings necessary and very few people in the world, few historians are actually competent to unscramble it. So it wasn't just Irving being an opportunist. His own expertise in the language and so on was probably essential to the realisation of the project which I suppose St Martin's Press stuck with him for a long time, gave the book their reps their sales people with high recommendation, had the book nominated for a military book prize and did all the things that publishers do when they think they've got a hot number on their hands.
Then, after a couple of articles in - one in the New York Times and one of the trade papers, I think Publishers Weekly - unsigned, incidentally the second one, saying that Irving was not a kosher figure, that he had unpleasant associations with right-wing groups and that he had expressed some doubts about the generally accepted version of the Final Solution. There was a terrific panic and St Martin's, in fact, crying much before they were being hurt, allowed Irving to be told by reporters that they had cancelled the contract. they couldn't manage to tell him first - they were so anxious to show clean hands.
Phillip Adams: You said that St Martin's have disgraced the business of publishing
Christopher Hitchens: Sorry?
Phillip Adams: You've said they disgraced the business of publishing and degraded the practice of debate.
Christopher Hitchens: Yes, I think I would say both of those thing; both as regards my right to read a book - which I'm extremely keen to uphold - and Mr Irving's right to publish one - which is not quite the same thing but is obviously related. And, you know, the question really is whether or not we would amputate or amend the historical record. In other words deny ourselves the Goebbels diaries which we wouldn't get any other way. It would to spite Mr Irving. It seems to me that your characterisation as that of "insane" was perfectly acceptable.
Phillip Adams: Christopher, you are a bit kind to him on one issue and that is on the authentication of the Hitler Diaries. He went this way and that on that issue and apparently very easily infiuenced by money but, of course, he finally came down on the side of forgery. And of course neither of us are denying that he does have impeccable fascist neo-Nazi connections.
Christopher Hitchens: Well, there's no question about, well, there is actually a question of whether he ever did describe himself as a moderate fascist. he tells me, which is a bit of an oxymoron anyway, I must say, that he tells me that that piece of defamation by the Daily Mail which later withdrew it. But you know it's remained in the clipping files and it keeps on coming up. I haven't actually checked it myself but in all fairness that's his staunch claim. Look, let me give you an example from the book - a general example of the argument. In the book it is revealed for the first time that Sir Oswald Mosley - I'm sure some of your listeners have heard about. He was the leader of British fascism and was a great terror to the Jewish community in London - was in receipt of direct financial subsidy from the Third Reich, that the Nazis fed him quite a lot of ready money. Now, that's always been denied by the quite large number of people in the British establishment who remain so insanely sympathetic to Mosley, and it's very interesting to have it confirmed, and it's entirely due to the work of Irving. In laying this out, Irving describes Mosley as an "outstanding and forceful politician". That is actually what most of Moseley's contemporaries did think of him. It's sad to say, but I do think this point has to be brought out. Now, I think I would have used different adjectives or some additional ones, shall we say. But look, you know, I'm over 21 and been around and seen a few things. I think I can take it. I can take it that Irving's description is a bit euphemistic in exchange for the very valuable information that he's unearthed. I feel I'm strong enough to decide that for myself.
"Christopher, he's not technically a holocaust denier."
Phillip Adams: Christopher, he's not technically a holocaust denier. He more argues Hitler himself was not personally responsible.
Christopher Hitchens: Well, actually Irving hasn't been a holocaust historian. he's been a second world war historian and he's curried what you might call a revisionist view, like the reputation of Winston Churchill and so on, and the bombing of Dresden, matters like that for quite some time. It's worth enforcing a distinction here between holocaust deniers and holocaust revisionists. the two terms are often used as is they are interchangeable which they are not. Everyone is actually a revisionist of some kind or another. Even Deborah Lipstadt who wrote the famous book Denying the Holocaust, which is an attack on holocaust deniers, concedes that some of the pornographic stuff that people used to believe about the Final Solution isn't true. For example, no Jews were ever made into soap, that's a myth. No Jewish skin was ever used to make lampshades. That's also a myth. There are lots of things that we now know not to be true that used to be articles of faith. So, you know, one's engaged in the business of revision.
