At the London High Court, a momentous trial is in progress. David Irving, the historian is suing for libel an American professor of religion, Deborah Lipstadt, for alleging, in her book "Denying the Holocaust" that Irving deliberately distorts the historical record in pursuit of a political agenda. Judgment is expected in April.
The case has aroused great interest. I was one of many who thronged the public gallery. The issues raised are gripping, and fundamental: history and truth, identity and ideology, freedom and dogma. British and foreign newspapers have had a field day.
Over the past 20 years, Irving has achieved fame/notoriety as a revisionist, self-taught historian whose meticulous researches claim to reveal Hitler in a highly unorthodox light. While far from uncritical -words like 'gangster,' 'diabolical' and 'cynical' pepper his text - Irving seeks partially to de-demonize Hitler. He tries to show the man behind the myth, strip away fiction and propaganda from the facts, as revealed by the written record, and to distinguish authentic documents from fakes. He works from archives and interviews, not from books about Hitler, which he thinks full of errors; and claims to have unearthed material never yet published, or previously suppressed. This leads him to some challenging conclusions. He says there is no reliable evidence that Hitler personally, rather than Goebbels or other associates, ordered atrocities like the "Night of Crystal"; that millions of people could not have been gassed at Auschwitz; and that the Holocaust is largely a propaganda myth. He lays stress on mitigating factors in Hitler's prewar military expansion: the injustices of the Versailles Treaties, and foreign collusion (French, British, Hungarian and Polish). He makes much of Hitler's admiration for Britain, reluctance to fight it, and Prime Minister Chamberlain's offers to share with Germany "full-bodied political world partnership." He deplores Chamberlain's eventual declaration of war on Germany as ill-considered, and ultimately fatal to British power. He condemns the destruction of Dresden, and accuses the Allies, at Nuremberg, of hypocrisy, torture, and the faking and destruction of evidence.
Not all of this is new. But taken together, it is easy to see why the heady, radical brew shocked anti-fascists and Third Reich survivors, especially in Israel. Irving's nationalist and decidedly authoritarian reading of events - he has no time for dissidents like Beck or Niemoeller - have not helped. Neither has his sometimes tactless sense of humor, nor the applause he has received, willy-nilly, in far Right circles, including Haider's Freedom Party. Over the last two decades, the orthodox view of the Third Reich has increasingly been questioned, by historians of varying stripe. But none has become so publicly identified with it as Irving, a veritable cynosure of obloquy, polemic and bitter litigation - as his comprehensive, and combative, web-site demonstrates. For years he has ploughed his lonely furrow, winning and losing libel actions, ever indefatigable, writing over 30 books.
This trial goes to the heart of Western identity, psychology and self-image. For the victorious Allies: Britain, America and the former Soviet Union, the fight against Hitler became a legitimating narrative: a titanic struggle of light against dark, good against evil, progress against fascism. The reality, of course, was more complex. But the Allies came to believe their own propaganda. The Nuremberg trials culminated this process. Despite much contrary evidence: the prewar appeasement; British Establishment sympathy with Hitler as a bulwark against "Bolshevism"; Stalin's short-lived pact with Germany; the swift re-engagement of former Nazis by the U.S. government after the war to fight communism; and Allied connivance in the escape of Nazi war criminals to South America (all of this on public record), the Allies chose, for their own reasons, to brand Hitler as the devil incarnate, and their own role as heroic and good.
True, as the years passed, historians lit upon less palatable facts, generally shrugged off by mainstream opinion as unfortunate, but necessary evils in a tooth-and-nail struggle, on the lines of "Well, that's war, they started it." Despite corrections, the established version of history remained paramount, reinforced with legal sanctions. To this day, in some countries, you may go to prison if you question the Holocaust, or praise or justify Nazism. Germany (but not Austria) accepted the orthodox version unreservedly, and paid huge compensation to the victims. Holocaust Museums were erected in Germany, Israel and the United States. Inevitably, a reaction then set in, with writers questioning not only the facts, and the legal ban on Holocaust denial, but also the artistic commercialization of its memory, and the vilification of dissent.
Over 35 years amid this ferment, Irving has published, and been damned. He and his books are banned from Germany, Austria and Canada, for fear of public disorder, the fanning of race hatred, and an infringement of the law. Yet he strongly denies any racist or anti-Semitic views, taking his stand on the freedom of expression and the pursuit of 'real' history.
What are we to make of this? The court will decide on the legalities. But to me, the moral and academic issue is clear. However unwelcome Irving's conclusions, whatever his private convictions, he has a right to publish, whoever's ox is gored. Next week, I shall say more on this.
