David Irving and the Normalization of Gas Chamber Skepticism

Published: 1999-11-01

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Revisionists have found it very difficult to overcome the tremendous inertia of conventional wisdom and beliefs about World War II and the Holocaust. As a result, revisionists have usually been ignored in the major media, and when they have been discussed on occasion in books or magazines it has only been in the context of dismissing them as crackpots or in smearing them as antisemites and Neo-Nazis.

Things change, and the marginalizing of revisionism is changing as well. Although the establishment still argues a phony equivalency of gas chambers and the Holocaust, revisionists are beginning to gain, if not a respectful, then at least a relaxed hearing in the media. A path-breaking article in this direction, entitled "Taking a Holocaust Skeptic Seriously" by D.D. Guttenplan, appeared in the New York Times on June 26, 1999.

David Irving

Best-Selling Author David Irving

The article focused on the work of the British historian David Irving, and discussed in detail his doubts about mass gas extermination, as well as his confident assertion that there were no gas chambers in the Auschwitz base camp. That in itself was remarkable. But even more remarkable was the complete absence of invective in the article. We believe that this is part of a trend, in which the idea of gas chamber skepticism is transcending the usual fear- and anger-based responses of mockery and malicious slander, and becoming just another point of view. If this is so, then it is an important breakthrough towards a fair examination of revisionist interpretations, and in that case a large part of the credit has to go to David Irving, whose mix of combativeness, integrity, and worldwide fame have helped make it possible.

A Controversial Career

Of course, David Irving's career was born in controversy, with the publication of his Destruction of Dresden in 1963, one of the first books in English that dwelled on the magnitude of destruction wrought by the Anglo-American bombing campaign against German cities. The graphic descriptions of the fire bombings that killed perhaps 150,000 people, mostly women and children and the elderly, were so shocking that the book was prefaced with two forewords that basically tried to absolve the Western allies of any responsibility in these atrocities.

Since then, Irving has written some 30 books, usually on World War II and Third Reich themes, including authoritative biographies of Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and Rommel, as well as special studies on the German atom bomb and rocket programs, the catastrophic destruction of an English convoy (PQ 17), the mysterious death of General Sikorsky, and several other themes.

At this point it is probably a good idea to identify some features of Irving's style that have made him such a successful and widely read historian.

The first is that Irving is a relentless and indefatigable researcher: he has probably spent more time in more archives than any of his peers. Most historians rely on the writings of other historians as a kind of shorthand for the drudgery of research, but Irving hardly ever references secondary sources, preferring to cite the actual documents, diaries, and personal recollections of participants. As a result, he not only has uncovered vast quantities of previously unknown documents, he is able to read them and interpret them with an originality and openness that eludes most of his colleagues.

A second quality is related to the first. Irving does not write within the context of the conventional and lazy dialogue of modern history, encrusted as it is with dozens of untested assumptions and political agendas. He is better able to approach the Third Reich on its own terms, and acquire a level of insight and empathy that give his works a unique German's-eye view of the Second World War.

Finally, David Irving is not afraid of a fight. The two fathers of modern academic historiography, Leopold Ranke and Wilhelm Dilthey, would doubtless approve of Irving's objective handling of documents and his attempts to achieve empathy with his subjects. But it is his willingness to take unconventional positions, based on solid research, that has caused him the most trouble with the orthodox interpretation of the Third Reich.

Irving's problems began with the publication of Hitler's War in 1978, which has been widely hailed by many leading historians as a definitive study. While that book discussed the travail of the European Jews in strictly conventional terms, there was one conclusion that seemed unavoidable to Irving: since there was no documentary evidence linking Adolf Hitler to the gas chambers or the extermination camps, the Holocaust must have taken place without Hitler's knowledge or approval.

It would be hard to recreate the indignation which greeted the questioning of that shibboleth. Lucy Dawidowicz, in a book on Holocaust historiography, went so far as to accuse Irving of being a Hitler apologist, while a transplanted German Jew living in England used his position at the University of Surrey to crank out an opus specifically designed to refute Irving's claim: Gerald Fleming's Hitler and the Final Solution.

