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Last-Modified: 2002/02/25

The Observer
Guardian Unlimited 
http://www.observer.co.uk/review/story/0,6903,655883,00.html

Memories are made of this 

David Irving lost the libel trial that saw him branded a racist. But,
as the winners take him back to court to claim their due, Irving seems
to have forgotten his defeat. It wouldn't be the first time his memory
has been shown to be selective... 

Tim Adams
Sunday February 24, 2002
The Observer 

On Valentine's Day David Irving offered his no doubt lonely and
troubled supporters a little love story. Like all the best love
stories, it seems to have been conceived when the whole wide world was
fast asleep. Irving posted the tale on his website, a distinctly odd
chatroom in which, typically, he converses entirely with his private
obsessions, the unappealing voices in his head. 

He had, he suggested, the previous night, been at work until 2.30am,
'as usual', pausing only at two 'to pray quietly for the souls of the
hundred thousand [sic] innocents we British burned alive at this
moment in Dresden, 57 years ago', when he heard the news that Adolf
Hitler's last private secretary, Traudl Junge, had died.

The fact of the secretary's demise seems to have set off in Irving a
sense of wistful romance. In particular, it triggered a memory of an
encounter with another of the Führer's doting assistants, Christa
Schröder, whom Irving met in the early Seventies, while researching
his book, Hitler's War. 

His reminiscence, relayed with a bodice-ripper's sense of titillation
and suspense, relates how Schröder once took him back to her
apartment in Munich and allowed him to peep behind a curtain 'which
she opened only for a few privileged friends'. Behind it hung her
little gallery of photos and relics of her beloved Führer. 

Buoyed by this intimate recollection, Irving goes on to recall for his
online audience how Schröder told him that once, while in hospital,
'A.H.' had brought her flowers: '[at this] a smile of half-remembered
pleasures flickered across her face, and she added with a wistful
chuckle, "He said, 'People are going to think I am visiting a secret
lover!'".' 

Irving can't conceal his vicarious delight in this unconsummated
passion, 'which remained a crush, at room's length, no more'. There is
a payoff, too. Toward the end of her life, Schröder produced,
Irving claims, a stack of 20 or 30 yellowed postcards from behind her
secret curtain: 'From his bunker, Hitler told Christa to go through
his private papers and destroy everything,' he writes. 'She had
salvaged these postcards, sketches by A.H., as mementos: there was
Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp, sketched by Adolf Hitler, and a
Wandering Jew; a vast suspension bridge he was planning to build after
the war... and a deft pencil self-portrait...' For some reason,
Schröder wanted Irving to have one of the cards and 'of course' he
chose the self-portrait. She wondered if she should sign it to
authenticate it, but Irving, never much of a stickler for
authenticity, replied, apparently, 'that she knew who drew it, and so
did I, and that was good enough'. 

Hitler's childlike sketch of himself, in shaky profile, is thus
reproduced on the website, along with a final footnote to the story.
'Later,' Irving adds, 'Christa must have regretted her kindness, and I
was told she had remarked that she could have sold the postcard to pay
for an expensive operation that she needed. I gave the person who
conveyed this message to me an envelope with cash for Christa (in
those days, before the enemy onslaught on Real History began, I was
comfortably able to make such donations).' 

For those familiar with his work, or who followed the libel trial he
brought against Penguin Books and the American academic Deborah
Lipstadt at the High Court, this is all a classic piece of Irving
propaganda. It mixes a sense of intimacy with the thrill of discovery;
it is full of provocative detail that is impossible to verify - Hitler
doodling a 'Wandering Jew'? - but which is designed to humanise the
dictator in the minds of readers (and, as such, is part of Irving's
somewhat thankless lifelong project). The final acceptance of the
postcard is classic Irving, too, (like the Oi! boys with their
swastikas, he revels in Nazi memorabilia, treasures these little love
tokens); and, pointedly, it ends by planting in his reader's mind an
example both of his 'benevolence' and his outrageous sense of himself
as a victim. (Elsewhere on his curiously lavish site - all pop-up
windows and Adobe Acrobats - Irving makes this subliminal plea for
hard cash to his sad band of international devotees more explicit,
offering credit card hotlines and PO Box numbers, and promising that
bank statements will record their donation to his lifestyle simply as
'World War Two Books'.) It is all, in other words, very much business
as usual. 

There was a time when David Irving used to content himself with
denying the Final Solution in general and Hitler's knowledge of it in
particular. (He then went to court to argue that he was in denial that
he was in denial.) But these days his selective memory also seems to
extend to the recent history of his judicial humiliation. It does not
seem to have registered with him that after his three-month libel
suit, in which he claimed that Penguin and Lipstadt had defamed him by
calling him a 'disreputable' historian, he was told by Justice Gray
that he had been proved 'an active Holocaust denier', that he is
'anti-Semitic' and 'racist', and that 'he associates with right-wing
extremists who promote neo-Nazism'.

