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London, April 12, 2000  


Racist historian faces £2m bill for libel defeat

Historian who strode into court with a reputation but left facing ruin

By Neil Tweedie

 

 

THERE was at least one ally waiting for David Irving as he emerged from the High Court in London yesterday with his personal and professional reputation in tatters.

An elderly man wearing a sandwich board shouted to anyone who cared to listen that Mr Irving was a "bringer of truth". His was a lone voice. Few plaintiffs in a libel action have had their characters so comprehensively demolished as Mr Irving. He must rue the day that he decided to sue Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books.

Mr Justice Gray branded him a racist and anti-Semite, an associate of Right-wing extremists who promoted neo-Nazism. He was a Holocaust denier, who had persistently manipulated and misrepresented the historical record for ideological purposes. He had rubbished the existence of the gas chambers and twisted events to portray Hitler in a favourable light.

Mr Irving faces the loss of his home in Mayfair and the threat of enforced bankruptcy. He was warned yesterday that he would be liable for the bulk of the costs, estimated at £2.3 million. His chances of securing a contract from a British publisher in the future must be remote. How did he so successfully sabotage his own career?

The journey to Irving v Penguin and Lipstadt began with the publication in 1977 of his most famous work, Hitler's War. Mr Irving claimed that the Fuhrer had not been aware of the mass extermination of European Jewry until 1943. There was the inevitable outcry. Mr Irving refused to repent, simply offering a reward to anyone who could find a document directly linking Hitler to the Final Solution.

At that stage his stock among historians was relatively high. His journeys into the archives of the Third Reich had shed new light on its workings. Mr Irving liked to see himself as a hands-on historian, a maverick taunting the historical establishment with unorthodox views based on primary sources. But over time his views and associations assumed an increasingly disturbing character.

Mr Irving was feted by neo-Nazis in Austria and Germany, his revisionist writings and speeches earning him star status. He had become one of the main speakers for the Deutsche Volksunion (DVU), a far-Right party preaching racial hatred. By 1988, Mr Irving was a confirmed Holocaust denier.

In the second edition of Hitler's War, published in 1991, all mention of the Holocaust was expunged. Auschwitz the death camp was now Auschwitz the slave labour camp. The gas chambers were a myth, the result of British, Soviet and Jewish disinformation.

He told an audience in Canada: "I don't see any reason to be tasteful about Auschwitz. It's baloney, it's a legend. Once we admit the fact that it was a brutal slave labour camp and large numbers of people did die - as large numbers of innocent people died elsewhere in the war - why believe the rest of the baloney?

"I say quite tastelessly, in fact, that more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz. Oh, you think that's tasteless? How about this: there are so many Auschwitz survivors going around, in fact the number increases as the years go past, which is biologically very odd to say the least. Because I'm going to form an Association of Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust and Other Liars, or the A-S-S-H-O-L-S."

The Jews who died in the war had perished in the same way as other groups oppressed by the Nazis, in mass shootings, or through overwork, starvation or disease. Auschwitz, the place which more than any symbolised the horror of the Holocaust, was not a death camp, it was a slave labour camp. Outwardly, Mr Irving portrayed himself as a liberal, who, like many of his class and age, lamented the passing of the old England.

But his diaries showed him in a different light. In April 1990, he attended a revisionist conference in Munich as its star speaker. The previous evening he had been invited to a dinner organised by Ewald Althans, a leading neo-Nazi. Mr Irving wrote: "It ended with a Trinkspruch (toast) spoken by him to a certain statesman whose 101st birthday falls today. All rose, toasted; I had no glass, as I don't drink." The statesman in question was Adolf Hitler.

In 1993 Mr Irving was expelled from Germany and banned from re-entering the country for the crime of denying the Holocaust. He would also be banned from Canada and Australia. His diaries also revealed a rhyme he had composed for his baby daughter, Jessica. It went: "I am a Baby Aryan / Not Jewish or Sectarian / I have no plans to marry/ an Ape or Rastafarian."

Mr Irving found it difficult to conceal his anti-Semitism. In an interview in November 1998, he said: "The question which would concern me, if I was a Jew, is not who pulled the trigger, but why? Why are we disliked? Is it something we are doing? I'm disliked. David Irving is disliked. I know that, because of the books I write.

"You people are disliked on a global scale. You have been disliked for 3,000 years and yet you never seem to ask what is at the root of this dislike. No sooner do you arrive as a people in a new country than within 50 years you are already being disliked all over again. Now, what is it? And I don't know the answer to this. Is it built into our microchip?"

Mr Irving was asked for the answer. He said: "I'm a racist. I would say they're a clever race. I would say that as a race they are better at making money than I am. That's a racist remark. But they appear to be better at making money than I am. If I was going to be crude, I would say not only are they better at making money, but they are greedy."

When Deborah Lipstadt, an American academic, decided to write a book on Holocaust denial, Mr Irving was bound to feature as one of its chief practitioners. The book was called Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, published in Britain by Penguin in 1995. Prof Lipstadt accused Mr Irving of being one of the most dangerous Holocaust deniers.