There are those who say there is no such thing as the Final Solution at all. Their position seems to me untenable and probably malignant because it would involve denying that the Nazi party ever had any antisemitic elements in its program. I mean, opening stages in their Final Solution all took place before the documentary cameras. We know that regime which detested the Jews came to power in Germany, and deported all the Jews that it could lay its hands on to the east and that not many of them came back. There can be an argument about what exactly happened to them while they were there but it doesn't seem to me that that would make an enormous amount of difference.
Phillip Adams: Let's turn now to the Goldhagen book Hitler's Willing Executioners. Now, the week that St Martin's Press backed down on publishing Irving's book, Goldhagen gave a seminar at the Holocaust Museum and you saw him being put through the wringer by some heavyweight scholars. Now, although you didn't like the book much, your heart went out to him.
Christopher Hitchens: Well, I thought he actually - I've never seen a scholar subjected to such a battering from experts as Goldhagen underwent, including from one of your countrymen, actually. Gentleman by the name of Quit, I think [Konrad] Kwiet. He's an adviser to the Australian government on war crimes and a historian of the holocaust, and Yehuda Bauer who is the senior Israeli scholar on the subject and I think the curator of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. I think he said the book was unhistorical. It had no concept at all of what the origins of fascism in Germany had been, that where it was correct it wasn't original. It was borrowed from the works of early historians like Christopher Browning. And where it was original, which was in suggesting a much higher collective guilt then collective responsibility among the German people. It was tendentious. Goldhagen also expected a free ride with his book because of the general Hollywoodisation of the holocaust and the willingness of the people to believe almost anything about it. So he looked very shell-shocked but held up quite well. So, having gone myself with the intention of asking him a few hostile questions -
Phillip Adams: What was the question? You had a zinger that you proposed asking.
Christopher Hitchens: Well, it wasn't exactly a zinger, nice of you to put it like that. I mean, you wouldn't know from Goldhagen's work, you wouldn't know it from Stephen Spielberg's work either, if it comes to that but in the last two free elections held in Weimar Germany, the Nazi vote was beginning to collapse and nearly 60% of the Germans voted against the Nazis the last time they had a chance to do so. Indeed.
Phillip Adams: Well, that does undermine Goldhagen's central proposition just a little, doesn't it?
Christopher Hitchens: Excuse me?
Phillip Adams: That does undermine Goldhagen's thesis just a little.
Christopher Hitchens: I would say very much so, yes. That's of course why there was a constitutional coup with the extreme right and the senile Chancellor Hindenburg. They had to move fast and take power by force because they realised they'd passed their peak. Now, Goldhagen doesn't even mention German opposition to the Nazis and it seems to me his book was part of something David Irving is very informed and arguing about which is whether or not the holocaust is used for propaganda purposes, so to speak, to criminalise the whole German people and that's, to wrap up and go back to where we began, that's another reason why I believe it's very important that Irving's voice not be silenced.
Phillip Adams: Well, let's go back to Irving because you make a distinction. You call him - I'm just trying to find the notes here - an important historian of fascism.
Christopher Hitchens: Well, I say he's not a fascist historian. he's also a very important historian of fascism, yes.
"... he's also a very important historian of fascism, yes."
Phillip Adams: Is this because he's just about the only living person who has extensively interviewed a lot of these turkeys? Is it his special ability in translation or does his politics give him a depth of insight that perhaps others lack?
