Pseudo-history: Lying About Hitler and the David Irving trial

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There are no perversities more vile and heinous than Holocaust denial.

This stain on the memory of 6 million Jews and countless other victims has been largely fabricated by such organizations as The Institute of Historical Review, which has fed principally off the illicit “scholarship” of such figures as David Irving.

Irving is the central character in Richard Evans’ “Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial.” The book chronicles the dramatic libel litigation that Irving launched against American historian Deborah Lipstadt in the British High Court.

In 1993, Lipstadt had published “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” labeling Irving one of the most dangerous members of the small but disturbing group of Holocaust deniers.

Evans, a professor of modern history with a specialty in German history at Cambridge University, was appointed by the British High Court as the principal witness for the defense. It was his task to assess the validity of Lipstadt’s claim by scrutinizing some 30 books, mostly about World War II and Nazi Germany, written by Irving and examining copious files of documentation from archives throughout Europe. Evans submitted his report to the court in July 1999.

While some historians regretted the publicity and attention that the trial gave to Irving, others saw it as an opportunity to educate the public about the shadowy and corrupt world of Holocaust deniers and the ways in which they manipulated history to bolster their racist, anti-Semitic and neofascist views.

Irving was the best known of this bizarre breed, which insisted that the Holocaust was concocted after World War II and sustained to the present day by a vast international Jewish conspiracy. At the very least, deniers claimed that there were no more than 100,000 victims, that gas chambers were used for a few “experiments” but not for the systematic extermination of millions and that whatever the Nazis did to the Jews was no worse than other “crimes” of World War II (most often citing the Allied bombing of Dresden).

London’s Daily Telegraph summed up the impact of the trial: “The Irving case has done for the new century what the Nuremberg tribunals or the Eichmann trial did for earlier generations.”

But ultimately the Irving trial was not about the past and what had happened, but about the uses of history and how it is written and understood.

As one commentator remarked, “History itself is on trial here, the whole business of drawing conclusions from evidence.”

Indeed, the greater portion of Evans’ account focuses not on the widely accepted story of the Holocaust but on the methods utilized by Irving and Holocaust deniers to arrive at their grotesque conclusions.

What made Irving “dangerous” in Lipstadt’s description was the legitimation he sought by working like an historian, immersing himself in the meticulous examination of vast archival records. Irving was, in one eminent historian’s view, “a Colossus of research but often a schoolboy in judgment.”

Yet Irving sought vindication through his lawsuit, and represented himself (an abnormal occurrence in British law) in the courtroom, where he claimed “damage to reputation.”

Amazingly, Irving never held a teaching or academic post and did not even have a college degree. “I am an untrained historian,” Irving crowed, and “history was the only subject I flunked when I was in school.”

Yet some of Irving’s books (including those published by such mainstream houses as Macmillan, HarperCollins and Penguin UK, the company sued for publishing Lipstadt’s book) received qualified praise for his prolific research, even if the conclusions he drew were distortions of well-researched documentation.

For example, Irving’s massive “Hitler’s War” (1977, 1991) stirred fresh debate on Hitler’s role in World War II, and Irving was credited as providing “the best study we have of the German side of the Second World War.”

But the book also contained egregious findings, including the assertion that Hitler had actually been a friend of the Jews and sought to curb the anti-Semitic excesses of his Nazi colleagues.

Those reading the Evans book will clearly understand historians’ outrage not only about Irving’s lies of content, but also for his corruption of historical method.

Irving’s work, said the judgment delivered in April 2000, was replete with “mistranslations,” “twisting of sources” and “inaccurate citations.”

The Irving trial did raise questions about historical research and writing that remain unanswered. Is a court of law an appropriate place to debate history? Don’t all historians bring a subjective agenda? Can dissident historians challenge the mainstream view without becoming the target of personal attack? Does freedom of speech require the tolerance of interpretations that are odious to human memory?

Is a judge really capable of meting out justice to history?

Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial,” by Richard J. Evans (318 pages, Basic Books, $27).