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London, April 12, 2000  

The trial of David Irving -- and my part in his downfall

By John Keegan,
Defence Editor

[Website: This fine, controversial article hasbeen repeated in newspapers around the world, in full, among them La Stampa Italy, National Post, Canada, etc. It has attracted the fury of Jewish readers.]

[Picture added by Website: Sir John Keegan is knighted on May 3, 2000]

THE news that David Irving has lost his libel case will send a tremor through the community of 20th-century historians.

For more than a year now, the gossip between them has been about whether he would lose or not, a subject on which all hedged bets. "It depends whether the judge goes for Holocaust denial or slurs on his reputation", was the general view. "If the first he'll lose, if the second he might get away with it."

Sir John KeeganWhat this insider talk meant was that Mr Irving might well persuade the judge of the unfairness of Professor Lipstadt's accusations of his bad historical method. That was what he cared about and he would no doubt argue his case well. If, however, her accusation that Irving's version of the Holocaust was so untruthful as to outweigh his merits as an otherwise objective historian, then he would get no damages and have to pay enormous costs.

As the trial date drew nearer, talk turned to the question of who had been asked to give evidence. Eventually I was. I -- like others I knew -- declined. Earlier experiences had persuaded me that nothing but trouble comes of taking sides over Irving. Decide against him, and his associates accuse one of prejudice. On this occasion I was accused of cowardice. Decide for him, and the smears start. I have written complimentary reviews of Irving's work as a military historian to find myself posted on the internet as a Nazi sympathiser.

Refusal did not get me off the hook. Last autumn, Mr Irving told me he intended to subpoena me and in January the summons appeared. To it was attached a cheque for £50, thus making it an enforceable court instrument. I had to appear, like it or not.

In practice, the appearance was painless. Mr Irving very decently gave me the chance at the outset to state that I was not present willingly. He allowed me to explain why, without interruption. There was no jury to unsettle one, the parties having agreed to leave it all to the judge, a distinguished former libel QC, Charles Gray (who represented Lord Aldington in the famous Tolstoy case).

The judge was relaxed but a master of the material. All I had to do was answer Mr Irving's questions. They were about my opinion of him as a historian. He had quotations from favourable reviews of his work I had written. Could such opinions, he asked, in effect, be consistent with the contrary opinions of other historians?

In a sense this was the central question, which would recur throughout the hearing. Prof Lipstadt's case was that the bad in Irving was so bad that it robbed all he wrote of value. Irving's case was that, if some historians of reputation praised parts of his work, the praise extended to all his work. Both positions are, of course, highly artificial.

Fortunately, I did not have to give my opinion of Prof Lipstadt's work. It was easy, however, to say that a reviewer is at liberty to pick and choose. I had praised, and would praise again, I said, Irving's extraordinary ability to describe and analyse Hitler's conduct of military operations, which was his main occupation during the Second World War. That did not imply endorsement of Irving's view that Hitler did not "know" about the Holocaust until October 1943. That view was "perverse", I said.

What did I mean? I meant, I said, that it defied reason, or common sense. Would it not, however, be the most extraordinary historical revelation of the war, Irving asked, if it could be shown that he did not know about the Holocaust? This was a very curious moment. I suddenly recognised that Irving believed that Hitler's ignorance could be demonstrated.

I stepped down but stayed to watch the rest of the morning's proceedings. Mr Irving's performance was very impressive. He is a large, strong, handsome man, excellently dressed, with the appearance of a leading QC. He performs as well as a QC also, asking, in a firm but courteous voice, precise questions which demonstrate his detailed knowledge of an enormous body of material.

There it was all around us, hundreds of box files holding thousands of pages telling in millions of words what had been done and suffered in Hitler's Europe. Irving knows the material paragraph by paragraph. His skill as an archivist cannot be contested.

Unfortunately for him, the judge has now decided that all-consuming knowledge of a vast body of material does not excuse faults in interpreting it. Irving, the judge said, "repeatedly makes assertions about the Holocaust which are unsupported by or contrary to the historical record".

This is the part of the judgment that will hurt. Mr Irving, perhaps because he left London University without taking a degree, is acutely concerned to be recognised as an academic historian among others. It is not enough for him to receive compliments from professors about his skill in uncovering lost documents or finding forgotten survivors of Hitler's court. Those are the sort of things journalists do. He wants to be praised for his source notes, for his exegesis, for his bibliographies, for what historians call "the apparatus".

As a result, his books positively clank and groan under the weight of apparatus. Very good it is too. Irving, never confident enough to believe what he reads about himself, really is admired by some of those whose approval he seeks. Unfortunately for him, he is admired only when he writes sense. When he writes nonsense, a small but disabling element in his work, he sacrifices all admiration and incurs blame mixed with incredulity. How can anyone so good at history be so bad?

There is an answer. It is that there are really two Irvings. There is Irving the researcher and most of Irving the writer, who sticks to the facts and makes eloquent sense of them. Then there is Irving the thinker, who lets insecurities, imagined slights and youthful resentments bubble up from within him to cloud his mind. It is as if he becomes possessed by the desire to shock and confound the respectable ranks of academe, to write the unprintable and to speak the unutterable. Like many who seek to shock, he may not really believe what he says and probably feels astounded when taken seriously.

He has, in short, many of the qualities of the most creative historians. He is certainly never dull. Prof Lipstadt, by contrast, seems as dull as only the self-righteously politically correct can be. Few other historians had ever heard of her before this case. Most will not want to hear from her again. Mr Irving, if he will only learn from this case, still has much that is interesting to tell us.

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