History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving
by Deborah E. Lipstadt
Shilling for Hitler
A review by Charles Taylor
Let's imagine that there was a writer who took as his subject World War II. And
let's suppose that because of his ability to amass and cite journals, transcripts,
paperwork and all manner of documents, he gained a reputation as a meticulous
researcher. Now let's say that the conclusion the writer drew from all of his
research was an unshakable conviction that World War II never happened. It was,
he insists, a massive fraud, and he declares under oath, "No documents whatever
show that World War II had ever happened."
Now let's allow things to get curiouser and curiouser.
Despite this writer's farcical conclusion, historians of World War II, men
who have spent their professional lives studying and documenting the war, still
insist on the soundness of his research. It is possible, they say, to draw faulty
conclusions from solid fact-finding. They do not bother themselves with the
obvious question of how good the quality of any research can be if it can be
used to support what is patently false. One historian says he and his colleagues
should be able to admit the view of those with whom they may not be "intellectually
When journalists began writing about the work of this WWII debunker, they refer
to it as an alternate interpretation or a controversial point of view. One suggests
that the writer has opened a useful dialogue around the question "Who decides
what 'happened' in the first place?"
Eventually, a historian, aware of the esteem in which some of his colleagues
hold this writer, agrees to put the writer's famed research to an intensive
examination. What he finds is a consistent pattern of deliberate misquotation,
misinterpretation and outright lies designed to support the writer's conclusions.
Anything that hasn't supported those conclusions has been either discarded or
altered. This historian concludes that "deceptions ... had remained an
integral part of his working methods across the decades." Even this does
not deter other historians from continuing to profess admiration for the WWII
debunker. One even writes that the debunker possesses "an all consuming
knowledge of a vast body of material." And another, apparently unaware
of how he is defaming his profession, announces that no one "could have
withstood [the] kind of scrutiny" that the historian had subjected the
If you change "World War II" to "Holocaust" in the above
paragraphs, you have a précis of how the Holocaust denier and fascist
sympathizer David Irving has been both praised and damned. Except for that change,
each of the quotes above has been made by or about Irving. The line about Irving's
"all consuming knowledge" was said by British military historian Sir
John Keegan. The claim that no historian could have survived the scrutiny accorded
Irving was made by another acclaimed British historian, Donald Cameron Watt.
What is particularly notable about those two quotes from the leading harrumphers
of the "maps and chaps" school of history is that they came after
Irving's crushing defeat in a libel case that Irving himself brought against
the American historian Deborah Lipstadt. (Keegan and Watt were subpoenaed by
Irving to testify on his behalf.) Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust
studies at Atlanta's Emory University, had, in her book Denying
the Holocaust, called Irving a "Hitler partisan wearing blinkers"
who distorted, skewed and manipulated evidence and documents "in order
to reach historically untenable conclusions."
For this, Irving brought a libel suit against Lipstadt and her British publishers,
Viking Penguin, in British courts, a suit Irving offered to settle for 500 pounds
and a promise not to reprint Lipstadt's book. Lipstadt and Viking Penguin declined,
even though facing off against Irving in London meant operating under the asinine
British libel laws in which the burden of proof is placed on the accused. After
a four-month trial adjudicated not by a jury but by Judge Charles Gray (both
parties decided the material was too complex for a jury to digest), Gray handed
down a decision that, to anyone sentient and breathing, ended the myth of David
Irving as a historian. In his judgment, Gray not only said that Irving was an
"antisemite" and a "racist" but that his "falsification
of the record was deliberate and ... motivated by a desire to present events
in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs even if that involved
distortion and manipulation of historical evidence."
