The Strange Case of David Irving

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation and the author most recently of "The Trial of Henry Kissinger."

When the first news of the Nazi camps was published in 1945, there were those who thought the facts might be exaggerated either by Allied war propaganda or by the human tendency to relish “atrocity stories.” In his column in the London magazine Tribune, George Orwell wrote that though this might be so, the speculation was not exactly occurring in a vacuum. If you remember what the Nazis did to the Jews before the war, he said, it isn’t that difficult to imagine what they might do to them during one.

In one sense, the argument over “Holocaust denial” ends right there. The National Socialist Party seized power in 1933, proclaiming as its theoretical and organizing principle the proposition that the Jews were responsible for all the world’s ills, from capitalist profiteering to subversive Bolshevism. By means of oppressive legislation, they began to make all of Germany Judenrein, or “Jew-free.” Jewish businesses were first boycotted and then confiscated. Jewish places of worship were first vandalized and then closed. Wherever Nazi power could be extended--to the Rhineland, to Austria and to Sudeten Czechoslovakia--this pattern of cruelty and bigotry was repeated. (And, noticed by few, the state killing of the mentally and physically “unfit,” whether Jewish or “Aryan,” was tentatively inaugurated.) After the war broke out, Hitler was able to install puppet governments or occupation regimes in numerous countries, each of which was compelled to pass its own version of the anti-Semitic “Nuremberg Laws.” Most ominous of all--and this in plain sight and on camera, and in full view of the neighbors--Jewish populations as distant as Salonika were rounded up and put on trains, to be deported to the eastern provinces of conquered Poland.

None of this is, even in the remotest sense of the word, “deniable.” Nor is the fact that, once the war was over, surviving Jews found that they had very few family members left. The argument only begins here, and it takes two forms. First, what exactly happened to the missing ones? Second, why did it occur? The first argument is chiefly forensic and concerns numbers and methods: the physical engineering of shooting, gassing, burial and cremation. The second argument is a debate among historians and is known as the “intentionalist versus functionalist” dispute. The “intentionalists” say that Hitler and his gang were determined from the start to extirpate all Jews and that everything from 1933 to 1945 is a vindication of certain passages in “Mein Kampf.” The “functionalists” point out (correctly) that the Nazis actually killed almost no Jews until after 1941 and that the Endlosung, or “Final Solution,” was a semi-secret plan evolved after Germany began to lose the war on the Eastern front. On this continuum, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, with his view that Germans had a cultural gene of anti-Semitism, is an extreme “intentionalist”; Yehudah Bauer, of the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem, is a moderate “functionalist.”


Differences of opinion between these two schools, and discrepancies in the evidence, have recently permitted the emergence of something that is more of a phenomenon than a “school,” by which I mean the movement of “Holocaust denial” or (because it consists of two contrasting tendencies) “Holocaust revisionism.” This movement contains some Nazi revivalists in Germany and elsewhere, some crackpots and conspiracy theorists and one practicing historian, an Englishman named David Irving. Among revisionist forces there is even more confusion; they either argue that nothing much happened at all and that the whole thing is a fabrication or they maintain that the unforgettable piles of corpses were the result of epidemics, to be blamed on the disruption of food and medical supplies by Allied bombing. (It will be seen at once that this latter faction has no good explanation for why the Jews of Europe were packed into remote camps in the first place.)

The toxicity of the argument is increased by four other factors. First, there are those who maintain that the German people have been blamed enough and that endless suggestions of collective guilt--accompanied by incessant demands for compensation--are an insult and possibly a provocation. Second, there are those who resent the exploitation of the Holocaust, or Shoah, by extreme Israeli nationalists. Third, there is a collective awareness that neither the international community nor organized Jewry did much to help the victims when it could have made a difference. Finally, in many countries, including Germany and France, it is actually a crime to dispute the established version of events, which means that the “revisionist” movement now has its free-speech martyrs. While in the United States, protected as it is by the 1st Amendment, the Holocaust has become a secular religion, with state support in the form of a national museum. Accusations of ill will or bad faith are often made against anyone with reservations about the elevation of this project into something combining a cult, an entertainment resource and an industry, each claiming to represent the unvoiced dead. Indeed, I myself feel constrained to state here that my mother’s family is of German and Polish Jewish provenance and that on my wife’s side we have not just an Auschwitz “survivor” in our lineage but a man--David Szmulewski--who was one of the leaders of the communist resistance in the camps as well as one of those who smuggled evidence out of it and later testified against the war criminals in court. I look forward to a time when I won’t feel any need to mention this.

