New York Times
June 26, 1999
Taking a Holocaust Skeptic Seriously

LONDON -- Can a writer who thinks the Holocaust was a hoax still be a great historian?

The British writer David Irving's books have been praised by some of the most eminent scholars in his field. The military historian John Keegan, who says Irving "knows more than anyone alive about the German side of the Second World War," considers his work "indispensable to anyone seeking to understand the war in the round." Gordon Craig, a leading scholar of German history at Stanford University, also calls Irving's work "indispensable." He adds, "I always learn something from him."

Yet to Deborah Lipstadt, author of "Denying the Holocaust," Irving is a propagandist -- "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial" -- and not a historian at all. It is a statement that has prompted Irving to sue her for libel in Britain. He readily admits that he has said "there were never any gas chambers at Auschwitz," but insists he is not a Holocaust denier because his comments "are true." The case, which goes to trial here early next year, does more than raise the issue of free speech and test the evenhandedness of British libel laws; it poses disturbing questions about the practice of history.

There is some irony in Irving's legal action. In 1996, St. Martin's Press, under public pressure, canceled a contract with Irving for his book, "Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich." His defenders assailed St. Martin's, arguing they were trying to muzzle his views. The Goebbels biography never did find an American publisher, but a London edition, brought out by Irving's own imprint, prompted Craig to declare: "Silencing Mr. Irving would be a high price to pay for freedom from the annoyance he causes us. The fact is that he knows more about National Socialism than most professional scholars in his field."

In a six-page essay in The New York Review of Books, Craig noted Irving's claims that the Holocaust never took place, and that Auschwitz was merely "a labor camp with an unfortunately high death rate." Though "such obtuse and quickly discredited views" may be "offensive to large numbers of people," Craig argued, Irving's work is "the best study we have of the German side of the Second World War," and "we dare not" disregard his views.

Yet is it contradictory to describe Irving, as the writer Christopher Hitchens has, as "not just a Fascist historian" but also "a great historian of Fascism"? Irving's claim to historical seriousness rests largely, in Craig's phrase, on "his energy as a researcher." An indefatigable documents man, Irving spent years poring over Nazi archives, rooting out long-lost diaries and private correspondence and presenting his findings in vivid, readable narratives aimed at conveying World War II from the German point of view.

That effort has earned praise from many historians who are at pains to distinguish between the historian and the work. Eric Hobsbawm, the British Marxist historian, declared that Irving's politics were irrelevant. "Most historians are politically engaged one way or another," he said. "You judge what they do not by the political intent, but by whether they produce work based on evidence."

Mark Mazower, a historian at Princeton University, pointed out that "if you restricted yourself to works produced in conditions of freedom, by writers with whom we can feel intellectually akin," you would be ruling out a lot of history. The real question, said Mazower, author of "Dark Continent: Europe's 20th Century," is how you treat such material. "After all, even the Nazi historians produced some useful information."

A similar observation could be heard from Raul Hilberg, author of the classic "Destruction of the European Jews." "I have quoted Eichmann references that come from a neo-Nazi publishing house," he told Hitchens in an article that appeared in Vanity Fair during the St. Martin's controversy. "I am not for taboos."

By the same token, these scholars recognize that it is absurd to expect historians to operate in a sanitized, value-free environment. Michael Geyer, professor of contemporary European history at the University of Chicago, said that Irving's values are responsible for the ultimately debilitating flaws in his work.

Geyer, who specializes in military history, argues that Irving's very success in "understanding the Nazi generals as they were" brings its own pitfalls. First, there is the problem of consistency. "If you want to stay within the purview of the Nazis, you have to reconstruct what they did," Geyer explained in a telephone interview. "You can't just ignore some of what they did because it doesn't fit your point of view. Irving shuts down sources that do not suit his point of view." What's more, said Geyer, Irving "does not keep all the actors in the picture." In his fascination with the Nazis, he overlooks the humanity of their victims. A good historian, said Geyer, needs empathy as well as intelligence.

David Cannadine, director of London's Institute for Historical Research, has also criticized Irving's "double standard on evidence." Reviewing the first volume of Irving's 1988 book "Churchill's War," he accused Irving of "demanding absolute documentary proof to convict the Germans (as when he sought to show that Hitler was not responsible for the Holocaust), while relying on circumstantial evidence to condemn the British (as in his account of the Allied bombing of Dresden)."

Hilberg is well aware of the pressure to conform to an approved Holocaust narrative. His own work has been attacked in some quarters for the minimal role he allots to Jewish resistance. But while Hilberg defends Irving's right to publish, he distinguishes Irving's writing from "legitimate controversy." "I believe in the freedom not to be responsible," Hilberg has said, "but that doesn't mean I endorse it."

There are, he said in a telephone interview, numerous continuing disputes among Holocaust scholars. For example, some say Hitler always intended to murder the Jews, while others say he did so partly in response to the fortunes of war. "Exact numbers, resistance -- there are still disagreements," Hilberg said. "But to ignore evidence that points to certain conclusions -- to claim there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz for killing people! That is not a legitimate controversy."

To Hilberg, Irving's record as a collector of facts is beside the point: "You can create an illusion that is totally misleading by leaving things out, even though everything you say is true."

Irving himself insists he is not a historian of the Holocaust. "I regard myself principally as a biographer of top Nazis (and others)," he communicated electronically from his house in Key West, Fla. Asked for his response to some recent scholarship setting out the mechanism of Hitler's Final Solution, Irving replied: "Haven't read it. It's not my patch."

Still, he distributes a widely discredited book purporting to disprove the existence of the gas chambers. And he insists that while Nazi memoirs may be taken essentially at face value, the testimony of Holocaust survivors is relatively worthless. "Eyewitness testimony," he said in a speech last year at Washington State University, "is really a matter for psychiatric evaluation."

It is sentiments like these that prompted Ms. Lipstadt to warn historians and journalists away from Irving's work. That warning, Irving said, led to his troubles with St. Martin's -- and to his decision to sue.

To get to court in the United States, a public figure like Irving would have to show that Ms. Lipstadt had acted "in reckless disregard" of the truth. But British libel law is different. Here, "the burden of proof is on the defendant," said Anthony Julius, Ms. Lipstadt's lawyer. "We have to prove that what she said was true."

"I feel like I'm living in 'Alice in Wonderland,"' Ms. Lipstadt said in a telephone interview. "It's absolutely backwards."

Asked if he felt awkward about resorting to the courts to silence his critics after he had been the cause of a free-speech campaign, Irving replied, "It may be unfortunate for Professor Lipstadt that she is the one who finds herself dragged out of the line and shot."

So is David Irving a historian? The question is "a little artificial," said Mazower, the "Dark Continent" author. "On whom do we bestow the hallowed title of historian?"

In Germany, where Holocaust denial is a crime, Irving has been convicted and fined for his views. But Britain, like the United States, has no such law. In her book, Ms. Lipstadt advised against using courts to suppress even those who would deny the existence of the gas chambers. "Legal restraints," she wrote, "transform the deniers into martyrs on the altars of free speech."

It will be up to a British judge to decide whether that label fits either side in this case.


Document URL:
Last modified: Friday, 06-Aug-2004 09:19:20 EDT