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Hitler and history in the dock.

by Ian Buruma


The claim that no Jews were gassed at Auschwitz is seldom made in good faith. There are documents and eyewitness accounts by Jewish survivors and former Nazis that put that matter beyond reasonable doubt. And yet some people continue to express doubts about the death camps, and, indeed, the Holocaust in general. David Irving, the British writer of history books, is one of those. To be precise, Irving is not so much an outright Holocaust denier as a Holocaust minimizer. He is convinced that no one was gassed at Auschwitz. He does not deny that many Jews died there, but claims this was mostly from disease. He also concedes that others were shot, in Poland and elsewhere, by overenthusiastic S.S. men, but he has argued that Hitler had nothing to do with this. So no gas, no plan by Hitler, thus no Holocaust. People who remember differently are, in Irving's peculiar phrase, "the Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust, and Other Liars--A.S.S.H.O.L.E.S."

Such views would hardly matter if Irving were just a crank. In fact, his biographies of Winston Churchill and General Rommel, as well as his books on the Dresden bombing and Hitler's conduct of the war, are highly regarded by respected historians and journalists. Sir John Keegan, the British military historian, declared that "no historian of the Second World War can afford to ignore Irving." Professor Gordon Craig, of Stanford, has praised Irving's book "Hitler's War" as "the best study we have of the German side of the Second World War." Irving is "not just a Fascist historian," the journalist Christopher Hitchens says. "He is also a great historian of Fascism."

These aren't men who subscribe to Irving's quip that "more women died on the back seat of Senator Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than died in the gas chamber at Auschwitz," or believe that Hitler was "probably the biggest friend the Jews had in the 'Third Reich.' " They think David Irving is a wrongheaded but nonetheless important historian, who deserves our attention. This raises two questions. If Irving is as brilliant as his serious admirers claim, why does he believe in such poisonous nonsense? Conversely, if he is not a serious historian, why do serious people esteem him?

Last year's libel suit by David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt, professor of Jewish studies at Emory University, and her British publisher, Penguin, was all about being taken seriously. In her book, "Denying the Holocaust," Lipstadt called Irving "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial." He is one of several writers, many in the United States, whom Lipstadt attacks as anti-Semitic enemies of the truth. Irving knew from experience that such a reputation would put him well beyond the pale. But if he had won his case, Irving's theories--which he puts across sniggeringly in anti-Semitic company but more soberly in big books, padded with forests of footnotes and references to obscure Nazi archives--would have been given a boost of legitimacy.

In the event, Irving lost. Two new books describe how this happened, and why. "The Holocaust on Trial" (Norton; $23.95), by D. D. Guttenplan, an American journalist, is a mixture of superb reportage and serious reflection--about the role of Jewish identity politics in the United States, anti-Semitism in Britain, the historiography of the Cold War, and so on. In "Lying About Hitler" (Basic; $27), Richard J. Evans, a Cambridge professor of modern history and the star defense witness in the libel trial, provides a book-length version of his demolition job in court. As with Guttenplan, his reflections go beyond the trial itself. If Lipstadt's concern was that Irving was bad for the Jews, Evans wanted to show that he was bad for history, and for historians, too. He sought to prove that one interpretation is not always as good as another, and that Irving's interpretations were not just mistaken or flawed but mendacious.

Evans and Guttenplan tell us much about the issues at stake, and about the politics of memory. Guttenplan is extremely good at sketching a social context for Deborah Lipstadt: her German-Jewish milieu in New York, her years at City College and in Israel, the narrow dedication to Jewish causes. He finds the sectarianism in her book "problematic." Though he interviewed David Irving for the book, his grasp of the Englishman's social context is less assured. Evans steers clear of social or cultural interpretations, but the undisguised hostility between him and Irving in court suggests that there might have been more than historiography at stake.

Court 37 on the Strand, in London, looked less like a court of law than a large classroom in a rather grand school. I had seen Irving once before, in 1991, in Halle, a grimy city southwest of Berlin, where he spoke to German neo-Nazis at a rowdy jamboree. A video of this occasion was shown in court as evidence of Irving's unsavory connections. Young thugs in big black boots, led by an absurd young man in leather trousers, came stomping down the cobbled streets screaming, "Foreigners out! Foreigners out! Sieg heil! Sieg heil!" And there was David Irving, looking like a bluff detective in his fawn British trenchcoat. It seemed a very odd place for a man who prides himself on being a serious British historian. But he has spoken of the peculiar thrill of stirring up a mob in German.

