Meeting David Irving’s nemesis
By Allon Lee
|Professor Richard Evans|
Up until the year 2000, David Irving was the Henry Ford of the Holocaust denial industry. But a lawsuit brought by Irving against a critic effectively put a spanner in his production line of hate.
Professor Richard J. Evans, who visited Australia in July, played no small part in the downfall of the loathed titan.
In 2000, Irving brought a libel suit against Prof. Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books for publishing her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Irving alleged that Lipstadt’s book defamed him by claiming that he had deliberately distorted, misquoted and falsified history.
The lawsuit was a monumental blunder on Irving’s part, turning the focus onto the bona fides of his claims to be a historian and not a racist polemicist.
Lipstadt and Penguin Books hired Prof. Evans, a Cambridge University expert on modern German history, to trawl through Irving’s writings.
Analysing Irving’s works and the original sources cited in the footnotes, Prof. Evans produced a 750-page report that pulled apart the web of deceit, deliberate obfuscations and distortion and selective quoting perpetrated by Irving to further his Holocaust denial activities. Irving lost the trial, and was branded by the court “anti-semitic and racist” and a “right-wing pro-Nazi polemicist,” who “for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence.”
He was so thoroughly discredited by the finding and Prof. Evans’ 24-hours of courtroom testimony that one can comfortably delineate a pre and post-trial period in both Irving’s influence and the number of mainstream fence sitters who had equivocated on Irving’s “scholarship”.
Prof. Evans explained that, essentially, because the trial was not concerned with the veracity of the Holocaust, but whether Irving had been libelled, Lipstadt’s lawyers could delve into his writings and activities.
“I went into it thinking that it would be a very interesting exercise in how and where you draw the line between an imaginative reinterpretation of the sources and the deliberate falsification.
“So I thought it would help me give a concrete example of what is objectivity in history and how you go about defining and approaching objectivity,” Prof. Evans said.
The clinical activity of dissecting Irving’s works took on an emotional hue for Prof. Evans when he entered the courtroom.
“Of course as the trial went on, it became clear that it had a much wider human significance. You couldn’t go into court every day and see the Holocaust survivors on the public benches without realising its profound importance for them by extension.”
The modus operandi of the Holocaust denier is to distort, selectively quote or invent original sources, not merely putting a spin on what is there, Prof. Evans said.
“There is a kind of interplay between the historian and the documents, which I think is the essence of writing history. If you simply go to history with a thesis and you look up the documents to try to prove it, then you are not really being a historian, you are being a propagandist because that will then involve you ignoring or trying to bypass the records. That’s why we have footnotes. We have to provide our critics with the means of disproving what we are saying.
“I think what you have to do if you want to pursue the history of the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe, then you have to take the documentary record as it is and you must not put words into documents or take words out or rearrange them or ignore them or neglect them or invent stuff. It is quite clear that is what Irving was doing, as the judgement in the case concluded in the [British] High Court.”
Prof. Evans, who does not view himself as an activist historian, acknowledged certain aspects of the Irving trial made his participation appear so, especially the media coverage which seemed to suggest that Lipstadt had sued Irving and not the other way around.
“I found myself having to argue against some journalists who thought otherwise, that the trial was actually [about] a vindication of [Irving’s] freedom of speech.”
The significance of the trial did not extend to preventing Irving from denying the Holocaust but removed the threat of legal action against critics who described him as a denier.
“It allowed Irving to go on saying what he was doing but it also allowed criticism of what he is saying. If it had gone the other way, had Irving won, then it would have been a major blow against freedom of speech.”
After the trial, even with the judgement branding Irving a fraud and liar, mainstream publishers baulked at publishing Prof. Evans’ book based on his mammoth court report.
“It took 18 months or more to publish it because it was held up by threats and fear of libel action by Irving. It was a sobering lesson on the impact of the British libel laws on the freedom of speech.”
Prof. Evans said that Irving’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment in Austria for Holocaust denial activities was not helpful in the long run.
“My view was that he should not have been arrested, he should have been deported. If they were worried about neo-fascist organisations which he was going to speak to, then arresting him and giving him more publicity was not the right way to go about it.
“In general I am sceptical about the usefulness of laws such as pertain in many European countries and the Germans have tried in the EU to make it European law.”
The difficulty of dealing with Holocaust deniers is the charge by people who claim freedom of speech but are ignorant of the wider campaign associated with their activities, Prof. Evans said.
“I’m not a proponent of absolute freedom of speech, there have to be limitations on freedom of speech. It is very difficult to weigh up freedom of speech on the one hand and the fact that somebody is saying offensive things on the other hand. It’s an issue with which we are confronted continually nowadays. [But] I think that, in the end, if Australia wants to ban him, then it is perfectly in its rights to do so.”
As an historian, Prof. Evans is currently completing the final volume in his trilogy on the Nazi era and the impetus for doing so is more than academic.
“One of the reasons for writing the books is because of the inevitable devaluation of rhetorical terms like Hitler, Nazi, Auschwitz; it’s often forgotten how extreme the Nazis were, how total their hatred for the Jews was and how unbridled their willingness to use extreme forms of violence against their opponents.”
Devaluing the Holocaust is an unfortunate consequence of the passage of time but also from the allure of Hitler as a mythological figure, he said.
“I was in Los Angeles a couple of years ago at the Los Angeles book fair to give a talk and I got a lot of questions from the people in the audience, did I think that what was happening in Bush’s America was the same as what was happening in Germany in 1933?
“And far be it for me to defend George W. Bush, but I had to say ‘well, no, actually’. There might be some infringements of civil liberties. It may be more difficult in a post-9/11 atmosphere to engage in free and unfettered speech but if you look at what is happening in 1933, there is no comparison at all. There aren’t hundreds of thousands of storm troopers ranging around the streets of New York beating up their opponents, for example.
“The Democrats have not been banned as all the political parties were in Germany. One has to remind people at times… because of this devaluation of the rhetoric, of some of the realities of the situation.”
At the extreme end of the spectrum, of course, are the Holocaust deniers and combating them is more complicated, said Prof. Evans, who refuses to debate them.
“If you have half an hour, or an hour, or even two hours on a platform, or 10 minutes in a TV studio, the whole thing will depend on rhetoric and producing an effect and you cannot debate these issues in a rational way.
“It was very different in a courtroom with David Irving because we had three months and we could go on and debate every issue sometimes for days on end, until everything had been said and the judge told us to move on. I remember two journalists complaining in a report that we had spent half an hour debating the position of a full stop in a document because it affected the meaning of the words on either side. That was a good forum to debate the issues but I don’t think that the normal locations for debating in the media or the public are adequate.
“You have to assume a give and take. An academic debate depends upon a willingness to concede points when they are made forcefully and persuasively and that’s not the case in this particular issue. I think Holocaust deniers have entrenched views they are not willing to alter and so it becomes a political slanging match.”