Stockholm, December 4, 2000
[Translation, and pictures added, by this website]
Antidote to Irving's view of History
THE court action Irving versus Lipstadt and Penguin Books has been called the most sensational action for libel in Great Britain since Oscar Wilde versus the Marquess of Queensberry. As in that case it all ended in the triumph of the defendants.
There, however, the similarities ended. It wasn't David Irving's sexual behaviour which the High Court of Justice in London and Mr Justice Gray had to determine but his reputation as a historian. Judge Gray's summing up and judgement in the case (given 11 April 2000) has now been published by one of the defendants, Penguin Books. It consists of 349 pages and contains a detailed survey of all the main questions in the action.
David Irving began in the 1960s to publish a series of over thirty books on the Hitler epoch and the second world war which made him one of the world's most famous, read and - to an increasing extent - controversial historian. Even if Irving always was controversial his earlier books, perhaps above all Hitler's War of 1977, was met with enthusiasm by several prominent British historians, among them A J P Taylor, John Keegan and Donald Watt. The latter two were forced by the court to testify on the question of Irving's reputation as a historian. In particular Keegan, himself at present perhaps the world's best-known military historian, praised Irving's efforts as military historian and maintained his opinion that Hitler's War is one of the best books written about the second world war. What to an especially high degree has been Irving's strength as researcher is his ability to discover important new source material which others had overlooked. An example is his use of Goebbels diaries in a large biography of him, Goebbels -"Mastermind of the Third Reich".
Deborah Lipstadt, an American professor of Jewish origins, became known mainly through the Irving affair. The background is in a book, Denying the Holocaust, about denial of the Nazi annihilation of Jews, published by Penguin Books. It was the accusations against Irving which Lipstadt conveyed in this book which led to the court case. What did these accusations imply?
Briefly expressed they dealt with accusations against Irving that in his books he continued to portray Hitler in a redeeming light which lacked support from the source material and that he, again without support from the source material, denied the Nazi annihilation of Jews. And that he in this falsification of history was guided by his ideological sympathies for Nazism. Some more specific additional accusations dealt with various conferences with anti-Semitic tendencies in which Irving (it was said) took part and damage to source materials which (it was alleged) he had caused by carelessness. Irving summonsed Lipstadt and her publisher to court, referring to the damage caused to him by their campaign: The major publishing houses refuse to publish his books, his sales are in decline. The defence of the accused was that it was in the public interest to throw light on Irving's falsification of history and that what they said against him was true. To prove the latter they collected and showed the court extensive material. A well-known British historian, Richard Evans, was engaged to collect and present this material.
It is impossible here to go into the innumerable details which were carefully presented and discussed before the court and which was detailed in the judge's summary. It may suffice to say that Judge Gray -- so far as I can judge, on good grounds -- found the defence's arguments satisfied in their main Points. Irving's incessant tendency is to twist and turn the source material, often beyond the bounds of probability, in order to portray Hitler in a favourable light and above all to free him from having been (a proponent of) anti-Semitic genocide. This argument included denial of the Holocaust. Irving does not deny that the Germans took the lives of innumerable civilians and prisoners of war on the eastern front during the Second World War. But he denies in his later books that there was a well thought-out Nazi plan to annihilate all Europe's Jews and that this plan was systematically carried through, e.g. by executions in gas chambers and similar (methods). The source material which, overwhelmingly, speaks in the opposite direction, he tries in different ways to explain away. The judge also found that Irving's association with various neo-Nazi groups make it unlikely that his interpretation has any purpose other than to belittle the guilt of the Nazis and to find excuses for Hitler.
On some points Judge Gray found Lipstadt's accusations wrong or not proved. This concerns Irving's handling of the Goebbels diaries, his planned taking part in an anti-Semitic conference in Stockholm 1992 and that he had a self-portrait of Hitler hanging above his writing desk. These points were considered too insignificant to shake the general judgement that the defence succeeded cloaking Irving with distortions aimed at presenting Hitler and Nazism in a better light than that of historical fact. Most commentators have welcomed judge Graf s verdict with satisfaction.
Some objections have however been raised in the debate. it has been pointed out that Irving did not slant his interpretations more than many other historians with ideological agenda. This is certainly correct but overlooks the fact that some ideological agendas arouse greater loathing than others. Feminine historical falsification is e.g. considerably more common that neo-Nazism's, but is not nearly so morally revolting. The indignation against Irving deals not only with his weakness as historian but above all about his tendency to rehabilitate just Nazism.
It is true that other historians have worked to minimise Communism's crimes and that this is hardly more defensible, nor from a moral viewpoint either. But this does not in itself constitute an excuse for Irving. It is also true that there is a direction within modern historical writing that in the spirit of post-modernism denies any historical facts or any historical reality. If one regards matters in this way, then Irving's version will be only one "version" among other "version", neither more nor less true than they, just different. If this were to be true the Judgement which befell Irving would naturally be incorrect. But in that case all other judgements are also incorrect. Courts always deal with something which has happened in the past, whether in the immediate past or one that lies farther away. If the post-modern view is correct all court judgements are likewise unfounded.
What has to be determined is the significance of the judgement in Irving's case. It does not place a muzzle on Irving. On the contrary -- it prevents his efforts to place a muzzle on Lipstadt. The (legal) process did not deal with Irving's freedom of speech but with Lipstadt's, which Lipstadt to the court's satisfaction asserted her right to say what she said by reference to (the fact) that it had been true and had legitimate public interest.
David Irving is still an important historian. No one who really wants to understand the Nazi era can avoid reading his books. But whoever does so in future has in The Irving Judgement a corrective. Especially those who read Irving's later books should do it with this antidote close at hand.
Website fact: The stamina of the defence team in the Lipstadt libel action was aided by a six million dollar slushfund provided by Steven Spielberg, Edgar J Bronfman, and the American Jewish Committee, which enabled them to pay 21 lawyers and "experts". A million pound lollipop was figuratively brandished from the defence lawyers' table throughout the trial, and all those who behaved got a lick at it; their experts like the "scholars" Prof. Evans, Prof. Longerich and others were paid up to £125,000 each (on top of the academic salaries they continued to draw) to testify as they did. Nobody was paying for Mr Irving. His witnesses testified without payment, from conviction. [Help!]