In 1988, Irving was called as an expert witness at the second trial of Canadian activist Ernst Zündel, who was being prosecuted under a "false news" law. Among other things, Zündel denied the use of gas chambers at Auschwitz. To prove his point, Zündel, in coordination with Robert Faurisson of France, hired Fred Leuchter, an American expert on execution technologies, to travel to Auschwitz, take samples from the alleged gas chambers, and write an expert opinion. The resulting Leuchter Report, in spite of some defects, has become world famous, and Irving, encountering the Report for the first time at the trial, drew what he felt was an appropriate conclusion.

If the reaction to Hitler's War was sharp criticism, the reaction to Irving's work after the second Zündel trial has amounted to nothing less than an attempt to destroy his career. In 1991, his books were peremptorily destroyed by his publisher Macmillan UK, Ltd. In 1993, he was showcased as a "Holocaust Denier" by Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University in her Denying the Holocaust. Finally, in 1996, Irving's painstaking biography of Joseph Goebbels was rejected for publication by St. Martin's in the United States, after having been initially praised and accepted for publication. It was sunk by a massive media campaign and by other pressure placed on his American publisher by those who felt that Irving's interpretations, particularly about Auschwitz, were intolerable. Apparently, to acknowledge that many people died or were killed at Auschwitz was not a sufficient endorsement of the Holocaust: one had to also pay tribute to the gas chambers.

The attempts to shut down Irving's voice seem odd in one respect: although characterized as a "Hitler apologist" and as a "denier," nowhere in his works does Irving deny, or aggressively discount, the standard Holocaust story, which insists that six million Jews were killed according to plan and mostly in gas chambers. On the contrary, his skepticism about gassing has usually been conveyed by discreet omission of the subject. In other words, there is no evidence that Irving has attempted to antagonize or provoke on the issue.

It is also surprising that Irving would be characterized as a "Holocaust Denier" since Goebbels contains some of the most shocking—and well-documented—descriptions of the mass shootings of Jews that one will find anywhere in Holocaust writings. It is evident then that Irving is characterized as a "denier" not because of what he says, but because of what he does not say. That is, he fails to recite the obligatory narrative of mass gassings. In effect, this means that the gas chambers are a necessary attribute of the Holocaust, in the same way that roundness is a necessary attribute of a ball.

A False Linkage

To claim that the Holocaust and the gas chambers are synonymous is a completely artificial equation: it would be like insisting that the reality of the Spanish-American war hinged on the explosion of the USS Maine by a Spanish mine (as a matter of fact, the current consensus holds that the ship exploded from spontaneous combustion of coal dust in the bunkers). As argued elsewhere, the Holocaust is simply a name, meant to tie together the entirety of the Jewish experience in World War II, and came into common use only in the 1960's—twenty years after the events which it is supposed to encapsulate. To question the veracity of some of these events cannot reasonably be construed as questioning the veracity of all of them, and yet that is precisely what the term "Holocaust Denier" implies.

To a certain extent, revisionists have been responsible for this false linkage. When Arthur Butz wrote his Hoax of the Twentieth Century in the mid-70's, he focused almost all of his critical energies on the gas chambers at Auschwitz, not examining the other claims of massacre and persecution in detail. Similarly, Robert Faurisson, also active since the 1970's, has tended to reduce significant facts to simple phrases: thus the absence of holes in the roof of one gas chamber leads to the slogan "No Holes, No Holocaust."

It is hard to blame either Butz or Faurisson when we reflect how the gas chambers, as an idea, are routinely exploited. Whenever any non-Jewish group talks about its own suffering, the gas chambers, either explicitly, or implicitly by use of the key words "systematic" and "technological," are invoked. The net effect is that other massacres and crimes against humanity must stand in silent awe before the absolute singularity of the Holocaust. In the same way, whenever Germans make a modest plea for some recognition of their own suffering either during or after World War II, the rejoinder is invariably something along the lines of "Well, at least you weren't gassed."

So it isn't that surprising that the linkage of the Holocaust and the gas chambers exists, although to any thinking person it is a linkage designed to make the Holocaust incommensurable, and nothing more. Indeed, the New York Times article accepts the linkage of the gas chambers and the term "Holocaust," which makes the even-handedness of the article all the more surprising.

