June 2, 1996
In the Shadow of Goebbels
By TINA ROSENBERG
avid Irving opens "Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich" with a statement that shows Goebbels is not the only one who knows something about propaganda: "Writing this biography, I have lived in the evil shadow of Dr. Joseph Goebbels for over seven years." Coming from the favorite historian of Holocaust deniers, a man who believes that the Auschwitz gas chambers were built by Poland after the war to promote tourism and that Hitler knew nothing about the extermination of the Jews, this is a disarming statement. In one sentence Irving advises the reader both that he is an intrepid researcher and that his views are perhaps not so extreme after all.
The book, which has just appeared in Home England, may yet be published in the United States, but -- as has been remarked on extensively -- it will not be under the auspices of St. Martin's Press. On April 4, the chairman of St. Martin's, Thomas J. McCormack, announced that he was breaking his company's contract to publish the book. "I hated it," he said. "It seemed to me that the subtext was the ugly one: that Jews brought it on to themselves." The reversal followed a strong prepublication reaction to the book. Publishers Weekly called it "repellent." Frank Rich, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote that publishing "Goebbels" was "the willing execution of the truth." Employees of St. Martin's pilloried the book during a two-hour special meeting: people working in divisions as remote as reference and education had received angry phone calls, some from their mothers. Orders to the college division were canceled.
Thomas Dunne, who had acquired the book for St. Martin's and was its editor, received death threats. Anne Roiphe, a columnist at The New York Observer, suggested that Dunne be exiled to join the Freemen in Montana, and over a letter to the editor defending Dunne The Observer put the headline "Stand By Your Nazi."
The explanation for how St. Martin's got into this mess can be found in Irving's opening sentence. This book is not "Mein Kampf." A reader would have to have some familiarity with Irving or know quite a bit about the Third Reich to detect a problem, and evidently Dunne was not such a reader. He says that when he received a 2,500-page manuscript from Irving's agent, he didn't even know who Irving was.
The manuscript he received was an unsympathetic portrayal of Goebbels, with Irving chiming in every few pages in his own voice to assure the reader that Goebbels was indeed a snake. Irving's research has taken him to archives all over the world, and the book contains 155 pages of footnotes -- to Goebbels's diaries, letters, documents and other primary sources. His writing is lively and compelling. The British edition, published by Irving's own imprint, is a Rolls-Royce, filled with costly color photographs. And Irving reminds the reader dozens of times that his is the first book to use the complete Goebbels diaries, much of which had been microfiched and stored in a special Moscow archive devoted to foreign material captured by the Red Army.
But under its polished surface the book is in fact a sophisticated blood libel. A look at just one sentence is enough to show why. In a description of the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in 1933, Irving writes, "The upshot of the Jewish campaign overseas was that Goebbels secured from Hitler -- or so he claimed -- approval to threaten a short, sharp counterboycott of the Jews." A "counterboycott" provoked by a "Jewish campaign overseas" -- in other words, the Jews had it coming. These are not Goebbels's words, they are Irving's, and the book is strung with such gems. Consistent with his theory that the gas chambers did not exist, Irving calls Auschwitz "the most brutal of all Himmler's slave-labor camps and the one with the highest mortality rate." By my count, the word "holocaust" appears once in the book; it refers to the British bombing of Hamburg.
More subtly, the boycott sentence illustrates a larger problem. In a recent speech to the Institute for Historical Review -- the center of the United States Holocaust denial movement and the American distributor of many of Irving's books -- Irving said of the 1933 boycott: "Goebbels organized the boycott, though if you read his diary you can get the impression that Hitler authorized it, sanctioned it and possibly suggested it." Readers of Irving's Web site  can find this statement, but it is nowhere in the book, whose only reference linking Hitler to the boycott is the sentence quoted above. Irving has played down Hitler's involvement.
"He was born to exonerate Hitler. That's his mission in life," says Michael H. Kater, the Distinguished Research Professor of History at York University in Toronto and an expert on the Third Reich. Irving has offered a reward of £1,000 to anyone who can produce a wartime document showing that Hitler knew about the extermination of the Jews before October 1943. He expounds the thesis that Hitler was ignorant of the Holocaust in his 1977 book, "Hitler's War" (in which the bad guys were Himmler and Heydrich), and he has extended it in other books. Gitta Sereny, the author of "Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth," writes in the British newspaper The Observer that Goebbels's diaries indicate he learned of the extermination camps only when Hitler told him -- months after they had begun operation. But such passages do not appear in Irving's book. "He's the premier practitioner of selective evidence," says Warren F. Kimball, a professor of diplomatic history at Rutgers University.
