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The Strange Case of David Irving

THE HOLOCAUST ON TRIAL By D.D. Guttenplan; W.W. Norton: 328 pp., $24.95

LYING ABOUT HITLER History, Holocaust and the David Irving Trial By Richard J. Evans; Basic/Perseus: 336 pp., $27

May 20, 2001|CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS | Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation and the author most recently of "The Trial of Henry Kissinger."

History, especially as written by historians in the English tradition, is a literary and idiosyncratic form. Men such as Gibbon and Macaulay and Marx were essayists and polemicists in the grand manner, and when I was at school, one was simply not supposed to be prissy about the fact. We knew that Macaulay wrote to vindicate the Whig school, just as we knew of the prejudices of Carlyle (though there were limits: Nobody ever let us read his "Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question," a robustly obscene defense of slavery). Handing me a copy of "What Is History?" by E.H. Carr, my Tory headmaster loftily told me that it was required reading in spite of its "rather obvious Marxist bias." The master of my Oxford college was Christopher Hill, the great chronicler of Cromwell and Milton and Winstanley and the Puritan Revolution. Preeminent in his field, Hill had been a member of the Communist Party and could still be slightly embarrassed by mention of his early book, "Lenin and the Russian Revolution," in which the name of Leon Trotsky was conspicuous by its absence. Moving closer to our own time, we had Sir Arthur Bryant, whose concept of history as a pageant culminated in extreme royalism and a strong sympathy for Franco and Mussolini and Hitler. Then there was A.J.P. Taylor, one of the most invigorating lecturers of all time, who believed that the Nazis had more or less been tricked into the war. And how can one forget Hugh Trevor-Roper, author of the definitive narrative of Hitler's final days, who had close connections to British intelligence, who might be overheard making faintly anti-Jewish remarks and later pronounced the forged Hitler diaries genuine? These were men who had been witnesses and participants as well as archivists and chroniclers. Their accounts were essential reading; the allowance for prejudice and inflection was part of the fun of one's bookkeeping.

This of course doesn't license absolute promiscuity. Eric Hobsbawm, a member of the Communist Party (much later than Hill), may have advertised his allegiances but retained the respect of most critics because he had a strong sense of objectivity in his historical work. In other words, no dirty tricks were to be allowed.

However, what I mean to say for now is that when I first became aware of Irving, I did not feel it necessary to react like a virgin who is suddenly confronted by a man in a filthy raincoat.

That he had a sneaking sympathy for fascism was obvious enough. But his work on the bombing of Dresden, on the inner functioning of the Churchill government and on the mentality of the Nazi generals was invaluable. He changed sides on the issue of the Hitler diaries, but his intervention was crucial to their exposure as a pro-Nazi fabrication. His knowledge of the German language was the envy of his rivals. His notorious flaunting of bad taste and his gallows humor were not likely to induce cardiac arrest in anyone like myself, who had seen many Oxford and Cambridge history dons when they were fighting drunk.

While helping to edit the New Statesman in 1981, I encouraged the American historian Kai Bird, now a distinguished student of the Cold War, to analyze Irving's work. Bird turned in a meticulous essay, which exposed Irving's obvious prejudice and incidentally trashed his least-known and worst book--a history of the 1956 Hungarian uprising that characterized the revolt as a rebellion of sturdy Magyar patriots against shifty Jewish Communists. Irving briefly threatened to sue and then thought better of it. In the early 1990s, he took part in a public debate with the extreme denier Robert Faurisson, at which he maintained that there was definite evidence of mass extermination at least by shooting (and gratuitously added that he thought the original Nazi plan to isolate all Jews in Madagascar was probably a good scheme). I noted this with interest--there's nothing like a good faction fight between extremists--but had no contact with him, direct or indirect, until he self-published in England his biography of Josef Goebbels in 1996.

This book is still on my shelf. I read it initially because St. Martin's Press in New York decided not to publish it, or rather, decided to breach its contract to do so. This action on its part was decisive, in that it convinced Irving that his enemies were succeeding in denying him a livelihood, and it determined him to sue someone as soon as he could. It was also important in that St. Martin's gave no reason of historical accuracy for its about-face. For the publisher, it was a simple question of avoiding unpleasantness ("Profiles in Prudence," as its senior editor Thomas Dunne put it to me ruefully).

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