London, Sunday, March 19, 2000
Peter Millar on the perils of appearing as a witness for a controversial historian:
A question of history: Why I spoke up for David Irving
Millar was called by Irving to give evidence after working with him on the diaries of Goebbels, left.
PLAYING the devil's advocate is something most writers can cope with. It is another thing entirely getting an e-mail from him asking you to be his witness in court.
David Irving, of course, is not the devil. Or so he maintains. He has, he says, been demonised by a global conspiracy determined to ruin him and enforce his silence. That has been the essence of his libel case now awaiting judgment in the High Court. As Joseph Goebbels's biographer, he does not quite echo the man he considers the real architect of the Third Reich's crimes, and say it is a "Jewish-Communist conspiracy". But he comes close.
Such is Irving's ogre status that I had some trepidation even appearing in the witness stand -- called by a man who says the greatest crime in human history is largely a myth -- in a capacity that shocked friends, described (wholly mistakenly) as "for the defence". Mistakenly, because Irving is the claimant. I was doing something even more apparently outrageous: appearing, in a loose and non-legalistic manner of speaking, "for the prosecution".
Unlike me, Sir John Keegan, defence editor of The Daily Telegraph and an eminent historian who praised Irving's book Hitler's War for its research, had to be subpoenaed into the witness box. Under oath, he admitted that his refusal to give evidence was based on fears of being "misunderstood". Irving said that was proof of the strength of the conspiracy against him.
I have been to Auschwitz and have no doubt about what happened there. And as the author of a novel that, while nothing to do with the Holocaust, is based on the premise that winners of wars manipulate history to their own designs, I agreed to take the stand voluntarily, rather than be dragged there.
My contribution to the case related to his conduct as a historian. In 1992, Andrew Neil, then editor of this newspaper, did a deal with Irving to publish extracts of Goebbels's diaries, newly uncovered in a hitherto secret Moscow archive. My job, as a freelance writer fluent in Russian and German and with a knowledge of the period, was to "oversee" Irving.
That he had the potential to be a "wild card" was never in doubt, at least to me. It was like trying to play nanny to a mischievous grown-up schoolboy. At one stage he misappropriated -- "pinched" was the word used by the opposition in court -- an original, fragile, 1945 glass microfilm plate from a Soviet archive and hid it for several hours, concealed in cardboard postcards, on waste ground.
I was outraged, and told him so. He thought me a "wimp" and suggested any real investigative journalist would have done the same. He had a point, though not necessarily a good one.
The plate was put back. And therefore not "pinched". And undamaged. That was, for him, the crux of my evidence: to counter any charge that he was reckless. I thought it was a dubious point, but then it is to Irving's credit (and the basis of his early reputation) that he unearthed and worked from original sources. His German is fluent, learnt the hard way from working in a steelworks in the Ruhr.
In the witness box, Irving asked me to confirm that I had, on my two or three visits to his Duke Street flat, never seen a portrait of Hitler. I had not. The defence QC, Richard Rampton, did not ask what I had seen. So there was no occasion to mention the cocktail sticks with their little paper swastikas. Irving regarded them, he said, as a joke. It all depends on your sense of humour. Few Jews -- or modern Germans -- would have been amused.
Irving's accusations against Deborah Lipstadt, an American academic, and Penguin centre on her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, which he says was the climax of a campaign designed to deny him his livelihood by scaring off publishers. Lipstadt pleads justification. The decision will be made by Mr Justice Gray, sitting, by mutual agreement, without a jury, both sides apparently feeling that the arguments require more than "common" sense.
In court, clearly nervous about the complex business of conducting his own case, Irving was by turns pompous and deferential. Out of it, he still appears an all-too-familiar crusty-uncle type, the sort you wouldn't mind having round to tea at Christmas as long as nobody talked politics or played rap music. But his views are undoubtedly what would be described in the buzzword of the moment as "institutionally racist".
"I have never been politically correct and I am not ashamed of it," Irving declared when his diary was found to include a now-infamous ditty he sang to his youngest daughter Jessica in her pram: "I am a baby Aryan, not Jewish or Sectarian, I have no wish to marry an ape or Rastafarian." Wickedly clever doggerel worthy of Spitting Image, but quoted in court it was an own goal that even his direst detractors would not have dared dream up.
But these attitudes, it can be argued -- and was -- are not germane to the case. Irving insists that the case is not about deciding the truth of history, but the historian's right to dispute it.
His vast website (www.fpp.co.uk) includes daily transcripts of the case and the full text of the mostly hostile press comment. Irving declares himself the champion of free speech and, in so doing, raises the dark issue of where its boundaries lie. In Germany, where "Holocaust denial" is a crime, he has a criminal record. Irving, the Germanophile, cites this as proof that Germans have still not learnt to cope with some attributes of democracy.
When, back in 1992, the inevitable row erupted over Irving's opinions and his status as a historian, for the sake of my own conscience, I put the big question to him direct, on the telephone. "David," I said, "do you really deny the Holocaust ever happened?"
"Of course not," he said. And a wave of relief swept me. Prematurely, I soon realised. "I accept that thousands," (how many?) "even tens of thousands of Jews died in the concentration camps." Not millions. And not, he went on to add, in the gas chambers. According to Irving, the greatest cause of Jewish mortality was typhus, though he accepts that vast numbers were also executed, usually shot in the head. He insists that Hitler was unaware of any mass extermination programme until at least October 1943. And, most controversially of all, that most of those who claim to be Auschwitz survivors are liars.
If even half of Irving's claims were true, it would -- as he insists -- be evidence of a massive conspiracy of lies and distortion. A conspiracy that, except to Irving and a few others, defies belief.
It would be sad if we allowed political correctness to condemn Irving for thinking (or even saying) the unsayable. Nor is it our affair if he believes the unbelievable. But what if he preaches it . . .?
In the end, it is hard to see David Irving in any other role than the latest in a line of libel litigants that stretches back -- without implying any moral equivalence -- from Neil Hamilton via Jonathan Aitken to Oscar Wilde. Is it not the great cliché lesson of history that we never learn from it?
March 19, 2000