I was raised in two other traditions as well, however. The first was to believe, with the late Karl Popper, that a case has not been refuted until it has been stated at its strongest. The second was to take it for granted that historians have prejudices. To manifest the first point, then, let us summarize the best case that the revisionists can make. Would it surprise you to know that:

1) there were no gas chambers or extermination camps on German soil, in other words, at Belsen or Dachau or Buchenwald;

2) there were no Jews made into soap;

3) the “confession” of Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, was extracted by force and contains his claim to have killed more Jews than was “humanly” possible?

These are, however, the now-undisputed findings of all historians and experts on the subject. And if they are sound, then it means that much “eyewitness” testimony is wrong. It necessarily changes our attitude toward the everyday complicity of average Germans. It also means that much of the evidence presented and accepted at Nuremburg was spurious. Of course, we knew some of this already--the Nazis were charged by Soviet and Allied judges with the massacres at Katyn in Poland, which had obviously been ordered by Stalin and are now admitted to have been. And every now and then, a bogus Holocaust merchant makes an appearance. The most recent was the fantasist “Binjamin Wilkomirski,” whose book, “Fragments,” was a whole-cloth fabrication by someone who had spent the entire war in Switzerland. This did not prevent him from receiving several awards and the warm endorsement of Goldhagen. Earlier, a high Israeli court found the evidence of witnesses useless, ruling that John Demjanjuk had not been at Treblinka in the mythical shape of “Ivan the Terrible.”


The confrontation between Irving and the consensus was therefore long overdue. He forced the confrontation himself, by putting his own work on trial in attempting to sue the work of another. But it was high time to have this out in public, in the relatively objective context of an English courtroom. And so to my second observation, about bias and historians.

History, especially as written by historians in the English tradition, is a literary and idiosyncratic form. Men such as Gibbon and Macaulay and Marx were essayists and polemicists in the grand manner, and when I was at school, one was simply not supposed to be prissy about the fact. We knew that Macaulay wrote to vindicate the Whig school, just as we knew of the prejudices of Carlyle (though there were limits: Nobody ever let us read his “Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question,” a robustly obscene defense of slavery). Handing me a copy of “What Is History?” by E.H. Carr, my Tory headmaster loftily told me that it was required reading in spite of its “rather obvious Marxist bias.” The master of my Oxford college was Christopher Hill, the great chronicler of Cromwell and Milton and Winstanley and the Puritan Revolution. Preeminent in his field, Hill had been a member of the Communist Party and could still be slightly embarrassed by mention of his early book, “Lenin and the Russian Revolution,” in which the name of Leon Trotsky was conspicuous by its absence. Moving closer to our own time, we had Sir Arthur Bryant, whose concept of history as a pageant culminated in extreme royalism and a strong sympathy for Franco and Mussolini and Hitler. Then there was A.J.P. Taylor, one of the most invigorating lecturers of all time, who believed that the Nazis had more or less been tricked into the war. And how can one forget Hugh Trevor-Roper, author of the definitive narrative of Hitler’s final days, who had close connections to British intelligence, who might be overheard making faintly anti-Jewish remarks and later pronounced the forged Hitler diaries genuine? These were men who had been witnesses and participants as well as archivists and chroniclers. Their accounts were essential reading; the allowance for prejudice and inflection was part of the fun of one’s bookkeeping.

This of course doesn’t license absolute promiscuity. Eric Hobsbawm, a member of the Communist Party (much later than Hill), may have advertised his allegiances but retained the respect of most critics because he had a strong sense of objectivity in his historical work. In other words, no dirty tricks were to be allowed.

However, what I mean to say for now is that when I first became aware of Irving, I did not feel it necessary to react like a virgin who is suddenly confronted by a man in a filthy raincoat.

That he had a sneaking sympathy for fascism was obvious enough. But his work on the bombing of Dresden, on the inner functioning of the Churchill government and on the mentality of the Nazi generals was invaluable. He changed sides on the issue of the Hitler diaries, but his intervention was crucial to their exposure as a pro-Nazi fabrication. His knowledge of the German language was the envy of his rivals. His notorious flaunting of bad taste and his gallows humor were not likely to induce cardiac arrest in anyone like myself, who had seen many Oxford and Cambridge history dons when they were fighting drunk.

While helping to edit the New Statesman in 1981, I encouraged the American historian Kai Bird, now a distinguished student of the Cold War, to analyze Irving’s work. Bird turned in a meticulous essay, which exposed Irving’s obvious prejudice and incidentally trashed his least-known and worst book--a history of the 1956 Hungarian uprising that characterized the revolt as a rebellion of sturdy Magyar patriots against shifty Jewish Communists. Irving briefly threatened to sue and then thought better of it. In the early 1990s, he took part in a public debate with the extreme denier Robert Faurisson, at which he maintained that there was definite evidence of mass extermination at least by shooting (and gratuitously added that he thought the original Nazi plan to isolate all Jews in Madagascar was probably a good scheme). I noted this with interest--there’s nothing like a good faction fight between extremists--but had no contact with him, direct or indirect, until he self-published in England his biography of Josef Goebbels in 1996.