Two accounts of the trial followed in 2001. Richard Evans, the British historian
who had undertaken a massive examination of Irving's corpus for Lipstadt's defense
team (the above quote about deception being an integral part of Irving's working
methods is from Evans), published the thrilling intellectual detective story
Hitler (whose publication was delayed in the United Kingdom because Evans'
original publisher was nervous that Irving might sue). And the writer D.D. Guttenplan
wrote The Holocaust
on Trial, which provides a lucid narrative of the trial while playing right
into Irving's hands with a sophomoric and shallow discussion of what Guttenplan
believed to be the issues raised at that trial. In one passage, Guttenplan writes
that taking "so much" for granted -- "so much" referring to "Adolf Hitler's
murderous intentions, the horrifying efficiency of the death camps, the fatal
consequences for the Jews" -- "conceals" the questions of "How do we know these
things really happened?" and "How do we know [the witnesses] are telling the
truth?" To which the only response is: How do some people live with themselves?
Now, five years after crushing Irving in a British court, Deborah Lipstadt
has provided her own account of her ordeal in History on Trial: My Day in
Court With David Irving. Hers is the most detailed account of the trial
yet, and the most crazy-making.
It isn't Lipstadt who drives you nuts -- it's Irving. The man comes off as
something dreamed up in a collaboration between the Monty Python crew, George
Orwell and P.G. Wodehouse (who might well have been forecasting the arrival
of David Irving when he concocted the homegrown fascist Sir Roderick Spode).
To sit in a court for weeks on end and listen to Irving's endless insistence
that black is white and up is down would be enough to make the most patient
among us feel as if we'd slipped into Bizarro world, and Lipstadt is clearly
not a woman blessed with patience. (Having a similar temperament, I find that
one of the most likable things about her.)
Due, I'm guessing, to her discipline as a historian -- an ability to follow
an argument, to provide evidence along the way, to quickly seize upon contradiction
and prevarication -- Lipstadt gives a detailed account of the trial that never
loses its suspense, readability or momentum. Or humor. Lipstadt feels guilty
when some absurdity of the trial causes her to laugh. But how else do you react
to a moment like the one that occurred during Irving's closing statement, when
he addressed Judge Gray as "mein Führer"?
Long before she landed across the aisle from him in a British court, Lipstadt
was fighting not only Irving's reputation as a reputable historian, but also
the people who simply wanted to dismiss him as a crackpot. David Irving is surely
that, but he is not just that. And Lipstadt's deepest accomplishment
in History on Trial is in the doggedness with which she drives home the
danger of David Irving.
I have to admit to losing patience with Lipstadt at times. When the documentary
filmmaker Errol Morris shows her his film Mr. Death, about Holocaust
denier Fred Leuchter, Lipstadt says that Morris' amusement with Leuchter's cracked
theories "was, however inadvertently, helping Irving make his case." Morris
certainly has a penchant for treating the people who come before his camera
as freaks, and he often milks their oddities for laughter, but that's far from
helping Irving to make his case. It's more likely that Morris finds Leuchter's
claims so outrageous he can't conceive of how anyone can take them seriously.
But you understand how Lipstadt's experience keeps her from laughing: She is
all too familiar with people, and not just fools, willing to take Holocaust
Sooner or later, every Jew who perceives anti-Semitism as an encroaching danger
gets described as hysterical or paranoid. The flattering self-deception at the
root of that reaction is a way of consigning anti-Semitism to the past, of saying,
"Surely we've become more civilized than that." History on Trial makes
the case, as did Lying About Hitler, that we have not become so civilized
we are above tolerating David Irving.
Irving's supporters -- and I include in that group not just the pathetic fools
who greet with laughter his comments about "Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors
of the Holocaust, and Other Liars," or "ASSHOLS," at the white-supremacy
rallies and conferences he often addresses, but the more upscale fools who are
not Holocaust deniers but who continue to believe in his efficacy as a historian
-- have long tried to cast those who oppose Irving as enemies of free speech.
This is the tack Christopher Hitchens has long taken when writing about David
Irving, and it is worth dwelling on him, as his writing provides a useful compendium
of Irving apologias. In a June 1996 Vanity Fair column after St. Martin's
Press canceled its contract with Irving to publish his biography of Joseph Goebbels,
Hitchens, styling himself the macho defender of the First Amendment, called
the anti-Irving articles that led to St. Martin's actions "hysterical and old-maidish."
