The study of history is an often difficult task. History is, after all, written by individuals, and it is almost impossible for an author to write something free of his own personal biases. This does not mean, however, that a biased account is completely without value as a source.
The best example of this is the recent brouhaha over the British author David Irving. Irving had arranged to publish a biography of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels with St. Martin's Press. The problem is that Irving is a Holocaust denier and a fascist sympathizer himself, and his work reflected that. After public outcry, St. Martin's withdrew from the deal, to much public praise.
However, Irving is much more than a revisionist crank. Although he is completely unreliable on the subject of the Holocaust, Irving has done important work on the Nazi regime. John Keegan, one of the major historians on World War II, has said of Irving, "he is an historian of formidable power ...no historian of the Second World War can afford to ignore (him)."
Irving first made his mark with the publication of his book Hitler's War. This book has been called "the autobiography Hitler did not write." The Hitler of Irving's book is a rational war leader, trying to achieve victory for his nation in a struggle for power among nations.
Irving's Hitler is also a figure who can do no wrong: the mistakes of the war are due to his subordinates, as are the atrocities, which, in Irving's view, are vastly overstated and not the result of Hitler's orders. Irving's canceled biography of Goebbels puts the blame for the atrocities, at least the ones Irving does not deny, on Goebbels, not Hitler.
Irving's depiction of the Holocaust is unreliable in the extreme and influenced by Irving's views. However, his depiction of Hitler at war is very important to historians. Irving, working with German and British archives from the war that had been recently declassified at the time he was writing, produced some of the first pictures form inside the decision making apparatus of the Third Reich. The view of Hitler as a war leader that Irving presents is important to historians for this reason.
Despite the neofascist prism Irving through which views the war, his work has merit. He has uncovered important information about the Second World War and some of the major figures in it. His work is like Isaac Deutscher's biography of Trotsky: distorted by the author's political views, but still important. Why, then, is Deutscher's book, and the writings of other political extremists, published, while Irving's is not?
The main reason is political. Irving's embrace of neofascism, and his own thinly disguised anti-semitism, are views that extremist parties throughout the world are promoting today, with very limited success. No one wants to give them any encouragement. Irving's works might do that, so he is feared. Unlike Marxism, which has become totally moribund, fascism has a breath of life in it: not much of a breath but more than the disciples of Karl Marx.
Another reason why Irving is having difficulties that other extremists do not have is the Holocaust. Marxists, at least, do not deny the horrors of communism - they just excuse them away and blame them on "impure" Marxism. Irving denies the Holocaust occurred.
Nonetheless, printing his book does not imply endorsement of his noxious views. His earlier works have been published by companies that are not run by fascist sympathizers, and publishing Irving did not make them into storm troopers. Irving's work should have been published for two reasons: the value of research to historians, and to uphold the commitment of a democratic society to a free exchange of ideas. Even a fascist should be able to speak his mind in a democratic society.
Fascists may pride themselves on their ability to shut down ideas that offend them, but those of us who live in a democratic society should not. Only an extreme lunatic fringe agrees with Irving on the Holocaust, and his book will not gain many new converts. Irving's work on Goebbels should be published, and St. Martin's Press should be ashamed of their spinelessness.
Fascism is dead, and it is not going to be revived by David Irving, or anyone else, unless we believers in democratic society do the dirty work for them by undermining our own ideals. Censoring ideas we don't agree with is a start on that road, and we should not be proud of ourselves for beginning the trip.
Even a fascist should be able to speak his mind in a democratic society.
University of Chicago free press, May 96; University of Chicago
Additional information about this document
|Title:||Censoring Irving Would Make the Nazis Proud|
|Sources:||University of Chicago free press, May 96|
|First posted on CODOH:||May 30, 1996, 7 p.m.|