Unlike Zionists, I will post both sides of the story on Irving…
What is historical objectivity? How do we know when a historian is telling the truth? Aren’t all historians, in the end, only giving their own opinions about the past? Don’t they just select whatever facts they need to support their own interpretations and leave the rest in the archives? Aren’t the archives full of preselected material anyway? Can we really say that anything historians present to us about the past is true? Aren’t there, rather, many different truths, according to your political beliefs and personal perspectives? Questions such as these have been preoccupying historians for a long time. In recent years, they have become, if anything, more urgent and more perplexing than ever. The debate about them has repeatedly gravitated toward the Nazi extermination of the Jews during the Second World War. If we could not know for sure about anything that happened in the past, then how could we know about this most painful of all topics in modern history?
Just such a question has been posed, and answered in the negative, by a group of individuals, based mainly in the United States, who are certainly far removed in intellectual terms from postmodernist hyper-relativism, but who have asserted in a variety of publications that indeed there is no real evidence to support the conventional picture of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. There is a thin but seemingly continuous line of writing since the Second World War that has sought to deny the existence of the gas chambers at Auschwitz and other extermination camps, to minimize the number of Jews killed by the Nazis until it becomes equivalent to that of the Germans killed by the Allies, to explain away the killings as incidental by-products of a vicious war rather than the result of central planning in Berlin, and to claim that the evidence for the extermination, the gas chambers, and all the rest of it had mostly been concocted after the war.
A number of scholars have devoted some attention to this strange and disturbing stream of thought. The most important of their works is Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, by the American historian Deborah Lipstadt. Published in 1993, this book gave an extended factual account of the deniers’ publications and activities since the Second World War and identified them as closely connected with neo-fascist, far-right, and antisemitic political extremists in Europe and the United States. Whether or not Lipstadt was correct to claim that these people posed a serious threat to historical knowledge and memory was debatable. But the evidence she presented for the existence of the phenomenon and for its far-right connections seemed convincing enough. Lipstadt argued that denial of the Holocaust was in most cases antisemitic and tied to an anti-Jewish political agenda in the present. The denial of history was the product of political bias and political extremism, which had no place in the world of serious historical scholarship.
Yet how unbiased was Lipstadt herself? There was no doubt about her commitment to Jewish causes. Born in 1947 in New York of a German-Jewish immigrant father who was descended from a prominent family of rabbis, she had been brought up in what she described as a “traditional Jewish home,” she had studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for two years, and been present in Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. She had studied modern Jewish history, the Third Reich, and the Holocaust at university, and taught courses on the history of the Holocaust at a variety of institutions, including the University of Washington and the University of California at Los Angeles, before joining the staff of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1993, where she held an endowed chair and was setting up a new Institute for Jewish Studies. She was also a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council—a presidential appointment—and had acted as a consultant to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum while it was being built.
Aside from these academic credentials and activities, Lipstadt was also a member of the United States Department of State Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad. In 1972 she had visited the Soviet Union and inspected sites of major Nazi killings of Jews such as Babi Yar. This was a period when the controversy was being aroused by the Soviet authorities’ refusal to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel, and there was a good deal of subtle and sometimes not so subtle antisemitism on the part of the authorities. Lending her Jewish prayerbook to an elderly Jewish woman in a synagogue in Czernowitz, Lipstadt was denounced to the authorities and arrested by the KGB for distributing religious items, strip-searched, held in prison for a day, questioned, and deported. After this, she had continued for some years to work hard for Soviet Jews while they were being persecuted.
Combined with her many discussions with camp survivors in Israel, she reported, this experience had led her to study the history of antisemitism and, in particular, the Holocaust. Remembering the Holocaust was crucial in the perpetuation of Jewish tradition, but also in teaching lessons about the need to fight prejudice and persecution of many kinds in the world today. However, Lipstadt insisted, whatever her political and religious beliefs, she was convinced that the history of the Holocaust had to be researched to the highest possible scholarly standards and taught in a straightforwardly factual manner. She denied any wish to impose her views about the lessons of the Holocaust on her students. After the publication of her book, Lipstadt left no doubt that her work on Holocaust denial had led some of the deniers to engage in “a highly personal and, at times, almost vile campaign against me.” She had been vilified on the Internet, accused of fascist behavior, and phoned up by deniers and depicted by them in “an ugly and sometimes demeaning fashion.” They had also left notes in her home mailbox. This had not stopped her from working in the field. Her book Denying the Holocaust was an academic project, but it had also taken on a broader significance.