Of the historians condemning Irving he wrote, "These are supposedly experienced
historians who claim to have looked mass death in the face, without flinching.
And they can't take the idea of a debate with David Irving?"
The sly implication of those lines is that Irving's opponents are afraid to
confront him. What Hitchens ignores is the position that Deborah Lipstadt has
taken for years: that to debate Holocaust deniers implies they are expressing
a fact-based vision of history. Shilling for Hitler, Irving is expressing no
To see this you need look no further than the Goebbels biography that Hitchens
is so hot about. In a May 2001 review of the Evans and Guttenplan books for
the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Hitchens wrote, of St. Martin's decision,
"St. Martin's gave no reason of historical accuracy for its about-face." The
implication being that none exists.
What Hitchens perhaps did not know in 1996, and seemingly chose not to mention
in 2001, are the falsifications in the Goebbels bio that Richard Evans discovered
in his examination of Irving's work. An example: In the book, Irving cited a
statistic on the number of cases of fraud perpetrated by Jews in 1933 Germany.
Irving's rather insalubrious source for this claim was Kurt Daluege, the head
of the German Order Police in the early '30s, and later in charge of the extermination
of Jews on the Eastern Front. But having decided to quote a Nazi, Irving apparently
decided that he himself could do a better job of making the Nazi case. Daluege
had claimed that, under the Nazis, the number of fraud cases dropped from 31,000
in 1933, to 18,000, a majority of which he claimed were committed by Jews. In
Irving's book these statistics were twisted into the following sentence: "In
1932 [sic] no fewer than thirty thousand cases of fraud, mainly insurance swindles,
would be committed by Jews."
Giving Hitchens the benefit of the doubt about the lies of the Goebbels book
still does not excuse this claim from his 1996 Vanity Fair article: "And,
incidentally, [Irving] has never and not once described the Holocaust as a 'hoax'."
Restricting ourselves just to what Hitchens could have known before writing
that, we find that, testifying at the 1988 trial of a Canadian Holocaust denier,
Irving said, "No documents whatever show that a Holocaust had ever happened."
What's the defense of this? That Irving doesn't use the word "hoax"? OK then.
How about these?
In a 1991 speech, Irving said, "Until 1988, I believed that there had
been something like a Holocaust ... but [in] 1988 ... I met people who knew
differently and could prove to me that story was just a legend."
In 1990: "The holocaust of Germans in Dresden really happened. That of
the Jews in the gas chambers of Auschwitz is an invention."
And, again, in 1991: "More women died on the back seat of Senator Edward
Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz."
Remember, Hitchens' defenses of Irving did not appear on, to use his own phrase,
"some ghastly Brownshirt Web site," but in Vanity Fair and the Los
Angeles Times Book Review. Inevitably, in the L.A. Times piece, Hitchens
brings up the totem of Irving enablers, "the censorship of Irving." What is
he referring to? St. Martin's Press did not censor Irving; it chose not to publish
his book because its chairman, Thomas J. McCormack, was sickened by the thought
of publishing a book whose subtext, he said, was "the Jews brought this onto
themselves." St. Martin's did not prevent the book from appearing elsewhere,
and in fact, the Goebbels bio was published in Britain, from where the faithful
could order it.
Any honest person who talks about David Irving and the censoring of history
has to acknowledge that the censoring has been attempted by David Irving himself.