At the time of this verdict, a series of cartoons appeared in
newspapers picturing Irving denying that the trial, and its damning
verdict, had ever actually occurred. These caricatures were, it seems,
prescient. 

Despite having lost leave to appeal against the Penguin/Lipstadt
verdict last summer, and though he still owes in the region of £2
million costs, of which, nearly two years on, not a penny has been
paid, Irving insists on telling his acolytes and donors that the
action against the publisher is 'ongoing'. It is one of half-a-dozen
cases that Irving claims still to be involved in, and that he
apparently requires funds to fight. 

On 5 March, Penguin will press a bankruptcy claim on him, in an
attempt to recover at least a long overdue 'interim payment' of
£125,000. They despair a little of ever seeing the balance. 

Worse, despite his defeat, Irving continues to behave as if he still
has a reputation to defend, and unfortunately, this idea seems
infectious. In the years before the Penguin trial, Irving attempted to
bully and intimidate publishers and newspapers from criticising his
work by threatening pre-emptive legal action. Even after being
destroyed in court he has continued in this practice, and publishers
continue to be cowed, presumably in the knowledge that even if they
won a court battle with Irving, they would still, given his record of
non-payment, have to foot the bill. 

The key defence witness in the Penguin trial, Richard J. Evans,
professor of modern history at Cambridge, spent nearly three years
tracking down Irving's original sources, to prove his concerted and
deliberate efforts to pervert the historical record and to bend fact
to his own political ends. This paperchase, which led Evans around the
libraries and research institutes of Europe, was collated in a
750-page dossier, the basis of the defence against Irving: a catalogue
of instances of his deliberate mistranslation and selective quotation
that proved beyond any doubt the assertion that Irving's historical
method was directed, as his detractors claimed, by his obsessive
mission to 'rehabilitate' Hitler. 

In the weeks after the trial, Evans turned this dossier, and his
astute reflections on the case and its implications, into a compelling
book, Lying About Hitler, one of the most exhaustive and important
pieces of scholarly investigation in modern times. 

The book immediately found a publisher in America, won dazzling
reviews and sold 10,000 hardback copies. Nearly two years on, however,
it remains unpublished in Britain, and, though it can be ordered from
Amazon, Irving continues to use the anomalies of the British libel
laws - which place the burden of proof on the defendant rather than
the litigant - to keep it from bookshops. 

Evans's manuscript was first bought by Heinemann, part of the Random
House conglomerate, who despite describing it in their blurb as 'a
major contribution to our understanding of the Holocaust', opted to
pulp it, apparently after receiving threats of writs from the already
discredited Irving. Other publishers - with the notable exception of
Granta Books, who were happy to accept the negligible risk but could
not reach an agreement with Evans for other books - have refused to
touch it, even though lawyers are offering to defend the book pro
bono, and despite the fact it contains little that was not in the High
Court judgment. 

Evans's experience was not unique. In terms similar to those Jeffrey
Archer or Robert Maxwell were apt to use, Irving also wrote to
potential publishers of the American academic John Lukacs's book The
Hitler of History, which contained a devastating attack on his
methods, telling them: 'A major British Sunday newspaper [the Sunday
Times ] was [once] obliged to pay me very substantial damages for
similar libels... I put you, and through your agency any such
publisher, herewith on notice that I shall immediately commence libel
proceedings against any publisher who is foolish enough to repeat
these libels within the jurisdiction of our courts.' 

In January 2001, nine months after Irving was demolished in one such
court, Weidenfeld & Nicolson published Lukacs's book - but not without
significant emendations to the Irving section. Irving's website still
suggests that a writ is pending. 

At the time of Justice Gray's ruling, solicitor Anthony Julius, who
had run Penguin's case, claimed the verdict was 'a sparkling
vindication of the libel laws' and one which 'softens one's attitude
to the courts and the litigation process... everything looks rosy'. 

While Julius was crowing, however, Irving, as Evans points out in his
book, was celebrating what he saw as a PR victory, too. In the week
after the trial, he was listing the international media who wanted to
interview him - 'BBC Radio 3... Italian Radio... Los Angeles
radio...Radio Tehran... how very satisfying it has all been' - and
claiming 'I have managed to win' because 'two days after the judgment,
name recognition becomes enormous, and gradually the plus or minus in
front of the name fades'. 

As it stands, with the genuine victors in this case, Penguin, still
#2 million out of pocket in legal fees, and Evans without a
publisher prepared to touch his inspired and watertight research, it
would be hard to dispute Irving's own verdict. Particularly as he
continues to divide his time between his country house and his Mayfair
flat, when the donations keep coming in for his self-inflicted
'freedom fight', and while he keeps on peddling his prejudices to all
those disturbed enough to listen. 