The New York Times Article

The connection of gas chambers and the Holocaust is implicit in the article's title, "Taking a Holocaust Skeptic Seriously," and explicit in D. D. Guttenplan's opening sentence: "Can a writer who thinks the Holocaust was a hoax still be a great historian?" The article then moves on to discuss the praise that Irving has received from academic historians, including Craig, Keegan, and Eric Hobsbawm, but the real meat of the article comes when the author interviews several American historians in order to get them to answer the article's opening question.

Mark Mazower, the Princeton-based author of a recent idea-driven version of 20th-Century European history, equivocates, and ultimately fails to answer the question as to whether Irving "deserves" to be characterized as a historian. Michael Geyer, a specialist in military history at the University of Chicago, takes the emotional approach, criticizing Irving for overlooking the humanity of the victims.

The biggest surprise comes from Raul Hilberg, probably the most thorough of all Holocaust historians, and widely recognized as the supreme authority in the field. Hilberg gives a remarkably tepid response in defending the traditional view of gas chambers, describing them as "not a subject of legitimate controversy" because "such a claim ignores evidence that points to certain conclusions." To anyone familiar with the Holocaust historiography, to have the existence of gas chambers morphed from "an irrefutable fact based on mountains of evidence" to "evidence that points to certain conclusions" is one massive comedown.

Guttenplan, an English free-lancer for the Times, goes on to recapitulate some of Irving's recent legal battles—among other things, he is suing Deborah Lipstadt for slander – before winding down. But nowhere in the article do we find a strong positive endorsement of the gas chambers commensurate with Irving's denial of their existence in the Auschwitz base camp in the second paragraph. Of course, it is likely that Guttenplan didn't wish to pursue that theme. If he had, he would have had to deal with the writing of Robert Jan van Pelt, whose 1996 study on Auschwitz conceded that the very gas chamber Irving referred to was in fact built for tourists by the Polish communist government after the war. Of course, Van Pelt makes the point elliptically with lots of curlicues, and the reader is advised to read the passage for him- or herself.

When Auschwitz was transformed into a museum after the war, the decision was taken to concentrate the history of the whole complex into one of its component parts. The infamous crematoria where the mass murders had taken place lay in ruins in Birkenau, two miles away. The committee felt that a crematorium was required at the end of the memorial journey and Crematorium I was reconstructed to speak for the history of the incinerators at Birkenau.

This program of usurpation was rather detailed. A chimney, the ultimate symbol of Birkenau, was re-created; four hatched openings in the roof, as if for pouring Zyklon B into the gas chamber below, were installed, and two of the three furnaces were rebuilt using original parts. There are no signs to explain these restitutions, they were not marked at the time, and the guides remain silent about it when they take visitors through this building that is presumed by the tourist to be the place where it happened. (Robert Jan van Pelt and Deborah Dwork, Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present, London: Yale University Press, 1996, p. 364)

There was a time not too long ago when to discuss revisionists and their beliefs was a complicated affair. Rather like religious prohibitions that forbade the appearance of Jesus on stage, or the image of the Prophet, or the pronunciation of God's name, revisionists had to be discussed while not saying anything meaningful about what they wrote or said. Yet this article, along with Gordon Craig's courageous review of Goebbels in the New York Review of Books in October, 1996, have started to change that. David Irving has given revisionists a human face, and real, concrete opinions.

This is a task that would be beyond the scope of most other revisionists. Going public, sacrificing one's livelihood, fearlessly declaiming one's opinions to the media, would not suit the majority of revisionists who are unknown, or are not credentialed, and who are, therefore, all too easy to ignore. An historian of David Irving's stature, however, cannot be ignored, and while he has paid a stiff price for his honesty, it must be said he is the only one who could have paid it. After all, new approaches require authority, experience, and stature. Only a Nixon, so they say, could have gone to China.

Additional information about this document
Property Value
Author(s): Ernest Sommers
Title: David Irving and the Normalization of Gas Chamber Skepticism
Sources: The Revisionist # 1, Nov. 1999, Codoh series
Published: 1999-11-01
First posted on CODOH: Oct. 30, 1999, 7 p.m.
Last revision:
Comments: An examination of David Irving's doubts about mass extermination and gas chambers
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