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 Posted Saturday, May 1, 1999

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This article originally appeared in Skeptic magazine. [Link]

David Irving: Self-Made Historian

by Frank Miele

IF David Irving were an American baseball fan, he would turn off the sound on the TV because he could not stand the announcers, and he would read the box scores every morning without even looking at the AP wire, let alone the big name columnists. When he decided to become fluent in German, he did not take German 101 or order "learn-a-language" tapes; he spent two years as a steel worker in Germany.

Irving goes about writing history in the same do-it-yourself manner. He has no formal academic training in history. In fact, he holds most academic historians in contempt. While they spend their time reading each others' books, Irving avoids secondary and interpretive sources and instead immerses himself in the archives, going through diaries, correspondence, handwritten notes of the person he's writing about, his staff and intimates.

Irving has written or is in the process of writing a book on most of the major figures of World War II. When I reached him for a series of telephone interviews he was going over the final draft of Dr. Goebbels.

Irving's method of relying on only primary sources gives his books a unique style and a very controversial impact. Some are more in the form of a chronology than an interpretive summary. They often read more like Joe Friday than Gibbon or Macaulay. And like a police report, they contain firsthand information you will find nowhere else, which is why they have been required reading at such places as West Point, the Army War College at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the British Open University, and the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Critics would argue that Irving's methodology is not only his strength, but his greatest weakness. The mildest criticism would be that in his avoidance of secondary and interpretive sources, his reader loses any sense of context and is unable to see the forest for all the (unearthed) trees.

A stronger criticism would be that after providing a mass of details, Irving seizes upon some "zinger" as support for some controversial thesis and thereby guarantees publicity and sales. When I asked Irving if he thought this criticism had any merit, he answered that if he discovers "zingers as you call them," he documents them and follows the evidence wherever it leads him; he does not manufacture them. He also told me that certain forms of controversy hurt sales and result in costly litigation.

The strongest criticism would be that Irving uses whatever he can find in the mass of documents to support his own "mild fascist" position. In 1979 he argued in Hitler's War that not only was there no evidence of a Führer order for the extermination of the Jews, but that Hitler himself did not know what was going on with respect to the Jews (at least in the beginning). Since then his conclusions have consistently moved in a revisionist direction that reduces the culpability assigned to Germany in general and Hitler in particular, both for starting the war and practicing genocide.

Irving told me that the oft-repeated characterization of him as a "self-described mild Fascist" was neither fair nor accurate and was based on a 1959 article that was "retracted immediately." He prefers to describe himself as an "ultraconservative with socialist leanings." As for reducing Nazi culpability, Irving stated that he has publicly accepted every Nazi atrocity or crime for which he can find hard evidence.

Controversy and litigation are no strangers to Irving. But it was only after his testimony in the Zündel trial that governments placed criminal charges against him, that he was deported or denied entry, and that his books were removed from stores and/or the stores vandalized. He told me he realized that there was "a campaign to shut me up" and that he "was up against an international organization with considerable clout." I asked him to identify the organization, which he did as "the traditional enemies of the truth."

In May, 1992, Irving told a German audience that the gas chamber shown to tourists at Auschwitz was "a fake built after the war." In June, 1992, he was coming to Rome from Moscow. When the plane landed, it was surrounded by police and Irving was put on the next plane to Munich. He was charged under the German law of "defaming the memory of the dead" and fined 3,000DM. He appealed the conviction and on subsequent appeals the conviction was upheld and the fine increased first to 10,000 and then to 30,000DM, or about $20,000. (The German legal system provides for increasing the penalty on appeal. Irving was not the victim of extralegal tactics, nor has he ever claimed this). In all his appeals, Irving was not allowed to call the director of the Auschwitz museum as a witness to confirm his statement. (The Auschwitz gas chamber is, in fact, a reconstruction built after the war. No one at the Auschwitz museum denies this.)

Later that year, while in California, Irving received a letter from the Canadian government saying that he would not be allowed into that country because of the German conviction. He did enter Canada, legally, in October, 1992, to receive the George Orwell award from a conservative free speech organization. He was arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, led away in handcuffs and told that he was being deported on the grounds that he had been convicted of a criminal offense in Germany and was likely to perform similar acts in Canada. According to Irving, he had been to the country numerous times before without even a traffic ticket.

At present he cannot legally enter Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Germany, or South Africa. When he is allowed into certain countries, the authorities sometimes present Irving with a list of just what it is he is not allowed to say. The list can sometimes run 12-15 pages.

