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London, March 20, 2001


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Rewriting the past for the battles of today

MICHAEL GOVE

HISTORY is being distorted in a growing assault on truth and memory . Two men have recently tried to grab Justice's sword to refight history's battles. David Irving is a discredited figure of the far Right, Christopher Hitchens a celebrated gadfly of the New Left, Irving's reputation lies in tatters, Hitchens enjoys a passepartout to the salons of Washington and London, Irving is a study in wickedness, Hitchens one in mischief.

But both have been engaged in attempts to diminish past totalitarian crimes the better to advance contemporary political agendas. Neither can afford to be dismissed as a mere littérateur whose only aim is to challenge conventional wisdom, as two new books show.

The Holocaust on Trial; History, Justice and the David Irving Libel Case by D.D. Guttenplan demonstrates how Irving set out to use our libel courts to provide a platform for his revisionist account of the Second World War. The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens is an attempt by the author to use the establishment of an international criminal court as a platform for his own revisionist account of the Cold War.

Irving found himself in the libel courts because of his obsessive desire to diminish and downplay the transcendent evil of the Holocaust. His revisionist reading of the Second World War sets out to challenge the historical fact of Hitler's genocidal campaign against the Jews. Irving's Holocaust denial, as Guttenplan shows, is not simply a wicked intellectual conceit but central to his twisted ideology. The fact of the Holocaust is the single greatest obstacle to the rehabilitation of the far-right views which Irving holds. By denying the Holocaust's historical singularity, or even its existence, apologists for the far Right seek to re-establish Hitler and the Nazi regime as legitimate players in history's pageant from whom the Post-Modern polemicist may draw "interesting" lessons.

When Irving's malicious agenda and malign modus operandi were exposed by Deborah Lipstadt in her book Denying the Holocaust; the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, he recognised a threat to his project and sued. Because the English libel courts still, inexplicably, place upon the defendant the burden of proving his innocence, Irving hoped that the odds would be tilted in his favour. In any event, he calculated, he would be given a public platform for his revisionism. Fortunately, his calculations were undone by the meticulous deconstruction of his case by Lipstadt's lawyers. He was shown to have suppressed, altered and doctored the truth to serve his own ends and his reputation took a battering from which, mercifully, it can never recover.

But revisionism is not the sole preserve of the far Right, and Hitchens's book is a timely reminder of the rewriting of history being attempted by the Left. Just as the crimes of Nazism constitute an ineradicable obstacle to the promotion of far-right ideology, so the corpse-littered history of communism impedes the radical ambitions of many on the New Left.

That real existing socialism led to the extinguishing of millions of real existing human beings is too much reality for many Left radicals to bear. That communism was defeated by the exertions of Conservative leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the liberal democracies of America and Britain makes reality, and history, insupportable for them. So history must be rewritten.

Hitchens and his fellow travellers recognise that the gulags cannot be written out of our past, so they attempt to pitch new "facts" into Justice's scales. They replay the old game of "moral equivalence" by charging the West with war crimes as great as any committed in communism's name. By so doing, they seek to diminish the evil of socialist totalitarianism and weaken the moral authority of those liberal democracies in the West, most notably America, whose past victories and present policies they cannot bear.

Fortunately for history, and the West, Hitchens has none of the cool mastery of facts required to support his ends. Hitchens has chosen Kissinger as a still vital survivor of the Cold War, a living reminder of our struggles, and sought to demonise him by laying at his door every conceivable abuse of human rights. Kissinger, and by extension the West, are held accountable for sins as varied as the genocide of Bangladeshis, the murder of Chilean generals, the deposing of Cypriot leaders and the sabotaging of Vietnamese peace talks. In Hitchens's account of the Cold War Kissinger lurks at the centre of every conspiracy, a malign intelligence directing world evil which might have leapt from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Hitchens is much more a poor man's Oliver Stone than a latter-day Hartley Shawcross. In his scattergun mix of occasional fact, tendentious interpretation and wishful thinking he resembles a Hollywood conspiracy theorist more than the coolly rational prosecutor of war crimes he imagines himself to be.

And yet Hitchens's allegations have been serialised with all solemnity by Harper's magazine in the United States and The Guardian here. That one of America's leading liberal magazines and Britain's pre-eminent left-wing broadsheet should be so eager to indulge Hitchens's revisionism tells us something about the appetite for denigration of their own countries among the West's leftish elites. It may seem amusing to play Knock Down Ginger with Dr Kissinger's reputation, ringing the leper's bell which peals "war criminal" and then running away. But the consequences are more malign than they appear to recognise. By placing Dr Kissinger in the dock, they collude in the attempt to let communism off the hook. They are, in Lipstadt's words, part of a growing assault on truth and memory.

michael.gove@thetimes.co.uk

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