He had used his acknowledged expertise as a researcher of Nazi archives to produce false history, she said. A sympathiser of the neo-Nazi cause, he was seeking to rehabilitate fascism by exonerating Hitler from responsibility for the Final Solution, and disproving the existence of the gas chambers.

Prof Lipstadt wrote: "Irving is one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial. Familiar with historical evidence, he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda."

It was bound to provoke a response from Mr Irving. Over the years he had seen his income, once £100,000 a year, shrink as publishers shunned him. In 1996 his American publishers, St Martin's Press, abandoned publication of his work, Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich, saying it had been mistaken to take on a book that described Hitler as a reluctant anti-Semite. The book had taken Mr Irving nine years to write.

In Britain, Mr Irving was being cold-shouldered by bookshops which were at the same time stocking Prof Lipstadt's book. He sued Prof Lipstadt and her publishers, Penguin Books, for libel. The matter could have ended with an an apology and £500 payment to a charity of Mr Irving's choice if Penguin had wished, but the company decided to fight the case as a matter of principle.

Prof Lipstadt, Professor of Jewish History at Emory University, Atlanta, was a former adviser to the American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. She was raised in a traditional Jewish home, the daughter of German and Polish emigres. During her career she had specialised in the Holocaust.

She explained: "Normally I don't debate with these people (Holocaust deniers) on principle because I don't think they should be treated as 'the other side'. But if I had not fought, he (Irving) would have won by default and people would have thought his version of the Holocaust to be a legitimate definition."

For two months, the parties would argue over the minutiae of one of history's darkest crimes, watched by a capacity audience. Either through necessity or hubris, Mr Irving decided to dispense with counsel and represent himself. Tall, burly, with blue pin-stripe straining across his back, he cut a lone figure in the court on one side of the court.

On the other was Prof Lipstadt, almost lost among the formidable array of legal firepower assembled for the defence. At its head was Richard Rampton, QC, urbane veteran of the "McLibel" case. Both sides had agreed to dispense with a jury, the issues being considered too complex, so the decision in the case rested solely with Mr Justice Gray.

Mr Irving accused Prof Lipstadt of being part of an "organised international endeavour" by Jewish and Left-wing groups to destroy his career over 30 years. Being described as a Holocaust-denier was equivalent to being branded a wife-beater or paedophile, he claimed. Mr Rampton responded: "Mr Irving calls himself a historian. The truth is, however, that he is a falsifier of history. To put it bluntly, he is a liar."

Throughout the case, Mr Rampton was to throw Mr Irving's words back at him, whether written, or spoken to audiences of Right-wing extremists. First he would prove that Mr Irving had falsified the historical record. Then he would lay bare his motives.

During cross-examination, Mr Irving said he believed that the total of Jewish dead was between one and four million, not the six million generally accepted. Gassing had not been carried out on anything but an experimental scale. The Jews who died were shot, starved and worked to death in slave labour camps or fell victim to disease. Auschwitz could not have coped. A million bodies weighed 100,000 tons, making disposal a major logistical problem.

Mr Irving's justification for ridding the second edition of Hitler's War of any mention of the Holocaust lay largely in the so-called Leuchter report. Its author, Fred Leuchter, an American with experience of execution chambers in his own country, concluded that the gas chambers of Auschwitz did not exist.

In 1991, Mr Irving explained his reason for purging his book of the Holocaust. "You won't find the Holocaust mentioned in one line, not even in a footnote," he said. "Why should you? If something didn't happen, then you don't even dignify it with a footnote."

But the defence showed that the Leuchter report was a deeply flawed document written by a man with no formal training in engineering or forensic science. Prof Robert Van Pelt, a Dutch architect who had made a study of Auschwitz, dismissed Leuchter's analysis. He said there was an overwhelming body of documentary and eye-witness evidence to show that a million Jews had been exterminated in Auschwitz.

It was a "moral certainty" that the gas chambers had been the main instrument of murder in the camp between the summer of 1942 and the autumn of 1944. Giving evidence, Prof Van Pelt spoke of his visits to Auschwitz. He said: "I was frightened. I don't believe in ghosts. I have never seen one at Auschwitz. But it is an awesome place, and an awesome responsibility as an historian. In a map of human suffering Auschwitz would be at the centre."

Mr Irving had argued that even if there had been a Holocaust in the sense of a planned extermination of the Jews, then it was not inspired by Hitler. The defence commissioned a number of reports from leading academics to examine Mr Irving's methods as a historian.

Mr Irving had deliberately misinterpreted documents, they found. In one case he used an order that one trainload of Jews should not be liquidated to suggest that Hitler had forbidden the killing of all Jews. In another, he misquoted an order issued by Heydrich to police across Germany to suggest that Hitler had tried to stop the anti-Jewish pogrom of Reichskristallnacht in November 1938.

Prof Richard Evans, of Cambridge University, who investigated Mr Irving's use of documentary material, said he was not prepared for the "sheer depth of duplicity" in Mr Irving's treatment of sources. He concluded: "Irving is essentially an ideologue who uses history for his own political purposes; he is not primarily concerned with discovering and interpreting what happened in the past, he is concerned merely to give a selective and tendentious account of it in order to further his own ideological ends in the present.

"The true historian's primary concern, however, is with the past. That is why, in the end, Irving is not a historian."


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