David Irving Jailed in Austria for Holocaust Denial

Years ago, I picked up a book titled The Trail of the Fox, a biography of Erwin Rommel, the legendary German armored commander. I found it an  impressive read — lively and informative, thoroughly researched, and extremely well written. 

But as I continued reading, a certain sense of disquiet crept over me. The writer held a fair number of odd ideas. He seemed to relish German victories more than was strictly necessary. He was more dismissive of British efforts than they deserved, even though (I checked to make sure) he himself was British. As the book approached its climax, he made protracted, even vehement efforts to deny that Rommel played any part in the officer's plot against Hitler, one of the major reasons (along with his chivalrous and humane behavior in the desert campaigns) he is held in such respect to this day. Even worse, the book treated the actual conspirators, the heroic but doomed von Stauffenberg and Beck, with open contempt, as if they were criminals, as if it were a despicable thing to attempt the destruction of Adolf Hitler. 

I closed the book with some relief, eying the name on the cover — David Irving — with the thought that this was one writer I could cross off my list, enjoyable as the book otherwise might have been.

Several years on, while working as an editor on an encyclopedia of military affairs, I learned more about Irving. That he was not simply a writer, or a historian, but in fact one of the leading historians of World War II,; possibly the leading historian of the German side. He possessed one of the most valuable archives of Nazi—era documentation in private hands. He had made several breakthroughs in our knowledge of Nazi policy, and was respected by figures such as John Keegan, the dean of contemporary military historians. 

I also learned that his colleagues were well aware of Irving's peculiarities: his tendency to give the Germans the benefit of every doubt; his disdain for the Allies; his near hero—worship of Adolf Hitler. (Keegan referred to his book Hitler's War as 'the autobiography Hitler never got to write'.) Most historians seemed to view Irving much the same as they might an eccentric uncle, who is fine until you brush against one of his obsessions.

Seeing that was the consensus, I decided it was acceptable to use Irving's books, in particular those dealing with technological aspects, such as The Mare's Nest and The German Atomic Bomb, as sources. But a residual sense of caution suggested that I check every item with at least two other sources.That's how I handled it, and I can't say I ever ran across any discrepancies.

Then came the Lipstadt affair, and all the caution in the world was never going to be enough after that. 

Deborah Lipstadt is an American historian specializing in Holocaust studies. As part of a project dealing with Holocaust denial, she subjected Irving's work to an exhaustive analysis, publishing the results in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.

Her conclusion: Irving was an anti—Semite, a Holocaust denier, and possibly a neo—Nazi.

Public reaction was muted, as is usually the case with an academic fracas. Irving could have ridden it out. But in a classic case of hubris echoing other such cases (that of Alger Hiss comes to mind), Irving sued Lipstadt for libel. To compound the error, he decided to represent himself. (Whether this was out of arrogance or inability to find a lawyer to represent him I have no idea.)

To make a long story short, the presiding judge, Charles Gray, found for Dr. Lipstadt in every particular. Irving, he wrote, was "an active Holocaust denier ... anti—Semitic and racist." Irving was left with the burden of paying the case's substantial costs.

From that point on, Irving's life has been a lesson in the ancient knowledge that the Furies, once aroused, do not cease until only the bones remain. He lost his house, his library, and even that vast archive. Worse was yet to come.

In November 2005 Irving was arrested in Austria on a seventeen—year—old warrant for denying the Holocaust to an audience of Austrian extremists. Last February 20 he was sentenced to a prison term of three years. 

There have been comments claiming that this is a PC sentence. There have even been comparisons drawn to the Danish cartoon jihad.

But those interpretations won't stand. Consider what Irving was accused of:  in his book Hitler's War (a volume I have been relieved of the burden of ever having to read), he stated not only that Hitler had no idea that anything like the Holocaust was being carried out, but that furthermore there was 'not a shred of evidence' that any exterminations occurred. According to Irving, a small number of deaths were caused by disease and hunger.

In the strictest technical sense, Irving had some justification. Scientific historiography, of the school of Leopold von Ranke and other 19th century German historians, demands documentation as historical evidence. Documents don't lie, as opposed to faulty or self—serving personal accounts. If there's no documentation, there's no history. And that's what Irving has always contended — that there is no documentation concerning the Holocaust, no memo reading 'Kill the Jews,' signed, 'A. Hitler.'

But is this historiographic critique in fact true? Doesn't it depend on what we take 'documentation' to mean, on how we apply the term? What about all those passages from Mein Kampf?  For instance, the one reading, 'Jews are vermin — and we Germans know how to deal with vermin.'

What about Hitler's speech of January 1939 (only one example among many), in which he said, before tens of thousands of rapt Party members, 'If they bring about another war, there will not be a single Jew left in Europe.' 

What about the documents originating with the Wannsee Conference, chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, as close to a prot é as Hitler ever had, in which the details of the Final Solution were worked out?

What about the memos from Eichmann's and Muller's offices? So many 'sent east'. So many 'processed'. So many 'run through'. What could they possibly have been referring to?

And what about the photographs? The film footage? What about the piles of gold teeth, the children's clothing, the women's hair? 

And all this over and above the testimony — from the survivors, from the Germans who took part in or witnessed the crime of attempted genocide, and from the Allied rescuers. Hundreds of thousands of them, in total. Do those count for anything at all? Do situations exist where the historiographical rules on the 19th Century must be updated to get at the truth? And is it possible that threshold was breached in this case, involving the Holocaust? 

Did Irving consider any of this, at any time, before drawing his conclusions? The record fails to show it, even though he had to know that such evidence existed and what it must mean. If that's the case, he lied. He lied about what he knew. He lied about the facts. He lied about the implications of those facts.

I'm not a lawyer, and I know little as to whether or to what extent lying is protected speech. But if there is a case where an exception ought to exist, then this one is it.

(For what it's worth, Irving's final defense before sentencing was von Rankean in nature: he no longer doubted the Holocaust because he'd found a document — the text of a message to Eichmann concerning the exterminations at Treblinka. That was it. That's all it took to convince David Irving.)

So why did he lie? Well, it seems that along with his career as a historian, Irving also had a sideline as a public speaker. He spoke throughout Europe, apparently on a regular basis (though only a handful of occasions, such as that 1988 speech in Austria, are verifiable with hard evidence) to whatever fascist, anti—Semitic, or Neo—Nazi organization would have him. On at least one occasion he is reported to have told the crowd that they would be the ones to carry the task onward, that the future was theirs.

That's why he lied. Because he was a believer. As I suspected when I first encountered him, two decades ago, warned by that unmistakable shiver up the spine. A believer in the most imbecilic, most debased, most utterly discredited ideology of the modern age.

None of this amounts to a crime, as we judge things in this country

The Austrians think differently — they have no choice. Austria was seriously implicated in the Endlosung (Eichmann's main office was in Vienna), and remains today the most anti—Semitic nation in Western Europe. A deeply—rooted fascist movement exists in the country (one of its offshoots actually gained power in 2000). As is also the case in Germany, anti—extremist laws are a necessary means of social prophylaxis.

Irving chose to defy them, and now he is paying the price.

To us, Irving's crimes are metaphysical, and can't really be punished on this plane. He offended against his profession, against his art, and against the standards of honest scholarship. He offended against his society and his civilization. And at the last, he offended against what Burke called 'the eternal chain' — that endless filament of memory, obligation, and love that binds together the living, the unborn, and the dead.

Somehow, a three—year term doesn't seem like enough. But it'll do.

Among many other things, J.R. Dunn was the editor of the International Military Encyclopedia for twelve years.