Lipstadt’s book, when taken together with her previous work, made it clear that her main interest was in reactions to the extermination of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis rather than in the extermination itself. After completing her work on Holocaust denial, she planned a book called America Remembers the Holocaust: From the Newsreels to Schindler’s List. She had never written about German history and had never been in a German archive. Indeed, as far as I could tell, she did not even read German. She was really a specialist in the history of the United States since the Second World War. Yet it was easy enough for her to include in Denying the Holocaust refutations of some of the principal arguments of the deniers on the basis of well-known secondary literature about the extermination. Given the main focus of her work, which was on denial as a political and intellectual phenomenon, that was surely all that was required.
Nevertheless, her book did not pull its punches when it came to convicting deniers of massive falsification of historical evidence, manipulation of facts, and denial of the truth. One of those whom she discussed in this context was the British writer David Irving, who certainly did read German, had spent years in the archives researching the German side in the Second World War and was the author of some thirty books on historical subjects. Some of them had gone through many reprints and a number of different editions. The great majority of them were about the Second World War, and in particular about Nazi Germany and its leaders. Before he was thirty, he had already begun researching and writing on twentieth-century history, publishing his first book, The Destruction of Dresden, in 1963, when he was only twenty-five.
Irving had also written The Mare’s Nest, a study of German secret weapons in the Second World War, published in 1964, and a book about the German atomic bomb, The Virus House, published in 1967. In the same year, Irving published two more books, The Destruction of Convoy PQ17, and Accident—The Death of General Sikorski. Despite their somewhat specialized titles, these books in many cases aroused widespread controversy and made Irving into a well-known figure. The Destruction of Dresden created a storm by alleging that the bombing of Dresden by Allied airplanes early in 1945 caused many more deaths than had previously been thought. The Destruction of Convoy PQ 17 aroused serious objections on the part of a British naval officer criticized by Irving in his book. Accident generated considerable outrage by its suggestion that the Polish exile leader in the Second World War, General Sikorski, had been assassinated on the orders of Winston Churchill. By the end of the 1960s, Irving had already made a name for himself as an extremely controversial writer about the Second World War.
With the publication of his massive study of Hitler’s War in 1977, Irving stirred up a fresh debate. In this book, he argued that far from ordering it himself, Hitler had not known about the extermination of the Jews until late in 1943, and both before and after that had done his best to mitigate the worst antisemitic excesses of his subordinates. Irving heightened the controversy by publicly offering a financial reward to anyone who could come up with a document proving him wrong. The furor completely overshadowed his publication of a biography of the German general Erwin Rommel in the same year, under the title The Trail of the Fox. The following year, Irving brought out a `prequel’ to his book on Hitler and the Second World War, entitled The War Path. In 1981 he published two more books—The War Between the Generals, devoted to exposing differences of opinion among the commanders of Hitler’s army during the Second World War; and Uprising!, arguing, to quote Irving himself, “that the Uprising of 1956 in Hungary was primarily an anti-Jewish uprising,” because the communist regime was run by Jews.
The stream of books continued with Churchill’s War in 1987, Rudolf Hess: The Missing Years published in the same year, a biography of Hermann Göring (1989), and most recently a book on Goebbels: Mastermind of the `Third Reich‘ (1996). And while he was producing new work, he also published revised and amended editions of some of his earlier books, most notably, in 1991, Hitler’s War, which also incorporated a new version of The War Path, and in 1996 Nuremberg: The Last Battle, an updated version of a previously published book, reissued to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.