Irving feels he has also suffered professionally because of his revisionist views. Waterstones and Dillon's (British book chains) decided to keep Irving's books out of view after a number of their stores had been vandalized (Brownlee, 1992). The German Federal Archives in Coblenz, to which Irving has donated one ton of materials, has denied him further access and he is demanding the return of his materials. In March of 1994, Macmillan, the American publisher of Irving's forthcoming book on Dr. Goebbels, rejected his final draft and demanded the return of his (sizable) advance.

Irving's current position is that no one has offered proof (or now even tries) to contradict his argument that there was no "Führer order;" that the total number of Jewish deaths should be reduced to a figure below one million; that the Leuchter Report is firm evidence against the existence of gas chambers which has been independently confirmed; and that the number of gassings that may have taken place in mobile vans or other experimental devices was at most an insignificant percentage of the total deaths.

Having grown up in a mob town in New Jersey, I asked Irving why one would even hope to find a written order, as such things usually take the form of verbal commands: "Hey Vito, can you take care of that thing for me?" Irving agreed that the "Godfather" method might well have been the way it happened.

I suggested to Irving that Hitler's declaration of war on the United States on December 10, 1941, was evidence that der Führer realized he would either win the war and have the history books written the way he wanted, or lose completely, in which case he would take as many of his enemies with him as he could. Given this mindset, he probably encouraged Himmler to "take care of that Jewish thing." Irving responded that such an interpretation did not contradict the evidence and may well have been what happened. While going through the Goebbels diaries he found that from about 1942 on Goebbels repeatedly said things like "We have crimes on our book. We can't go back. We can only go forward." I quoted Shakespeare's murderous Richard III (Act IV, scene ii), "I am so far in blood that sin will pluck on sin. Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye," which Irving thought fit quite well.

My conversations with Irving were quite different from those with either Zündel or Mark Weber. Where Zündel struck me as a supersalesman looking for a way to close, and Weber seemed like a therapist trying to help me get over denial, Irving came across as the polished professional, with immediate recall of a wealth of facts and figures and little concern whether I agreed with him or not. This difference became even more obvious when I asked Irving: "suppose the revisionists are proven correct, what would change?" He responded, "the press would immediately say, 'we knew it all along.'" He then read his "Note for the Record," which he asks all journalists to sign before interviewing him on the Holocaust:

Being a responsible journalist reporting for _______, I solemnly affirm that I still believe in the existence during World War Two of "gas chambers" and "factories of death" in which Nazis killed millions of their opponents. Signed______ Print Name______ Date______ _Alternatively_: signature declined, (signed)______

(Since I am acting as a journalist for Skeptic, here is how I responded to Irving's note: "I neither affirm your note as provided, nor decline to participate. Here's what, based on reading and interviews, including you and revisionists, I presently think: Millions of Jews died in Europe under the Nazis. Some died of disease, overwork, brutality in the camps. Some were shot on the spot by Einsatzgruppen and Nazi collaborators. Some were systematically killed in the camps by methods that included gassing. I've found no 'hard' percentages. I'll continue to believe this until and unless you or someone else can convince me otherwise." Irving told me that I was the second person to provide an alternative version. All others had simply declined. None had signed.)

When I asked Irving what he would do if proven wrong, he again offered a professional and unemotional reply. He said he'd move on to something else, satisfied that he had argued the case well.

Where revisionism is a crusade for Zündel, for Irving it seems more an intellectual battle royal. And when it's done and over, he believes he'll be the last one standing and will take particular delight in stepping over the bodies of the academics he has KO'd along the way.

Intellectually, Irving's extremely proud. He told me how, when he was imprisoned in England for contempt of court arising out of a libel action brought by Australian Jewish organizations, his fellow prisoners, especially blacks, treated him with respect and dignity. Irving is miffed that John Charmley is getting the credit for the current wave of Churchill revisionism going on in Britain, when it was he (Irving) who started it all. He's even more miffed that Vladimir Zhirinovsky has taken Irving's place as the star speaker at right-wing talkfests put on by the German publisher Gerhard Frey. He considers Zhirinovsky an unstable lightweight who'll never be taken seriously, and feels Frey has wasted his money bankrolling Zhirinovsky's political campaign.

Irving enjoys taking chances and defending controversial positions for the intellectual challenge. He doesn't like to be labeled or pigeon-holed. He's currently working on a book on FDR, whom he found to be an exceptionally capable war time leader who listened to his generals, lost relatively few lives, "took us (Brits) for all we had," and made the U.S. a great power. He considers America's subsequent wars (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Panama) to have been counterproductive and racist and thinks the American media have done a terrible job of presenting the story to us. After likening the Gulf War to the Holocaust, in October, 1991, he was thrown out of an Argentine TV studio and all his lectures in that country were cancelled.

The above news item is reproduced without editing other than typographical; it does contain some unimportant misstatements of fact
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