February 25, 2000
Hitler, History and the Holocaust
by Robin Crompton
At the London High Court, a momentous trial is in progress. David Irving, the historian is suing for libel an American professor of religion, Deborah Lipstadt, for alleging, in her book "Denying the Holocaust" that Irving deliberately distorts the historical record in pursuit of a political agenda. Judgment is expected in April.
The case has aroused great interest. I was one of many who thronged the public gallery. The issues raised are gripping, and fundamental: history and truth, identity and ideology, freedom and dogma. British and foreign newspapers have had a field day.
Over the past 20 years, Irving has achieved fame/notoriety as a revisionist, self-taught historian whose meticulous researches claim to reveal Hitler in a highly unorthodox light. While far from uncritical -- words like 'gangster,' 'diabolical' and 'cynical' pepper his text -- Irving seeks partially to de-demonize Hitler. He tries to show the man behind the myth, strip away fiction and propaganda from the facts, as revealed by the written record, and to distinguish authentic documents from fakes. He works from archives and interviews, not from books about Hitler, which he thinks full of errors; and claims to have unearthed material never yet published, or previously suppressed.
Not all of this is new. But taken together, it is easy to see why the heady, radical brew shocked anti-fascists and Third Reich survivors, especially in Israel. Irving's nationalist and decidedly authoritarian reading of events -- he has no time for dissidents like Beck or Niemoeller -- have not helped. Neither has his sometimes tactless sense of humor, nor the applause he has received, willy-nilly, in far Right circles, including Haider's Freedom Party. Over the last two decades, the orthodox view of the Third Reich has increasingly been questioned, by historians of varying stripe. But none has become so publicly identified with it as Irving, a veritable cynosure of obloquy, polemic and bitter litigation -- as his comprehensive, and combative, web-site demonstrates. For years he has ploughed his lonely furrow, winning and losing libel actions, ever indefatigable, writing over 30 books.
This trial goes to the heart of Western identity, psychology and self-image. For the victorious Allies: Britain, America and the former Soviet Union, the fight against Hitler became a legitimating narrative: a titanic struggle of light against dark, good against evil, progress against fascism. The reality, of course, was more complex. But the Allies came to believe their own propaganda. The Nuremberg trials culminated this process. Despite much contrary evidence: the prewar appeasement; British Establishment sympathy with Hitler as a bulwark against "Bolshevism"; Stalin's short-lived pact with Germany; the swift re-engagement of former Nazis by the U.S. government after the war to fight communism; and Allied connivance in the escape of Nazi war criminals to South America (all of this on public record), the Allies chose, for their own reasons, to brand Hitler as the devil incarnate, and their own role as heroic and good.
True, as the years passed, historians lit upon less palatable facts, generally shrugged off by mainstream opinion as unfortunate, but necessary evils in a tooth-and-nail struggle, on the lines of "Well, that's war, they started it." Despite corrections, the established version of history remained paramount, reinforced with legal sanctions. To this day, in some countries, you may go to prison if you question the Holocaust, or praise or justify Nazism. Germany (but not Austria) accepted the orthodox version unreservedly, and paid huge compensation to the victims. Holocaust Museums were erected in Germany, Israel and the United States. Inevitably, a reaction then set in, with writers questioning not only the facts, and the legal ban on Holocaust denial, but also the artistic commercialization of its memory, and the vilification of dissent.
Over 35 years amid this ferment, Irving has published, and been damned. He and his books are banned from Germany, Austria and Canada, for fear of public disorder, the fanning of race hatred, and an infringement of the law. Yet he strongly denies any racist or anti-Semitic views, taking his stand on the freedom of expression and the pursuit of 'real' history.
What are we to make of this? The court will decide on the legalities. But to me, the moral and academic issue is clear. However unwelcome Irving's conclusions, whatever his private convictions, he has a right to publish, whoever's ox is gored. Next week, I shall say more on this.
The writer Robin Crompton worked for many years in the British diplomatic service and taught at Heidelberg University, Germany.
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Website fact: The stamina of the defence team is aided by a six million dollar fund provided by the American Jewish Committee, which enables them to pay 21 lawyers and "experts"; the experts like Evans, Longerich, etc. earn £750 (DM2500) per day (while the defence's star legal team is paid considerably more). Nobody is paying for Mr Irving, who has been fighting this battle for three whole years. [Help!]