Despite all this, Irving had never held a post in a university history department or any other academic institution. He did not even have a degree. He had started a science degree at London University but never finished it. “I am an untrained historian,” he had confessed in 1986. “History was the only subject I flunked when I was at school.” Several decades on from his self-confessedly disastrous schoolboy encounter with the subject, however, Irving clearly laid great stress on the fact that the catalog of his work demonstrated that he had now become a `reputable historian’:
As an independent historian, I am proud that I cannot be threatened with the loss of my job, or my pension, or my future. Other historians around the world sneer and write letters to the newspapers about `David Irving, the so-called historian’, and they demand, “Why does he call himself a Historian anyway? Where did he study History? Where did he get his Degree? What, No Degree in History, then why does he call himself a Historian?” My answer to them, Was Pliny a historian or not? Was Tacitus? Did he get a degree in some university? Thucydides? Did he get a degree? And yet we unashamedly call them historians—we call them historians because they wrote history which has done (recte: gone) down the ages as accepted true history.
This was true. Irving could not be dismissed just because he lacked formal qualifications.
Irving was clearly incensed by a reference to him on page 180 of Lipstadt’s book as “discredited.” Lipstadt also alleged in her book that Irving was “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial. Familiar with historical evidence,” she wrote, “he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda.” According to Lipstadt, Irving had “neofascist” and “denial connections,” for example, with the so-called Institute for Historical Review in California. More important, Lipstadt charged that Holocaust deniers like Irving “misstate, misquote, falsify statistics, and falsely attribute conclusions to reliable sources. They rely on books that directly contradict their arguments, quoting in a manner that completely distorts the authors’ objectives.” Irving himself, she claimed, was “an ardent admirer of the Nazi leader,” who “declared that Hitler repeatedly reached out to help the Jews” (p. 161). Scholars had “accused him of distorting evidence and manipulating documents to serve his own purposes … of skewing documents and misrepresenting data in order to reach historically untenable conclusions, particularly those that exonerate Hitler.” “On some level,” Lipstadt concluded, “Irving seems to conceive himself as carrying on Hitler’s legacy.”
These were serious charges. Historians do not usually answer such criticisms by firing off writs. Instead, they normally rebut them in print. Irving, however, was no stranger to the courts. He wrote to Lipstadt’s English publisher Penguin Books in November 1995 demanding the withdrawal of Lipstadt’s book from circulation, alleging defamation and threatening to sue. Lipstadt responded, pointing out that her book mentioned Irving only on six out of more than three hundred pages. The publisher refused to withdraw, and Irving issued his defamation writ in September 1996. By December 1997, the legal process of mounting a defense against the writ was well underway, and a date for the proceedings to be held before the High Court in London was due to be fixed.
It was at this point that I became involved in the case on the initiative of Anthony Julius, of the London firm of solicitors Mishcon de Reya. I had never met him in person, but of course, I knew of him through his high media profile as the solicitor who had won a record settlement for Princess Diana in her divorce from the Prince of Wales. Julius was not just a fashionable and successful lawyer. He was also well known as a writer and intellectual, although in the field of English literature rather than history. He was the author of a scholarly if the controversial study of T. S. Eliot and antisemitism, and he wrote frequent book reviews for the Sunday papers. Julius was representing Deborah Lipstadt. When he phoned me toward the end of 1997, it was to ask if I would be willing to act as an expert witness for the defense.
Later, in his cramped and book-lined Holborn office, Julius explained to me in more detail what would be involved. The first duty of an expert witness, he said, was to the court. That is, the evidence had to be as truthful and objective as possible. Expert witnesses were not there to plead a case. They were there to help the court in technical and specialized matters. They had to give their own opinion, irrespective of which side had engaged them. They had to swear a solemn oath, to tell the truth, and could be prosecuted for perjury if they did not. On the other hand, they were usually commissioned by one side or the other in the belief that what they said would support the case being put rather than undermine it. At the end of the day, it was up to the lawyers whether or not they used the reports they had commissioned. I would be paid by the hour, not by results. So the money would have no influence on what I wrote or said. If I did agree to write an expert report, however, and it was accepted by the lawyers, then I would expect it to be presented to the court and I would have to attend the trial to be cross-examined on it by the plaintiff.
