[Why do "respectable" newspapers continue to use the so-called historian David Irving? David Cesarani reports.]
Twice this year David Irving has grabbed the headlines. In January, he claimed to have discovered the [Adolf] Eichmann diaries. Last week he was back in the limelight, following the disclosure of a deal with the Sunday Times to supply it with previously unseen parts of the Goebbels diaries. Yet Irving is irrevocably linked to neo-Nazis in Germany and has repeatedly denied the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz, epicentre of the Holocaust. Why do editors and journalists continue to use him? He is a man with a mission who thrives on publicity, so if his views are so obnoxious and wrong, why does he keep on getting it?
Irving is a master at using the newspapers for the self-publicity that serves his broader political objectives. As he brazenly told the Sunday Telegraph on 19 January this year, in the wake of his hyped up and ultimately trivial discoveries about Eichmann, he "was simply trying to manipulate the press."
The case of the Eichmann diaries is a good example of how journalists play into his hands. In January, the Wiener Library and Institute of Contemporary History held a conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference at which leading Nazis gathered to discuss details of the "Final Solution." A journalist at the Observer decided to do a piece on the conference, but rang Irving for a comment. Irving then hijacked the story with the "revelation" of the Eichmann diaries. Gullible and ill-informed hacks didn't know that most of this material was already in the public domain. Despite warnings, they went after Irving in a gadarene charge that turned news of the event commemorating the extermination of European Jewry into a week-long Irvingfest.
July 10, 1992
Was it mere coincidence that the Goebbels diaries affair just happened to break at the same time as Irving was due to launch a series of so-called revisionist seminars on the Holocaust in London? The publicity for these grotesque meetings has been circulated by the neo-Nazi British National Party in its monthly journal British Nationalist. It announces that "The 'Holocaust' myth is increasingly exposed as a preposterous fraud thanks to the painstaking researches of people like Professor Faurisson and gas chamber expert Fred Leuchter. But information about their discoveries is denied to the general public who are, instead, served up with an intensified diet of mind-rotting 'Holohoax' garbage." Hopefully, most editors would abhor such notions. Then why give Irving, their chief purveyor, the oxygen of publicity?
The British press seem obdurately unwilling to recognise the fact that Irving is a propagandist and not a scholar. Until the Independent, on 3 July 1992, labelled him a "Hitler apologist," a tag that seems to have been quite widely adopted, he was usually described as a "right-wing historian" (Independent and Daily Telegraph, 13 January 1992), a "controversial historian" (Observer, 12 January 1992), or just a "historian" (Sunday Telegraph, 19 January 1992). Some papers, the Sunday Times, of course, but also the Observer (5 July 1992), persist with this flattering nomenclature. But Irving can barely claim the necessary credentials. Over the years, his once lauded scholarship has taken a pounding. His errors have cost him, and those who trusted his "expertise," a small fortune. His views on the Holocaust are comparable to the flat-earthers' opinions about geography and can only be supported by massively distorting the archival sources.
In 1970, Irving was successfully sued for £40,000 for statements made in his book on the ill-fated Arctic convoy PQ17. Not long after that, the publisher Andre Deutsch was sued for bringing out a play by Rolf Hochhuth based on Irving's sensational account of the death of the Polish wartime leader General Sikorski. Irving had "misread" a crucial document. In 1979, the German publisher Ullstein had to pay compensation to the father of Anne Frank after printing the introduction to the German edition of Hitler's War, where Irving claimed that Anne Frank's diary was a forgery. More recently, in the Independent on 27 November 1991, Gitta Sereny showed that when he quoted an entry from Goebbels' diary on the killing of the Jews, Irving omitted lines that contradicted his thesis that Hitler knew nothing about the extermination process.
Nor is it sufficient any longer simply to call Irving "right-wing." As long ago as June 1984, he was giving lectures to outlawed neo-Nazi groups in Austria. In May 1990, he was detained in the city centre. A year later, he was fined £3,000 for denying that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz when he addressed an earlier meeting in a Munich beer cellar. On 28 November 1991, he was shown on ITV's "This Week" speaking to a rally of neo-Nazis in Halle. As he poured abuse on asylum-seekers, the crowd chanted "Sieg Heil." For several years he has appeared at the annual meeting of the radical right Deutsches Volks Partei in Passau.
The German press are less coy. The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 4 March 1988 called Irving's Hitler biography [Hitler's War] an "Apologetik" and on 4 January this year described him as the "rechtsradikale britische Historiker." Uwe Westphal, the London-based correspondent and head of the German writers abroad section of PEN, labels him "der Neo Nazi David Irving." Westphal is bemused by the attraction that Irving holds for the British press. After Irving described the gas chambers at Auschwitz as a tourist attraction built by the Poles after the war, an official at the Polish Embassy in London declared him "mentally unstable."
But Irving is not mad; he is just bad and dangerous. As he has openly stated, he has a mission to convert public opinion (especially in Germany) to his way of thinking. This involves exculpating Hitler of the murder of Europe's Jews and denying that the Holocaust took place. If there is one single obstacle to rehabilitating the radical right and the Nazis, it is the crime of genocide. Irving's pseudo-history and his politics, the man and his views, cannot be separated.
So why do editors still permit their papers to enhance Irving's notoriety and afford him a measure of credibility? Nazism and the Holocaust are to up-market papers what soft porn is to the gutter press. Revelations about Nazi hierarchs, pictures of men in crisp black uniforms and, if possible, some details of sadistic anti-Semitism are calculated to sell copies. Irving provides the peg on which to hang all this and adds more. He is a "name," a "controversial" figure.
The fact that his views are obscene, and in some countries illegal, seems not to worry them. They refuse to acknowledge the difference between scholarly debate and propaganda, failing to contextualise Irving's pseudo-history within his political activity. Worse still, the liberal notion of "balance" is frequently wheeled out. If you have a conference on the Holocaust, why not get a comment from someone who denies it occurred? If survivors of the gas chambers denounce Irving, his voice should also be heard. Fair play for all.
It is hard to believe that the editors who order profiles of Irving and encourage their staff to follow up Irving stories really want to whitewash Hitler or assist the revival of a movement which made mincemeat of the freedoms they currently enjoy. Rather, they seem guilty of the most abysmal opportunism or a myopic liberalism that enables them to divorce Irving from his politics.
The affair of the Goebbels diaries underlines this point. No doubt Andrew Neil means it when he condemns neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism, but how can he square this stance with his employment of David Irving? It is simply not true that Irving was the only scholar available who could read the Goebbels manuscripts.
In any case, how could a man who has been shown to distort archive sources, including earlier copies of the very same diaries, be trusted with this delicate work? Is he a reliable "technician," as Neil maintains? Astoundingly, Neil admitted in an interview for the BBC World Service that he deplored Irving's politics and regarded his views on the Holocaust as "absurd."
What Neil and other editors apparently cannot understand is that any publicity for, or reference to, Irving as an "historian" suits his political agenda. In Germany he operates on the edge of the law, and in the face of a nearly unanimous obloquy; but in Britain newspapers hang on his words and deeds, picking up his cues like well-trained spaniels. Now the press is once again under scrutiny, it is surely time to add gross political irresponsibility to its list of failings.
[David Cesarani is Depute Director of the Wiener Library, London, and author of "Justice Delayed," a study of Nazi war criminals in the UK.]
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