If works of history can ever be described as “heroic,” then surely Richard Evans’ exhaustive and meticulous Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial meets the test.
Evans is a professor of modern German history at Cambridge University, author of the definitive history of the Third Reich (final volume still to come). In 1997 he was retained as an expert witness in the David Irving libel case.
The British writer David Irving may not be quite so well known today as he was a decade ago. Back then, he enjoyed a strange blend of fame and notoriety as the author of a series of books about World War II strongly sympathetic to Germany, Hitler, and the Nazis.
Irving had originally come to fame for a book about the Allied bombing of Dresden. First published in 1963, Irving’s book argued that the bombing constituted one of the great atrocities of the Second World War, claiming at least 135,000 lives and very likely as many as 250,000.
Irving went on to publish books arguing that the Polish hero Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski had not died in an aircraft accident, but had instead been assassinated on orders of Winston Churchill. He claimed that Ann Frank’s Diary was a forgery.
Still later Irving argued that Hitler had never ordered persecutions of the Jews. To the extent these persecutions occurred, they were the actions of Hitler’s subordinates. Hitler even (Irving argued) often intervened to prevent them, but was defeated by the choking Nazi bureaucracy.
Eventually Irving came to deny the Nazi murder of the Jews ever happened at all. He denied the existence of the gas chambers at Auschwitz and contended that at most 100,000 Jews had died as a result of Nazi persecution, most of them from disease. In the 1980s, Irving drifted towared a more and more outspoken defenses of Nazism and vilification of Jews: “our ancient enemy” as he called them.
The British historical profession by and large deplored Irving’s anti-Jewish excesses and his excuse-making for Hitler. Yet many British historians were impressed by Irving’s fluency in the German language, his seemingly exhaustive work in the German archives, and his assiduous interviewing of the surviving members of the Hitler circle. “No historian of the Second World War can afford to ignore David Irving,” John Keegan wrote in 1996, in a judgment most of his colleagues would probably have ruefully accepted. When Irving encountered harsher criticism, he resorted to Britain’s plaintiff-friendly libel courts.
He played this card one time too many when the American historian Deborah Lipstadt described him in her book Denying the Holocaust as a neofascist, an apologist for Hitler, and – above all – a writer who skewed evidence and misrepresented documents in order to reach untenable conclusions. When Denying the Holocaust was published in Britain, Irving sued.
Under British libel law, the burden falls on the defendant to prove that a defamatory remark is true. This is a very difficult burden to meet obviously. Most British defendants either (a) argue that their seemingly defamatory remarks are not really defamatory after all (“m’lud, when I called the plaintiff a ‘slug,’ I meant to compliment him for his contribution to the aeration of the soil”) or else (b) settle.
Lipstadt and her publishers gambled on a bolder strategy. They went to court to prove that Lipstadt’s comments were indeed true – that Irving was a systematic liar and apologist for Hitler. They hired Richard Evans to comb through Irving’s every published word and to compare it to the documentary record.
Evans convicted Irving as a conscious, determined liar. From his first book on Dresden, which built its case on a document that Irving had known to be a forgery, up to his latest articles and speeches, Irving had twisted, mistranslated, misrepresented, and falsified. Evans’ special report led to victory for Lipstadt – and to a multimillion-pound judgment against Irving for costs. This lucid, unemotional, but devastingly powerful book is an abridgement of that report.
An example illustrates both Irving’s method and Evans’.
In Irving’s 1996 book, Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich, Irving argues that Nazi hostility to Jews was not wholly unjustified. Goebbels, Irving wrote,
would highlight every malfeasance of the criminal demi-monde and identify it as Jewish. In the closing years of the Weimar republic, he was unfortunately not always wrong. In 1930 Jews would be convicted in forty-two of 210 known narcotics smuggling cases; in 1932 sixty-nine of the 272 known international narcotics dealers were Jewish. Jews were arrested in over sixty percent of the cases concerning the running of illegal gambling dens; 193 of the 411 pickpockets arrested in 1932 were Jews. In 1932 no fewer than thirty-one thousand cases of fraud, mainly insurance swindles, would be committed by Jews. (Evans p. 49)
The “unfortunately” in the second sentence is a nice touch. But where did Irving get his numbers? That paragraph is followed by an impressive looking footnote in Irving’s book.
Interpol figures, in Deutsche Nachrichten-Buro (hereafter DNB), Jul 20, 1935; and see Kurt Daluege, “Judenfrage als Grundsatz,” in Angriff, Aug 3, 1935 (Hauptant Ordnungspolizei files, BA file R. 19/406); on the criminal demi-monde of 1920s Berlin, see Paul Weiglin, Unverwustlcihes Berlin. Bilderbuch der Reichshaupstadt seit 1919 (Zurich, 1955) and Walther Kiaulehn, Berlin: Schicksal einer Weltstadt (Munich 1958).
Evans followed Irving’s footnote trail.
On checking out these references, which were, typically for Irving, without specific page numbers, I eventually managed to establish that while there were indeed sections in Kiaulehn’s and Weiglin’s books that dealt with the Berlin criminal underworld, not a single sentence could be found in either of the books to back up Irving’s claim that Jews dominated the crime scene in the 1920s.