This book is still on my shelf. I read it initially because St. Martin’s Press in New York decided not to publish it, or rather, decided to breach its contract to do so. This action on its part was decisive, in that it convinced Irving that his enemies were succeeding in denying him a livelihood, and it determined him to sue someone as soon as he could. It was also important in that St. Martin’s gave no reason of historical accuracy for its about-face. For the publisher, it was a simple question of avoiding unpleasantness (“Profiles in Prudence,” as its senior editor Thomas Dunne put it to me ruefully).

Well, as I say, I’m a big boy and can bear the thought of being offended. The biography, based largely on extracts from Goebbels’ diaries, told me a great deal I hadn’t known. I’ll instance a small but suggestive example. Irving had in the past been associated with the British fascist movement led by Sir Oswald Mosley. In my hot youth, I’d protested at some of the meetings of this outfit and had circulated the charge that, before the war, it had been directly financed by the Nazis. This charge was always hotly disputed by the Mosleyites themselves, but here was Goebbels, in cold print, discussing the transfer of funds from Berlin to the British Black Shirts. On the old principle famously adumbrated by Bertrand Russell--of “evidence against interest”--it seemed that Irving was capable of publishing information that undermined his own position. He also, in his editorial notes, gave direct testimony about the mass killing of Jews in the East (by shooting) and of the use of an “experimental” gas chamber in the Polish town of Chelmno. The “deniers” don’t like this book; on the strength of it you could prove that the Nazis tried to do away with the Jews. There was some odd stuff about Hitler’s lack of responsibility for Kristallnacht but, as I say, I allowed for Irving’s obsessions. I wrote a column criticizing St. Martin’s for its cowardice and described Irving himself as not just a fascist historian but a great historian of fascism. One should be allowed to read “Mein Kampf” as well as Heidegger. Allowed? One should be able to do so without permission from anybody.

As a result of this, Irving contacted me when he was next in Washington, and I invited him to my home for a cocktail. He got off to a shaky start by refusing any alcohol or tobacco and by presenting me with two large blue-and-white stickers. Exactly the size of a German street sign, they were designed to be pasted over the originals at dead of night. “Rudolf Hess Platz,” they said; a practical-joke accessory for German extremists with that especial sense of humor. Because they were intended to shock, I tried to look as unshocked as I could. Irving then revealed, rather fascinatingly, that some new documents from the Eichmann family might force him to reconsider his view that there had been no direct order for the annihilation of the Jews. It was a rather vertiginous atmosphere all around. When it came time for him to leave, my wife and daughter went down in the elevator with him on their own way out. Later, my wife rather gravely asked me if I would mind never inviting him again. This was highly unlike her; we have all sorts at our place. However, it transpired that, while in the elevator, Irving had looked with approval at my fair-haired, blue-eyed daughter, then 5 years old, and declaimed the following doggerel about his own little girl, Jessica, who was the same age:

I am a Baby Aryan

Not Jewish or Sectarian;

I have no plans to marry an

Ape or Rastafarian.

The thought of Carol and Antonia in a small space with this large beetle-browed man as he spouted that was, well, distinctly creepy. (He has since posted the lines on his Web site, and they came back to haunt him at the trial.)

The next time Irving got in touch with me was after his utter humiliation in court, and I thought I’d give him one last chance--though I arranged to meet him in a neutral restaurant this time. I wanted to know if it was true, as I had read in the press, that he had abruptly addressed the judge in the case as “Mein Fuhrer.” With some plausibility, he explained to me that this was a misunderstanding; he had been quoting from the slogans shouted at a rally he was addressing in Germany and had glanced up at the bench at the wrong moment. The transcript of the trial seemed to make this interpretation possible. So when telephoned by my friend Ian Buruma, who was writing on the case for The New Yorker, I suggested that he might check it out. He called me back with the information that, when he had asked Irving directly about the incident, Irving had taken him into confidence and said, “Actually, I did say it.” At this point I finally decided that anyone joining a Fair Play for Irving Committee was up against a man with some kind of death wish.

“The Holocaust on Trial” and “Lying About Hitler” make that very point in widely differing ways. Like me, D.D. Guttenplan is full of contempt for the censorship of Irving and quite prepared to consider the idea that the Holocaust has been exploited and even distorted. However, Guttenplan became disgusted by Irving’s alternately bullying and ingratiating style and by his repeated failure to make good on his historical claims. His account of the courtroom confrontation, most vividly the confrontation between Irving and the Dutch expert on the mechanics of Auschwitz, Robert Jan van Pelt, could hardly be bettered. He also provides a masterly guide to the byways of English law, especially the grossly biased and oppressive law of libel that Irving hoped to enlist on his side.

