The Guilt of David Irving

Published: 2000-08-01

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As many revisionists expected, the British historian David Irving failed in his libel suit against the American historian Deborah Lipstadt. In his complaint, Irving had accused Lipstadt of libeling him in her book, Denying the Holocaust in which she characterized Irving as a "Hitler apologist" who distorted, manipulated, and falsified documents, as an anti-Semite who shaded the facts for ideological reasons, and as a "Holocaust denier." Justice Charles Gray, in a 330 page opinion, upheld all of these claims made against Irving, and, while he also found that Lipstadt had libeled Irving in her book, he found that the characterizations found in her book were on the whole justified, and therefore the damage resulting from the libels was negligible. As a result of his failure, Irving was saddled with the defense costs, estimated at several million dollars.

Why did Irving fail? There are several reasons, but it seems to me that there are four that are of the greatest importance. First, Irving was on the defensive. Second, Irving was outgunned. Third, Irving conceded his lack of expert knowledge concerning the Holocaust. Fourth, Irving lost the battle of definitions. As a result, Justice Gray had a relatively easy time siding with the defense, however, it must be said that parts of his opinion indicate that his siding with the defense was something less than whole-hearted. We now review the causes of Irving's failure in detail.

Irving on the Defensive

In a libel case, as in most trial cases, there is a period of discovery in which both sides can request access to all relevant evidence, and in a case like this it meant access to the private papers of David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt. As a result, the defense lawyers were able to get hold of all of David Irving's archives, the books in his library, and even his 30 years of private diaries. This gave the defense the opportunity to launch a massive personal assault on David Irving. Any indication from his diaries or his semi-public speeches that would enable the defense to sustain their charges of anti-Semitism, or something equally discreditable, would be used. At the same time, any unseemly detail in Irving's copiously documented life could be thrown up, even if it did not concern the libels in this case, but simply because it could be used to damage his credibility or stature.

As a matter of fact, the defense found very little controversial material in Irving's private papers. They did find a notorious rhyme "I'm a baby Aryan, etc." that Irving had dashed off in irony after a long-time critic had accused him and his companion and daughter of being the "perfect Aryan family." That was about it. But that rhyme was played for all it was worth. Richard Rampton, the defense barrister, accused Irving of "poisoning" the mind of his six month old daughter by reciting it, although it should be clear that no six month old would even register such a rhyme, and this forced Rampton into the ludicrous position of assuring the court that he remembered the ditties sung to him before he could even walk.

The media had a field day with the "Baby Aryan" rhyme, and this allowed everyone in the media to accuse Irving of being a "racist" with all of the social opprobium that term entails, and the effect of the public discussion clearly made itself felt in Justice Gray's judgment, because even though "racism" was not one of the items on the agenda, Gray felt compelled to remark that Irving was guilty of making racist remarks.

Now the point here is not that Irving was a racist, or that the remarks were racist, or even that racism was part of the complaint. Rather, the result of the "Baby Aryan" episode is that Irving was effectively marginalized in the public consciousness, and certainly in the mind of the Judge, because he had been caught saying things that our culture officially cannot countenance. As a result, in a contest between Irving's interpretation of events and those of Lipstadt's experts (Lipstadt herself never took the stand), Irving was bound to suffer credibility problems. And that leads to the next reason why Irving lost.

Irving Was Outgunned

One of the reasons Irving brought this suit was because his career had been effectively ruined by a long running campaign to destroy his reputation and to stop the publication of his books. Hence he had nothing to lose. Yet one of the problems of having nothing to lose is that you also are left with nothing to fight with.

In order to sustain their charges against him, the defense hired a half dozen tenured academic historians to go over every footnote in Irving's books, these experts received hefty fees for their work, as much as $200,000 in the case of the Auschwitz expert, Robert Jan Van Pelt. Yet this free flow of money was not just about the resources which the defense had which Irving lacked. It also pointed to the time and effort that the defense was able to pay for in order to find fault with Irving's work, time and energy which Irving did not have available.

The sum total of this calculated expedition of academic assassination were perhaps a dozen or so points of interpretation in Irving's 30 books in which it does appear that Irving was wrong, or mistaken, or interpreted the material in an unconventional manner. These few errors, from a lifetime of work, could not reasonably sustain the claim that Irving was not a historian, and this was immediately pointed out by Donald Cameron Watt and Sir John Keegan, two British historians with even better credentials than Lipstadt's experts. In fact, in his judgment, Justice Gray was quick to reject the sweeping characterization of the defense that Irving had no reputation as an historian to defend. Nevertheless, the existence of these few errors was once again to put Irving's credibility at a disadvantage with respect to Lipstadt's experts.

