Not in Denial Anymore

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Review of 'Telling Lies About Hitler', Richard J Evans, Verso £14 and 'The Holocaust on Trial', DD Guttenplan, Granta £9.99

In April 2000, at the cost of a three month, £2 million trial, David Irving was confirmed as a 'pro-Nazi polemicist', who had deliberately falsified the historical record in order to deny the reality of the Holocaust. 'The Holocaust on Trial' and 'Telling Lies About Hitler' are two accomplished accounts of Irving's attempt to sue Deborah Lipstadt for libel, after she exposed his methods.

Many newspaper columnists warned of the danger supposedly posed to free speech by censoring an anti-Semitic admirer of Hitler. They missed the rather obvious point that it was Irving trying to gag Lipstadt, and not vice versa. And despite the libel laws demanding that she prove deliberate distortion by Irving, the final judgement upheld every major aspect of her defence. Judge Gray repudiated Irving's denial of the Holocaust's systematic nature, his defence of Hitler, and his claim that Auschwitz had no gas chambers. Six (out of 35) Auschwitz storerooms that the Nazis failed to destroy revealed 368,820 men's suits and 836,255 women's coats and dresses, and the tannery seven tons of human hair. Irving ludicrously maintains that the gas chambers were for 'delousing'.

His 'case', that the Final Solution (to the minimal extent that he accepts that killings of Jews took place) was not carried out with Hitler's knowledge, and therefore was not a systematic aspect of the Nazi regime, was ripped apart by Lipstadt's defence. Irving relies on the euphemisms that the Nazis used to conceal the full horror of what they were doing, and takes them as literal. So, for example, when Himmler is informed of 55,000 Jews sent for 'special treatment' in Chelmno, the site of gassing trucks, Irving thought it 'equally plausible' that they were being sent east (another Nazi euphemism), despite the fact they were travelling westward!

There is ample evidence of Hitler's active involvement in the massacres. But to say the Holocaust's systematic nature depends on the attitude of Hitler is a fallacy anyway. As Guttenplan points out, very few historians present the Holocaust as the simple translation of Hitler's will into reality, or as Daniel Goldhagen does, as the logical conclusion of an ahistorical German 'eliminationist anti-Semitism'. A much broader spectrum of historians reject such simplistic monocausal explanations. Writers such as Tim Mason and Ian Kershaw have helped us build an understanding of Nazi anti-Semitism emerging from, and reinforcing, an 'anti-Bolshevik' ideology forged as an extreme expression of the practical defence of German capitalism in crisis. Though it was to take on a destructive logic of its own, it was bound into the expansionist, recognisably imperialist project of creating lebensraum ('living space'). To reduce it to the manifestation of Hitler's evil is to absolve the corporations like IG Farben that profiteered from it, and the 'respectable' politicians who were complicit.

Perhaps the most telling question raised is not the easily answered if Irving is a Holocaust denier, but how he was able to get away with it for so long. Substantial blame lies with the exclusive nature of historical study. In a world where few people have the resources or access to view the primary documents deliberately mistranslated and selectively quoted by Irving, wilful abuse of evidence is an ever present threat.

Evans's slimmed down version of his report commissioned for the defence at the trial is an excellent dissection of Irving's malicious fictions. 'The Holocaust on Trial' offers a more comprehensive analysis, and advocates not a guilt-driven but a solidarity-inspired response. This is a vital conclusion, as Holocaust denial is not a lapse in rationality, but the preserve of neo-Nazis who wish us to forget what they would like to repeat.

On 4 March, mainly due to his court failure, Irving was declared insolvent. These books, rejected by several major publishers who feared controversy, expose Holocaust denial as equally bankrupt, while never being blind to its danger. They should be read by anyone proud to belong to what Irving describes as the 'odd and ugly and perverse and greasy and slimy community of "anti-fascists".'