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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."

"The Holocaust on Trial" and "Lying About Hitler" make that very point in widely differing ways. Like me, D.D. Guttenplan is full of contempt for the censorship of Irving and quite prepared to consider the idea that the Holocaust has been exploited and even distorted. However, Guttenplan became disgusted by Irving's alternately bullying and ingratiating style and by his repeated failure to make good on his historical claims. His account of the courtroom confrontation, most vividly the confrontation between Irving and the Dutch expert on the mechanics of Auschwitz, Robert Jan van Pelt, could hardly be bettered. He also provides a masterly guide to the byways of English law, especially the grossly biased and oppressive law of libel that Irving hoped to enlist on his side.

This in itself has led to an intriguing subplot, with Richard J. Evans' London publishers abandoning his book, "Lying About Hitler," because of their own pusillanimous fear of a libel suit and with Evans giving Guttenplan a rather dismissive review in a London newspaper. The issue before the court, says Evans, was not whether the Holocaust occurred but whether Irving is a fabricator. Of course that is formally true, but to my mind, Guttenplan rather beautifully shows it to be a distinction without a difference. Justice Gray, presiding, expressed the repeated hope that the case would not involve revisiting Auschwitz, but he had to "go there" all the same before the case was fully heard. It could not have been otherwise. As Raul Hilberg once phrased it, at Auschwitz history was destroyed at the same time that history was made. The question cannot be approached from the standpoint of truth without accepting this contradiction.

As an expert witness at the trial, however, Evans was quite devastating. "Lying About Hitler" is essentially an expanded version of his affidavit, and it redraws the whole terrain of the argument. No longer are we faced merely with the question of Irving's elementary right to speak or be published. We are invited to see if he deserves the title of historian at all. Evans' method is quite a simple one. He shows, first, that there are a number of errors, omissions and unsupported assertions in Irving's work. Now, this might be true of any historian, and there were indeed some distinguished academic practitioners in the witness box who maintained that no narrative is or can be free from error. However, what if, as Evans said under cross-examination:

"There is a difference between, as it were, negligence, which is random in its effects, i.e. if you are a sloppy or bad historian, the mistakes you make will be all over the place. They will not actually support any particular point of view .... On the other hand, if all the mistakes are in the same direction in the support of a particular thesis, then I do not think that is mere negligence. I think that is a deliberate manipulation and deception."

Evans' knowledge, both of the period and of the German language, are of an order to rival Irving's. He has little difficulty in showing that there are suspicious mistranslations, suggestive ellipses and, worst of all, some tampering with figures: in other words, that Irving knowingly inflates the death toll in the Allied bombing of Dresden while deflating it in the camps and pits to the East. And, yes, all the "mistakes" have the same tendency. In a crucial moment, Irving "forgot" what he had said about Nazi Gen. Walter Bruns, who had confessed to witnessing mass killing of Jews and had been taped by British intelligence while doing so. When it suited Irving to claim that Bruns didn't know he was being recorded, he claimed as much. When it didn't, he suggested that Bruns was trying to please his hearers. Having listened myself to Irving discuss this fascinating episode, I mentally closed the book when I reached this stage in it. It was a QED.

Irving has long been notorious for his view that Hitler never gave any order for the Final Solution and that there is no irrefutable document authorizing it. In court, he was unpardonably flippant on this point, saying airily that perhaps, like some of Richard Nixon's subordinates, a few of the rougher types imagined they knew what would please the boss. This argument has always struck me as absurd on its face in both cases, but Evans simply reduces it to powder. It's not too much to say that by the end of the trial, the core evidence for the Holocaust had been tested and found to be solid. The matter of Irving's reputation as scholar and researcher--which was the ostensible subject of the hearing--was so much "collateral damage."

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