in the garden

 

Apr 2006 Journal

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The biter bitten

Few readers of this journal will be able to resist a feeling of satisfaction at the jail sentence meted out by an Austrian court to the odious David Irving. Since his first book, The Destruction of Dresden (1963), which began his life's work of relativising and minimising Nazi crimes, he has written a series of books profoundly offensive to Jews on account of his attempts to whitewash Hitler and to airbrush the Holocaust out of history, most obviously in Hitler's War (1977).

Irving's jibes at Jewish sensitivities - comparing the Holocaust to the legend of the Turin shroud or saying that more people died in Senator Teddy Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick (the 1969 accident in which Mary Jo Kopechne lost her life) than at Auschwitz - echo like primitive snarls of hatred that can only arouse revulsion. His subsequent recantations of his denials of the Holocaust carry no conviction whatsoever, as they were all too obviously made to save his skin: at his trial in Vienna he claimed that 'new' evidence had led him to revise his opinion since 1989, when he made the remarks for which he was being prosecuted. But surely all the evidence for the historical fact of the Holocaust was abundantly well known long before 1989 - at least to anyone prepared to look at the Nazi era with a half-open mind.

Irving claimed to reporters outside the court that he was not an expert on the Holocaust and that his speciality was only Hitler and 'the big Nazis'. But this flimsily implausible defence is plainly just another version of Holocaust denial: if Hitler and the Nazi leaders were not responsible for the Holocaust, then the murder of six million Jews becomes a kind of accident of war, an unplanned action by subordinate officers taken without the due approval and prior instructions of the German authorities and state at the highest level. It is, of course, pure rubbish.

Many will feel that sentencing Irving to three years in jail was excessive, indeed that invoking criminal sanctions against a historian for voicing his opinions, even opinions as twisted and malicious as Irving's, is incompatible with the principle of free speech. This was the verdict of Professor Deborah Lipstadt, who had the courage to accuse Irving of Holocaust denial, thus provoking him to sue for libel, in the celebrated trial that he lost. That trial, six years ago, destroyed Irving's credibility as a historian in the court of free speech and free expression of opinion, the highest court available to scholars and writers. He was shown up for what he is: a pseudo-historian who uses the techniques of the historian's craft to distort the evidence and systematically misrepresent historical events for his own ideological purposes. The jail sentence now passed on him is therefore arguably redundant.

For the demolition of Irving's credibility we have to thank not only Professor Lipstadt (who chose not to give evidence at the trial), but also Professor Richard Evans of Cambridge University, who acted as expert witness for Lipstadt and her publishers, Penguin. His masterly exposition of the ways in which Irving sought to manipulate and twist evidence from historical documents for ideological ends showed the difference between a first-class historian and an ... Irving. It was a mark of Irving's poor judgment that he should ever have contemplated taking on Professor Evans, a scholar whose abilities so obviously outclassed his own. Now that we no longer need to focus on Irving, I look forward to rereading Evans's history of the Hamburg cholera epidemic of 1892, Death in Hamburg, and enjoying the experience of an outstanding historian at work.
Anthony Grenville

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