Why me? I asked. There were a number of reasons, Julius said. First, I was a specialist in modern German history. A copy of my most recent book in this field, Rituals of Retribution, was on his bookshelf. It was a large-scale study of capital punishment in Germany from the seventeenth century to the abolition of the death penalty in East Germany in 1987. Like much of my other work, it rested on unpublished manuscript documents in a range of German archives. So it was clear that I had a good command of the German language. I could read the obsolete German script in which many documents were written until the end of the Second World War. And I was familiar with the documentary basis on which a lot of modern German history was written. I had also for many years taught a document-based undergraduate course on Nazi Germany for the history degree at Birkbeck College in London University and before that in my previous post at the University of East Anglia. Clearly, the trial was going to turn to a considerable extent on the interpretation of Nazi documents, so the expertise of this kind was crucial, and it was expertise that the court itself could not be expected to possess. Second, a couple of months earlier, I had published a short book entitled In Defense of History, which had dealt with such vexed questions as objectivity and bias in historical writing, the nature of historical research, the difference between truth and fiction, and the possibility of obtaining accurate knowledge about the past. These in a way, Anthony Julius explained, were the central issues in the case that Irving was bringing against Lipstadt.
What Anthony Julius wanted me to do was to advise the court on whether Lipstadt’s charges were justified. I was in a good position to do so not only because of my previous writings but also because I had no personal connection with either of the two main protagonists in the case. Indeed, I had never actually seen either of them in the flesh. Irving was a famously combative figure, but he had never had occasion to cross swords with me. As I left Anthony Julius’s office, I tried to put together what was known about Irving’s reputation. Irving insisted that his works on the Second World War had a high standing and claimed in his libel suit that Lipstadt’s allegations had caused “damage to his reputation” in his “calling as a historian.” Yet as I began to plow through the reviews of Irving’s books written by a wide range of historians and journalists over the years, the case he made for his high reputation among academic reviewers began to crumble. Academic historians with a general knowledge of modern history had indeed mostly been quite generous to Irving, even where they had found a reason to criticize him or disagree with his views. Paul Addison, for example, an expert on British history in the Second World War, had concluded that while Irving was “usually a Colossus of research, he is often a schoolboy in judgment.” Reviewing The War Path in 1978, R. Hinton Thomas, professor of German at Birmingham University, whose knowledge of the social and political context of twentieth-century German literature was both deep and broad, dismissed the book as “unoriginal” and its “claims to novelty” as “ill-based.” “Much of Irving’s argument,” wrote Sir Martin Gilbert, official biographer of Churchill, about Hitler’s War in 1977, “is based on speculation.” But he also praised the book as “a scholarly work, the fruit of a decade of wide researchers.” The military historian Sir Michael Howard, subsequently Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, praised, on the other hand, the “very considerable merits” of The War Path, and declared that Irving was “at his best as a professional historian demanding documentary proof for popularly-held beliefs.”
In similar fashion, the eminent American specialist on modern Germany, Gordon A. Craig, reviewing Irving’s Goebbels in the New York Review of Books in 1996, seemed at first glance full of praise for Irving’s work:
Silencing Mr Irving would be a high price to pay for freedom from the annoyance that he causes us. The fact is that he knows more about National Socialism than most professional scholars in his field, and students of the years 1933-1945 owe more than they are always willing to admit to his energy as a researcher…. Hitler’s War … remains the best study we have of the German side of the Second World War, and, as such, indispensable for all students of that conflict …. It is always difficult for the non-historian to remember that there is nothing absolute about historical truth. What we consider as such is only an estimation, based upon what the best available evidence tells us. It must constantly be tested against new information and new interpretations that appear, however implausible they may be, or it will lose its vitality and degenerate into dogma or shibboleth. Such people as David Irving, then, have a indispensable part in the historical enterprise, and we dare not disregard their views.
Yet even reviewers who had praised “the depth of Irving’s research and his intelligence” found “too many avoidable mistakes … passages quoted without attribution and important statements not tagged to the listed sources.” John Charmley, a right-wing historian at the University of East Anglia, wrote that he “admires Mr. Irving’s assiduity, energy, and courage.” He continued: “Mr. Irving’s sources, unlike the conclusions which he draws from them, are usually sound.” But he also noted: “Mr. Irving is cited only when his sources have been checked and found reliable.”
