London, Sunday, April 16, 2000
The battle may be over - but the war goes on
Neal Ascherson explains why a disgraced David Irving has surprising sympathy from serious historians
THE EGG HAS BEEN sponged off David Irving's best suit, splattered by High Court demonstrators last Tuesday. The defence lawyers are seeking an archive nerd who wants 92 lever-arch binders of Holocaust documents, each in seven copies. And yet the great three-month libel trial refuses to go away.
Five days after Mr Justice Gray's judgment against Irving, the smoke is clearing. But the view, depressingly, is much the same as before.
The good news is that Irving lost his action against Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt. The bad news is that he still apparently intends to bring another one -- against The Observer [see below]. Irving has still not had enough.
One of the reasons is that there were two trials going on, not one. The formal trial ended with one of the most crushing judgments ever dumped over an English plaintiff. The judge accepted almost every single point of the defence case: Irving was -- among other things -- a liar, a distorter of historical evidence, an anti-Semitic racist and a 'Holocaust-denier'.
But Irving was also suing before 'the court of world opinion'. He kept one eye firmly on the journalists packing the front row (we were daily ticked off or praised, and fed with interesting papers).
He lost that trial, too. But not nearly so completely. Incredible as it seems, a minority of people clearly think it was Irving who was on trial, being sued for his opinions by Penguin Books. He might as well have been fighting the charge of 'Holocaust denial' waiting for him at Mannheim in Germany, where it is a criminal offence. In consequence, there is now a tendency to see the trial out-came as a form of censorship, a clamp on the limits of historical inquiry.
Professor D.C. Watt, in 'Tuesday's London Evening Standard, asserted that historians were uneasy about the trial, that Penguin had been 'out for blood' and that 'the truth needs an Irving's challenges to keep it alive'. Watt overlooks the fact that it was Irving who was out for blood; he, after all, sued Penguin and Lipstadt. John Keegan, another historian of war, wrote after the judgment that Irving 'has many of the qualities of the most creative historians ... if he will only learn from this case, [he] still has much to tell us'. Keegan dismissed Lipstadt, whose remarks about Irving were the pretext for the trial, as 'dull as only the self-righteously politically correct can be'.
Both men are scrupulous scholars; neither could possibly be suspected of fascist sympathies. Yet both see Irving as still somehow 'one of us' -- wrong but romantic. But Lipstadt is a respectable historian too, more honest in her use of documents than Irving, and the trial vindicated what she said about him. So why is she being slighted as somehow not quite one of us?
On the day after the verdict, the headlines unanimously pronounced Irving dead and buried. Unquiet grave! People like that always bounce back. And Irving's reputation has always been a double one: as a writer of history, but also a hunter of unknown, sensational documents. The first part -- his reputation as an interpreter of those documents -- lies in ruins. The second survives.
This is a shadowy underworld, hidden beneath the clean, bright places where scholars write books. Down in the cellar of Third Reich studies, con men and SS veterans, obsessive journalists and forgers and real historians stumble about in echoes of fantastic rumour. And here Irving is a dark prince.
His special gift is finding papers which others don't even know how to look for. Gitta Sereny, another famous researcher in this field, acknowledges : 'He's so good at cross-searching. Take the Kommissarbefehl [the order to kill captured Soviet party cadres]. He would go in 12 different directions; he would check through what everyone was doing on the day it was issued, on who Hitler saw or phoned that day and where.' Has the trial changed anything? Very little. The judgment does not advance historical research' into Hitler's murder of the Jews. It merely repeats what was known. Neither is it likely to deter 'Holocaust-dealers'.
But Mr Justice Gray's judgment will be useful as a sort of quality guarantee. As the Pinochet case showed, an English court still has clout and international credibility.
Irving lost his case last Tuesday. Does that mean Lipstadt and her supporters won on the same scale? As a lawyer explained to me, it's not that simple. She won a battle, but not necessarily the war. She is the author of Denying The Holocaust -- the book in which she accused Irving of being a racist, a right-wing extremist, an anti-Semite, a twister of evidence and a Holocaust-denier -- and the judge endorsed almost every allegation she made.
And yet, in the wider sense, her victory may not have done much to help her cause.
Lipstadt sat in court for three months and said nothing. This annoyed Irving, who plainly longed to have her at his mercy in the witness-box, and it did not endear her to the public. It may be that she was simply afraid of what Irving could do to her. More probably, she was sticking to her own precept: never debate with deniers. Never act as if there were two sides to this question. There is only one. The Holocaust did happen. End, Schluss, no argument.
THIS HAS PROVED an unpopular view. The Jewish Chronicle took the Lipstadt line: 'Merely to suggest the fact of the Holocaust ... is somehow open to debate is obscene'. So did David Cesarani, Professor of Modern Jewish History at Southampton. He reproached the media for continuing to talk to Irving and ask him for his opinions. Most British commentators found this repugnant. They had no doubt the Holocaust happened. But in the old liberal way, they felt like fighting for a man's right to express views they found loathsome.
They were also worried that the judgment could deter genuine historical argument about the details of the Holocaust. The total of the victims, some of the methods and the genesis of the plan itself are all uncertain. But the judgment stated that such research did not amount to 'denial' (which is no offence in this country), and Lipstadt's writings make the same point.
How about Lipstadt's even more passionate belief that the Jewish Holocaust was unique -- that to set it in the context of other great atrocities is blasphemous? Again, Irving's defeat did nothing to support her. But the reporting of the trial seemed to some to imply an exclusiveness about Jewish victimhood. This disturbed both historians (such as Mark Mazower, author of Dark Continent.' Europe in the Twentieth Century) and minorities who have themselves been subjected to genocide, like the Armenians. As Mazower said last week, more data have come to light in recent years which multiply the scale of great atrocities in the past. These include the death toll in King Leopold's Congo Free State, which may have reached 10 million, and the famine deaths caused by Mao's Great Leap Forward in China, now thought to number more than 20 million.
The Irving trial again brought out the unique features of the Holocaust. The more Irving blustered about how unplanned the 'Final Solution' was, the more his own documents reminded an appalled court of its deliberate, industrialised character, its intention to eradicate an entire race.
But an English libel court is for justice, not for history. Mr Justice Gray did not say whether the Holocaust should or should not be placed in a wider context of war and genocide. He left that to Irving and Lipstadt, who will go on contesting it for the rest of their lives.
DAVID IRVING is continuing to pursue his intention to bring a libel action against The Observer and the writer Gitta Sereny, for words in an article entitled 'Spin Time For Hitler' which appeared on 21 April, 1996.
In his Statement of Claim, Irving lists 13 points he considers defamatory. The article, in his view, accuses him, among other things, of inflating the death toll in the Allied air raid on Dresden tenfold, of obtaining the microfiche plates of the Goebbels diaries in Moscow by subterfuge, and of using 'the means of invention, omission or distortion to express an obsession, thereby demonstrating a lack of the detachment, rationality and judgment'. Irving also claims aggravated damages on the grounds that The Observer failed to publish a timely reply by him to the article and that Sereny had pursued a campaign of defamation against him for nearly 20 years. The Observer will apply to have his action struck out on the grounds that these matters have already been litigated in the libel case against Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt that concluded last week.
Sunday, April 16, 2000