Australia, March 2000
Helen Darville speaks with David Irving
IN her first major piece of writing since the controversial 1995 Miles Franklin winner, The Hand that Signed the Paper, Australia's Helen Darville reflects upon the case of David Irving, the British revisionist historian who challenges traditional historical views on the Holocaust, as he bunkers down in a London court for what could be his last fight . . . and the final battle of World War II.
David Irving -- historian, revisionist and controversialist -- lives in a Victorian pile in Mayfair, London's most expensive district. His W1 address looks out over a Grosvenor Square fringed by fashionable shops and restaurants. The vast, indiscreet American Embassy (complete with gilded eagle) is on one side of the square. The subdued, stately Polish Embassy looks down from another.
It's afternoon on a January day in London: very grey, very damp, very cold.
We're early, Justin [photographer] and I, so we walk once around Grosvenor Square. Well spoken children in fashionable winter-wear play in the park while several sets of equally fashionable parents walk dogs. The children are very white. Their parents are even whiter. After my street in Kilburn, with its mix of black British, Irish, Asian and English residents, this is something of a shock.
It's with some trepidation that I ring Irving's bell and announce into the intercom who we are. We step inside as a gust of wind sends a swirl of dead leaves at head height across the square.
I imagine Robert Manne is rubbing his hands at the prospect of Helen Darville interviewing David Irving. No doubt he'll say it's "a meeting of anti-Semitic icons", all to a chorus of approval from Melbourne's caffè latte set.
In reality, I interviewed Irving because I happen to live in London, because Irving consented to the interview, and because an Australian publication assigned me to cover the case -- David Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt -- billed in the British press as "The Trial of the Century".
This essay is an examination of what I believe to be one of the most difficult cases ever to face a court of law.
Irving invites us into his cavern of an office. His (very large) desk is covered with loose sheets of paper, fat ring binders stuffed with more paper, legal documents and empty coffee cups. He has two Macs with large monitors, one balanced on the corner of his desk, the other on top of a bookshelf.
"I'm trying to give it up," he says, pointing at the coffee cups. "I got down to one cup a day, but this trial's put paid to that."
There's another journalist still in the room, a Mr Gress from a Danish paper. He's finishing his interview as we arrive. Irving apologises for the overlap. He tries to keep interviews to time, he says, but because of the trial, his careful planning's gone awry.
David Irving is physically a large man, well over six feet, and moves surprisingly lightly around his cluttered office. Aged sixty-two, he is the son of a Royal Navy Commander who served in the 1916 Battle of Jutland and the 1942 Arctic Convoys.
Educated at an Essex public school, Irving completed the unprecedented number of eleven A-Levels (most university bound English seventeen-year-olds do three; the very brightest manage four or five) and appeared set on a course common to boys of his class: attendance at public school, followed by Oxbridge, followed by the Armed Forces (in Irving's case the RAF).
Except that he left two thirds of the way through his degree and went to Germany to labour in a Ruhr steelworks for two years. Within three years of that, his first book -- The Destruction of Dresden -- became a bestseller. He never returned to university.
Thereafter, his career began to diverge further from the expected pattern, although his education, class and the era in which he was raised have marked him. He is a reminder of what Englishmen were like -- his accent, bearing and attitude towards women -- in the days when a third of the map was picked out in the reddish pink of the British Empire.
Justin fiddles with his photographic equipment. The small lamp on Irving's desk -- the only light source in the room apart from blue computer screens -- casts an eerie yellow glow. The room is floor to ceiling with books.
The trial opened on January 11 this year in London's vast neo-Gothic High Court, and is already being compared to the marathon "McLibel" trial and the historically related "Cossacks Trial" for its legal complexity.
It has celebrity lawyers, a controversial Plaintiff, mind-boggling content, international press coverage and a packed courtroom. Not only is it shaping up as the most sensational trial this century, but it also seeks to pass judgment on the most horrific event of the previous century.