Historians with firsthand research experience and expertise in Irving’s field were more critical still. An early, prominent instance of criticism from such a quarter came with Hugh Trevor-Roper’s review of Hitler’s War in 1977. Trevor-Roper had worked in British Intelligence during the war and had been charged with heading an official mission to find out the true facts about the death of Hitler. The result of his researches, published in 1947 as The Last Days of Hitler, immediately established him as a leading authority on Nazi Germany and especially on Irving’s home territory of Hitler and his immediate personal entourage. Reviewing Hitler’s War, Trevor-Roper paid the by now the customary tribute to Irving’s ingenuity and persistence as a researcher. “No praise,” he wrote, “can be too high for his indefatigable scholarly industry.” But this was immediately followed by devastating criticism of Irving’s method. Trevor-Roper continued:
When a historian relies mainly on primary sources, which we cannot easily cheek, he challenges our confidence and forces us to ask critical questions. How reliable is his historical method? How sound is his judgment? We ask these questions particularly of any man who, like Mr. Irving, makes a virtue—almost a profession—of using arcane sources to affront established opinions.
Trevor-Roper made it clear he found Irving’s method and judgment defective: “He may read his manuscript diaries correctly. But we can never be quite sure, and when he is most original, we are likely to be least sure.” Irving’s work, he concluded, had a “consistent bias.”
The same view was taken by Martin Broszat, director of the Institut für Zeitgeschichte (Institute for Contemporary History) in Munich when Irving published Hitler’s War. One of the world’s leading historians of Nazi Germany, Broszat began his critique of Hitler’s War by casting scorn on Irving’s much-vaunted list of archival discoveries. The evidence Irving had gathered from the reminiscences of Hitler’s entourage might provide more exact detail of what went on at Hitler’s wartime headquarters, he wrote, and it might convey something of the atmosphere of the place, but it did little to enlarge our knowledge of the important military and political decisions that Hitler took, and so did not live up to the claims Irving made for it. Broszat went much further, however, and included the allegation, backed up by detailed examples, that Irving had manipulated and misinterpreted original documents in order to prove his arguments. Equally critical was the American Charles W. Sydnor Jr., who at the time of writing his review had just completed a lengthy study, Soldiers of Destruction: The SS Death’s Head Division, 1933-1945, published by Princeton University Press. Sydnor’s thirty-page demolition of Irving’s book was one of the few reviews of any of Irving’s books for which the reviewer had manifestly undertaken a substantial amount of original research. Sydnor considered Irving’s boast to have outdone all other Hitler scholars in the depth and thoroughness of his research to be “pretentious twaddle.” He accused Irving of innumerable inaccuracies, distortions, manipulations, and mistranslations in his treatment of the documents.
Peter Hoffmann, the world’s leading authority on the conservative resistance to Hitler and the individuals and groups behind the bomb plot of 20 July 1944, and a profound student of the German archival record of the wartime years was equally critical of Irving’s biography of Hermann Göring, published in 1988:
Mr. Irving’s constant references to archives, diaries and letters, and the overwhelming amount of detail in his work, suggest objectivity. In fact they put up a screen behind which a very different agenda is transacted…. Mr Irving is a great obfuscator…. Distortions affect every important aspect of this book to the point of obfuscation…. It is unfortunate that Mr. Irving wastes his extraordinary talents as a researcher and writer on trivializing the greatest crimes in German history, on manipulating historical sources and on highlighting the theatrics of the Nazi era.
Hoffmann commented that while the 1977 edition of Hitler’s Warhad “usefully provoked historians by raising the question of the smoking gun” (whether an order could be found from Hitler to perpetrate a holocaust against the Jews), twenty-two years on, so much research had been carried out in this area by historians that although he repeated it in Göring, “it is no longer possible to regard Mr. Irving’s thesis as a useful provocation.”
