Holocaust Denier David Irving Back in the Fray

10/05/2010 03:20 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Israel's oldest newspaper Haaretz recently reported that David Irving is leading a group of supporters who have each paid around £2000 (about $3160) to take part in an eight-day tour of wartime sites in Poland. Their itinerary includes visits to the "Wolf's Lair," Hitler's Eastern Front headquarters, and the camps of Majdanek, Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec. Authorities in Poland have stated that they will be scrutinizing his public statements to ensure that they don't violate Polish laws against denying the Holocaust. A human rights group in Poland has decided to take legal action against Irving for "minimizing" the scale of Nazi atrocities.

For those who are unfamiliar with David Irving, he is a veteran commentator and a highly respected figure in Holocaust denial circles. He is the author of over 30 books on World War II, which had already rendered him a highly controversial figure by the early 1970s. But despite it all, Irving has never held a university post and does not have a degree. "I am an untrained historian," he likes to say, finding satisfaction in his belief that professional historians turn green with envy when they couple that piece of information with all his successful books.

He does want the respect and praise of the intellectual community, however, while at times lashing out against them for their inability to recognize the value of his work. Scholars have described Irving "as a man who 'seizes on a small and dubious particle of evidence,' using it to dismiss far-more-substantial evidence that may not support his thesis." He is recognized as a "first-rate archivist" and respected for his tireless digging into historical documents but is often accused of selective quoting and wild speculation to reach conclusions that will support his beliefs.

He is best known for the firestorm of criticism he received for his book Hitler's War, published in 1977. In the book, Irving argued that not only did Hitler not order the mass execution of the Jews but also that he did not even know about it until 1943, and that throughout it all, Hitler had "done his best to mitigate the worst anti-Semitic excesses of his subordinates." Irving seemed to be saying that Hitler was a puppet of his administration rather than the other way around. He sparked even greater controversy by issuing a public challenge to anyone who could come up with a document proving him wrong. He wanted the long-sought Fuhrerbefehl, the order from Hitler to exterminate the Jews. During this time, Irving no doubt believed that the Holocaust happened but stood by his beliefs that Hitler had not ordered it. It was only some time after he read the Leuchter Report, which denies the homicidal use of gas chambers, that Irving began to question, and ultimately deny, major aspects of the Holocaust.

In 1993, Deborah Lipstadt published a book called Denying the Holocaust. When Irving read the book and saw his name in close proximity to words like "discredited," "neofascist," "denial connections" and "ardent admirer of the Nazi leader," he was fuming. He demanded that Lipstadt and her publishing company, Penguin Books, remove the book from circulation. When they refused, he took them to court. It was clear to Lipstadt and Penguin that they had to accept the challenge from Irving. Penguin could not leave Lipstadt out to dry because if they did, the literary community would never forgive them. Lipstadt would have been right to assume that her credibility was on the line, but more importantly in the long run, if she ignored Irving, it may have given historical revisionists the legitimacy they crave.

The problem was that Irving sued in England, and English law tends to favor the plaintiff. In the United States, it is up to the plaintiff to prove that the author had lied and maliciously made objectionable statements. In English law, however, the defendant had to successfully establish a positive defense or they could be deemed libelous. In other words, in the United States, Lipstadt would have been innocent until proven guilty by Irving. In England, the onus was on Lipstadt to clear herself of Irving's charges. Defamatory statements, in England, were branded as falsities until proven to be otherwise. Lipstadt and her team soon discovered that they only had one real line of defense: they had to prove that what Lipstadt wrote about Irving was true.

The trial began on January 11, 2000 at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. The stakes were high for both parties; reputations were on the line. But, the stakes were unimaginably high for Lipstadt and Penguin because they had placed on their shoulders, by Irving, the responsibility of defending history. As D. D. Guttenplan writes, "If David Irving won, a British court would have lent its imprimatur to his version of events, in which the survivors of Auschwitz are branded as liars, and the suffering of the victims of the gas chambers is simply erased from the pages of history." History and the Holocaust itself were on trial. The danger was serious enough for Penguin Books to pay 2 million pounds in lawyer fees and expert witnesses. Film director Stephen Spielberg and several other American Jews gave money and support in this do-or-die grapple to defend the dignity of the Holocaust and all those who had suffered under it.

After all of the talk, after all the eggs that had been literally thrown at him, Irving sat jacketless with his elbows on the table, hands folded, and chin resting on his hands -- waiting. Justice Charles Gray delivered his 333-page decision on the trial on April 11th. The most scathing assault on Irving came when Justice Gray stated:

It appears to me to be undeniable that ... in the absence of any excuse or suitable explanation for what he said or wrote, Irving is anti-Semitic. His words are directed against Jews, either individually or collectively, in the sense that they are by turns hostile, critical, offensive and derisory in their references to Semitic people, their characteristics and appearances.

He concluded:

It appears to me that the correct and inevitable inference must be that for the most part the falsification of the historical record was deliberate and that Irving was motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence.

Lipstadt and Penguin had succeeded. Whether or not Irving's "falsification of historical record" was deliberate is perhaps up for debate, but Irving is almost certainly anti-Semitic. As Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman ask in their book Denying History: "What are we to make of Irving's recording in his personal diary that one day he sang this little song to his young daughter: 'I am a Baby Aryan/ Not Jewish or Sectarian/ I have no plans to marry/ an Ape or Rastafarian'?" They rightly argue that Irving's almost gleeful recording of this act in his diary "makes it difficult for us to believe that Irving does not have some anti-Semitic leanings that might color his objectivity when dealing with historical documents of what Nazis did to Jews."