Briefly, Irving is suing American academic Deborah Lipstadt for libel. Lipstadt holds the Dorot Professorship of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, Atlanta.
Her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust: the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory not only depicts him as a Holocaust denier -- which he insists he isn't -- but states that he is a "Hitler partisan" who deliberately misquotes other scholars, misrepresents the facts and mistranslates source documents in order to advance his ideological position -- denying the Holocaust and exculpating Adolf Hitler.
More carelessly, Lipstadt also contends that he associates with individuals from Hamas, Hezbollah and the Nation of Islam, which Irving believes makes him vulnerable to assassination.
Irving claims that her book -- more than other criticisms of his writing or views -- has led to US publishers withdrawing lucrative publishing contracts and in one case demanding the return of an advance for an already completed book. Review copies had even been sent out to critics.
He has deliberately placed her in a difficult position by suing her in England, where libel law places the burden of proof on the Defendant. This means that Lipstadt's lawyers have to do a lot of talking before they can open their innings.
Richard Rampton QC must first define the Holocaust -- something never before attempted in a British court. He then has to establish exactly what is meant by the words "Holocaust Denier". Only then can he attempt to prove that David Irving fits his definition. In addition, he must prove that Irving misquotes, misrepresents and mistranslates in his works of history, and consorts with terrorists. The standard of proof is not as high as that demanded in a criminal trial, but it is high enough. The allegations must be "substantially true".
In an unusual move, both Irving and Lipstadt -- along with Justice Gray -- agreed that due to the complexity of the evidence, the case was best heard without a jury. Irving has also elected to represent himself, although he could well afford a fine lawyer if he wanted one.
"If you're a historian fighting a legal battle on your own subject, in your own theatre of war, then you have a great advantage over the lawyers," he tells me. "They may have greater legal knowledge, of course, but they don't know what they're talking about."
He has a point. Two private individuals -- environmentalists Helen Steel and Dave Morris -- with good knowledge of their subject and a willing (though voluntary) support team made Richard Rampton's job enormously difficult when he appeared on behalf of McDonald's in the notorious "McLibel" trial. McDonald's not only had the advantage of a first-class legal team -- as Lipstadt has in this case -- but was the Plaintiff. Steel and Morris had to prove -- down to the last detail -- that McDonald's indulged in the environmental abuses outlined in the critical leaflet the two had been distributing.
"McLibel" wound up in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest case of any type in English history, and McDonald's finished up with the largest Egg McMuffin in history on its face.
Although this case is ostensibly about whether Deborah Lipstadt's statements on David Irving are libellous, he is using the courtroom to grandstand on a vast scale, gaining unprecedented publicity for his views. In effect, he has placed the Holocaust on trial.
Irving's superior knowledge of the period and his German language skills mean he frequently trips up the Defence on empirical points, although Rampton gets his own back on legal procedure. Both men have a bleak, dry wit, which Justice Gray sometimes gently chides.
"This is all a bit like the Fourth Form Debating Society," he says at one point. Both Irving and Rampton flush, dropping the bitter humour for the rest of the afternoon. It is just as well. Neal Ascherson is right when he says that this trial -- this debate between two polite men presided over by a third polite man in an ordered, oak-panelled English court -- is about the end of the world.
While his hopes for the action are "entirely non-monetary", I realise quickly that Irving views the case as an academic point-scoring exercise.
"I want to establish my superiority over their historians," he says, eyes glittering. "My intellectual superiority and my expertise."
Although some people would see a Hitler surrogate in this arrogance, I don't. I see Churchill instead. Except the enemy isn't Germany any more, it's the USA. Apart from the fact that the enmity between Churchill and Roosevelt was notorious, Lipstadt's emotive book is a little like the out-of-place gilded eagle overlooking the US Embassy on Grosvenor Square. It wears its heart on its sleeve and Irving -- like many Englishmen of his class and age -- loathes what he considers unnecessary displays of feeling.