Christopher Hitchens: Well, there I'm not sure whether I'm the right person to ask what it would be like to be fascist and when I try to imagine, I find that's a limit to my imaginative faculties. Perhaps it's a limitation, perhaps it isn't. I don't know if it's in that way that he got his interviews either, by presenting himself as a sympathiser or not. One would hope not - or I at any rate would hope not. But the fact is that he does have a very distinctive language ability in translation. he has really emersed himself in the subject. he is skilled in the reading of documents. I don't know any occasion where he can be shown to have altered the meaning of a document either - either by suppressing something or interpreting something beyond its evidentiary value. He occasionally throws in the odd waspish comment that gives you a slightly teasing impression. For example, he always refers to the bombing of Dresden as a holocaust and I think that his intention there is to annoy people and he insists you know as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth that he's only applying the technical term because holocaust, of course, means destruction by fire. But I have the feeling that he's trying to make another point, don't you?
Phillip Adams: Absolutely. Have you ever debated him, Christopher?
Christopher Hitchens: I've got a broad enough back to take it and in fact the book on the bombing of Dresden is a masterly piece of work.
Phillip Adams: He was not bad on Churchill either in part.
Christopher Hitchens: Sorry?
Phillip Adams: He's not bad in part on Churchill.
Christopher Hitchens: No, I was about to say I've written quite a lot on Anglo-American special relationships and the Churchill - Roosevelt relationship, and the picture you get from Irving's work is a more accurate one than the official pious accounts of that- a sort of love-fest between two blood brothers. I mean, Churchill and Roosevelt despised and detested one another and it's very clear to anyone who reads deeply in the correspondence between them that that was true - and one of the people who helps one to understand this is undoubtedly David Irving, and I would have to give him credit for that.
My disagreements with him are much greater actually than those of many of his critics. For example, I wrote a piece about him earlier on where I caught him saying to conference of revisionists that he himself had always believed that the Jews of the world should all be sent to Madagascar where they couldn't exert their terrible influence on the stockmarket and international banking and so forth. Well, he says he still thinks that would have been a good idea. So my disagreements with him are not with emphasis. He says, for example, in his book on the Hungarian revolution that the main motive for the rebels in Hungary was to get rid of the Jews who'd taken over the Hungarian communist party. this is very toxic stuff, in my opinion.
Phillip Adams: Yes, I was in the C.P. at the time and there was a lot of discussion in the communist party about that dimension of the Hungarian uprising.
Christopher Hitchens: Well, actually the Stalinist justification for putting down the Hungarian revolution was that its leaders were antisemites and fascists - and it's true. There's a lot to be said about this that the way in which Irving emphasises it in the words that I've read has, what I can only describe as a certain undeniable relish in it.
Phillip Adams: Well, neither of us like him but in Britain you argue that a debate on Irving's work is possible. We can't have one here because we won't let him in to participate in it. The state in the U.S., it seems to be even less likely to be energetically debated.
Christopher Hitchens: I'm afraid I haven't been able to get anyone to take me on on this argument so far. Britain, yes, the book has been reviewed very respectfully by Hugh Trevor-Roper, by Norman Stone, by Don Cameron-Watt, by all the main historians of the period, by Gitta Sereny who gave it a very critical and hostile review but none the less open to big debate, very interesting one, too.
In most of the former English dominions he seems to be banned: Canada, Australia, New Zealand - even from visiting the countries. But an interesting fact, he was until recently banned in South Africa also, but President Mandela has lifted the ban on the grounds that it was undemocratically imposed by the discredited previous regime. So there is an irony for you if you like.
Phillip Adams: Will another publisher take it up now that St Martin's has dropped it?
Christopher Hitchens: Well, my friend, Steve Wasserman, who was my publisher of my last book and is editor of New York Times books which is division of Random House, has proposed that Random House take it up but it's being read by Random House now, but I don't know what the outcome of that is going to be. I wouldn't put an enormous amount of money on the likelihood of their doing it. There are publishers to whom I've spoken to in New York who are perfectly candid about it. They'd love to do it but life is just too short. They expect me to know what they mean by that and I believe I do.
Phillip Adams: Well quite clearly, Christopher Hitchens, life sounds as short as mine. I think we're both ailing. I thank you for that Christopher.