The Pickwickian PM. Richard Gott is amused by an international pariah and provocateur, and by a lightweight historian with flair

Churchill's War: triumph and adversity

David Irving <em>Focal Point Publications, 1,051pp, £25</em

The best theatre in London during the millennium year was the trial at the Law Courts in the Strand, sometimes referred to as "Irving v Penguin Books". For weeks on end, the brightest legal and historical brains in the country faced up to the maverick intelligence of David Irving, a right-wing historian of 20th- century Europe who has always operated outside the constraints of the academy. Since Irving was conducting his own case (he was suing Penguin and Deborah Lipstadt, an American historian, for libel), the judge allowed him considerable latitude. A restless and immensely large man, Irving would pace up and down the modest courtroom like a caged animal in a zoo. The lawyers were both appalled and entranced.

One of the high points of several confrontational exchanges was with Richard Evans, the distinguished historian, once of Birkbeck and now at Cambridge. Evans is not just a German historian, but also a philosopher of history, following in the footsteps of E H Carr. In his book In Defence of History, he gave passionate support to the notion of objective history and made a devastating critique of relativism and postmodernism. As Penguin's star witness, who had made a careful study of virtually everything Irving had ever written, he argued in court that the plaintiff had no right to call himself a historian at all.

Given that Irving was found wanting by the lawyers, ruled out of court by fellow historians and discredited by the judge's summing-up and hostile judgement, it might seem surprising that his new book, the second volume of a projected trilogy about Churchill at war, should find house room in the books pages of the New Statesman. Yet, although in general I have been a warm supporter of Evans's philosophic outlook, the trial debate left me feeling unhappy about his suggestion that Irving had no right to be considered a historian at all. That seems to be too narrow a definition. You might describe someone as an amateur or an inaccurate historian, or even as a depraved and perverse one, but to deny someone the description entirely, especially someone who has devoted his life to searching exhaustively through the archives, seems a bit harsh, even if you think he is a right-wing racist who uses history for his own political ends.

Although Irving is a little older than I am, I have followed his trajectory with interest over nearly 40 years. In the early 1960s, when we were both bright young historians with an interest in 20th-century Germany, I wrote a favourable review in the Spectator of his path-breaking book on the bombing of Dresden. I did not realise at the time, but even in those days he was about as far out on the right as I was on the left, yet we came together in agreeing that the destruction of Dresden was a terrible crime. (Even the Dresden book, widely praised when it was published, came under heavy scrutiny from Professor Evans during the trial. He revealed the existence of more than a dozen major errors, unnoticed by the reviewers.)

While I abandoned European history for the jungles of South America, Irving plunged ever deeper into the Nazi period. Possessed of considerable personal charm, he ingratiated himself with innumerable widows of senior Nazis and soon had a sizeable personal library of information, the envy of less energetic investigators. As he talked to Nazi survivors, and as time went on, he increasingly sympathised with their point of view. His thoroughly researched volumes on the Third Reich cut against the permitted grain of most contemporary historical writing, not just explaining, but seeming to justify much of what occurred. When he pointed out (correctly) that no document could be found to connect Hitler with the murder of the Jews, he became an international pariah, denounced as a "Holocaust denier".

It should be said in parenthesis that German history has been a most unfashionable subject in British universities over the past half-century. Many brilliant British academics have been obliged to seek work in the United States, and their work has often taken years to be published in English. While the tabloid press has endlessly pursued its hatred of the "Hun", the intellectual establishment has been strangely blind to the economic and social research done on Nazi Germany. Biographies of the major protagonists continue to be published, but anything more conceptually difficult finds few takers.

In this constrained atmosphere, Irving's work often appears like the grit in the oyster, something intensely irritating but which at least serves the purpose of sparking a debate. Indeed, some of his arguments have been put in more acceptable form by John Charmley. Irving's account of Churchill at war is written from an unusual angle. It is a book designed as if to be read by the nation that lost the war, for that not negligible group of Germans who sympathised with many of the aims of the Nazi revolution. For a British reader, this is the enemy version of what was going on in Britain at the time, and seen from that perspective it is not uninteresting. Irving is a voracious devourer of the archives (Martin Gilbert's equal), and in some German and Russian archives he has trod where others have yet to follow. He also writes well and has a good, though mischievous, sense of humour. Churchill, in Irving's version, is perceived as a foolish old man, a slightly risible figure, much given to drink, "the Pickwickian prime minister of an almost archaic country". His entourage consists of a set of effete and decadent British aristocrats, unmindful of the Soviet threat, who gaily abandon the British empire and happily hand the country over to the Americans. Irving combs the memoirs to make everyone appear in the worst possible light - fleeing the bombing when claiming to do otherwise, getting wound up about the propensity of young British women to fancy black American soldiers, and talking out of turn to potentially hostile witnesses whenever possible. This seems to be a perverse view of our finest hour, and perhaps it should not be left around for the servants to read. I certainly would not wish it to be the only text available, but I would not want to prevent anyone from publishing it. Indeed, I derived considerable amusement from this book.

By contrast, Roy Jenkins's tome seems in parts rather thin. His mellifluous tones will be familiar to many older readers of this paper, and for some people his biography of Churchill will solve the problem of what to give the grandparents for Christmas, yet its weight may flatten them (though it comes in marginally lighter than Irving's). Jenkins, as he would be the first to recognise, is a lightweight historian, and none the worse for that, because part of his early charm as a biographer was his capacity to make lightweight politicians, such as Dilke and Asquith, seem significant and interesting. By moving into the big league, dealing with Gladstone and Churchill, his biographies diminish his subjects. What a pity he did not write biographies of John Morley and William Harcourt (he apparently toyed with the idea). Come to think of it, we could do with a modern appreciation of Richard Cobden and John Bright, who still have pithy things to say to today's imperialist politicians, especially those among the Liberal Democrats. Blair, we already know, prefers to remember Gladstone.

Jenkins is not someone who grows more radical with the passing of years, and he is getting old. In this book, he shows signs of flagging. Because his own ministerial career coincided with that of Churchill on two occasions, as home secretary and chancellor of the exchequer, perhaps he is personally more interested in Churchill's activities before the Second World War. But to write a major biography without coming adequately to grips with Churchill's war years as prime minister is a major drawback.

Despite these cavils, the Jenkins version of Churchill is a splendid and engaging read. As a portrait painter, Jenkins has one important quality in common with his subject: verbal flair. He always puts an emphasis on Churchill's life as a writer, making it seem peculiarly appropriate that he should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Churchill used words like a machine-gun, spewing forth letters, books, memoranda and speeches that both inspired and required attention and action from their recipients. This literate and liberal tradition disappeared from British politics with Jenkins's generation of Labour politicians. Pity.

Richard Gott is the author, with Martin Gilbert, of The Appeasers, now reissued in paperback by the Phoenix Press. An excellent account of the Irving courtroom drama is contained in The Holocaust on Trial by D D Gutenplan (Granta, £17.99), reviewed by James Buchan in the NS of 26 March 2001

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The Empire strikes back