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 Evidently, the duel goes on. Evans clubs the prostrate Irving with this book; [Mr Irving's] website depicts the Professor as a cartoon skunk. -- Michael Burleigh, in The Sunday Telegraph

London, Sunday, June 23, 2002


The verdict of history

It is time for the David Irving libel case to be consigned to history

says Michael Burleigh


David Irving comments:

A GOOD, even-handed (or even- fisted) review by one of Britain's historians who merits the prizes he has won.
   Were he old enough, and I suspect that he is not, he would know that the newspaper which prints this spirited review, The Sunday Telegraph, published from April 1963 onward no fewer than three of my books as lengthy weekly serials.
   But that was in the days of its indomitable founder (and my friend) Donald McLachlan, and I know the pressures he came under almost immediately -- because McLachlan warned me of them.

Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History and the David Irving Trial by Richard J. Evans (Verso).

RECENTLY I stood in front of Goya's nightmarish Black Paintings in Madrid's Prado. One is called The Single Stick Duel. Two thuggish men are stuck in a morass, condemned to exchange futile cudgel blows. That image came to mind as I read this fitfully entertaining book, whose title might have been David Irving: My Part in his Downfall, had not Spike Milligan got there first. For the book concerns a contemporary courtroom duel: between David Irving and Penguin Books. It was fought in the High Court between January and April 2000, in other words over two years ago. The case has already been the subject of other books, perhaps less parti pris than this one. Cowardly corporate publishers, its author Richard Evans claims, have delayed its publication -- indeed nearly prevented it seeing the light of day. Maybe. But let us turn, wearily, to the facts.

Like the Captain Hook of pantomime, Irving brought about his own nemesis. He elected to sue Deborah Lipstadt, a minor American historian of "holocaust denial". She had accused Irving of having a politically perverse way with historical evidence. Irving may have regarded this as part of a plot to silence him, in accordance with his conspiratorial world-view. Since her publisher, Penguin Books, would have had to pay damages, recall the book, and publicly apologise, if they had ignored Irving's writ, their lawyers called Irving's bluff.

Enter stage left Evans, as an expert witness (right) -- the main protagonist in this account. A Cambridge professor, chair of the British Academy's Modern History Section, and resident juror on two History prize panels, this was clearly not someone to dismiss lightly. Evans had a background in 19th-century German history, and in "defending"' the (thriving) subject of History against post-modernist malcontents. Echoes of this earlier work reverberate throughout this book. He was the Profession's caped crusader entering the lists for truth against the wicked Joker.

Prof Richard EvansFirst, Evans and his junior researchers had to spend many months combing Irving's entire oeuvre for instances of Hitlerian sympathies and a wilful way with the documentary evidence. The result of such elaborate research was to deflate Irving's pose as a maverick discoverer of evidence allegedly ignored by mainstream scholars. The latter preferred official archives to papers gathering dust in the attics of Hitler's former lackeys, which Irving bought up by the carload.

Secondly, Evans discovered a persistent bias in Irving's work, which went beyond mere professional incompetence. Copious detailed examples are provided in what is a condensed version of Evans's expert report. Genuine errors tend neither this way nor that. But in Irving's case, documentary distortion or oversight served to exonerate the Nazi leader of his criminal intentions and responsibilities, notably when it involved anti-Semitic policies, up to and including the "Final Solution".

Evans argued that Irving

"falsely attributed conclusions to reliable sources, bending them to fit his arguments. He relied on material that turned out directly to contradict his arguments when it was checked. He quoted from sources in a manner that distorted their authors' meaning and purposes. He misrepresented data and skewed documents. He used insignificant and sometimes implausible pieces of evidence to dismiss more substantial evidence that did not support his thesis. He ignored or deliberately suppressed material when it ran counter to his arguments. When he was unable to do this, he expressed implausible doubts about its reliability".

This proved damning. Irving's inadvertent reference to the judge as "mein Fuhrer" didn't help.

Evans chronicles the psychological toll on himself as he and Irving battered each other in court. The tone declines. Evans describes Irving as "a lumbering hulk of a man, he did not look well-dressed to me; his suit did not fit him properly, and his greying hair . . . was untidy and clearly needed cutting". His comments on some of the ambient characters are almost as aspersive. John Charmley; Lord Dacre; Andrew Roberts; John Keegan, Norman Stone, Cameron Watt; the entire media corps -- all feel the Professor's sharp tongue.

Irving lost his own case. He does not merit a sympathy vote. Evidently, the duel goes on. Evans clubs the prostrate Irving with this book; the maddened maverick's website depicts the Professor as a cartoon skunk. And so they both sink into that Goyaesque morass: duellists clubbing both each other, and this squalid subject, to death. 

Michael Burleigh is the author of The Third Reich: A New History (Pan).


 Radical's Diary
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