And, of course, in Irving's mind, he is not finished yet. The pattern
of his writs , increasingly desperate over his career, is that he has
always sought to silence those who he believes can damage him most. In
this sense, the Lipstadt suit was a prelude to an assault on his most
long-standing adversary, the indefatigable journalist Gitta Sereny,
now 76, who he is suing along with The Observer, where her article
about him and others with a 'kind of obsession for the Third Reich'
appeared in 1996. 

In advance of the Penguin/Lipstadt case coming to court, The Observer
sought, with Sereny, to fight Irving's claims that the article had
libelled him. To date, in preparing an initial defence for this case,
which covers much of the same ground as the Penguin trial - how Irving
has deliberately falsified historical record - this newspaper has 
had to spend #800,000 in legal fees. To apply to have the case struck 
off, because the allegations have already been heard and proven, 
would, with the prospect of a counter appeal by Irving, cost a 
further #50,000.

In theory, The Observer might, if this application was successful,
claim costs against Irving, (who, by defending himself, incurs none),
but it would have to stand in line with Penguin and others, with
little hope of receiving a penny. 

Sereny, speaking from Vienna, believes that for Irving to continue to
pursue the case would 'of course be a monumental waste of everyone's,
particularly the court's, time and money', but she is aware that this
has not stopped him in the past, and that his animosity towards her
runs deep. 

In part, this animosity seems to be a result of her gender. It is no
coincidence that the two major suits Irving has brought have both been
against women, who he believes, have been put on earth to bear men's
children: 'They haven't got the capacity to produce something creative
themselves...' 

He reserves a particular loathing for Sereny, however, because he
knows she beats him at his own game. Like him (and, as he says, 'like
Tacitus, like Thucydides, and like Pliny'), Sereny is not a
professional historian, in that she does not have a history degree and
is not attached to a university. 

For a long time, Irving used his streetwise independence to dazzle
career academics with the arcane quality of his research. He could
unearth the unlikeliest documents to support his claims. Even Sereny
was initially impressed by his methods - 'He's so good at
cross-searching,' she once observed. 'Take the Kommissarbefehl [the
order to kill captured Soviet party cadres]. He would go in 12
different directions; he would check through what everyone was doing
on the day it was issued, on who Hitler saw or phoned that day and
where.' Even so, she was deeply suspicious of his findings and she had
the skill and courage to deconstruct them.

The pair's direct history goes back to 1977, when Sereny took it upon
herself to examine the sources of Hitler's War. In doing so, she
tracked down the document that up till then perhaps most embarrassed
Irving. 

In support of his contention that Hitler knew nothing of the Final
Solution, Irving had dwelt on a diary note he had discovered written
by Ribbentrop in his prison cell about Hitler. The note read: 'How
things came to the destruction of the Jews I just don't know, but that
he ordered it I refuse to believe, because such an act would be wholly
incompatible with the picture I always had of him.' 

The quotation seemed a direct support of Irving's fiction of Hitler's
'innocence'. However, when Sereny dug through the obscure archive and
found the original source, she discovered that Ribbentrop went on to
write that: 'On the other hand, judging from Hitler's Last Will, one
must suppose that he at least knew about it, if, in his fanaticism
against the Jews, he didn't also order it.' 

Irving said he did not use this caveat because he 'didn't want to
confuse the reader' but such revelations by Sereny began the process
of dismantling Irving's reputation, which finally folded for good at
the Penguin trial. 

Irving, ever attempting to make his fanaticism seem urbane, would like
you to believe that his continued antipathy to Sereny is simply a
matter of authorial rivalry: 'I often get bigger notices than her. I
end up getting better sources than she does,' he suggested in 1997. In
fact, his loathing is far more visceral. 

While Sereny is often generous to Irving's intelligence - 'He does
wonderful research and has a talent for writing. The tragedy is that
he has misused these talents' - Irving, when cornered, like all
bullies, resorts to vicious personal attacks. He refers to Sereny in
letters as 'that shrivelled prune' or 'that shrivelled Nazi hunter'
(the latter, in his grotesque world, a pejorative). 

When he interviewed Irving on Radio 4, the psychologist Oliver James
suggested Irving's hatreds and arrogance derived from the fact that he
was 'actually very short of self-esteem,' and suffered great feelings
of 'inferiority' which made him 'far more anxious about who [he was]
and far more in need of kicking everyone and trying to make a big fuss
and being the centre of attention than [he] actually realised'. 