John Lukács, an American historian who had written extensively on the Second World War, declared in a review of one of Irving’s books in 1981 that “Mr. Irving’s factual errors are beyond belief.” He renewed his criticisms of Irving years later in a general survey of historical writings on Hitler.” “Few reviewers and critics of Irving’s books,” Lukács complained, not without some justification, “have bothered to examine them carefully enough.” Hitler’s War contained “many errors in names and dates; more important, unverifiable and unconvincing assertions abound.” There were references to archives “without dates, places, or file or page numbers.” “Many of the archival references in Irving’s footnotes … were inaccurate and did not prove or even refer to the pertinent statements in Irving’s text.” Lukács found many instances of Irving’s “manipulations, attributing at least false meanings to some documents or, in other instances, printing references to irrelevant ones.” Often “a single document, or fragment of a document, was enough for Irving to build a very questionable thesis on its contents or on the lack of such.” “While some of Irving’s `finds’ cannot be disregarded,” Lukács went on, “their interpretation … is, more often than not, compromised and even badly flawed.” He convicted Irving of “frequent `twisting’ of documentary sources” and urged “considerable caution” in their use by other historians.
Similar conclusions were reached by Professor David Cannadine, currently director of the Institute of Historical Research at London University when he came to consider the first volume of Irving’s biography of Sir Winston Churchill. Cannadine noted that the publishers to whom the book had originally been contracted (Michael Joseph in London and Doubleday in New York) had turned the manuscript down and it had been published by an unknown Australian company. “It has received almost no attention from historians or reviewers,” and, Cannadine added, “It is easy to see why.” Irving’s method was full of “excesses, inconsistencies, and omissions.” Irving, he charged, “seems completely unaware of recent work done on the subject.” “It is not merely,” he observed, “that the arguments in this book are so perversely tendentious and irresponsibly sensationalist. It is also that it is written in a tone which is at best casually journalistic and at worst quite exceptionally offensive. The text is littered with errors from beginning to end.” In Cannadine’s judgment, too, therefore, Irving’s work was deeply flawed.
“Perversely tendentious,'” “`twisting’ of documentary sources,” “manipulating historical sources,” “pretentious twaddle”: these were unusually harsh criticisms emerging from the wider chorus of praise for Irving’s energy and persistence as a researcher. Clearly, Lipstadt was far from being the first critic of Irving’s work to accuse him of bending the documentary record to suit his arguments. For many years, professional historians had seemed to regard him as an assiduous collector of original documentation, although there was some dispute over quite how important all of it was. But when it came to Irving’s interpretation of the documents, several eminent specialists were harsh, even savage, in their criticisms. Nor was this all. Irving’s writings had repeatedly landed him in trouble with the law. He had been sued for libel by a retired naval officer who considered Irving’s charge of cowardice against him in The Destruction of Convoy PQ 17 to be defamatory and had been forced with his publishers to pay damages of £40,000, later confirmed by the House of Lords. The award, made in 1970, was very large for the time and included £25,000 in exemplary damages, which can only be awarded when it has been shown that the defendant is guilty of a deliberate `tort’ or wrong committed with the object of making money. His allegation in the introduction to the German edition of Hitler’s War that the Diary of Anne Frank was a forgery had led to his publisher being forced to pay damages. In 1968 he had been sued for libel by Jillian Page, author of a newspaper article about him, as a result of his allegation that the article had been the result of her “fertile brain.” Irving had apologized in the High Court and paid costs on condition that Page agreed to withdraw the action. Similarly, he had also been obliged to pay costs in an unsuccessful libel action against Colin Smythe, publisher of a book (The Assassination of Winston Churchill) attacking Irving’s views on the death of General Sikorski.
During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Irving’s books had been published by a variety of mainstream publishing houses, including Penguin Books, who had brought out a paperback edition of the early version of Hitler’s War and its companion volume on the years 1933-39, The War Path; Macmillan, under whose imprint later editions of Hitler’s War had appeared up to about 1992; Hodder and Stoughton, who had published the original hardback; HarperCollins, whose paperback imprint Grafton Books had published an edition of Irving’s Göring biography in 1991; and Corgi paperbacks, who had produced more than one of the various editions of The Destruction of Dresden. Since the late 1980s, however, Irving had ceased to be published by major houses, but instead had brought out all his books under his own imprint, Focal Point. “If I write a bad book,” he said, perhaps rather surprisingly, in 1986, “or if I write two or three bad books, with boobs in it which the newspapers pick out, which I’m ashamed to admit are probably right, then of course the time comes when publishers turn their back on me.”