The writer worked for many years in the British diplomatic service and taught at Heidelberg University, Germany. Contact: email@example.com. - Ed.
The Holocaust debate has many aspects. One is that ancient issue: truthfulness versus forbearance.
I was brought up to believe, more by example than by abstract argument, that the two were equally important, but often in conflict, so that you had to fudge decisions, case by case.
Later, researching a German writer, Alfred Doeblin, I read his fine novel "Hamlet." This tells the story of a family broken up by the son's probing into its past. The moral is clear: Hamlet is wrong to inquire into his father's guilt. Truth destroys and divides. It's better to be compassionate, and draw a prudent veil. Compassion is the higher morality.
Now, I find myself moving toward the opposite conclusion: that truthfulness takes precedence; and that ultimately, there is no conflict. As Gandhi said: the truth never harmed a good cause. No doubt, in the spirit of sophistry, cases can be cited where it did. But such conflict is more apparent than real: a genuine moral effort would often satisfy both criteria. Unfortunately, most people are unwilling or unable to make that effort.
And here I return to Hitler and the Holocaust: are we to be forbidden from questioning the orthodox version, lest people be upset? Clearly not. Freedom of expression is fundamental to the Western (if not the Confucian) tradition. Long may it remain so. The truth heals and instructs, although it may hurt and shock. Let us be big enough to face it calmly, maturely, and draw the necessary conclusions.
Take the controversy over Kurt Waldheim, president of Austria 1986-91. When Waldheim stood as candidate he had, outwardly, a distinguished career behind him, as foreign minister and U.N. Secretary-general. Inwardly, things were less rosy. Like all his generation, he had been caught up in the maelstrom of world war, serving in Army intelligence in the Balkans. There was a huge outcry as his adversaries branded him a Nazi war criminal who should be denied office.
The Austrian electorate, aghast but defiant, elected him nevertheless. Throughout Waldheim's term, he was boycotted by all states but a few. The U.S. government barred him from re-entering America. He remained defiant, protesting his innocence, and appointed a commission of historians to report on his past. It (and other similar inquiries) found comparatively little to justify the charges. Waldheim refused to stand down. He wanted to run for re-election, but was dissuaded.
While serving in Austria, I took a close interest in the case. It was soon clear that he had been misrepresented. Simon Wiesenthal, an unimpeachable source, takes this view, and in bravely stating it, incurred the wrath of the campaigners. In his books, and in private conversation, Wiesenthal described the campaign as misjudged and exaggerated, and criticized the lobby most vocal in Waldheim's condemnation: the U.S.-based World Jewish Congress. It was the WJC, he said, that had got the Justice Department to place Waldheim on its Watch List of prohibited immigrants; yet its investigation was legally and historically flawed, allowing no appeal. A convinced Nazi he was not, just a normal conformist. He had joined the Nazi Party reluctantly, for career reasons; had evaded military service until 1941; and when posted to the Balkans, had been a junior officer in no position to give orders to kill. He had done nothing which thousands of others had not done, but had been wrong to cover up, claiming that he had only done his duty. Besides, the Americans and Russians had known his past when he ran for secretary-general. They had not objected. Why? Because it suited them to have a top U.N. official whom they could manipulate.
Thus Waldheim became a scapegoat, a token of the hated Nazism, even though in reality an unwilling participant, a small fish. Was the world right to shut its eyes to the truth, out of prejudice, convenience, and populist emotion? I do not think so. Waldheim was no hero, no statesman, and no role model. But he did not wholly deserve what he got.
Two conclusions stand out. In international relations, the truth scarcely counts. What counts is power, propaganda and prejudice. The still small voice of reason is rarely heard. This is a risky state of affairs. Second: democracy is failing in its task. Public opinion remains extremely naive, misled by ignorance, apathy, and media sensationalism. Popular involvement has increased with the mass media, but remains unsophisticated, tempting opportunistic politicians to defer to mass emotion. In the sound-bite age, standards of public discourse are dropping. There are serious issues of governance, global and domestic, here.
Seventy years ago Lord Curzon, a British minister, said that the common people should have no voice in foreign policy: this was dangerous, and could lead to war. That aristocratic, one-sided view is unsustainable in today's mass democracies. But democracy does demand public information, education and interest. All these are at risk. We see a striking loss of political memory, consciousness and commitment. Many do not care, or even bother to vote. In such a dumbed-down society, truth is the first victim; and with it, all prospect of successful management.
The writer worked for many years in the British diplomatic service and taught at Heidelberg University, Germany. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org - Ed.
by Robin Crompton
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