He cut a different, though no less theatrical, figure in the London courtroom, where he played the role of a British barrister. In Irving v. Penguin and Lipstadt, the plaintiff had decided to act as his own counsel. In his chalk-striped blue suit and his plummy voice, he tried his best to play the part convincingly. Sir John Keegan, who was summoned as a witness for Irving, was duly impressed. While making it quite clear that he disagreed with Irving's view of Hitler's role in the Holocaust, he still liked the look of the man. Irving, Keegan wrote in the Daily Telegraph, "is a large, strong, handsome man, excellently dressed, with the appearance of a leading QC"--Queen's Counsel. "He performs as well as a QC also, asking, in a firm but courteous voice, precise questions which demonstrate his detailed knowledge of an enormous body of material." At moments, to be sure, Irving made curious slips, as when he apparently referred to the judge as mein Führer. (It should also be said that the judge once or twice referred to Irving as Hitler.)

I myself couldn't keep my eyes off Irving's hands--red, beefy, boxer's hands, bunched up behind his blue-flannelled back or wrapped around a sheaf of Nazi documents. Once in a while, he would half turn to a group of people seated behind him, including an overdressed blond woman in her forties and a man wearing a leather jacket and a death's-head signet ring. Irving would wink at them and give the thumbs-up sign when he thought he had scored a point.

Still, it was just possible, despite Irving's antics and his blowsy claque, to share Keegan's view of Irving as a class act marred by some crazy ideas. It was an impression Irving himself did his best to create, especially in his cross-examination of Richard Evans. Irving used his bespoke bulk and his posh accent as a kind of prod to rile the witness. Evans, the son of Welsh Methodists, refusing to look Irving in the eye, often wincing with irritation, and speaking in the nasal monotone of the outer London suburbs, came across as the kind of state-educated Briton who gets jumpy at the sound of an upper-class voice--or, as the English say, "chippy." Welshmen are often said to be chippy in the presence of condescending Englishmen. No wonder, then, that an American reporter called Evans at his office to inquire whether he resented Irving for class reasons.

It wasn't the first time Irving used his overbearing manner as a form of intimidation. In his diary, quoted in Guttenplan's book, Irving describes how he once confronted Deborah Lipstadt in Atlanta, where she was giving a talk about the danger of debating Holocaust deniers as though they were legitimate historians. "I boomed in my very English, very loud voice to her: 'Professor Lipstadt, I am right in believing you are not a historian, you are a professor of religion?' " He then offered a thousand dollars to anyone who could show documentary evidence of Hitler's guilt in murdering the Jews.

Guttenplan, though well aware of Irving's perversity, seeks to place his extreme views in a wider English context. He cites the anti-Semitism of authors such as Hilaire Belloc and Rudyard Kipling, as well as the attitudes of such right-wing politicians as the late Tory M.P. Alan Clark, who lamented Winston Churchill's failure to strike a deal with Hitler to preserve the British Empire. Guttenplan notes Irving's nostalgia for the old days of British imperial glory. He quotes Irving in court: "Like most fellow countrymen of my background and vintage, I regret the passing of the Old England. I sometimes think, my Lord, that if the soldiers and sailors who stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944 could see what England would be like at the end of this century, they would not have got 50 yards up the beach. I think they would have given up in disgust."

This is indeed the kind of thing one might expect to hear in the leathery drawing rooms of certain old-fashioned English gentlemen's clubs. Is David Irving, then, the unacceptable face of English conservatism, a reactionary upper-class oddball who dares to say what members of the establishment would only mutter under their breath after having imbibed too much claret? Guttenplan doesn't go quite that far, but by taking Irving so much at face value he misses the degree to which Irving loathes the British establishment. He fails to stress how far Irving and, in their odd ways, such writers as Belloc and Kipling are removed from the mainstream.

Intellectual anti-Semites often have a grievance with British society; they may feel excluded from it, perhaps because they are Roman Catholics or because they were raised abroad. Belloc was a Catholic with a French name; Houston Stewart Chamberlain--who married Richard Wagner's daughter and inspired Kaiser Wilhelm II with his racist tracts--grew up in France. Guttenplan identifies such figures with a British "culture of complaint" and with a nostalgia for a purer, whiter, more glorious Britain. And he believes that the "tokens of lost Empire and innocence seem to move Irving far more than his many objects of hatred."

I'm not sure this is quite right. Irving complains, to be sure, but nostalgia and hatred are closely linked. Guttenplan points out that Irving comes from a family with roots in the old empire: an uncle in the Bengal Lancers, a great-great-uncle in Africa, where he was supposedly eaten by his bearer. For many Englishmen, empire offered an escape from the complexities of British class society. Lording it over the natives was a way for such men to feel grander than they could ever be at home. Back in Britain, many colonials were misfits. Irving's nostalgia for empire is prob- ably connected to his insecurity about class, that very English sense of feeling excluded.