Moreover, while he had run into the law at various points in his career, most notably in his arrest and deportation from Austria in 1983, his difficulties in this respect had increased noticeably during the 1990s, with his conviction for insulting the memory of the dead in Germany in 1991 and his banning from entry into that country, into Canada, and into Australia, all in 1992-93. One would not have expected a reputable historian to have run into such trouble, and indeed it was impossible to think of any historian of any standing at all who had been subjected to so many adverse legal judgments, or who had initiated so many libel actions himself. Irving’s reputation as a historian, never entirely secure, seemed to have plummeted during the 1990s. In an interview with the American journalist Ron Rosenbaum in the mid-1990s, Irving himself had admitted as much, confessing that his reputation among historians was “down to its uppers,” though adding that it “hasn’t yet worn through to the street.”
Yet, because of his early reputation as a formidable historian, and because of his “articulate, plausible demeanor,” as the journalist, Sarah Lyall pointed out, “Mr. Irving has confounded efforts to write him off as a harmless crackpot.” Jenny Booth, indeed, writing in The Scotsman, thought that Irving “was still seen as a substantial scholar in England and the US.” The right-wing historian Andrew Roberts noted that “several distinguished historians, all of whom asked not to be named, told me how much they admired Irving’s tenacity in uncovering new material from Nazi sources.”
Yet such admiration was almost always highly qualified. Wolfgang Benz, director of Berlin’s Centre for the Study of Antisemitism, echoed the more dismissive tone of most German assessments of Irving’s reputation: “Irving,” he told an interviewer, “is overpraised as a writer for the general public. He has delivered details from the perspective of the keyhole—from conversations with courtiers and chauffeurs—and thereby mobilized the last knowledge that could be brought to light from Hitler’s entourage. But nothing really new.” The Irving of the early years had been an outsider who was to some extent to be taken seriously, Benz concluded, but he had subsequently radicalized his political views and could no longer be treated as a serious historian.
David John Cawdell Irving was born on March 24, 1938, in Essex, England, the son of a Royal Navy Commander. After education at London University, he spent a year working in a steel mill in Germany, where he perfected his fluency in the language. (He later also learned to speak very good Spanish.)
His first book, The Destruction of Dresden, was published in 1963 when he was 25 years old. This was followed by many others, including The Mare’s Nest: The Secret Weapons of the Third Reich, The Rise, and Fall of the Luftwaffe, The German Atomic Bomb, The War Between the Generals and The Trail of the Fox, a best-selling biography of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.
His books have appeared in a range of languages. Several have been serialized in prominent periodicals. He has contributed articles to some 60 British and foreign periodicals including the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Express in Britain, and Stern and Der Spiegel in Germany.
Irving has a track record of uncovering startling new facts about supposedly well-known episodes of history. Much of his effectiveness has been due to his extensive reliance on primary source materials, such as diaries, original documents and so forth, from both official archives and private sources. He is disdainful of scholars who engage in what he calls inter-historian incest, and who thereby help to keep alive myths left over from Second World War propaganda.
“Most of Irving’s books,” the Washington Post once noted, “are big, solid works… All are well written, exciting, fun to read, and all contain new information based on sensational discoveries.”
This fiercely independent and iconoclastic historian is widely acknowledged – even by adversaries – as an eminent authority on World War II, Hitler, and Third Reich Germany. British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, writing in the Sunday Times of London, once declared: “No praise can be too high for Irving’s indefatigable scholarly industry.” He also called Irving one of the “few guides I would entirely trust … indefatigable in pursuit of the evidence, fearless in face of it, sound in judgment …” Another prominent British historian, A.J.P. Taylor, wrote: “David Irving is a patient researcher of unrivaled industry and success.”
Professor Gordon Craig of Stanford University, writing in 1996 in The New York Review of Books, remarked: “The fact is that he [Irving] knows more about National Socialism than most professional scholars in his field, and students of the years 1933–1945 owe more than they are always willing to admit to his energy as a researcher and to the scope and vigor of his publications … Such people as David Irving, then, have an indispensable part in the historical enterprise, and we dare not disregard their views.”