This in itself has led to an intriguing subplot, with Richard J. Evans’ London publishers abandoning his book, “Lying About Hitler,” because of their own pusillanimous fear of a libel suit and with Evans giving Guttenplan a rather dismissive review in a London newspaper. The issue before the court, says Evans, was not whether the Holocaust occurred but whether Irving is a fabricator. Of course that is formally true, but to my mind, Guttenplan rather beautifully shows it to be a distinction without a difference. Justice Gray, presiding, expressed the repeated hope that the case would not involve revisiting Auschwitz, but he had to “go there” all the same before the case was fully heard. It could not have been otherwise. As Raul Hilberg once phrased it, at Auschwitz history was destroyed at the same time that history was made. The question cannot be approached from the standpoint of truth without accepting this contradiction.

As an expert witness at the trial, however, Evans was quite devastating. “Lying About Hitler” is essentially an expanded version of his affidavit, and it redraws the whole terrain of the argument. No longer are we faced merely with the question of Irving’s elementary right to speak or be published. We are invited to see if he deserves the title of historian at all. Evans’ method is quite a simple one. He shows, first, that there are a number of errors, omissions and unsupported assertions in Irving’s work. Now, this might be true of any historian, and there were indeed some distinguished academic practitioners in the witness box who maintained that no narrative is or can be free from error. However, what if, as Evans said under cross-examination:

“There is a difference between, as it were, negligence, which is random in its effects, i.e. if you are a sloppy or bad historian, the mistakes you make will be all over the place. They will not actually support any particular point of view .... On the other hand, if all the mistakes are in the same direction in the support of a particular thesis, then I do not think that is mere negligence. I think that is a deliberate manipulation and deception.”

Evans’ knowledge, both of the period and of the German language, are of an order to rival Irving’s. He has little difficulty in showing that there are suspicious mistranslations, suggestive ellipses and, worst of all, some tampering with figures: in other words, that Irving knowingly inflates the death toll in the Allied bombing of Dresden while deflating it in the camps and pits to the East. And, yes, all the “mistakes” have the same tendency. In a crucial moment, Irving “forgot” what he had said about Nazi Gen. Walter Bruns, who had confessed to witnessing mass killing of Jews and had been taped by British intelligence while doing so. When it suited Irving to claim that Bruns didn’t know he was being recorded, he claimed as much. When it didn’t, he suggested that Bruns was trying to please his hearers. Having listened myself to Irving discuss this fascinating episode, I mentally closed the book when I reached this stage in it. It was a QED.

Irving has long been notorious for his view that Hitler never gave any order for the Final Solution and that there is no irrefutable document authorizing it. In court, he was unpardonably flippant on this point, saying airily that perhaps, like some of Richard Nixon’s subordinates, a few of the rougher types imagined they knew what would please the boss. This argument has always struck me as absurd on its face in both cases, but Evans simply reduces it to powder. It’s not too much to say that by the end of the trial, the core evidence for the Holocaust had been tested and found to be solid. The matter of Irving’s reputation as scholar and researcher--which was the ostensible subject of the hearing--was so much “collateral damage.”

It would be tempting to summarize this as a near morality tale, in which the truth emerges as the stainless winner over bigotry and falsification. However, the conflict is not conducted in quite such hygienic conditions. Irving did not publish a series of books on the Nazi era that were exposed as propaganda by a magisterial review from Evans. That’s the way things are supposed to happen but rarely do. Instead, the efforts of a few obsessive outsiders have sharpened the orthodox debate between intentionalists and functionalists and also provoked a grand crisis in the “Holocaust denial” milieu, which now subdivides yet again between those who see Irving as a martyr and those who see him as a conscious, dedicated agent of Zionism who let down the team.

I myself learned a good deal, about both the subject and the author, by becoming involved on the periphery of this debate. I still regard it as ridiculous that Irving’s books are almost impossible to obtain in the homeland of the 1st Amendment. This culture has assumed several great responsibilities. It sponsored the Nuremberg trials, with all their peaks and troughs of evidence. It has elevated the Holocaust into a universal moral example. It is the chief international guarantor of the state of Israel, at whatever proper size of territory or jurisdiction over others that that state turns out to possess. And it is the home--on the basis of equality--of the most flourishing Jewish community in history. Given this quadrilateral of historical commitments, there can be no prohibition of any voice whatever. One asks only, as one must ask with all morally serious arguments, that those entering the arena be transparent as regards motive and scrupulous as regards evidence. Irving’s contribution to this very outcome is an amazing instance of the workings of unintended consequence.