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Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Feuilleton, Mittwoch 19. April 2000, Nr. 93

[Original German]



Against German Ignorance

Historiography here has lessons to learn from the Irving Trial


Von Peter Longerich

David Irving is a special case among the so called Holocaust "revisionists". He has certainly got a thorough knowledge of the records of the Third Reich, and on the basis of his histories of the Second World War and as a biographer of the leading Nazis he is well spoken of as an author. Particularly the historians of the older generation are as willing as ever to certify that the writing of history owes a special debt to him, even after the recent judgment.

It was the declared objective of the self-taught Irving to defend and restore his reputation as a historian before the court. During the trial he switched from crude polemical utterances on one hand to a markedly "academic" posture on the other. He often engaged the experts in a kind of senior-seminar discussion and in matters of fact he was quite ready to make considerable concessions (which he then partially revoked as the trial continued).

The eight weeks in London have however made plain that this Spagat between right wing radical propaganda and veneer of academic seriousness could not be sustained. Thus the trial led not only to the complete self-demolition of Irving as an expert author, but future attempts to deck out the denial of the Holocaust with a pseudo-scientific aura are going to have a harder time after Irving's failure.



Such an "Archive of the Holocaust" should be made accessible to the public in various forms: as a traditional multi-volume edition, in abstracts and translations, and above all in the Internet too, an area which -- as witness Irving's website -- is threatening more and more to become a sovereign domain of the radical right.

For historians who teach at universities and write books, the courtroom is an unaccustomed environment. Here there is a call for accuracy of the most painfully precise kind. A standard of proof rising above any reasonable level of doubt, far exceeding what is standard practice in the social sciences. In matters of doubt, it can not be based just on generally accepted opinions of secondary literature, but in areas of dispute has always to be supported by primary documents. The expert is also exposed to rigorous cross-examination, which with Irving as the questioner often took the form of a polemical examination.

Under these circumstances the experts in the London trial undertook considerable efforts to develop the seamless documentary proof that millions of human beings were killed, and systematically, as the result of policies laid down by the head of state. For two reasons, this turned out to be not always a simple thing to do.

Firstly, the historical source material, particularly as far as the decision making and execution of the Final Solution are concerned, are really quite fragmentary: under the most rigorous secrecy central decisions were taken verbally, people used euphemisms, and at the end of the war they took care to destroy most of the documents. The surviving documents are scattered literally through archives around the world, and many key documents are available only in part and far dispersed in printed form.

Secondly, there are still large gaps and lacunae in the history of the Holocaust -- even if there can be no doubts as to the basic tendencies. It is to a great degree still at the stage of basic research. More than five decades after the events concerned, people are to a considerable degree still preoccupied with tracing, collecting, and indexing the documents and with the reconstruction of the facts about individual murder operations. And these were precisely the grey areas that Irving as the Plaintiff sought to drag into the centre of the debate.

The most recent research, conducted above all by doctoral students and non-established historians, takes place within the framework of a scientific infrastructure which is anything but ideal. This is particularly true of the situation in Germany. There are already major difficulties with accessing the most important document collections. Conditions for using the important collections in the Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv) have deteriorated seriously since the move to Berlin; anybody desiring to exploit in depth the personnel files formerly housed in the Berlin Document Center is well advised to use not the originals in Berlin but the copies in the National Archives in Washington. Since 1990 a large number of relevant files has been discovered in the eastern European archives.

Furthermore: there is in Germany no single university chair dedicated to Holocaust research. While in the 1980s leading representatives of the historians' trade took close interest in researching the Holocaust, the interest of their successors appears to have waned somewhat. In the country from which the murder of the European Jews emanated, there is a lack of any regular international conferences on this theme, and any centre to coordinate the research activities and resources. This evident deficit in the scientific infrastructure stands in stark contrast to the relevance enjoyed by this topic in the public mind.

A fundamental product of the London trial was to bring out once more dramatically the testimonial value of contemporary documents. But equally evident were the difficulties in obtaining such documents swiftly and simply. On the basis of these experiences, a concrete project can be formulated thusly: there must be created a large, generally accessible source agency for the most important documents on the Holocaust. Such an "Archive of the Holocaust" should be made accessible to the public in various forms: as a traditional multi-volume edition, in abstracts and translations, and above all in the Internet too, an area which -- as witness Irving's website -- is threatening more and more to become a sovereign domain of the radical right.

Such a project can only be brought to fruition by the international cooperation of Holocaust historians of different countries. It would not only simplify research, but would serve well in university teaching and in school lessons. Such a project would afford an ideal starting point to the governments which promised in their Stockholm declaration at the beginning of this year to support research and teaching on the holocaust. It would not ultimately lead to the silencing of the Holocaust deniers but it would put the conflict with them onto a new basis.


Peter Longerich, who was called as an expert witness in the Irving Trial in London, teaches history at the Royal Holloway College of the University of London.
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Website Comment: "Expert" Longerich was paid £76,195.25 ($130.000) to reward his statements for the defence against David Irving.


Website fact: The defence team floated on a six million dollar slush fund provided by Stephen Spielberg, Edgar J Bronfman, and the American Jewish Committee, which enabled them to pay 21 lawyers and "experts". The "not really an architect" Van Pelt (remember the fuss when it turned out that Fred Leuchter was "not really" an engineer) received £109,000 (nearly $300,000 Canadian) to testify as he did. Mr Irving did not pay his defence witnesses one cent: they testified from conviction, not for reward. [Help!]


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Mittwoch 19. April 2000




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