At last, an English publisher has had the guts to stand up to David Irving.
Others should be ashamed
Reasonably clued-up observers of metropolitan culture might have thought that publishers would have been falling over themselves to print Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History and the David Irving Trial. History is more bankable at the moment than Jamie Oliver's dips or Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen's pelmets - and histories of fascism are the profit-seeking exec's favourite. A producer told me recently that BBC2 and Channel 4 had established that viewing figures doubled when 'Hitler' or 'Nazis' appeared
in a historical documentary's title. Blackshirts are the new black.
The author, Richard J. Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge University, was the expert witness Penguin Books called after Irving sued the company for accusing him of falsifying the record of Nazi Germany. His attempt at censorship was a devastating failure in large part because Evans and two of his graduate students spent 18 months checking Irving's sources.
They found he had invented and suppressed evidence for decades, deliberately mistranslated some documents and selectively quoted from others. Whether he was inflating tenfold the number of victims of the British and American raids on Dresden or minimising Hitler's crimes by dismissing the Final Solution as a myth, intellectual fraud dominated his
The ease with which he gulled those academics and journalists who insisted that his Hitler worship didn't matter because he produced original research remains astonishing. The greatest pleasure of Evans's book is the schadenfreude which comes from seeing a bullying conman exposed and the folly of his dupes dissected. As a reviewer in America said, Evans has produced 'a classic example of historical research as detective story'.
The rave notice was one of several in the States, and it was reasonable to suppose that Evans would get many more back home. Obsession with the Second World War is greater here, and Penguin's victory over a book-banning neo-fascist was won in London. But far from falling over themselves to print Telling Lies About Hitler, publishers have fallen over themselves in
a rush to the exit.
As I reported last year, the British rights were bought by William Heinemann, a branch of the Bertelsmann infotainment conglomerate. It puffed its acquisition as 'a major contribution to our understanding of the Holocaust', and then, bravely, pulped it after Irving threatened to sue. The retreat was absurd as well as cowardly. No one in the past decade - not Jonathan Aitken or Jeffrey Archer - has been the recipient of a verdict comparable to the one Mr Justice Gray read to David Irving. 'The content of his speeches and interviews often displays a distinctly pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish bias,' the judge said. 'He makes surprising and often unfounded assertions about the Nazi regime which tend to exonerate the Nazis for the appaling atrocities which they inflicted on the Jews. He is content to mix with neo-fascists and appears to share many of their racist and anti-Semitic prejudices.'
Every writer gets it wrong or gets carried away, but the judge accepted Penguin's argument that Irving's distortions followed a pattern. His misreadings always cast Hitler in a favourable light. There was no instance when a misconstruction hurt the Nazis. Irving was exposed as a justifier for the fantasists and criminals of the far Right, who are doing so well in Europe this year. He couldn't successfully sue Heinemann for defaming his reputation because he had no reputation to lose.
At the time, Heinemann's collapse before Irving's bombastic assault didn't seem to matter too much. Granta Books, an independent house, was saluted in the liberal press for standing up for freedom and buying Telling Lies About Hitler. Gail Lynch, Granta's associate publisher, said she didn't see 'any terrible legal nightmares ahead'. Despite her confidence, there was a small threat. Irving tried his usual menaces and warned Granta he would sue for 'punitive damages'. After Mr Justice Gray's verdict, his case was hopeless. But Granta would still have to pay lawyers to spend a day or so in court getting it struck out. Granta wouldn't recover its costs when it won because Irving is a financial as well as a moral bankrupt.
Granta didn't return my calls. Evans says his agent and Granta talked about him signing a four-book deal. He wasn't keen to commit himself to churning out manuscripts until he retired - and the money wasn't great. There was obviously a bad fall-out and Evans refused to agree to spend a decade writing for Granta. Telling Lies About Hitler was at the typesetters. Granta pulled it. Evans found for the second time that a comforter of neo-Nazis and a demonstrable liar had more clout in literary London than the professor of modern history at Cambridge. Evans turned to his American publisher, Basic. It, too, refused to publish in Britain unless Evans covered its back with other books. Evans then tried Profile. A tautologous managing editor, who should look for a new line of work, declared that if a 'tiny kernel of doubt remained about its legal standing' it would be 'impossible' for Profile to take the risk.
Heinemann, Granta, Basic and Profile present themselves as serious publishers committed to freedom of thought, speech and publication. All abandoned their principles when confronted with a neo-Nazi fraud with a smattering of legal jargon. Fear of England's ferocious libel laws can explain their gutlessness in part. This notebook has gone on in the past about the perniciousness of a legal system which allows tabloid newspapers to behave like the KGB and entrap any celebrity or politician with a sex drive, while turning muscular and investigative writing into a potentially ruinous vocation.
But bashing the judges can only get you so far in the Irving case. Anthony Julius, a formidable solicitor who organised Penguin's defence, offered his services free to Profile. If any of the other publishers had found the balls to go ahead with Telling Lies About Hitler, they would have had offers from other solicitors and barristers who would have fought Irving pro bono. Victory was certain and the accompanying publicity would have been gratifyingly generous. Julius has argued before that the British Àlite has never taken racism in general and anti-Semitism in particular, seriously or understood what prejudice is. Ignorance is complemented by a lazy and posturing style in Fleet Street and the right-wing intelligentsia. It is this affectation which explains why Irving wasn't disgraced by his disgrace. After the trial, Sir John Keegan of Sandhurst and the Daily Telegraph spoke for many when he wrote that, say what you like about him, at least Irving had a desire to shock, 'to write the unprintable and to speak the unutterable'.
'Like many who seek to shock,' Keegan continued, 'he may not really believe what he says and probably feels astounded when taken seriously. He has in short, many of the qualities of the most creative historians. He is certainly never dull. Prof Lipstadt [Deborah Lipstadt, the American historian and Penguin author whose book Irving wanted off the shelves] seems as dull as only the self-righteously politically correct can be.'
If the 'politically correct' insult has any content left in it after all these years of overuse, it must mean the censoring of words and arguments which offend the ideologically rigid. Irving has spent years trying to censor Lipstadt, Evans and others. To Sir John, this makes him a bit of a card who is a far better value than the defenders of the dreary and often ugly facts of history.
The same good-chappery was displayed by London publishers. When Irving found out that Basic was thinking about publishing a British edition of Telling Lies About Hitler, Don Fehr, the executive editor, sent him a note.
Yes I did receive the copy of Churchill's War (Irving's attack on Churchill). On the Evans matter, we are not planning on publishing a UK edition of the book, though the author and agent have asked us to. There are too many problems and complications, as you well know.
Again, thanks for the book.
The 'problems and complications' came from Irving's hollow threats to sue publishers. Fehr's employers had been praised in America for issuing Evans's demolition of Irving. If we are to believe that Basic is an honourable company, we must assume it believed that Evans's exposure of Irving's systemic fraud was true. Yet there was Fehr 'Dear Daviding' and 'Best wishing' the other side and giving Irving the complicit assurance that he wouldn't be embarrassed by Basic's own author. Well, it wouldn't do to take race hatred too seriously.
If it had been left to the mainstream, the British would never have been able to read Evans's learned and compelling account of the scandal which was freely available in the rest of the world. Fortunately, Verso, a tiny house run by Tariq Ali and other old Trots, stepped in. It will do what Heinemann should have done 18 months ago and publish the damn thing.
I asked Verso's spokesman, Gavin Everrall, if he was worried about Irving suing. 'I hope he does,' came the reply. 'The free publicity will save our marketing department a fortune.'
Telling Lies About Hitler will - at last - be in the bookshops on 26 June. It's yours for £14.
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