Journal of Genocide Research, 9:3, pp. 485-87
History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving
New York: Harper Collins, 2005
346 pp, $25.95 (hbk)
Reviewed by John Zimmerman
History on Trial is a personal memoir by the defendant in the London trial that garnered worldwide media attention and ended in disgrace for the plaintiff, David Irving. Lipstadt combines the best elements of personal narrative and history writing. Her book is a riveting human drama, as well as an excellent analysis of the historical issues raised at the trial.
The central figure at the trial was David Irving, who had written many books on World War II. Irving argued in Hitler’s War, published in 1977, that the Holocaust was carried out behind Hitler’s back by unruly subordinates. Eventually, he ended up denying the Holocaust altogether. In her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt identified Irving as a Holocaust denier who had distorted evidence for ideological reasons. This was obvious to anyone who had followed Irving over the years. Indeed, he would regularly appear at gatherings of Holocaust deniers.
At one of these gatherings, he announced that Hitler was “probably the biggest friend the Jews had in the Third Reich. He was the one doing everything he could to prevent nasty things happening to them” (p xviii). This would prove typical of Irving’s antics when addressing Holocaust issues.
Irving sued Lipstadt’s British publisher, Penguin, over the assertions she made about him in Denying the Holocaust (2004). He would have been unable to sue in a US court, but British libel laws are far looser, and more weighted toward the plaintiff, than those in the United States. The suit promised to be very expensive for Lipstadt’s publisher. She feared the publisher might settle on terms favourable to Irving. Her lawyer, Richard Rampton, one of Britain’s foremost barristers and perhaps the major hero of the trial, agreed to take the case pro bono if the publisher chose not to pursue a litigation defence. Nevertheless, Penguin did not back out, and the trial went forward.
It is important to emphasize that it was Lipstadt’s right to free speech that Irving was challenging. His lawsuit could have led to the publisher withdrawing the book in Britain. Characteristically, Irving portrayed himself as the victim. Moreover, as Lipstadt learned, Irving was threatening similar lawsuits against journalist Gitta Sereny and the publisher of historian John Lukacs, both of whom had exposed his flagrant misuse of sources.
The centrepiece of the book is the trial itself. Irving had always craved attention, and now he was at the heart of a major drama unfolding in a London courtroom. Indeed, he decided to represent himself. The end result is that he used a world stage to make a fool of himself.
Lipstadt recounts in detail the massive evidence presented at the trial, which showed quite conclusively that not only was Irving a Holocaust denier, but that he intentionally misused historical sources to present Hitler in a favourable light. In Hitler’s War, he claimed that a memo by SS chief Heinrich Himmler, which instructed that Jews were not to be liquidated, showed that Hitler was against killings. As it turned out, the actual memo referred only to a particular transport, and was issued before Himmler met with Hitler that day. But Irving failed to draw the logical conclusion: that Hitler must have known of the Holocaust, if he was aware that this one transport was not to be liquidated.
Irving was also asked about a document that showed 363,000 Jews murdered over a four-month period—a document marked “shown to the Fu¨hrer.” Irving’s response was typical: that if Hitler saw the document, he probably paid no attention to it, because he was busy with the war.
For Irving, no absurdity was too great. When asked to explain how residues of poison gas ended up in morgues that had been identified in Auschwitz as homicidal gas chambers, Irving answered that the room was used “for fumigating objects or cadavers” (p 131). The presiding judge asked him why a corpse would be gassed. Irving replied that it was necessary to kill the vermin that inhabited the corpse. Yet, these bodies would be incinerated in the crematoria ovens located in the same buildings as the morgue. Why fumigate a body about to be incinerated?
Misrepresentations are common when Irving writes about Nazis and Jews. He claimed that the German authorities attempted to stop the anti-Jewish riots known as Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) in November 1938. Yet, when reviewing Irving’s own sources, the exact opposite proved to be the case. The actual orders stated that the anti-Jewish demonstrations should not be hindered.
Irving was also adept at fabricating figures. He multiplied by a factor of ten the number of German deaths that resulted from the Allied bombings of Dresden to show that Allied crimes equalled, if not exceeded, those of the Germans. One of his most egregious examples was the claim in his biography of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels that in 1932 German Jews were responsible for 31,000 cases of fraud, mainly from insurance. His source for this was an article in a Nazi propaganda publication. In fact, the real figure was 74 cases for all insurance fraud in 1932.
Irving claimed that his errors were not intentional. However, the presiding judge noted that all of his errors were in favour of Hitler, while none ran in the opposite direction. This suggested that the mistakes were hardly innocent.
The court’s verdict was that Irving was a Holocaust denier who had deliberately falsified the historical record to promote his ideological beliefs. Lipstadt concludes that “David Irving had been far less formidable than any of us imagined. His fanciful claims had crumpled under the simple weight of facts” (pp 298–299).
Yet, in a strange way, it was Irving, not Lipstadt, who made the best case for the Holocaust. Ironically, by revealing himself as a fraud in the global media spotlight, Irving has done more to discredit Holocaust denial than all the critical books written on the topic combined. In fact, in the conspiratorial world Irving inhabits, he could even be classified as an agent of the “traditional enemy” (i.e. Jews). For Irving, who so craves attention, this point is probably irrelevant. For at least some period, much world attention was focused on him.
His recent arrest and incarceration in Austria, for Holocaust denial, suggests that the verdict I passed on him in 2000 remains valid: “What can be said about Irving is that he knows a great deal but has learned nothing.”1
John C. Zimmerman
University of Nevada Las Vegas
Lipstadt, D. E. (2004). Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (London: Penguin).
1 John C. Zimmerman, Holocaust Denial: Demographics, Testimonies and Ideologies (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000), p 172.