Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present
Jan Van Pelt
published January 24, 1997
Role of Auschwitz
DAVID Irving (letter, January 17) is routinely denounced by historians for selectively reading texts in order to buttress his obnoxious opinions about the Nazis and their attempt to exterminate Europe's Jews.
His comments about my review of "Auschwitz 1270 to the Present," by Robert Jan van Pelt and Deborah Dwork (JC, January 3), confirm why he is treated with such disdain. Only someone determined to read his own biases into another person's writing could have reached such bizarre conclusions from the review, not to mention his observations about the book itself.
Irving recapitulates my summary of that part of the book in which the authors argue for seeing Auschwitz as always "in flux." But he stops short, before the review explains how it eventually became "a mass-murder site" where some 1.1 million Jews were killed.
He seizes on the authors' suggestion that the policy to exterminate masses of Jews was generated by various individuals and agencies -- presumably because he thinks that this supports his own discredited idea that Hitler was blameless.
But he conveniently ignores my point that van Pelt and Dwork nevertheless give "a leading role to Hitler."
Irving speciously attributes to them the claim that Auschwitz, during the massacre of Hungarian Jews in mid 1944, was "just" -- his word, not theirs -- a horrific "labour exchange." This is a travesty of their book.
The authors document, in horrifying detail, the fate of over 300,000 Hungarian Jews murdered on arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Whether they are correct that this was a side effect of the Nazis' demand for labour, or part of a plan to wipe out the Jews, there is no comfort here for Irving and his ilk.
In 1989, Irving published the "Leuchter Report" -- which purported to show that there were no homicidal gas chambers at Auschwitz -- with his own laudatory foreword.
But at the end of my review, I praise "Auschwitz 1270 to the Present," precisely because the "superbly reproduced plans of the camp [drawn up by the SS and hidden for 50 years in the Russian state archives] are a devastating refutation of Holocaust denial."
Historians like van Pelt, Dwork and Hans Mommsen struggle with the complexities of Nazi policy, and may draw uncomfortable conclusions from their research. Their views are taken seriously, not least because they respect the integrity of historical texts as they do the work of fellow scholars.
Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library,
Devonshire Place, London W1.
Freedom of speech is a precious right that editors have every reason to defend. But I hope that, with the benefit of hindsight, you will see what a massive error of judgement you have committed in publishing David Irving's letter.
Barrow Point Lane, Pinner.
Further notes: see however the passage from the book in which even these authors admit that the gas chambers and crematorium shown to tourists since 1945 were constructed after the war by the Poles.