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"I shall tear him to shreds" 
Book Reviews 
D D Guttenplan 
Monday 22nd July 2002

Telling Lies About Hitler: the Holocaust, history and the David Irving
trial Richard J Evans Verso, 326pp, 14 ISBN 1859844170

On 28 October 1999, I sent an e-mail to the not-yet-disgraced historian
David Irving. Even then, Irving was an extremely controversial figure,
denounced as an anti-Semite and apologist for the Nazis, yet defended
by some of the leading historians on both sides of the Atlantic as an
indefatigable researcher and a valuable provocateur. Sir John Keegan,
defence editor of the Daily Telegraph, had described his book Hitler's
War as "indispensable". The same book carried a blurb from Donald
Cameron Watt declaring: "Irving's mastery of the German sources is
superb." More recently, Christopher Hitchens had assured the readers of
Vanity Fair that Irving was "not just a Fascist historian. He is also a
great historian of Fascism." The American academic Deborah Lipstadt had
been a good deal less complimentary, and Irving was suing her for
libel.

Reporting on the eve of the trial for the Atlantic Monthly, I
interviewed both Irving and Lipstadt at length. I spoke to Lipstadt's
lawyer, Anthony Julius, and was granted a brief pre-trial interview
with the judge, Charles Gray, who worried about the "risk of one's
being asked to become a historian. Judges aren't historians."

Gray's diffidence was important. In her book Denying the Holocaust,
Lipstadt had accused Irving of twisting historical evidence "until it
conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda". Unless
Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin, could prove Irving guilty of
deliberate distortion, Irving would win. Lipstadt had also called
Irving "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial".
But Irving claimed that the term "Holocaust denier" made no sense. The
whole idea that Jews had been murdered in large numbers in gas chambers
at Auschwitz was, he said, a hoax. How could he be guilty of denying
something that never happened? Legally, Lipstadt had to prove him
wrong. History - not just the way historians assemble facts, but the
facts themselves - would be central to this trial.

Professor Richard Evans was principal expert witness for the defence.
In Telling Lies About Hitler, he describes the trial as "raising in an
acute and . . . practical form many of the problems with which I had
been wrestling in my book In Defence of History". The book combines a
blow-by-blow account of the 28 hours Evans spent on the stand with a
much-abridged version of his 740-page report on Irving's use of
historical sources. It was that report which prompted my e-mail to
Irving: "Having read all of the Evans . . . in all frankness it seems
to me that he's done a pretty thoroughgoing demolition job on your
scholarship. Presumably you disagree. Please feel free to explain why
at any length you like." Only a few weeks before the trial began,
Irving replied with characteristic bluster: "I have now begun reading
the Evans report. I am eagerly looking forward to the
cross-examination. If he ventures into the box, I shall tear him to
shreds."

In the event, Evans's meticulous dismemberment of Irving's reputation
proved every bit as devastating in the courtroom as it had appeared on
paper. "Penetrating beneath the confident surface of his prose quickly
revealed a mass of distortion and manipulation," wrote Evans. Evans
devoted 70 pages to unpicking the distortions in Irving's 11-page
account of Kristallnacht, the anti-Jewish pogrom on the night of 9
November 1938. Another 250 were spent debunking Irving's "chain of
documents" - the nine instances where Irving falsely claimed that
Hitler had personally intervened to aid Jews. Professing himself
shocked at "the sheer depths of duplicity which I encountered in
Irving's treatment of historical sources", Evans also flayed his
colleagues in the academy for never bothering to look beyond Irving's
surface plausibility. Evans left little doubt that Irving's defenders
could - and should - have known better.

In the witness box, Evans emerged as a pedant's pedant, demanding to
see documentation before answering the most innocuous question.
Querulous and arrogant, he made a tempting target for Irving's mounting
frustration, especially after the judge, in response to Evans's
complaints, reminded him that, as a witness, he was "there to be shot
at".

Yet, in the end, Evans held his ground. He may have lacked charm, but
his conclusion that Irving was not to be trusted on even the smallest
particular was convincing. The judge, who at first seemed put off by
Evans, ended with a complete endorsement of his damning assessment.

In writing my own account of Irving v Lipstadt, I confess that I
considered Evans's unsympathetic personality a great gift. In my view,
Irving richly deserved the doom he brought on himself. But he was less
a monster than an opportunist; that his opponents were not cartoon
heroes made for a more intriguing tale. Although the human
confrontations enhanced the drama of the proceedings, the trial
mattered for reasons that had very little to do with Irving's
reputation or with the integrity of professional historians. Or,
indeed, in Evans's phrase, with "the issue of the falsification of the
historical record", which was why I called my book The Holocaust on
Trial.