It is perhaps as well that Lipstadt has exercised the Defendant's right not to give evidence. Denying the Holocaust lacks rigour. She displays a yawning ignorance of Britain, important in any discussion focussed on Irving. The court drew attention to a section where she treats an anti-Irving speech by an opposition back-bencher in the House of Commons as Government policy.
Bert Roughton of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution tells me that Emory University, Lipstadt's employer, is bankrolled by the Coca-Cola Foundation, is referred to by Atlanta locals as "the Coca-Cola University" and is known to be weak in History.
I have a suspicion that Irving would demolish Lipstadt were she to take the stand, and Rampton has rightly shielded her. Irving is miffed, robbed of his (female) prey.
"She would have coped," he states belligerently, but sounds unconvinced.
Instead, the Defence has called two of the world's leading Holocaust scholars, Professors Christopher Browning and Robert Jan van Pelt, to help put her case.
"I'm looking forward to duelling with both of them," says Irving, clasping his hands together. "University academics have usually lost the ability to think sideways."
This development worries historian Neal Ascherson. He contends that libel trials have almost unlimited potential "to turn history into toxic sludge" and suggests that for establishing what really happened, an English libel court is "the worst place in the world."
This fact emerged during the "Cossacks Trial" of 1989, in which Lord Aldington sued Count Tolstoy. Tolstoy had blamed Aldington for the handover of some 70,000 anti-Soviet Cossack troops to Stalin's butchery at the end of WWII.
Although Aldington eventually won and the jury awarded him £1.5 million damages, Ascherson says "the case churned the business of historical inquiry into a sort of Passchendaele of fear and confusion. The jury found that Aldington was not to blame but the trial actually made it far harder to find out who really was responsible."
Richard Rampton QC was counsel for Tolstoy, while Charles Gray QC (judge in the Irving case) acted for Lord Aldington.
This trial -- like the earlier one -- is showing signs of becoming mired in obsessive detail. Justice Gray often has to ask for clarifying summaries. This usually happens after the court has spent hours devoted to the analysis of a single sentence in -- say -- a brief memo from Himmler to one of his cohorts.
It's a little like that Alan Moir cartoon on Royal Commissions. "Can anyone remember why we're here?" the judge asks wistfully, buried under an avalanche of red herrings.
As much as some commentators would like to reduce the whole shebang to a neat set of oppositions -- Freedom of Speech versus Historic Truth, say -- this case is not amenable to simplification.
On one hand, it's clear that Irving has had his freedom of speech and movement curtailed. He's banned from numerous countries, including Australia, simply because of his opinions. Yes, he has a criminal record, but it's for "Defaming the Memory of the Dead", a peculiar German statute that makes questioning the Holocaust a crime.
On the other hand, however, he's suing an American for libel in England, and England has the most draconian libel laws in the world. Traditionally, English libel law has been used as a means to stifle dissent. Irving would have no case against Lipstadt in the United States, where the First Amendment permits all forms of speech.
Likewise, Lipstadt is right to comment on Irving's support by unsavoury groups -- libel actions are notoriously expensive. Irving is upfront about asking for donations to his "Fighting Fund" on his website, and no doubt some come from far right organisations, particularly in the US.
However, it's also blatantly clear who has the "power bench" in this case -- Lipstadt's legal team is the sort that comes in at £4000 a day, not including witness or research expenses. One doesn't buy a bench like that on an academic's salary, and publishers don't undertake to cover an author's legal expenses should they be sued for libel.
The obvious money behind her fuels Irving's belief that there is some sort of "Jewish conspiracy" out to get him, although he is careful not to use those words.
He says things like "organised international endeavour" or "traditional enemies of the truth" instead, and points to the large number of documents he's unearthed implicating more extreme Jewish organisations in threats both to his US publishers and immigration authorities.
Document 500 -- already before the court -- is a private correspondence between two such bodies. It speaks unashamedly of the need "to destroy his legitimacy as a historian".
