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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."

Well, as I say, I'm a big boy and can bear the thought of being offended. The biography, based largely on extracts from Goebbels' diaries, told me a great deal I hadn't known. I'll instance a small but suggestive example. Irving had in the past been associated with the British fascist movement led by Sir Oswald Mosley. In my hot youth, I'd protested at some of the meetings of this outfit and had circulated the charge that, before the war, it had been directly financed by the Nazis. This charge was always hotly disputed by the Mosleyites themselves, but here was Goebbels, in cold print, discussing the transfer of funds from Berlin to the British Black Shirts. On the old principle famously adumbrated by Bertrand Russell--of "evidence against interest"--it seemed that Irving was capable of publishing information that undermined his own position. He also, in his editorial notes, gave direct testimony about the mass killing of Jews in the East (by shooting) and of the use of an "experimental" gas chamber in the Polish town of Chelmno. The "deniers" don't like this book; on the strength of it you could prove that the Nazis tried to do away with the Jews. There was some odd stuff about Hitler's lack of responsibility for Kristallnacht but, as I say, I allowed for Irving's obsessions. I wrote a column criticizing St. Martin's for its cowardice and described Irving himself as not just a fascist historian but a great historian of fascism. One should be allowed to read "Mein Kampf" as well as Heidegger. Allowed? One should be able to do so without permission from anybody.

As a result of this, Irving contacted me when he was next in Washington, and I invited him to my home for a cocktail. He got off to a shaky start by refusing any alcohol or tobacco and by presenting me with two large blue-and-white stickers. Exactly the size of a German street sign, they were designed to be pasted over the originals at dead of night. "Rudolf Hess Platz," they said; a practical-joke accessory for German extremists with that especial sense of humor. Because they were intended to shock, I tried to look as unshocked as I could. Irving then revealed, rather fascinatingly, that some new documents from the Eichmann family might force him to reconsider his view that there had been no direct order for the annihilation of the Jews. It was a rather vertiginous atmosphere all around. When it came time for him to leave, my wife and daughter went down in the elevator with him on their own way out. Later, my wife rather gravely asked me if I would mind never inviting him again. This was highly unlike her; we have all sorts at our place. However, it transpired that, while in the elevator, Irving had looked with approval at my fair-haired, blue-eyed daughter, then 5 years old, and declaimed the following doggerel about his own little girl, Jessica, who was the same age:

I am a Baby Aryan

Not Jewish or Sectarian;

I have no plans to marry an

Ape or Rastafarian.

The thought of Carol and Antonia in a small space with this large beetle-browed man as he spouted that was, well, distinctly creepy. (He has since posted the lines on his Web site, and they came back to haunt him at the trial.)

The next time Irving got in touch with me was after his utter humiliation in court, and I thought I'd give him one last chance--though I arranged to meet him in a neutral restaurant this time. I wanted to know if it was true, as I had read in the press, that he had abruptly addressed the judge in the case as "Mein Fuhrer." With some plausibility, he explained to me that this was a misunderstanding; he had been quoting from the slogans shouted at a rally he was addressing in Germany and had glanced up at the bench at the wrong moment. The transcript of the trial seemed to make this interpretation possible. So when telephoned by my friend Ian Buruma, who was writing on the case for The New Yorker, I suggested that he might check it out. He called me back with the information that, when he had asked Irving directly about the incident, Irving had taken him into confidence and said, "Actually, I did say it." At this point I finally decided that anyone joining a Fair Play for Irving Committee was up against a man with some kind of death wish.

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