Before he left for Spain the Trunk asked me to post his four-part commentary on the fascinating defamation case of David Irving, Holocaust-denying historian, vs. Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt, as recorded in Richard Evans’s book Lying About Hitler. Here are the last two installments:
In order to evaluate Irving’s work, Evans undertakes a study of the phenomenon of Holocaust denial and of Irving’s books. He also reviewed a trove of Irving’s speeches and other incidental materials obtained in discovery from Irving prior to the trial.
Evans usefully summarizes the phenomenon of Holocaust denial as comprising four elements that constitute the creed of its proponents: 1) the Nazis murdered far fewer than six million Jews; the number was a few hundred thousand, comparable to the number of German civilians killed in Allied bombing raids; 2) the Nazis never used gas chambers to kill large numbers of Jews at any time (the concentration camps were not death factories) and the supposed evidence of such instrumentalities after the war was fabricated; 3) Hitler and the Nazi leadership undertook no extermination program against the Jews, they only wanted to deport them to Eastern Europe; 4) the “Holocaust” was invented by Allied propaganda during the war and carried on afterwards by self-interested Jews. In the United States, the principal organ of Holocaust denial is the Institute for Historical Review, an organization that seems to be experiencing something of a revival in connection with the war against terrorism.
How does Irving’s work stack up against the tenets of Holocaust denial identified by Evans and Lipstadt? I will summarize Evans’s findings in my next post.
In structuring my account of Irving’s book around the Oscar Wilde trial I have not exactly exhibited the skills of a born story-teller. I have destroyed any possible suspense about the outcome of Irving’s case. But Evans makes his investigation of Irving’s work fascinating, introducing it with a summary of representative reviews of Irving’s books by professional historians including such distinguished authorities as Gordon Craig (in the pages of the New York Review of Books, no less), who have credited Irving with significant contributions to the field.
Through his own dogged research and backtracking over Irving’s sources, Evans finds that Irving’s willful distortion of the record extends back to Irving’s first book, The Destruction of Dresden, published in 1964, in which Irving inflated the number of German civilians killed in the 1945 Allied bombing raid by a factor of 10 or so. Evans traces the development of several of the other themes of Holocaust denial through editions of Irving’s most famous book, Hitler’s War, originally published in 1977, revised and supplemented several times since, through the manipulation and fabrication of evidence.
Evans’ research also suggests that something snapped in Irving in 1988, when his work really went over the edge. He does not reconcile this insight with his discovery of Irving’s dishonesty (all in the direction of alleged Allied guilt, German victimization, and other themes of Holocaust denial) dating back to his very first book. The impression nevertheless vividly remains of someone going around the bend as a result of his staring too long at the face of evil. Evans persuasively suggests that Irving came to fancy himself as Hitler’s ambassador to the future.
It would perhaps take an artist of Wilde’s caliber to capture the transformation of Irving that Evans intimates. And when in his closing argument (Irving represented himself at trial) Irving addresses the presiding judge as “Mein Fuhrer,” we appear to have entered the realm of fantasy or comedy; it would take a more dignified character than Irving to approach tragedy.
In any event, the judge finds that Lipstadt’s characterization of Irving as a Holocaust denier is true, dismisses Irving’s defamation claim, and enters judgment awarding humongous defendants’ attorneys’ fees against Irving. Justice prevails, British-style.
HINDROCKET adds: The phenomenon of Holocaust denial is still with us, and in fact seems to be making a comeback. Over the weekend I’ll link to stories about a recent episode in a New Zealand university which raised some of the same issues as the Irving case.
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