The Interpol figures, as quoted in the Deutsches Nachrichtenburo, sounded very authoritative. However, when I looked at this document more closely, it turned out to be nothing more than a piece of Nazi propaganda. The Deutsches Nachrichtenburo (DNB) was not an independent news agency, but a mouthpiece of the Nazi leadership. From its creation in December 1933, it had been controlled directly by Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry. …
Moreover the article of 20 July 1935 in the DNB did not report any Interpol figures as Irving claimed. It consisted instead of a transcript of a press conference by Kurt Daluege on the Jews and criminality. Daluege was anything but an objective source. He was a committed Nazi ….
This antisemitic propaganda by a fanatical Nazi was utterly useless as a stastical source for the participation of German Jews in the Weimar Republic in criminal activities. The official figures from the Weimar period were readily available. I checked them. They did not indicate that Jewish criminality was particularly widespread. For instance, in 1925, only one in a hundred among all inmates in Prussian penitentiaries (Zuchthauser) was Jewish. …
The official German criminal statistics for the year 1932 recorded a total of 74 persons, Jewish and non-Jewish, convicted of insurance fraud … in the whole of Germany – a fary cry from Irving’s claim that … 31,000 fraud cases … had been committed by Jews. (Evans, pp. 49-52.)
What kind of writer relies for Weimar crime statisics on a post-takeover press conference by a Nazi propaganda official in preference to the actual crime numbers recorded by the Weimar state?
And as Evans points out, Irving did not even quote the Nazi press conference accurately: Daulege offered his invented number of 31,000 insurance swindles not for 1932 but for 1933, and not even this “fanatical Nazi” suggested (as Irving did) that all these 31,000 concocted crimes were committed by Jews.
This pattern recurs through Irving’s work: misquotation, acceptance of Nazi propaganda at face value, and manipulation of numbers.
Indeed, Evans shows that the same defects can be found even in Irving’s first much-admired book on Dresden, which builds its case for a death toll as high as 250,000 on a document that Irving himself had to know to be false, a purported police report that overwhelming evidence had shown to be a postwar forgery. Irving arrived at his numbers by ignoring the most authoritative contemporary evidence, disregarding eyewitness testimony, and defying all probability.
Irving’s numbers suggested that the British and American air raids had killed 20-30% of the population of Dresden. But the far more massive air raids that had rendered 48% of the buildings in Hamburg uninhabitable had killed 3.3% of the population; the air raids that had destroyed half of the Japanese city of Kobe had killed 1% of the population. And indeed the evidence collected by the Germans themselves at the time of the raid suggests a true casualty toll for the Dresden bombing of approximately 18,000.
Yet even after his documents for the 250,000 maximum had been utterly discredited, Irving clung to his lower estimate of 135,000 against the evidence. Why? Because a maximum of 100,000 was the maximum death toll he would allow for Auschwitz (in reality, at least 2 million people were murdered there), and Irving’s supreme concern was always to match any Nazi atrocity against an equal or greater Allied action.
As I mentioned, Lipstadt won her case. Evans’ work has been aptly praised by the New Criterion as, “A task of demolition so complete it is hard to think of anything comparable.” In crisp, authoritative style, Evans champions objective truth, historical accuracy, and moral responsibility. He exposes Irving’s deceits one by one by one, until nothing is left behind but shattered husks.
Reading Lying About Hitler is a bracing, cleansing experience. And yet in the end, it leaves a disturbing, unreassuring feeling behind.
As Evans notes, through the trial, journalists kept making a fascinating but consistent error. They kept reporting and acting as if it had been Lipstadt who sued Irving rather than the other way around; as if it had been Lipstadt who were seeking to use the law to silence Irving rather than the other way around. The same mistake showed up in the Times, the Financial Times, and the Times Literary Supplement. The Guardian even made the revealing Freudian slip of terming Irving’s side “the defense.”
British historians wondered why Lipstadt could not have “ignored” Irving – rather difficult to do when a writ is served upon one. They condemned her and her publishers for being “out for blood” – when the truth was that Irving had launched the Lipstadt action as only the first in a series of actions he had filed (or stated his intent to file) against other writers who had criticized him, including John Lukacs, a writer well known to readers of NR.
Evans’ list of examples of this recurring erroneous exculpation of Irving and condemnation of Lipstadt occupies five full pages of Lying About Hitler.
After plowing through a lot of this journalism, I had to pinch myself to recall that it was Irving who had launched the court case; Irving who was attempting to silence his critics; Irving who wanted a book withdrawn from circulation and pulped, its author and publisher ordered to pay him damages and costs, and undertakings given that the criticisms they made of his work should never be repeated. (Evans, p. 27)
As I have reflected upon the book after closing it two weeks ago, it is this section of Lying About Hitler that I find myself thinking hardest about:
Why was so much of the British press ready to identify a litigious, bullying, Nazi-sympathizing fraudster as a hero of free speech? Why were they so eager to defend his rights to spread lies that they failed to notice that he was seeking to deny others their right to speak the truth? Why so ready to see those who upheld the reality of the Holocaust as bullies – and those who lyingly denied it as victims?
The Irving trial closed 7 years ago. But the haunting power of those questions only intensifies with the passage of time.