Despite his grand manner, Irving, as Guttenplan duly finds out, is not upper class at all. In fact, his background is similar to that of his courtroom nemesis Richard Evans. Born the son of a naval officer on the dreary outer fringes of London, Irving went to the same kind of obscure private school as Evans did--better than state education, but too minor to confer any cachet. In Britain, this particular social stratum--what George Orwell called the lower-upper-middle class--is where class resentment is most keenly felt; there is the ever-present fear of sliding down a rung, and the envy of those who are higher up. This can result in an earnest, single-minded ambition to join the established ranks. Witness Richard Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge, fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Historical Society. It can also lead to a sometimes clownish but often sour kind of radicalism, born of the desperate wish to appear grander than one really is while, at the same time, wanting to outrage the establishment. This has been Irving's chosen path.

From an early age, Irving set out to shock. He told Guttenplan what a "scamp" he had been at school, where he once hung a twelve-foot hammer-and-sickle flag over the main entrance. When he was awarded a prize for art appreciation and was asked what book he would like to receive from the Deputy Prime Minister, he requested "Mein Kampf," and alerted the local press. Later, he gained some notoriety at the University of London when a student magazine printed his claim that seventeen per cent of the students were extreme left wing or Communists--a figure he had invented. He told me he had been "a total failure" at university, but blamed a professor who was, of course, "a Communist." His hatred of those he suspects of pulling rank on him is deeper than his romantic feelings about Old England. In fact, his ostentatious Germanophilia, his gloating over British "war crimes," and the fact that he displays more generosity toward Hitler than toward Churchill suggests deep ambivalence about England.

A speech by Irving in South Africa in 1986, quoted by Richard Evans, seems to point in this direction: "We went in and we bombed the Belgians, and the Poles, and the French, and the Dutch. We did appalling damage. We killed millions of people in Europe in the most bestial way, in defiance of all conventions. In a way which eventually damned with infamy on the name of the British, and it all goes back on Winston Churchill's name."

Irving seems to be absolutely serious only in his hatreds--most of all, in his hatred of "our traditional enemies" (that is to say, "Jewish fraudsters"), of professional historians, and of anyone else he takes to represent the establishment. His reaction to losing last year's libel suit--recalled in Evans's book--was characteristic. The judge who found against him did so, in Irving's view, because he was "an up-and-coming member of the establishment." The Board of Deputies of British Jews, and supporters of the defense, who "undoubtedly . . . will come for their pound of flesh," are the establishment, too. Their lying, according to Irving, "is designed to justify . . . the bigger crimes in the financial world elsewhere that are be- ing committed by the survivors of the Holocaust." And the greatest enemy of all is Professor Evans, as the fellow-suburbanite who made it into the academic establishment.

Irving's loathing of Evans is almost pathological. While he has called Guttenplan "an objective author," he refers to Evans, in private and on his Web site, as "odious," or that "little dumpy scowling Welshman," or the "skunk." It gave Irving intense pleasure when Heinemann, the British publisher, fearful perhaps of his litigious wrath, decided to pull Evans's book at the last minute. When Granta Books decided to take it on, Irving threatened to sue, promising that if Granta published it unchanged "they will get what is coming to them." (Granta seems to have been undeterred.) The "odious" Welshman, then, is the real enemy, and not Guttenplan, an American Jew.

The American reporter who asked Evans about his class resentment got it backward. Not Evans but Irving was the resentful one, convinced that the establishment was out to get him. In his closing arguments, Irving compared himself to the victims of McCarthyism. His career, he said, was vernichtet, annihilated, the word Hitler used for his preferred treatment of the Jews.

It's true that Evans's painstaking, often pedantic, always earnest destruction of Irving's historical claims did the most to nail him, not as a brilliant man with some very odd ideas but as a fraud who abused his gifts as a researcher. Guttenplan, as a journalist, was less of a threat, because he wasn't in a position to exclude Irving from the ranks of serious historians. Evans did just that, at every opportunity. His book, like his courtroom testimony, goes through everything Irving has written over the years, including his much acclaimed book about the bombing of Dresden, the several well-received editions of "Hitler's War," the biography of Goebbels, and many speeches and tracts in which Irving promoted his views. Evans's tone is sometimes revealing in its prickliness, as though he were defending not just historical truth but the status of academic historians. A victory for Irving, he says, "would have meant a confirmation of all the abuse that Irving had heaped upon the historical profession over the years."