"By virtue of the activities of the defendants and those who funded her and guided her hand," Irving told the court in his Opening Statement, "I have since 1996 seen one fearful publisher after another falling away from me, declining to reprint my works, refusing to accept new commissions and turning their backs on me when I approach."
Perhaps, then, the question should be asked: is it racist to say the words "Jewish lobby"?
For many people, "Jewish lobby" conjures up the classic anti-Semites' canard, ye olde "Worldwide Jewish Conspiracy" with the added implication that the utterer not only watches too much of the X-Files but probably also believes in the Illuminati and the Masonic Plot.
Yet people talk easily enough of the "feminist lobby", the "Aboriginal lobby" or (in Britain) the "Black lobby". Why is there a difference?
"Listen," he says, warming to his topic. "The Australian Jewish lobby is foolish. Had I been allowed quietly into Australia, I would have found myself driving across the outback, to Toowoomba or Shepparton or wherever, and speaking to three people in the back of a village hall. It's happened on my previous tours. One evening nobody came, and I trembled in case one person turned up and I would have to deliver the entire lecture."
Again, he has a point. Sometimes a lobby group can be just a little too organised. It was Dale Spender who suggested (tongue planted firmly in cheek) that I hire Gerard Henderson as my publicity manager. While he was busy bouncing up and down on TV like he had a pepper suppository and painting me as the archetypal anti-Semitic witch, The Hand that Signed the Paper was concreted into national bestseller lists.
"By doing this" [barring him from entering Australia], says Irving, "John Howard has ensured that I speak repeatedly to the nation on satellite television."
It is fully dark now. Sleet goes tik tik tik against the windows of Irving's office. A wailing police siren nears, passes and fades. Irving's six-year-old daughter, Jessica, comes into the room with a handful of coin-shaped chocolates in gold foil. She insists her father pay her £150 in order to eat them. She is an extraordinarily beautiful child.
Justin tells Irving this and he says, smiling, "Well, she has a beautiful mother."
Jessica plops down on the floor, eating her chocolates -- the £150 was not forthcoming -- and begins reading a collection of Disney magazines she's stashed in the corner. Then she sees Justin's cameras and effortlessly wheedles several turns at clicking the shutter on one of them.
"There's a photo of me by Jessica on my website," says Irving. "I'm featured from the waist down, wearing a pair of very crumpled trousers."
I look away from Jessica and her gold-foil chocolates.
"You don't use the term 'Holocaust', Mr Irving, but clearly agree to slaughter on a vast scale," I begin. "How many Jews do you think died in the Final Solution?"
He tells me -- as he told 2GB's Ron Casey in a July 1995 interview -- that he puts the figure between one and four million.
"The number of people murdered by any physical act of violence -- shooting or hanging or any other method -- I would put at about a million, primarily on the Eastern front, being machine-gunned into pits," he begins. "If you include all those who starved to death, or died of typhus, or were worked to death, then you easily reach a figure of four million illegal deaths."
The sleet rattles on the window panes like tropical rain. The wind howls. Fifty-seven or so years ago the wind also howled, spreading flaky grey ash over half a-dozen tiny Polish villages.
This, to Irving, is not denial, although his top figure is still well below leading Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg's widely accepted estimate of 5.1 million. It is further again below the famed statistic of post-war newsreels, the "six million" figure burned into our consciousness in darkened cinemas across the world.
Irving contends that "no person in full command of his mental faculties, and with even the slightest understanding of what happened in World War II, can deny that the tragedy actually happened, however much we dissident historians may wish to quibble about the means, the scale, the dates and other minutiae."
Means. He means gas chambers, of course.
Put simply, Irving denies the existence of gas chambers. However, his attempt to argue that the two great holes in the ground at Auschwitz-Birkenau with the dynamited remains of crematoria above them were air-raid shelters is not only laughable but is laughed at in court, and not just by the press gallery.
