Strakon Lights Up, No. 33

Irving's defeat

When I was a kid, I marched in my town's high school band. The marching itself, I didn't mind; it was the standing that I couldn't stand. We strapped ourselves into wool uniforms heavy as a Civil War Yankee's, and I vividly remember a couple of boilingly hot Memorial Days when I stood with my trombone at parade rest, just about swooning as the interminable prayers and speeches droned on and on.

Much establishment history affects me the same way, especially the World War II history produced by courtier historians. I feel as if I've been draped with another heavy uniform — though I don't care to wear any uniform at all — and dragooned into standing still for another pious ceremony. I feel like swooning out of boredom and impatience. Same old bellowing slogans, same old self-righteous sermonizing, same old smug triumphalism, when it's obvious to me that nobody won World War II except Stalin and Mao and Wall Street, and that the big loser was Western civilization on both sides of the Atlantic.

In comparison, David Irving's books are like a splash of cold water. I started reading Irving back when mainstream houses such as Viking were still publishing him, mainstream bookstores such as Borders were still selling him, and the Holocaust establishment had yet to demonize him. Instead of pasting his books together from secondary sources, tendentious English translations, and bowdlerized archives — the practice of many of his colleagues — Irving the polyglot documentarian relentlessly pursued the elusive originals of diaries, letters, and records of the Third Reich. And he was unhysterical about it all and disinclined to demonstrate the usual piety toward the Great Crusade. I didn't accept all of his interpretations — I don't accept all of anyone's interpretations — but I knew cold water when I felt it hit my face.

The New York Times quotes historian John Keegan as saying that "Irving knows more than anyone alive about the German side of the Second World War," and that his work is "indispensable to anyone seeking to understand the war in the round." Reviewing The Destruction of Convoy PQ-17, the Times praised Irving's "great narrative skill" while stipulating that the book is "a serious work of history." Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote in the Sunday (London) Times that "no praise can be too high for Irving's indefatigable scholarly industry" as displayed in the two-volume Hitler's War. And when The War Path came out, A.J.P. Taylor wrote in the (London) Observer: "David Irving is a patient researcher of unrivaled industry and success."

All of that was some years ago, and Irving has come a long way since then. He is now considered a "Holocaust denier," with all that that entails, because he doesn't believe Hitler ordered or knew about a program of extermination gas chambers designed to massacre Jews; and because, as I understand it, his passively agnostic view about the existence of said gas chambers has gradually approached active atheism. The last I heard (I don't monitor his every utterance), Irving did accept conventional accounts of the mass shootings and hangings of Jews and others behind the Eastern Front — because he found the documentary evidence overwhelming and credible, as he did not with respect to gas chambers. However, that falls far short of what the world establishment considers a satisfactory observance of Official Truth, so Irving was prosecuted or banned for crimethink by such advanced democracies as Germany, Italy, Canada, and Australia, and reduced to self-publishing and self-marketing.

And he was attacked by Deborah Lipstadt in Denying the Holocaust, attacked so viciously, indeed, that in 1999 he was moved to bring a libel action against the American Jewish activist in the London courts. In her book, Lipstadt says that Irving is no historian at all but a dangerous propagandist, and it was that barb that seemed to penetrate most deeply under Irving's skin. (Like some other, more-respectable writers on the European Theater such as Sir Basil Liddell Hart, William L. Shirer, John Toland, Cornelius Ryan, and Kenneth Macksey, Irving lacks university credentials in history.)

On April 11, he lost his suit and was denounced by the judge in a colorful rant. Under British law, Irving as the loser is held responsible for Lipstadt and her publisher's court costs, estimated at a minimum of $3 million. Irving says he doesn't have the $3 million. According to CNN, "What little credibility Irving had left as a historian is now in ruins."


From the beginning I thought it was a staggering blunder for Irving to solicit vindication from a state — any state. History can be made in courts of law, but it cannot be taught there. If we do not expect the truth of history to emerge from the state's schools, surely we cannot expect it to emerge from the state's courts. Both institutions are dedicated, above all, to defending the majesty, integrity, and legitimacy of the regime of which they are a part.

In particular, the state from which Irving sought redress is a state that, to nourish its legitimacy, still must draw from its 60-year-old treasury of supposed wartime glory. It is a state whose ruling party longs to ban Irving's work — as it has been banned by other progressive democracies — and may yet succeed in doing so. (In fact, Britain did succeed for years in banning Irving's first major revisionist work, the PQ-17 book.) However profound Irving's understanding of World War II and the Hitler regime, his understanding of more modern regimes stands revealed as woefully inadequate. But then he is not a libertarian.

Because most other people are not libertarians, either, we may now expect to be taught a valuable lesson in the workings of what I have called "statish" thinking. Whether or not the historians who have praised him humbly recant, whenever Irving's name is mentioned in polite company the cognoscenti may be relied upon to quote Justice Gray — the latest amateur historian and telepath to emerge on the world stage — to the effect that "Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence. For the same reasons, he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favorable light, particularly in relation to his attitude toward and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews." ("Critic of a Holocaust Denier Is Cleared in British Libel Suit," by Sarah Lyall, New York Times, April 11)

A friend points out that one of the most infuriating aspects of the myth of legitimacy is how easily the state is able to impute its own notional legitimacy to the beneficiaries of its acts — Lipstadt in this case. Formerly it might have been argued that Lipstadt's accusations were erroneous, and one could argue that question on its merits. Now, one is sure to be met with the "counterargument" that a British court ruled that she was right.

Irving is officially a bad man! A judge said so! I guess it's all over, then. We'd all better shut up now and confine ourselves to reading somebody safe like Stephen Ambrose.


Advanced democratic regimes such as Britain's are influenced by more than just their own official histories and interests.

Israel's ruler, Ehud Barak, has this to say of Gray's decision: "The strength of Israel today ensures that today [sic] no second Holocaust will take place, and no one in the world will dare rise against the Jewish nation. But in parallel, a determined struggle is going on against the people who deny the Holocaust that brought the death of a third of our nation." (Lyall)

So Israel is pretty darn strong, eh? Up against not merely her Levantine enemies but against enemies anywhere "in the world"? True, Israel has nuclear weapons, but I am driven to conclude that Barak is speaking of a strength that does not rely primarily on Israel's military force, especially with respect to that "parallel struggle."

Barak's "third of our nation" formulation is provocative, astonishingly so, in light of the fact that whatever happened to Jews during the Holocaust happened in Europe, not Palestine, and happened before the State of Israel came into existence. Just what are the boundaries of Mr. Barak's "nation" in time and space? How far does its power really extend? Where all do its citizens live?

Tough questions. We may want to ask a certain egg-spattered, newly impoverished fellow over in England what he thinks.

April 12, 2000

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