October 21, 1996
OUT TO LUNCH
Meet the real David Irving
By Jacob Heilbrunn
DAVID IRVING is traveling through the United States this month to promote his new biography of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. He has had to lug his own copies across the Atlantic. In April, after New York Times columnist Frank Rich, among others, denounced Irving as "Hitler's Spin Artist," Thomas McCormack, the chairman of St. Martin's Press, suddenly canceled publication of Irving's latest book, GOEBBELS: MASTERMIND OF THE THIRD REICH. A British historian who views Nazism with nostalgia, Irving has begun to depict himself as a victim of an international conspiracy aimed at suppressing him and his works.
Irving's difficulties have elicited sympathy from some unexpected quarters. Writing in the June Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens dismissed Irving's critics as "hysterical and oldmaidish" and hailed Irving as a "great historian of Fascism." Even more surprisingly, Gordon Craig, the dean of German historians, also weighed in on Irving's behalf. In the September 19 New York Review of Books, Craig reminded his readers that historical truth is not engraved in stone. Like Hitchens, he depicted Irving as a serious historian with a few eccentric views about the Holocaust. Figures such as Irving play a key role in new scholarship, Craig wrote, "and we dare not disregard their views."
I took Craig's admonition to heart. When Irving appeared at an advertised luncheon in his honor at the Polo India Club Restaurant in Washington on September 15, I went. A few weeks earlier Irving had sent a letter to me promising a copy of his Goebbels biography and saying, "I am also arranging for a copy of my somewhat scurrilous and irregular personal newsletter Action Report to be shipped to you from Key West." The July 1996 Action Report contained letters from readers about Jews expressing sentiments such as "by using the word Holocaust they can subjugate whole nations to pander to their every whim -- even trivial things such as the incident recently at the Palace Pier in Brighton with the word Zyklon on one of the helter skelters."
It also excerpted "A Last Letter from One of Our Number" by Reinhold Elstner, a 75-year-old Wehrmacht veteran who immolated himself in Munich on April 26, 1995. Elstner wrote that "50 years of judicial Zionist revenge are enough" and that the "concentration camps at Theresienstadt and Buchenwald even had bordellos for the inmates." Perhaps the most notable feature of the Action Report was Irving's own running diary in which he called Elstner a "hero." My curiosity piqued, I phoned the number listed for more information about Irving's luncheon and was heartily welcomed by one Andrew L. Gray, a Washington rentier who was hosting the event.
I arrived at twelve o'clock sharp to find Irving arranging his books for sale across from a framed selfportrait by Hitler he had brought for the occasion. Andrew, puckishly clad in a white painter's jacket and sipping a glass of white wine, was holding forth about the indignity of Irving having to peddle his own work: "It's like van Gogh being forced to creep through the streets" at night with his paintings. In all, there were about fifteen of us: a gym instructor from Bethesda, an elderly German couple and several nondescript men who might have been mid-level government bureaucrats.
As we milled around Irving, he unleashed a litany of complaints: Bernard Levin of The Times of London had libeled him in a recent column without using Irving's name; Deborah Lipstadt, the author of Denying the Holocaust, he planned to sue in England. The real object of his wrath that day, though, was the Jewish Board of Deputies in London. "They're the ones who sent the report to Canada that ended up in my being deported in handcuffs," Irving said, "by an immigration official who looked like a real immigrant."
Until now, a certain decorum still obtained. But, once we sat down to lunch, wine loosened the atmosphere, and Irving's followers began peppering him with questions and offering their own impassioned comments about German history. Irving himself soon launched into a discussion of the number of Jews who died at Auschwitz. He ridiculed accounts of human soap and lampshades, calling them propaganda, whereupon a thirtyish woman in a gray business suit interjected, "Who would want to wash with a Jew, anyway?"
Someone asked about the Nazi-confiscated gold in Swiss bank accounts that Jews are trying to reclaim. "Now that the Jews have exhausted their lust and greed for animate objects," said Irving, "they have turned them on inanimate objects." If you look at his books, he confided, the word gold is always in capitals. The publishers always send it back lowercase, he chuckled, and he crosses it out and makes it uppercase. "Good Lord," responded Andrew, "they can take over all of Switzerland" if they invested just a million dollars in 1945. "The Kol Nidre will become the national anthem."
During a lull in the conversation, I asked Irving about a comment he'd made earlier: that critics saw the message of his new book as, in Thomas McCormack's words, "the Jews brought it on themselves." Irving paused. The first boycott of Jewish-owned businesses was preceded, he explained, "by a Jewish declaration of war on Germany. The Nazis were simply retaliating." Anyway, he added in a mocking tone, Goebbels called the boycott for April 1, which was the Jewish Sabbath. He was simply trying to get them to obey their own faith.
