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The Economist

London, April 15, 2000





Slugging through the mud

[Website note: Articles in The Economist are traditionally anonymous.]


David Irving's lost libel case not only brands him as a Holocaust denier. It should also remove any doubts that he has always been primarily a politically motivated activist rather than a historian.

AT THE press conference after her libel victory this week, Deborah Lipstadt, an American historian who had been sued by David Irving for branding the Briton a "Holocaust-denier", said the most moving moment of her three-month ordeal came when she was "enveloped by [Holocaust] survivors" as she left the Royal Courts of Justice for the last time. It was testimony to the passions stirred by one of the most complex and emotionally charged cases in recent British legal history.

Ms Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, were sued by Mr Irving, who represented himself in court. He alleged that Ms

Lipstadt had libelled him in her 1994 book "Denying the Holocaust: the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory." No one, except Mr Irving, seemed to relish the weeks of picking through the often horrendous detail of the history of the Nazi regime. As Ms Lipstadt put it, "We had to slug through the mud to get to the other side."

At the heart of the case was Mr Irving's contention that he is an honest, serious and objective historian. Mr Irving claimed that he had shown, through the application of the usual methodology of historical investigation, that, among other things, Hitler had no knowledge of the Holocaust, that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz and that there had been no planned, systematic extermination of European Jewry during the second world war.

During the course of writing many books on the Nazi regime, Mr Irving, now 62, had indeed acquired a reputation as a diligent, energetic and methodical scholar. The respect that his work has generated meant that some historians greeted this week's verdict with a degree of regret, even unease. Donald Cameron Watt, a former professor of international history at London University, wrote of the admiration he had formed for Mr Irving's professionalism when collaborating with him on some research many years previously. "No book of his has ever failed to come up with new evidence," noted Mr Watt.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, John Keegan, a much-respected military historian, praised Mr Irvings "extraordinary ability to describe and analyse Hitler's conduct of military operations." Mr Keegan was also clearly impressed by Mr Irving's bearing in court: "He is a large, strong, handsome man, excellently dressed, with the appearance of a leading QC. . .asking, in a firm but courteous voice, precise questions which demonstrate his detailed knowledge of an enormous body of material."

Mr Keegan's and Mr Watt's desire to be fair-minded and not to kick a man when he is down may be admirable. But it is hard to accept their central contention, that it is possible to distinguish between the "good Irving" -- the meticulous, dogged historian -- and the "bad Irving" -- the propagandist with his strange views about the gas chambers, and his suggestion that Jews should ask themselves why the Nazis were so keen to kill them.

For, as this week's verdict made clear, Mr Irving's activities as a historian are almost impossible to separate from his political views, Mr Justice Gray did accept that "his knowledge of World War Two is unparalleled." But he also concluded that Mr Irving has "for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence." The judge highlighted 19 instances in which the defence had argued that Mr Irving had wilfully distorted historical evidence -- "I have come to the conclusion that the criticisms advanced by the defendants are almost invariably well-founded," noted the judge. For example, Mr Irving's evidence for declaring that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were a fiction was a report by Fred Leuchter, a self-taught American expert on execution techniques, whose work had already been discredited in a court case in Canada. Why should Mr Irving have indulged in these distortions? The evidence before the court showed compellingly that he is on the far right of politics. The court was shown footage of Mr Irving addressing neo-Nazi rallies in Germany. As Mr Watt noted in his newspaper article, in these appearances Mr Irving "both looks and sounds uncannily like Hitler." The court also heard extracts from Mr Irving's speeches to assorted right-wing gatherings around the world, and extracts from his diaries. In one entry he makes smug references to attending a dinner at which a toast was drunk to Hitler. Mr Irving noted, "I had no glass, as I don't drink." Based on all this evidence, the judge found Mr Irving to be an "active Holocaust-denier", an anti-Semite and a "racist who associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism."

As for Mr Irving, steeled with the inner conviction of the true obsessive, he remains entirely unrepentant. Listening to the judgment in his shirtsleeves, his suit jacket having been the casualty of a well-aimed egg on his way into court, he showed no signs of regret or even discomfort. Indeed, he immediately promised to take his case to the Court of Appeal.

After being spirited out of the court by security guards, Mr Irving went straight back to his website, which he has been using to update what he calls his "gang" of "world-wide consultants". Here, the judgment was treated as little more than a faintly embarrassing mishap. On the website, Mr Irving promises to fight on against Ms Lipstadt and her "Israeli paymasters".

The mystery remains as to who continues to provide the money for his campaign. Some of the money must go on his website, which is sophisticated and comprehensive. Mr Irving may be close to bankruptcy all the same. No doubt, he will go on peddling his twisted version of history until his dying breath. This trial has afforded him plenty of publicity, which may be why he went to court in the first place. But the hope now must be that although Mr Irving will go on talking and writing, fewer and fewer people will be listening and reading.

April 15, 2000
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