In a profile for the New Yorker, Ian Buruma argued that Irving's
insecurity was rooted in class, and 'a very English sense of feeling
excluded'. D.D. Guttenplan's wonderful book The Holocaust on Trial
traces this sense of betrayal back to Irving's dull childhood in
Ongar, Essex, where he grew up in thrall to the Boy's Own exploits of
his family in the colonies: 'A maternal uncle was in the Bengal
Lancers. A great-great-uncle on his father's side followed Livingstone
to Africa... where he was supposedly eaten by his bearer.' More
telling, perhaps, was the story of Irving's father, whose ship, HMS
Edinburgh, was torpedoed in the war. He survived, but he did not
return home to his wife and young son, and Irving subsequently saw him
only twice more. 

He was, instead, set adrift at a minor public school where he was
beaten for his attention-seeking. ('It never,' he claims, somewhat
contentiously, on his website, when describing a bizarre trip this
year to his alma mater to discuss Goebbels with the senior boys, 'did
me any harm.') 

It might not take too much in the way of amateur psychology to see how
Irving's hurt at his absent father might have become so obliquely
directed at the global events which took him away. Certainly it made
him a sort of second-hand adventurer, forever playing up his schoolboy
exploits behind enemy lines. 

What no doubt unnerves him about Sereny is that she had no need for
these kinds of self-publicising thrills. While Irving was still
playing pranks - unfurling a hammer and sickle over the main entrance,
asking for Mein Kampf as a prize on speech day - at his stifling
suburban school (also the alma mater of Noel Edmonds, and of Jack
Straw), Sereny, a Hungarian national, was receiving an education of a
far more telling kind. 

When war broke out, she was a teenager studying in Paris; she
volunteered as an auxiliary nurse during the Occupation, working with
a Catholic charity. In 1945, she joined the United Nations Relief
administration, to work as a child welfare officer in camps for
displaced persons in southern Germany. There, she cared for children
liberated from Dachau, and had the task of tracing 'racially valuable'
children kidnapped from Polish families and given to childless German
ones. 

Her experiences of this horror never left her and informed every
sentence of her extraordinary and unflinching investigations into the
psychology of the Nazis: in particular her two masterpieces, Into That
Darkness, a portrait of Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, and
her life of Albert Speer, Hitler's architect. 

Sereny's first-hand experiences of the atrocities provided her, too,
with the moral certainty that Irving has long sought to undermine. 'We
use the same sources,' she said at the time of Irving's original writ.
'I know many of the same people as he does who were of Hitler's
circle. That is scary for him. He says we jostle at the same trough.
The difference is that he loves that trough, and I don't... There is,
I think, [for him] despair in all of this.' 

In a famous passage from The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi
remembered the words of a guard at Auschwitz: 'Even if someone were to
survive, the world would not believe him. re will be perhaps
suspicions, discussions, research by historians, but there will be no
certainties, because we will destroy the evidence together with you.' 

The crucial importance of the work of Evans, Sereny and Lipstadt has
been to try eliminate those 'suspicions and discussions' that Irving,
as the most visible Holocaust denier, has been so keen to propagate. 

In trying to cast doubt on the biggest certainties of the Final
Solution - that it was a wilful, industrial programme of genocide,
dictated by Hitler; that around six million died; that there were
working gas chambers at Auschwitz - Irving had apparently set out to
to make everything else seem open to question, and Hitler to appear
like 'an ordinary walking, talking human,' only 'as evil as Churchill,
as evil as Roosevelt, as evil as Truman'. In this enterprise, Irving,
who, in his sick after-dinner tone, is still apt to dismiss witnesses
such as the late Primo Levi as 'members of the Association of Spurious
Survivors of the Holocaust and Other Liars (Assholes)', had
fashionable academic theory on his side. 

In dissecting the minute documentation of the Holocaust - days of the
Penguin trial were spent discussing the precise phrasing of a
translation - Irving sought to present history and, in particular,
this most crucial history, as a text like any other, freely open to
interpretation, and, as the Auschwitz guard suggested, lacking
'certainty'. It was as if, recalled Evans, he believed he was 'writing
a book review'. 

One of the triumphs of Evans's book - and Sereny's lifelong endeavour
- lies in the stubborn belief that there are such things as verifiable
historical truths. Certainties that go beyond the linguistic
relativities suggested by poststructuralists (and pressed into service
by Irving). 

Sereny's Observer article concerned itself with a kind of obsession:
'The curious and, in some cases, I think, sad passion about Hitler and
his Third Reich which has ruled and continues to rule the lives of a
considerable number of people who write or inspire books.' This kind
of passion, of course, will not go away or be easily defeated. Still,
one of the saddest ironies of the outcome of the Penguin case is that
Britain's libel laws seem, in effect, not only to favour
poststructuralists - Evans's book still, in this country at least,
'does not exist' - but also to help further the cause of those, like
Irving, who can't bear to hear the truth about themselves. 


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