Evans did not care much for my title, or for my portrayal of him. To
him, the idea that the trial was anything more than "a battle between
real historical scholarship and an attempt to distort the past" was
just the sort of vulgar error you would expect from a journalist. In
Telling Lies About Hitler, the lamentable crudity of journalists
becomes a leitmotif. Irving's attitude to his sources was more like "a
journalist pulling off a scoop than a professional historian". As the
trial ends, Evans finds "the journalists . . . more and more at sea".

Another theme, not so much of the book itself as the publicity around
it, is Evans's perceived heroism in taking on Irving and the pathetic
failure of the British publishers who withdrew Telling Lies About
Hitler when confronted with libel threats from Irving. Some of this is
true. Evans was there to be shot at. One publisher, Heinemann, did
actually withdraw the book in the face of Irving's threats. But the
publishing story of Telling Lies About Hitler is a story without
heroes. Evans only took his book to Heinemann after Penguin, which had
already paid him an estimated 70,000 for his trial report, declined to
offer an additional advance. When Heinemann cut him loose, and another
publisher turned him down, Evans went to Granta (which had already
published my book, prompting a miffed Evans to describe me as "having
some sympathy with Irving", a canard he has recently repeated in
Private Eye). Granta, which had earlier published In Defence of
History, agreed to take on the new book. It also reached verbal
agreement with Evans over three others. But, after "talking to friends
and acquaintances in the publishing world", Evans decided that the
money "was not much by current standards for history" and pulled out -
but neglected to mention his doubts to Granta until Telling Lies, which
he still expected the firm to publish, had been typeset. Confronted by
the possibility of large (and, given that Irving is bankrupt,
irrecoverable) legal fees, and feeling that Evans had been less than
candid, Granta declined. Evans originally had pungent words for Penguin
in his British edition, but last summer he acquired a new agent,who
sold a big new book on the Third Reich to, well, Penguin. The attack on
Penguin has since been excised. The vendetta against Granta continues;
but that, as they say in Little Italy, is "just business".

Vanity leads Evans to overstate his own originality. At one point, he
claims that "it was only when I subjected all of this [Irving's
writings] to detailed scrutiny" that his work "was revealed as a house
of cards". And yet his own footnotes credit Martin Broszat, Charles
Sydnor and Gotz Bergander, the first scholars to follow Irving's paper
trail back in the 1970s. Evans does not mention Kai Bird, whose expose
of Irving occurred in the pages of this magazine. But then Bird was a
mere journalist.

None of which makes Telling Lies a bad book. Indeed, for anyone still
in any doubt about the extent to which Irving was a bent historian from
the very beginning, Evans's book is essential reading. He is
interesting on the difference between legal and historical evidence and
on the experience of hostile cross-examination. He has even abandoned
his insistence that history was never at risk, admitting that the
distinction between the evidence for the Holocaust and whether the
Holocaust had actually happened was "almost impossible to maintain. The
trial seemed to be about both issues."

On his own patch - the use and abuse of historical sources - he is
superb. Off his patch, Evans is less reliable. He gets small facts
wrong, claiming that Lipstadt said nothing in public about the case
after 1995; in fact, she had applauded when Irving lost his American
publisher in 1996, and had spoken to me in 1999 about Irving. He gets
some big facts wrong, too, describing the evidence for "the 6 million
dead" as "overwhelming, indisputable", though Raul Hilberg has long
placed the total at 5.1 million.

He also has trouble with big ideas, tying himself in knots over
historical objectivity, when Irving's problem was simple dishonesty. To
compare Sir Frank Kermode's defence of the literary canon with Evans's
defence of history is to be struck by the difference between a mind
supple enough both to assimilate and to winnow through Continental
thought, and a mind too narrow for complex ideas to penetrate.

Holocaust deniers have a political, not a postmodern, agenda. But then
Evans does not actually know very much about the Holocaust. At the
trial this didn't matter, because the witnesses who were experts on the
destruction of European Jewry - Christopher Browning, Peter Longerich
and Robert Jan van Pelt - did their jobs as well as Evans did his. The
result was a defeat for Irving, not just on how history should be
written, but on how the particular history that he - and indeed, most
of those paying attention to the trial - cared about would be written.
Telling Lies About Hitler tells half that story very well indeed.

D D Guttenplan is London correspondent for The Nation and author of The
Holocaust on Trial (Granta). He is working on a biography of the
American journalist I F Stone


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