Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Return of David Irving

David Irving, the author and dubious historian who gained notoriety by claiming that The Holocaust never happened, has been released from his Austrian prison. The law that placed him under lock and key, and one that is applicable in a good many countries, is a particularly unfortunate one, impinging on the right of freedom of speech. However reprehensible one feels it might be to deny The Holocaust, if someone is potty enough to go about saying so, surely they should be allowed to do so? The only ones who will be listening are those who are equally barmy.

Irving probably should have been incarcerated for sheer stupidity. He knew full well that the law existed and brazenly defied it. Perhaps he thought it was like The Holocaust in his opinion – it didn’t exist.

I always had a slight empathy with him if only because we went to the same school. I was in the same form as his brother, John, who in those days was known as “The Prof.” John was a very different character who, after a long and distinguished career in the Royal Air Force, now farms sheep in Wiltshire. Ironically in view of his brother’s racist capers, he is a prominent member of a Race Relations Board. I can’t recall him ever mentioning his younger brother, who must have been a pretty unpleasant gum-boil, one would have thought.

On gaining a school prize, he had asked for a copy of Mein Kampf. I’ll give him points here for honesty, though. When I was awarded the one and only prize I ever attained, I was standing in line to tell the School Governors my choice of book. I was in a quandary, feeling that my requested title would not get me many points. At the time I was reading P.G. Wodehouse’s “Young Men in Spats,” not the sort of literature the Governors would have in mind, I thought, but I would dearly have liked to have another of the old master’s works. Finally, as I wrestled with the problem, I heard the boy in front of me say, “Sir, I would like to receive a copy of James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.” It seemed to be received with approval, so as my turn came, I stepped up smartly and said “Sir, I would like to receive a copy of James Fenimore Cooper’s, “The Last of the Mohicans.”

There was a bit of consternation. “Good Lord,” I imagine them saying, “This James Fenimore Cooper seems to have a best-seller on his hands this year.” But they beamed upon me approvingly in a way that I doubt they would had I asked for a copy of “Tales from the Drones Club.”

I duly received my copy of “The Last of the Mohicans,”, beautifully bound, making my mother proud. Personally, I never got past page 83 and the only thing I can remember is that there was an Indian called Chingachgook in it. My son now has the book. I don’t think he’s ever made it that far.

David Irving has been the stormy petrel of the book world almost throughout his career. His first brush with the law courts came over his book on the PQ 17 convoy disaster. In it, he placed the blame fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the convoy’s master, Jack Broome. Broome, rightly objected; it was, after all, due to a failure of many others, and sued the young Irving. He won substantial damages of £40,000.

Irving continued to mix considerable writing talent with an unfortunate lack of objectivity, that particular gift which must be exercised by all serious historians. His earlier account of the raid on Dresden, his first book, excellently written and researched though it was, proved to be just as prejudiced, but it was with his biography of Adolf Hitler that he developed his theory that The Holocaust had been a myth and consigned himself to literary obloquy.

When Deborah Lipstadt pointed out in another book, the stupidity of denying both the physical and oral evidence of this, he sued – and lost, spectacularly. Bankruptcy followed, but even worse was the fact that he was also bankrupt of sensible ideas. When arrested in Austria whilst on his way to deliver a lecture espousing his defence of the Nazis, he hastily performed a volte face and said that he had been wrong. The court were not convinced and jailed him.

His greatest contribution to history was almost certainly his exposing of the forged “Hitler Diaries,” and the most damning condemnation of his work came from Professor Richard J. Evans, who wrote:

“Not one of Irving's books, speeches or articles, not one paragraph, not one sentence in any of them, can be taken on trust as an accurate representation of its historical subject. All of them are completely worthless as history, because Irving cannot be trusted anywhere, in any of them, to give a reliable account of what he is talking or writing about. ... if we mean by historian someone who is concerned to discover the truth about the past, and to give as accurate a representation of it as possible, then Irving is not a historian.”

The sad part is that David Irving was a genuinely talented writer and a genuinely unprofessional historian. His books are extremely well written, very well researched but coloured by a strange obsession for defending The Nazi regime and an openly racist attitude that he has never bothered to deny.

It reminds me of Siegfried Sassoon’s description of fox-hunting: “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.”

Irving now returns to England, disgraced and impoverished. He still has his talents and it would be good to hear that he has genuinely seen the error of his ways. Perhaps he will move along from his rather childish fantasies of the Hitler era and write of subjects on which he can express himself objectively.

I’m sure a publisher somewhere would take a chance – I understand Judith Regan is looking for another project.


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