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 Posted Monday, August 20, 2001

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Below: David Irving arrives at the Court of Appeal, ignoring Professor Lipstadt's banner-waving supporters
Irving outside high court

Document, the newsletter of the Graduate History Student's Association of York University (Toronto, Canada)



The Problem with David Irving

By James Muir

I AM reading the judgment of the libel trial Mr. David Irving v. Penguin Books and Professor Deborah Lipstadt (2000). Delivered by the Justice Charles Gray of the English Court of Queen's Bench, the judgment runs an exceptionally long 349 pages.

David Irving is a English historian of the Second World War, author of books like Hitler's War and The Destruction of Dresden. To a Canadian audience he may be more famous as a defence witnesses at the 1988 trial of Ernst Zündel. In her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust, Deborah Lipstadt described Irving as "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial." His claim to being a professional historian meant his word carried an authority to which other deniers could not aspire.

Since the Zundel trial, Irving had faced greater and greater difficulty in maintaining credentials as a legitimate historian. Lipstadt's book offered the perfect vehicle to strike back: he could sue both her and her British publisher and seek legitimation of his being a good historian.

The defense's case was built on proving all of the charges Lipstadt made: effectively that Irving denies the Holocaust, is a fascist and anti-Semite and that his beliefs shape the history he writes to the point that it is unreliable or simply wrong. In short, the trial turned on the question of whether or not Irving is a good historian.

Irving lost. Justice Gray ruled that in almost every case cited by the defence, Irving was as Lipstadt argued: anti-Semitic, racist, a Holocaust denier, and a bad historian.

As a historian reading the judgment, I am left deeply worried by this last bit. The defence argued that Irving is inaccurate and unfair in his use of the evidence. They were required to go one step further. In Gray's words: "they must establish that the misrepresentation by Irving of the historical record was deliberate in the sense that Irving was motivated by a desire borne of his own ideological beliefs." (13.138).

The defence's case against Irving as a historian turned on a number of pieces of his scholarship.Evans The defendants' expert witnesses (primarily Richard Evans, a historian of Germany and author of In Defence of History) took Irving's accumulated scholarship apart piece by piece. They would demonstrate that in one instance he would quote one part of a diary entry, but not another. They showed how the interpretation of the documents Irving presented was only one of many reasonable interpretations. They argued that he put too great and uncritical a reliance on oral history collected long after the fact. They questioned his translations. They urged that Irving read too many of his written sources at face-value, not looking for the use of coded words or phrases in the place of outright statements about the extermination of European Jews.

As a historian, I am troubled by many of the implications of the defendants' arguments. The problem is threefold. First, it is premised on an expectation that a historian's responsibility is to present all evidence and possible interpretations -- not selectively quote nor paraphrase. Second, the defence argues for an objective history, one free of value judgments and interpretations based on the ideology of the historian. These first two points lead to an inevitable third: that there is a correct and an incorrect version of the past. In Irving a judge makes the final decision, and declares who is and who is not a good historian, what is and what is not legitimate historical practice and what was and was not the past.

What are the implications of the Irving judgment for historians? First, it enshrines some protection for historians who make judgments of their fellows in their texts. Lipstadt was forced to prove her arguments in court, but upon doing so, her ability to make those arguments in print were affirmed. Second, in quite the opposite direction, the history written by David Irving was impugned by a judge in a court of law, not only by historians (upon which there is not universal agreement -- while Evans referred to Irving as having "a generally low reputation amongst professional historians since the end of the 1980s and at all times amongst those who have direct experience of researching in the areas with which he concerns himself"; John Keegan, called by Irving, restated his belief that Hitler's War is one of the two best books on the Second World War).

I am not in sympathy with either Irving or his interpretations. But the implications of the ruling against him may have a wider impact on our profession. Since the 1960s there have been a number of very big fights over historical interpretation: Hexter against Hill on the English Civil War; Gutman against Fogel and Engerman on slavery and economy. Some historical arguments have already been played out in court: the Sears case in the U.S.A. or the Métis land claims in Manitoba. What the court cases do is solidify and legitimate particular interpretations of history in a way academic debate seldom can. Some, like Irving go one step further by legitimising a particular method of being a historian.

The judgment against Irving is in the end based on the premise of a lack of objectivity. There are few of us left who would accept such an Eltonian vision of truth and objectivity in history. On the contrary, many of us have moved past Carr's source/interpretation dialectic to a point where any claim of objectivity is questionable if not completely rejected. When we find our profession contending in the public sphere we argue not for our interpretation, but the interpretation of the one true past.

At best Irving is a sloppy historian. At worst, he is an anti-Semitic, racist, purveyor of lies. The problem is, put in a similar situation, are my use of quotations, my interpretations, my writing style or my ideology as questionable? If not, is it because I am objectively a better historian than Irving, or that my topic and my politics are not as controversial. If it's the latter, or even some part of the latter, than what freedom are we allowing ourselves to challenge orthodoxy in history? Irving brought this on himself, and deserved to lose, but in the process he, Lipstadt, and Evans may have harmed us all.

Related item on this website:

David Irving's comments on The Spectator review of Churchill's War, vol. ii

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