To put it another way, the defense's strategy was to destroy Irving's credibility and the integrity of his historical interpretations so that the judge would be bound to accept their version of events, not Irving's. Yet Irving had neither the time, the money, nor even the right through discovery to attempt to undercut the authority of the experts lined up against him. On the issue of historical interpretation, in which Irving had to hold his own against probably the rest of the world's experts on the subject of the Third Reich, Irving could not easily win, not only because he was outnumbered and outspent, but because his credibility and his mistakes were the actual points of contention, not those of Lipstadt's overpriced doppelgängers.

Irving Was No Expert

If Justice Gray was already tending to accept the opinions of Lipstadt's experts over Irving as a result of the few mistakes found, or due to the silly rhyme Lipstadt's lawyers extracted from his diary, the final blow came with Irving's honest but self-professed lack of expert knowledge of the Holocaust. We have to be clear about what we mean here. The detailed knowledge of what went on in the German concentration camps, and in the occupied east, is a highly specialized body of literature. It is not well known by most Third Reich historians, and indeed one could even say that it is not even comprehensively known by most experts on the Holocaust. Since it concerns the persecution and destruction of a people it is a dreary and depressing subject for study. Moreover, since it encapsulates within it all sorts of emotions and convictions that are zealously guarded by those who experienced it, it is not the kind of subject that any historian would approach in a critical spirit without some dread.

Hence Irving has always freely admitted that he was "no expert" on the Holocaust, and that he found the subject "boring." On the other hand, the defense offered at least one expert, Robert Jan Van Pelt, who claimed to have studied just one facet of the Holocaust — the Auschwitz concentration camp — almost exclusively in his academic career, who had visited the camp "every year" and who had "prepared" himself for his first visit for ten years before that. Against such declarations of monkish self-abnegation and ritualized preparation Irving had no realistic chance.

In fact, however, Irving was able to contest Pelt's version of events fairly well. Drawing on twenty five years of revisionist research, Irving was able to impress on the minds of the judge and the public the many defects in the conventional account of Auschwitz, the biggest problem being the absence of any holes in the roof in the gas chamber without which it would have been impossible to introduce any poison gas. Even so, on balance, Justice Gray was forced to weigh Irving's very strong but inexpert presentation against the solemn authority with which Van Pelt couched the "moral certainty" of his expert knowledge, as well as the tremendous weight of tradition and convention upon which Van Pelt has built his career. It would have been practically impossible for Gray to not follow the conventional interpretation in these circumstances.

Irving: A Denier?

Justice Gray followed a similar path of least resistance in characterizing Irving as a Holocaust Denier. In so doing, he recapitulated some of the elements we have already seen.

In his opening and closing statements, Irving indignantly expressed his opposition to the term "Holocaust Denier", which he called a "verbal yellow star" by which he meant that it was a term of opprobium if not an outright malediction designed to destroy people so described. We happen to think this is a fairly good characterization of the term as it is actually used, but in the trial Justice Gray allowed himself to accept the definition that had been cobbled together by Richard Evans from various sources for the express purpose of fitting David Irving. In his decision, Gray somewhat lamely argued that Irving had not managed to rebut the definition, when what he really meant was that Irving had not been able to disprove to the court's satisfaction that the predicates of Evans' definition did not apply to him. Once again, Irving's credibility, attacked elsewhere and in other ways by the defense, enabled Justice Gray to make a relatively easy finding.

Gray was also helped by the fact that, along the lines of the "Baby Aryan" quote, Irving was on record saying a number of outrageous things about what happened to the Jewish people in World War Two. To understand Irving's remarks one has to understand something about his personality and his career. While Irving is without doubt one of the most knowledgeable historians about the Third Reich, if not the most knowledgeable, and his command of the literature and the documentary sources is unrivaled, he has always had to work on his own: he has never had the kind of comfortable infrastructure available to academic historians: no stipends, no tenure, no percs, no research grants, no graduate student Ph. D. wannabe drones to do his heavy lifting for him. As a result, Irving has had to do all of his work himself, but he has also been required to attract attention to himself, so that he could make a living. Hence there has always been a sharp contrast between the public Irving of his speeches and press conferences, who is frequently outrageous and one thinks deliberately so, and the Irving of his books, who most often combines brilliant historical insight into his characters along with careful, judicious, and painstaking attention to sources.