But the evidence marshalled by Evans against Irving is devastating. To claim, as Irving has done on many occasions, that more people were killed by allies in the bombing of Dresden than Jews by the Nazis at Auschwitz is a good way to grab attention. But his figure of two hundred and fifty thousand (instead of the previously cited forty thousand) victims in Dresden, pub- lished in the 1966 and in subsequent editions of his book "The Destruction of Dresden," was based on a forged Nazi document. Irving had to admit it was a fake, after years of denial, yet he still went on inflating the figures in the eighties and nineties. And Irving wouldn't be Irving if he didn't add a peculiarly nasty twist to his tale. Since, in his opinion, no Jews were gassed at Auschwitz, he had to explain why so many European Jews disappeared during the war. He came up with an explanation in 1989. Many Jews had somehow managed to slip into Palestine, he said, while other Jewish survivors were "shipped westward where they ended up in cities like Dresden. I don't have to tell you what happened in Dresden three weeks after Auschwitz was evacuated by the Germans." In short, it was the Allies who killed the Jews. Churchill was the war criminal, not Hitler.

Evans's analysis of Irving's much admired "Hitler's War" is equally damning. He shows how Irving hid some of the worst statements about the Jews in footnotes, or mistranslated the German to make them sound almost innocuous. Facts were invented, such as fifty thousand Jews having fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. (Would that it were true.) And historical documents were edited to distort the facts. Irving quoted Goebbels's diary of March, 1942, as evidence that Hitler was kept in the dark about the killings in Auschwitz and Treblinka. According to Irving, Goebbels wrote about the extermination program on March 27th, but "evidently held his tongue when he met Hitler two days later." In fact, as Evans shows, Goebbels did not meet Hit- ler two days later but did mention on March 27th that "the Führer is the persistent pioneer and spokesman of a radical solution." Irving had conveniently left this passage out. As Evans concludes, Deborah Lipstadt was "right to describe Irving as a Hitler partisan who manipulated the historical record in an attempt to portray his hero in a favorable light." Mr. Justice Gray, in his judgment of Irving v. Penguin and Lipstadt, delivered on April 11, 2000, reached the same conclusion.

Why, then, has Irving managed to impress people like Sir John Keegan and Christopher Hitchens? Again, social context might have something to do with this. As a military historian, Sir John may not be up to scratch on Holocaust history, but he likes the cut of Irving's jib, the smart blue suit and all that, and he finds him "certainly never dull." And he does not like the look of Lipstadt at all. She seems, "by contrast," as dull "as only the self-righteously politically correct can be. Few other historians had ever heard of her before this case. Most will not want to hear from her again."

Where Keegan is a true conservative, Hitchens prides himself on being a radical on the left. Irving calls himself a radical, too, though on the other side, and the two come from the same background. Both had fathers in the middle ranks of the Royal Navy, both went to minor private schools, and they share an emotional craving for throwing eggs at the clubby Anglo-American--and, of course, Zionist--establishment. People on the left, no less than extreme right-wingers, are quick to suspect conspiracies, and tend to look for hidden proof, preferably in obscure documents, that would unmask the conspirators and make the powerful look foolish. This is why left-wing radicals are often the first to leap to the defense of extremists whose opinions are threatened with censorship, even if they don't share them. Noam Chomsky defended the right of the French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson to publish his views, and Hitchens did the same for Irving. No doubt they were right to do so. Taboos only encourage transgressions. History is rarely an exact science. If such debatable issues as the precise number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust become holy writ, you can no longer distinguish outrageous claims from legitimate challenges, and men such as Irving gain in plausibility.

Guttenplan is brilliant in his criticism of such self-appointed censors as the Anti-Defamation League, who have turned the history of the Holocaust into a sacred text, and cast out heterodox views as blasphemy. He argues that by "describing a Holocaust outside politics, by reducing it to good Jews and bad Germans," such people have "made the deniers' task easier." For in the realm of mythology one myth is as good as another. But, as Guttenplan also says, defending Irving's right to publish does not mean you have to praise him. The Irving trial was, in any case, not about his right to publish but about Deborah Lipstadt's.

David Irving's biggest mistake was to think he could be a shock artist and be taken seriously, too. He got away with it for a long time, with some people, because of his undoubted skills as a researcher, but then, like Oscar Wilde, he challenged those who saw through him to show him up in court, and that way lay self-destruction. At another time, in another context, the man whose reputation Irving has tried so hard to salvage ended his buffoonery in self-destruction, too, but not before taking many millions with him. Irving's only victim was the truth.

The New Yorker, Issue of 2001-04-16, Posted 2001-04-09

First Display on aaargh: 2001-05-10

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