This is what the libel trial was about -- Irving's attempts to censor Lipstadt's
Denying the Holocaust -- though, as the trial showed, the claims Lipstadt
made against Irving are demonstrably true. This is not the only piece of litigation
Irving has attempted or threatened. His lawsuit threats delayed for years the
British publication of historian John Lukacs' The
Hitler of History. When it did appear in Britain, it was published in an
edition that bowdlerized Lukacs' case against Irving. These very real attempts
to quash the work of historians are never mentioned by Irving's defenders. But
somehow, the work of historians who set out to prove the deceptions in Irving's
work is depicted as an attempt at censorship, or a way of inhibiting historical
It might be worth pointing out here that Lipstadt, who is Jewish, makes a point
in History on Trial of speaking against censoring Holocaust deniers,
not just from a freedom-of-speech standpoint but from the standpoint that censorship
gives work the allure of the forbidden. And she is harsh and direct on the use
of the Holocaust to strengthen Jewish identity. "Jews," she writes, "have survived
despite antisemitism not because of it."
But even pointing those things out feels somewhat shameful to me. It's almost
as if Lipstadt has to be proven "not too Jewish" before her case against Irving
can be taken seriously. The only thing that makes her Jewishness relevant is
that the reaction against Lipstadt (especially some of the initial British press
reaction, which Evans wrote of in Lying About Hitler) seems to me to
be of a piece with the chiding given Jews for being too sensitive or fearful
or paranoid about anti-Semitism.
But to paraphrase the old ad for Levy's Real Jewish Rye, you don't have to
be Jewish to be alarmed at David Irving. Considered solely as a historian, how
could Deborah Lipstadt be privy to knowledge about Irving's long history of
lying, deliberately misquoting documents, and baiting Jews in his speeches and
not be appalled and disgusted at the persistent myth of David Irving as a misguided
chap who is nonetheless a reliable researcher? If the practice of history means
taking into account verifiable facts, how could Lipstadt not be alarmed by the
failure of two eminent historians, John Keegan and Donald Cameron Watt, to alter
their view of Irving after the trial proved his work worthless? Irving did not
lose, as Keegan claimed he did, for "faults" of interpreting "an
all consuming knowledge of a vast body of material." He lost for a consistent
pattern of deceit. Keegan's claim that Lipstadt was a member of the "self-righteously
politically correct" when she had not testified, and when he, by his own
admission, had not read her work, raises the question of what political correctness
possibly has to do with an assertion that the Holocaust actually happened.
Lipstadt is probably right in suspecting that Keegan and Watt were annoyed
by what they saw as the impertinence of a woman and a Jew who did not know her
place. What seems to bother Irving's defenders is the very notion of professional
and intellectual accountability. Running into Lipstadt after the trial, Watt
said to her, "None of us could have withstood that kind of scrutiny." In a column
for the Evening Standard, he said, "Show me one historian who has not
broken out into a cold sweat at the thought of undergoing similar treatment."
What Lipstadt was perhaps too polite to say to Watt was that any historian who
wishes to be worthy of the title had damn well better be able to withstand that
kind of scrutiny.
On the other hand, the case made against Irving has consistently been made
to sound like intellectual tyranny. And that risks obscuring one of the most
important lessons to be gleaned from Irving's unsuccessful libel case against
Lipstadt, namely that intellectual accountability entails moral accountability.
The work of Keegan and Watt, and of other historians who have more tentatively
applauded Irving's "scholarship," should not be dismissed because
of that praise. But now that Irving's mendacity has been revealed, and his research
proven thoroughly and irrevocably worthless, those who have praised him have
a choice to make. If they choose to stand by their view of Irving, they must,
in this at least, be judged as having abandoned the very concept of historical
fact, which Richard Evans defined as "something that happened in history
and can be verified as such through the traces history has left behind."
It is not a simplification but the essence of this case to ask how you can trust
any historian who defends a Holocaust denier.
piece on the Evans and Guttenplan books ran in Salon in May 2001, I received
an e-mail from David Irving that ended, "You appear not to know that June 20,
2001 sees the start of our appeal in the London courts, and after that a lot
of journalists, not just you, may well be quaking in their evil smelling boots."
The next month, Irving's attempt to appeal Judge Gray's decision was unequivocally
turned down for the third and final time. I won't speak for the odor of my shoes.
But, to paraphrase something said to her during the trial, I do know that Deborah
Lipstadt has managed to scrape a major piece of shit off the boots of history.