"Every major history" of the deeds of the Nazis "is built on a mass of material, largely the Nuremberg documents," says Francis L. Lowenheim, a professor of history at Rice University and one of the few people besides Irving to have read both the Irving book on Goebbels and the diaries themselves. "We can see exactly what Hitler and the Nazis planned to do. Irving has not simply broken with this material; he either ignores it or dismisses it as forgeries." By treating the Nazi leaders' actions as if they were reactions to outside events and not part of a planned extermination program, Lowenheim says, Irving diminishes the horribleness of the Holocaust.
Even the most cursory research turns up evidence of Irving's duplicity. On the first page of the book he writes that he gave the German Federal Archives in Coblenz a complete copy of the Goebbels diaries; archive officials say this is fiction. Over and over he crows that he was the first to use the complete diaries, and he claimed to be their discoverer when he sold portions to The Sunday Times of London in 1992. Yet as he has been forced to acknowledge in the book, the microfiched diaries were first found by Elke Frohlich, a researcher at the Munich-based Institute for Contemporary History and the world's pre-eminent Goebbels expert. The institute has so far published 15 volumes of the diaries and will complete the series soon, Ms. Frohlich reports. And as for what Irving has that others don't, Ms. Frohlich and other historians say that it amounts to only 10 or 12 glass microfiche plates. "We all know what his character is," she says. "He tells lie after lie and then it is left to others to show that he is lying."
There is little disagreement about Irving's character. The discussion centers on whether to publish him despite it. Lowenheim insists there is enough serious history in "Goebbels" to merit publication. Michael R. Marrus, who teaches European history at the University of Toronto and was originally asked to review the book for The New York Times Book Review, says, "I found the book an extraordinary experience and a compelling read, but it is so repellent in other respects, I would not like to see it under my own imprint." Hugh Trevor-Roper, reviewing the British edition for The Sunday Telegraph, calls St. Martin's "craven" for dumping Irving. Another publishing company, Times Books, a division of Random House, gave strong consideration to publishing the book after St. Martin's withdrew, but ultimately decided not to.
The public debate has been muddy, marked by charges that have little application to the book. Irving's protests to the contrary, the issue is not one of censorship. Irving has no right to demand that a prestigious publishing house, which must choose a limited number of manuscripts to publish each year, lend him its presses. He has both the right and the resources to self-publish or, as he has said he will do, publish on the Internet. He may speak anywhere in the United States that will have him. Germany, which bars both Irving's work and his person from entering the country, is indeed censoring him, but St. Martin's Press is not.
Before the reversal by St. Martin's, Dunne released a statement arguing that books should not be rejected because they are offensive to certain groups in society or because their authors' lives are not admirable ones. He is right, of course, but this is a disingenuous argument in this case. The problem is not Irving's character, but whether or not he has written a fraudulent book. Moreover, publishing's real problem is hardly an insufficient output of obnoxiousness. Being a loudmouth gets you on "Oprah." Howard Stern will have no trouble getting his next work of art into print. The thoughtful, sober and unpromotable manuscript will lose to O. J. Simpson's letters any day.
Indeed, the manuscripts that controversy seems to imperil most are precisely those that are most valuable -- serious, uncommercial works that challenge the conventional wisdom. Yet these books certainly deserve publication. One recent example is "Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941," by Robert W. Thurston, who teaches history at Miami University in Ohio. Thurston argues that Stalin didn't intend much of the Terror, that many people supported it and that it wasn't so bad in any case. "Ironically, Stalinism helped prepare the way for the much more active society and the reforms of 50 years later," the jacket copy says. The book has been criticized, in The Times Book Review among other places, but despite its parallels to Holocaust denial, its editor at Yale University Press reports that no one has yet demanded that Yale shred the remaining copies. And no one should.
But again, "Goebbels" is different -- and not just because of the sensitivity of its subject and the influence of its critics. Thurston may be a bad historian, but at least he is an honest one. David Irving, by contrast, is not just wrong, he appears to be engaging in deliberate distortion. Worse, he is a sneak; the uncautioned reader will absorb a version of history exonerating Hitler and minimizing the evil of the Holocaust without knowing it.
St. Martin's compounded the problem: its galley simply reproduced Irving's British version. The house made no attempt to challenge Irving to correct his distortions before publication, or to add a critical introduction placing the book and its author in perspective.
That St. Martin's could buy "Goebbels" despite being unfamiliar with the author, and could then fail to do even the most perfunctory editing, shows double negligence. Of all the lessons in this story for the American publishing world, the fact that no critic has yet found this behavior remarkable enough to mention should be the most sobering.
Tina Rosenberg is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School. Her book "The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism" won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.