Irving couldn't stay on track for long, though. He soon began to brood again about the influence Jews had brought to bear to prevent his book from being published by St. Martin's. And the media were out to get him, too, he said. Irving recounted an interview with a Scottish journalist named Chaim Bermant (left). ("Chaim!" the man next to me ejaculates.) Irving chided himself for "assuming he was just another writer despite his glasses, hook nose and beard down to his chest."
"The Jews," said Irving, "must have hated every word of" Gordon Craig's review of his book. Six pages in The New York Review of Books, he lamented, and the Goebbels biography couldn't even find a publisher in the U.S. At that, the gym teacher became visibly agitated. "When is this arm-twisting going to be exposed? When is it going to stop?" he cried out. Andrew sighed: "It used to be that old Yankees controlled those firms. But that's all gone now. It's all gone." Irving said he couldn't help noticing that the letters from publishers in New York are more and more often signed with names like "Goldberg." Why not go with a publisher other than the New York ones? asked a white-haired man who looked like a colonel from the Raj. "No," Irving replied, "I will not do that. I can't go to a lesser publisher. That means giving in to the enemy."
The enemy. Irving did not need to spell out to his acolytes who that was. His Goebbels biography with its references to Auschwitz as just a "slave-labor camp," its description of the bombing of Hamburg as a "Holocaust," its tendency to speak from Goebbels's and Hitler's viewpoints, makes it abundantly clear who the enemies are and who the heroes.
The book is full of color photos -- of Hitler, of Himmler, of Nazi regalia and of Goebbels's various inamoratas. "Lovely photos, lovely photos," as Irving tells us during lunch. A sexual tone often creeps in -- "A Blonde in the Archives" is the title of one chapter. Throughout, Irving enlists the reader's sympathies for the regime and its members. His concluding scene is really a set piece that portrays Goebbels and his wife in the most flattering light possible. Irving sentimentally paints the scene of Magda Goebbels killing her six children before she and her husband commit suicide. "While Magda gently prized open each mouth, Stumpfegger gingerly crushed the phial.... Young Hellmut still had the wire brace around his upper teeth -- they had always protruded just like his father's.... She rushed outside as soon as the sixth child, the youngest, had been dispatched and threw her arms around Gunter Schwagermann's neck. The burly six-footer steadied her in his strong arms for a moment.... She fainted...."
IN SHORT, Irving's books cannot be divorced from the man and his historical mission. That mission is to normalize Hitler and Nazism so as to remove the unique stain of the Final Solution from Germany. The uniqueness of the stain has meant not only that postwar Germany has borne a special taint but that, since World War II, it has been taboo in the West to espouse anti-Semitism publicly. Irving's project is to smash this taboo.
Both Gordon Craig and Christopher Hitchens warn against suppressing Irving, against creating taboos. Craig maintains that "the fact is that he [Irving] knows more about National Socialism than most professionals in his field, and students of the years 1933-1945 owe more than they are willing to admit to his energy as a researcher and to the scope and vigor of his publications." In this interpretation, Irving might seem to resemble Mephistopheles's description of himself in Goethe's Faust as "part of a force that ever wills evil and always produces good."
But good history does not have to be produced by bad men. Challenges to the accepted historical verities have been produced by many scholars over the years, ranging from Fritz Fischer's 1961 Germany's Grab For World Power, which contended that Germany's aims in World War II differed little from its aims in World War I, to Richard Overy's new Why the Allies Won, which seeks to debunk the notion that an Allied victory was inevitable. A few years ago, the English scholar John Charmley created a stir when he argued that, far from being a great statesman, Winston Churchill was, in fact, a bumbler who destroyed the British empire by refusing to cut a deal with Hitler.
Scholars are constantly wrangling over every conceivable aspect of Germany history. These quarrels are themselves part of what David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley have termed the peculiarities of German history. Irving has made no contributions to these debates. Though Craig appears to have softened his views of Irving, he himself trenchantly observed in his 1982 book The Germans that Irving "was inordinately proud of not having been trained professionally" and that his evidence of Hitler's guiltlessness was of "the flimsiest kind."
If revising British and American history has meant toppling heroes such as Churchill or Martin Luther King Jr. from their plinths, revisionism has taken on a rather different meaning when it comes to Germany. The statues have already been smashed. The challenge facing the would-be revisionist is to sweep the shards under the rug and attempt to start with a fresh mold. But as the symbol of human evil Auschwitz has resisted both denial and relativization.
Craig to the contrary, there are certain absolute truths in history, or at least truths that it is futile to dispute. We know that the Holocaust occurred. This is not a topic for debate. Why it occurred is another matter. When A.J.P. Taylor depicted Hitler as a normal statesman, he emphasized that he meant only until 1939. Irving sees it differently. That is his right. But a reputable publisher does not have a moral obligation to publish a book by him; to give Irving the patina of respectability that he craves, for a book, moreover, that contains no revelations about Goebbels and much misinformation.
Hitchens wrote that in meeting Irving "I learned a lot in the process of doing so." I learned nothing new about Nazism from David Irving. I did learn that his hatred of the Jews is bottomless.
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October 21, 1996