Following the publication in 1977 of Hitler’s War, probably his most important single work, he came under fire for its contention that Hitler did not order the extermination of Europe’s Jews. The mass killings must have been carried out by Himmler and his cohorts behind Hitler’s back, Irving concluded at that time. In 2002 a completely revised and updated deluxe edition of Hitler’s War was published under Irving’s own Focal Point imprint.
His 1981 book, Uprising!, an examination of the 1956 anti-Communist revolt in Hungary, also earned the ire of Jewish-Zionist groups because it did not ignore or whitewash the significant Jewish role in the Hungarian Communist regime. Irving’s biography of Hermann Göring was published in 1989. Churchill’s War: The Struggle for Power, the first volume of Irving’s monumental biography of Britain’s wartime leader, was published in 1987. The second volume, subtitled Triumph in Adversity, appeared in 2001.
Irving’s testimony in the Holocaust trial in 1988 of Ernst Zundel was a startling high point of that important court case. Appearing as the last of 23 defense witnesses, Irving stunned the packed Toronto courtroom by announcing that he had changed his mind about the Holocaust story. During his three days on the stand, he explained in detail why he no longer accepted that masses of Jews were killed in gas chambers during World War II, or that Hitler ordered the extermination of European Jewry.
Irving has made successful speaking tours in Germany, Canada, Australia, South Africa, the United States and other countries.
For example, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, he made triumphal speaking visits in what was still the “German Democratic Republic.” In February 1990 he addressed a large audience in Dresden on the 45th anniversary of the Allied firebombing of that once beautiful, baroque city. Large posters with Irving’s picture appeared throughout the city to announce his presence. He was greeted with flowers by Dresden’s cultural affairs director and was interviewed on television. When he appeared on stage before the microphones, more than a thousand people gave him a standing ovation. Speaking in fluent German, he recounted Churchill’s campaign to obliterate German cities. In June of that same year, he returned for another speaking tour in the GDR. In spite of a ten mark admission fee, large crowds came to hear him speak in Leipzig, Gera, and again in Dresden.
On April 21, 1990, Irving was arrested in Munich after having addressed a sell-out crowd in the Bavarian city’s famed Löwenbräu beer-hall because during his talk he had referred to the “gas chamber” shown to tourists at the Auschwitz main camp as a phony postwar dummy (“Attrappe”). His arrest was followed by a spontaneous demonstration of some 250 supporters, who carried posters of Irving and two other Holocaust skeptics, Robert Faurisson and Ernst Zundel. After the crowd made its way past the historic Feldherrnhalle, police waded in and arrested several of the demonstrators.
For that remark, a German court in January 1993 fined Irving 30,000 marks (about $20,000), and later that year he was banned from the country. On the basis of that ban, he was subsequently barred from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
As it happens, Irving’s 1990 remark in Munich was, in fact, the truth. As even the curator of the Auschwitz State Museum has since acknowledged, the “gas chamber” shown to hundreds of thousands of visitors to the site is indeed a fraudulent postwar reconstruction.
Over the years Irving has addressed several conferences and meetings of the Institute for Historical Review. For example, in an address at an IHR meeting on April 17, 2005, entitled “The Faking of Adolf Hitler for History,” he identified some of the many fraudulent historical documents that have been cited over the years by “conformist” historians of the Third Reich era.
In 1998 Irving filed a lawsuit in London against Deborah Lipstadt and her British publisher, Penguin Books. He charged that Lipstadt had libeled him in her book, Denying the Holocaust, by calling him a falsifier and a Holocaust denier. After a much-publicized trial in London in early 2000, during which Irving represented himself, the court ruled in favor of the defendants.
In a ruling made public on April 11, 2000, Judge Charles Gray praised Irving’s “thorough and painstaking research into the archives,” and commended his discovery and disclosure of many historical documents. He also noted Irving’s intelligence and thorough knowledge of World War II history. On balance, though, Judge Gray’s lengthy statement was a severe rebuke of Irving, whom he called an anti-Semitic and racist “Holocaust denier” who had “deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence.”
Irving was obliged to pay substantial costs for the trial. He lost subsequent attempts to appeal the verdict and was forced into bankruptcy.