Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Telling Lies about Hitler, Richard Evans

“One day, an Englishman will come along and write my biography.  But it cannot be an Englishman of the present generation.  They won’t to be objective.  It will have to be an Englishman of the next generation, and one who is totally familiar with all the German archives.”

There are not many English historians who would be too eager to claim this little-known prophecy by the late Führer for themselves, but David Irving is no ordinary English historian.  In fact, as Evans argues in this absorbing little book, he is no historian at all.

Everyone knows who David Irving is, but what of Richard Evans?  Little known outside the academic world, Evans is the current Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, a position previously held by Lord Acton and Herbert Butterfield.  He is a leading world authority on German history and the Third Reich.  But this book is unlike most of his regular academic work.  How did a respectable academic historian come to be dipping his toe into the surreal and murky world of neo-Nazi revisionism and Holocaust denial?

The answer lies in the strange case of Irving v Penguin Books and Lipstadt, the libel action that Irving brought against the Jewish American professor Deborah Lipstadt in 1998 following the publication of her book Denying the Holocaust.  Lipstadt had described Irving as "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial", and claimed that his work was characterised by bias and distortion.  Irving, who seems to have been somewhat litigious, took exception to this and issued a writ in the English High Court.  The case went to trial in 2000.

There is a narrative of Irving's career that goes something like this.  Sure, the old boy has some weird and even repellent views.  But you can't argue with his research - he spent years unearthing valuable new material, and his publications (particularly Hitler's War, first published in 1977) have provided a useful stimulus for other historians.  He has been complimented by leading experts in the field, including Hugh Trevor-Roper and A.J.P.Taylor.  As for Holocaust denial, he hasn't really been a hardcore negationist, and, in any case, isn't censoring him worse than allowing him to express his views?

There is, however, another side to the story.  While some historians have been relatively generous towards Irving, the mainstream historical community has for years subjected his work to serious, well-informed criticism.  The historians who know most about his subject area seem to be those who are least impressed with him.  He may have done some original research, but then so have hundreds of PhD students.  His books are not so much biased as falsified, and his stance on the Holocaust has clearly strayed into the denial camp.  As for censorship, it was Irving who issued the libel writ, not Lipstadt.

Evans was hired by the defence team, together with several other specialists in relevant fields, as an expert witness.  He argued in his report, and in this book, that Irving's handling of his source material was so misleading and so distortive that it fell below the standards of legitimate historical writing.  In other words, Irving was not merely a bad historian - he was no historian at all.  Moreover, his distortions, rather than being evidence of a general amateur sloppiness, consistently tended to minimise the wrongdoing of the Nazis in general and Hitler in particular while exaggerating that of the Allies.  This is Evans' case, and he is essentially successful in making it out, analysing specific examples drawn from Irving's work on such episodes as Kristallnacht, the wartime exterminations and the bombing of Dresden.

Following his analysis of Irving's writings, Evans provides a couple of chapters on the trial itself and the judgment of Mr Justice Charles Gray.  He describes how Irving made a fool of himself in court and mishandled his cross-examination of Evans.  It is apparent that the courtroom proceedings had an air of unreality about them.  Neo-Nazis sat shoulder to shoulder on the public benches with survivors of Auschwitz.  The opposing parties sparred with each other over questions of death and torture before adjourning for an agreeable lunch.  Commentators from continental Europe, where the reality of the Holocaust is protected by law, did not easily understand the point of what was going on.  Strictly speaking, the trial was not about the Holocaust but about Irving - what the judge was being asked to rule upon was not what had happened in central and eastern Europe in the 1940s but what went on inside Irving's study.  In practice, however, this distinction was almost impossible to maintain.  At one point, the proceedings famously descended into low farce when Irving inadvertently addressed the judge as "Mein Führer".

The judgment, almost inevitably, went against Irving.  His applications for leave to appeal were turned down.  The whole episode was a serious blow to his reputation, and one from which he has yet to recover.  Even his fellow right-wing extremists were angry with him, believing that he had let the side down.  Evans complains that some journalists hadn't done their homework well enough and allowed Irving to continue to make bizarre and offensive comments in his post-trial interviews.

Evans also notes that some commentators have sought to downplay Irving's misdemeanours.  Didn't he provide a useful stimulus for other historians to look more closely at the Holocaust?  Wasn't Hitler's War a good read, even if was biased?  Aren't all historians biased to a greater or lesser extent?  No, says Evans.  What Irving was up to was not merely drawing objectionable conclusions from the historical record - he actively engaged in manipulating and misrepresenting the record itself.  Legitimate historians don't do that.  The nearest recent comparison to Irving is David Abraham, a young left-wing history professor at Princeton who published a book entitled The Collapse of the Weimar Republic.  This work, which blamed the German business community for the rise of Hitler, was exposed by a series of other academics (left-wing as well as right-wing ones) as containing numerous misquotations, misrepresentations and errors.   But Abraham's case was very unusual, and the comparison is not flattering to Irving.  Abraham ended up leaving the historical profession, and, like a number of other failed academics, became a lawyer.  Moreover, his work was so shoddy that some of his mistakes actually served to weaken his argument - something that mysteriously never seems to be the case with Irving.

This book is published by Verso, formerly New Left Books, an imprint associated with the Marxist New Left Review.  However, Evans' own political views (which remain somewhat unclear) are not to the fore in his writing.  The worst criticism that one might make is that he sometimes lets his hostility towards Irving get the better of him, and his language can on occasion be described as snide - the point being not that hostility towards a Nazi-sympathising antisemite is a bad thing, but rather that maintaining a studiedly forensic tone throughout would perhaps have served Evans better.  Nonetheless, this is a good read, with a clear analysis presented in lucid prose, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the subjects which it deals with.