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The following appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 June 1996.

"Historian with a past"
(Excerpts)
by Peter Ellingsen


. . . Irving is not walking away from the views that have outraged many
people, particularly Holocaust survivors and their families, but he is
conceding they could have been expressed more thoughtfully.

He says a Jewish friend in the US noted that, in his latest book, Irving
calls the Jewish Berlin police chief, Bernhard Weiss, "Isidor", the name
Goebbels gave him.  "He found that insensitive and I suppose I could have
saved a certain amount of trouble by doing that less," he says.

It is a small concession from a stubborn, complex man who insists his
widely respected talent for historical research has left him no choice but
to rebut the orthodox view of the Holocaust.  He does not now claim, as he
is reported to have, that the Holocaust never happened.  The word Holocaust
- "a damnably elastic concept" - rankles, but he concedes that Nazi
genocide accounted for some three million Jewish lives, half the number the
world has long accepted.

He also questions the testimony of witnesses who tell of gas chambers used
to murder Jews in concentration camps.  "I don't say the Holocaust is a
hoax," he says.  "What I say is the Auschwitz gas chambers are a hoax,
which narrows it down very dramatically.  I'm talking about magnitude and
methods, but I'm not denying the Holocaust happened.  I'm not even going to
say Jews did not die in gas chambers.  I think it may have happened in a
small and experimental way."

Irving maintains there is no archival evidence for "the gas chamber story",
but fails to explain how so many witnesses could tell the same horrific
story.

This unpalatable line has prompted leading historians such as Robert
Harris, who otherwise praise the depth of Irving's research, to lament that
his treatment of the Jewish question remains his "huge and predictable
flaw".  Like his idea that Hitler never knew what was really happening to
the Jews, it is seen as an obscene twist in his work.  As the historian
Hugh Trevor-Roper says, Irving is bewitched by the Fuhrer and intent on
clearing Hitler of the "Final Solution".

Irving denies both charges.  Pointing to a wall lined with the framed front
pages of wartime German newspapers, one of which shows a defiant Hitler in
full flight, he argues there is no documentary proof of the Fuhrer's role
in the Holocaust.  His previous book ascribed responsibility to a Hitler
deputy, Himmler; now, he is putting Goebbels, the Reich's spin doctor, in
the frame.

As the gifted but uncharismatic propaganda chief for Hitler, Goebbels is,
of course, expendable to those who wish to see some merit in the Nazi
experiment.  A dwarf-like groper of women, with a banal and over-excited
manner, he can be blamed for pushing the inhuman policies of the Holocaust,
while leaving the man he worshipped, Hitler, relatively untainted - or so
Irving would have it.

Hitler, he says, "didn't care, didn't want to know".  Does he admire him? 
"I'm a historian," he says.  "Admiration is the wrong word.  It's
astonishment - you goggle at a man like Adolf Hitler rather than admiring
him."

But how can he not feel revulsion for a megalomaniac who presided over such
carnage?  Irving tightens his huge jaw and furrows his forehead, eyes
glaring beneath bushy brows.  "I can evince more revulsion for what
Churchill did," he snaps, referring to the bombing of Dresden, which he
says incinerated 100,000 Germans.

There is a pause, before Irving makes one of his unexpected shifts.  He
relates how Hitler's secretary had told him [Irving] of how the Fuhrer had
returned after ordering the death of his close friends in what became known
as the Night of the Long Knives.  "Hitler appeared where she was eating a
vegetarian meal and said: 'So Fraulein Schroeder, now I have had a bath and
I feel as clean as newborn babe again'."

It is the kind of information that makes the best of his books, as the
British historian John Keegan says, "unputdownable".  But it also leaves
you wondering about his coherence.  He makes what most experts regard as
repellent claims, then switches tack.  You no sooner recoil from his attack
on the credibility of Holocaust survivors than he flicks over to argue that
the whole thing "is needless" as he is happy to admit the Nazis did drive
hundreds of thousands of Jews into pits and then machine-gunned them.  "No
question about it."

This is the persuasive Irving who pleads: "I've never written a book or
article on the Holocaust.  It's not my subject.  But I'm constantly dragged
kicking and screaming into that particular battlefield and I hate it."

Not as much as those who have had to endure what his most persistent
critic, the historian Gitta Sereny, says are his falsehoods.  Irving, she
says, is a man "of talent, both as a writer and as a researcher", but
because he mixes "truth and untruth" he is dangerous.

"Irving," she says, "is obsessed with a number of things; his [sympathetic]
feelings for Hitler and his own feelings about the Jews."  He could, she
believes, have made a tremendous addition to knowledge.

Irving insists it's a matter of supreme indifference to him where the truth
lies, as long as he writes it.  He says he can find no alternative
explanation in the archives and, as a result, has been vilified by an
organised campaign run by the Jewish lobby.  It is true that Jewish groups
in the US were at the forefront of the attack that led to St Martin's
Press, his American publisher, abandoning his book.  But that is no
surprise given the hostility Jewish groups have long had for his views.  "I
was ambushed," he says.  "I have been condemned for what they assume I've
written." . . . 

------------------------------

Jeremy Jones
aip@tmx.mhs.oz.au


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