It is that public Irving who was finally brought to heel in the courtroom. Over the past ten years, Irving had frequently made outrageous comments about the Holocaust, implying that some survivors were "assholes" who had in effect made a nice living off their wartime suffering, or by saying that more people died in the back of Teddy Kennedy's car than in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. These remarks, which all evidence indicates were off the cuff and meant to provoke laughter in the audiences which had paid to hear him, placed a shadow of unacceptability over Irving's conception of what had happened during the Holocaust. Again, like the "Baby Aryan" rhyme, no pillar of the British judicial establishment could possibly defend such politically incorrect remarks, and hence, just as Justice Gray was bound to say that Irving had made "racist" remarks he was bound to say that his remarks about the Holocaust amounted to "Denial" and "Anti-Semitism."

Problems in Retrospect

The problem is that these various stray comments which were used to undermine Irving's credibility, and thus the integrity of his historical interpretations, were not available to Lipstadt when she made her libels of Irving in her book. They emerged simply because the defense had millions of dollars with which to purchase experts to pore over Irving's life and books in detail in order to find precisely such stray comments. It was wrong for Justice Gray to conclude that the libels Lipstadt did commit were not relevant because Irving had no reputation to defend. Irving had no reputation to defend because the defense had spent most of the trial attempting to destroy it.

To his credit, Justice Gray appears to have been seriously bothered by some of this, and hence in his opinion he was careful to extol Irving's virtues as a historian, which, despite the cachet of "Denier" was probably the most important point as far as Irving's reputation is concerned. Moreover, Irving's high reputation as a historian, as expressed by Gray, was almost immediately seconded outside the courtroom by others, including Keegan and Cameron Watt.

Yet it also appears that Gray was bothered by the characterization of "Holocaust Denier" — in at least two points of his judgment Gray was careful to note that he was not attempting to make findings of fact about the Holocaust, rather he was simply assessing the evidence presented to him at this trial. What that really meant was that, since the credibility of Irving to expound on the Holocaust was weakened by his other remarks, Gray was forced to accept the version of the defense experts. But it is clear that he did not accept their version of events without reservation, otherwise he would not have distanced himself from making findings of fact.

And so David Irving failed in his suit: Lipstadt, although found guilty of libels, was essentially vindicated in her characterizations, and has since continued to loudly and in her inimitably vulgar manner alternate between tearful reproaches about David Irving's "evil" and blustering tirades about her "battle" against him, in which she was forced, in memory of the six million, to "stand up" to this modern-day destroyer of the Jews. All of this of course is grotesque, not only because of the gloating Old Testament imagery employed but because it's hard to see how Lipstadt could say that she stood up to Irving, since she spent the entire trial silent behind the defense table sitting down.

Irving, on the other hand, has been declared guilty in the court of public opinion, which feeds with great relish, as all small-minded cultures do, on the discomfiture and public gibbeting of those who refuse to worship the conventional household gods.

But in what does David Irving's guilt consist? It is evident from the conduct of his own life that he has never discriminated against people because of their race or creed, and even Justice Gray emphasized that he has never advocated discrimination or persecution of any minority. Hence the labels of "racist" and "antisemite" are simply the labels of an intolerant politically correct culture that insists on applying a weight of guilt to utterance that everyone at some time or another has expressed. To pretend otherwise is to pretend that people never allow themselves the guilty pleasure of reveling in their own group membership, whatever that may be, with the consequent ridicule of those outside the group. As to the label "Denier", we predict that Irving's interpretations of the Holocaust will be vindicated by posterity, at which time the term will be seen as the ugly weapon that it is, a crude shibboleth wielded with malice and designed to crush interpretations about the Nazi period with which certain intolerant persons disagree.

Thus Irving's guilt in essence comes down to the fact that he allowed himself to follow an unconventional path in life and was punished for doing so. He was guilty, to be sure, of making some ill-advised remarks in his career. But he was also guilty of lacking the funds to sufficiently defend himself by attacking the credibility of the experts whose interpretations Justice Gray was bound to accept, both by social and political pressures, but also by the inner dynamic of the trial itself. In a sense then one could say that Irving was guilty, because he had no money. But that's no surprise. Anatole France is credited with the sardonic remark, that the Law in its perfect equality forbids both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges. Evidently in the British system of justice, the same praiseworthy vision of human equality obtains, such that both the rich and the poor are allowed to represent themselves in court.

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Ernest Sommers
Title: The Guilt of David Irving
Sources: The Revisionist # 4, Aug. 2000, Codoh series
Published: 2000-08-01
First posted on CODOH: Aug. 30, 2000, 7 p.m.
Last revision:
Comments: An analysis of the verdict in the Irving v. Lipstadt trial
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