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24 April 2000

Sad, foolish, rather disgusting

James Buchan, having endured the Irving libel case, concludes that the defeated author, like the Mit

By James Buchan

Amid the general satisfaction at the High Court judgment in Irving v Lipstadt and Penguin Books on 11 April, the Tehran Times sounded a recessional note. In an editorial two days later, the newspaper regretted that the British writer David Irving had so comprehensively lost his Holocaust libel case.

“One of the biggest frauds of the outgoing century that dragged into the new millennium was the story of the Holocaust made up by the Zionists to blackmail the west,” the Tehran Times wrote. Irving was one of many writers who had “proved with evidence that the so-called Nazi gas chambers could not accommodate six million Jews, and that the story of the Holocaust was only a sheer historical lie”.

This sort of argument, standard for the embattled hardliners in Iran, would be of little interest but for another trial, which began on that same Thursday in the city of Shiraz in southern Iran. Thirteen Iranians of Jewish origin, mostly shopkeepers, are on trial for their lives on charges of spying for Israel. The prosecution says that four of the defendants have confessed. One of their lawyers denies that. It seems there are places, Shiraz and London’s Strand, where anti-Semitism will not lie down and die.

Not since Oscar Wilde brought his case against the Marquess of Queensberry for calling him a “somdomite” (sic) has a libel action in this country so demolished its claimant. Irving will not, like poor Wilde, face a criminal prosecution in this country. Britain is not France or Germany, where it is a criminal offence to question the Nazi extermination of the Continental Jews between 1941 and 1945. Banned from the German historical archives and the country itself, harried by Jewish organisations, spurned by commercial publishers, and isolated from the intellectual mainstream, Irving now faces court costs of over £1.5m.

Irving, who has specialised in the history of the Third Reich since the 1960s, in 1996 sued Deborah E Lipstadt, Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, Atlanta, for defamation. He claimed that she had libelled him in her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust: the growing assault on truth and memory, and conspired with Jewish organisations to put pressure on publishers to deprive him of his livelihood.

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In the book, which was published in Britain the next year and hence came within the jurisdiction of English libel courts, Lipstadt accused Irving of distorting the history of the Third Reich in the service of an extreme right-wing cause. As an ardent admirer of Adolf Hitler, she wrote, Irving misrepresented data so as to exonerate him of complicity in the massacre of the European Jews. Further, Irving had allied himself with other right-wing extremists in Britain, North America and Germany, many of whom deny that the Holocaust ever took place.

After 32 days of evidence, and a month’s private deliberation, Mr Justice Charles Gray ruled just that. In the age of postmodernist historiography, of false memory and an anti-authoritarian approach to historical documents, Gray stuck to the copybook headings of objectivity and common sense. The elderly Jews who left Court 73 fearful that somehow their experiences were on trial need not have been so anxious. “I am satisfied that in most of the instances cited by the defendants, Irving has significantly misrepresented what the evidence, objectively examined, reveals,” the judge ruled.

Moreover, this “falsification of the historical record was deliberate and . . . Irving was motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs”. As Irving sat, lantern-jawed and with a ferocious frown, minus his coat which had been stained by an egg at the entrance to the Courts of Justice, Gray called him “anti-Semitic”, a “racist” and a “pro-Nazi polemicist”.

In retrospect, the defence used a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Penguin Books, owned by the newly dotcommed Pearson plc, assembled a team of experts to pore through Irving’s 30-odd books in English and German down to the source notes. Scholars paraded into the witness box to argue that when he misread “haben zu bleiben” as “Juden zu bleiben” in Himmler’s handwritten telephone log of 1 December 1941, he did so to exonerate Hitler of the massacre of the Jews: for the incorrect second phrase means “Jews to remain where they are” and thus not be shipped eastwards to their deaths.

At the same time, to expose Irving’s political activity, especially during the upsurge in radical rightist politics in Germany at the turn of the 1990s, the defence lawyers sought and gained access to his correspondence, video- and audio-tapes of rabble-rousing speeches and a bombastic journal that runs, according to Irving, to 20 million words. Poor Penguin: the chances of recovering its costs from Irving are low, while the glory of the case has accrued to the combative Lipstadt, her solicitor, Anthony Julius, and her silk, Richard Rampton.

Irving is an indomitable figure. Though he looked downcast at the judgment, he was soon on his feet, vowing he would appeal. He has suffered at least four other libel defeats. In one case, arising from his 1967 book, The Destruction of Convoy PQ17, he was ordered on appeal to pay £40,000, or the equivalent of about £350,000 in today’s money. Those who believe Irving is a cynic say that if he cannot have fame and the respect of his peers, he will accept notoriety, lecture fees at revisionist congresses in the US, and the adoration of anti-Semites and right-wing blondes.

I doubt he is so uncomplex. Invariably courteous to this reporter through the trial, gallant to the ladies of the defence team, he could pass for a gentleman-scholar who occasionally says some very odd things. He believes Mayfair will soon be a black district, and at one moment addressed Mr Justice Gray as mein Fuhrer. His response to the judgment on his website – OUCH! – simply did not correspond to the scale of his defeat.

Irving does not appear to see that his comments on Auschwitz and its survivors lack charm. When he talks of the Nazis or the extreme right in modern Germany, he uses the harmless patois of the upper-class British appeasers of the 1930s, who converted the shipwreck of their cause into a great big tease of the middle class. Irving despises politically correct Britain and democracy-by-numbers Germany, but anglicises the Third Reich in the fashion of the Mitford girls. His Nazis are funny folk.

Yet he is passionate, even frantic, to defend his peculiar picture of the Third Reich. As the trial wound on, he fought a series of rearguard actions to deny or question notorious historical events: the systematic shooting of Jews on the Eastern front; the use of gas vans at Chelmno in Poland; the gassing of Jews at the Sobibor, Treblinka and Belsen camps; Hitler’s knowledge of those actions.

Even after he had conceded those events took place, Irving would try to deny them, which had Rampton often on his feet. His last stand was what he calls the “holes in the roof”. He claimed that a certain building at Auschwitz could not have been a gas chamber because its roof, now in ruins, has no ducts for the introduction of the cyanide as described by eyewitnesses. This position, which requires us to ignore the evidence of eyewitnesses and the war crimes trials, was overrun by Gray in a moment.

Why Irving has sacrificed his fortune and reputation on the altar of a dead German dictator is beyond me to say. It sounds tragic, but it isn’t. The tragedy was the Third Reich, not this commentary on it two generations later. In truth, Irving v Lipstadt was a farce: sad, foolish, tedious beyond description, rather disgusting.