"An air-raid shelter five miles away from the main SS barracks?" Richard Rampton asks, rhetorically.
Irving is also unable to explain away a set of timesheets from the camp's archive recording a guard's stint at der Gaskammer, apart from pointing out that the German grammar is wrong. Gaskammer, we learn, is feminine.
The probably foreign (some of the guards at Auschwitz were Ukrainian SS), certainly ill-educated young guard has made his murderous workplace masculine. It should read die Gaskammer. One suspects that his German 101 was not up to using the euphemisms de rigeur among his superiors. He obviously didn't expect anyone to look at his timesheets fifty-eight years after filling them in, and does not dissemble over the name. He worked at the gas chamber.
At one point, Rampton accidentally uses the phrase "gas chamber denial" when he clearly means "Holocaust denial". The substitution is telling, making it clear that for Lipstadt, gas chamber denial equals Holocaust denial, ergo David Irving, gas chamber denier, is also a Holocaust denier. I don't think this follows.
Nonetheless, Irving's views on gas chambers -- even more than his view that Hitler knew little or nothing of the Final Solution until October 1943 -- are very strange. It is these views -- so a literary agent tells me -- that have publishers all over London "wishing he would leave the Holocaust alone and concentrate on the military history that made his name."
In 1992, I conducted extensive interviews with a Ukrainian who served as a guard at Treblinka. Among the many things this man recalled to me from that nether world -- things I later used in The Hand that Signed the Paper -- was seeing Treblinka's carbon monoxide gas chambers in daily operation. Some "twenty or thirty times" he was ordered -- along with a dozen or so fellow guards -- to drive those selected for death along the barbed wire corridor leading to the Gaskammer.
But is the Holocaust just the gas chambers? Is it not also the Nuremberg laws, the ghettos, Kristallnacht and the medical experiments? Most importantly, is it not also the Einsatzgruppen?
These "special squads" -- high on alcohol and hate -- shot at least a million Jews throughout eastern Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states.
It's possible that the Einsatzgruppen killed as many as the gas chambers, albeit more slowly and messily. Figures for the numbers they murdered are unreliable -- historians often feel obliged to underestimate them -- in part because the peasant boys doing much of the butchering didn't complete German paperwork.
Chillingly, documents from the period indicate that they commonly enjoyed their work, volunteering time and again. Sometimes local populations watched as they slaughtered, cheering them on.
In an attempt to establish his credentials as someone who acknowledges that the Nazis massacred Jews in their millions, Irving reads a couple of contemporary accounts of Einsatz killings to the court with a discomforting relish. Two or three people leave the room, their faces drained of colour.
When I was a child, my mother taught me about bad fate.
"Bad fate," she said, "runs in families." Bad fate is beyond bad luck. The individual suffering it exists in a world of misfortune, ill-health and death.
David Irving's wife Benté [is seriously ill]. His oldest daughter committed suicide after losing both her legs in an accident. He speaks to obscure right wing groups because only they are prepared to grant him a platform. He cannot travel. Should he lose this case, he will lose both bank balance and career. Six year old Jessica will be plucked out of her Mayfair school to finish up in some wretched comprehensive.
ON the second day of the trial, Irving gave the following information to the court. He also gives it to me, along with a photograph. It is bad fate par excellence.
Irving: This would make more sense to your Lordship if you are aware of who Philip Bouhler was. Philip Bouhler was the head of the Nazi Extermination Programme for the mentally and physically disabled, the Euthanasia Programme.
A little later, Richard Rampton suggested to Irving that this "misfortune . . . has been brought on you by what you have said yourself."
He bit his lip immediately after saying it, perhaps realising that he had gone too far. "This is very similar," said Irving, his voice shaking, "to saying that the catastrophe that befell the Jewish people was brought on them by themselves."
Justin and I step outside. The sleet has stopped now, but the sky is very dark. A bitter wind stings our faces. We turn our collars up and step into the gale, losing our footing on the icy pavement as we go.
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