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David Irving and the Banality of Revisionism

The decision of the Spanish daily El Mundo to publish an interview with revisionist historian David Irving has sparked controversy and drawn condemnations from the Israeli ambassador to Spain, Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, and Spain’s own foreign minister.

Oddly enough, however, amidst all the controversy, little has been said about the actual content of the interview. It is as if the public did not even have the right to know of what Irving’s revisionism consists. And yet consideration of Irving’s declarations to El Mundo reveals just how mainstream the central tenet of his revisionism has become in contemporary Europe.

The Irving interview appeared in the Saturday edition of the paper as part of a series of interviews with historians on the Second World War. Almost all the English-language reports on the controversy identify Irving as a “Holocaust denier.” But the actual content of the interview clearly shows that Irving does not today deny that the Holocaust occurred, but rather seeks to minimize its significance by asserting that the Allies committed crimes analogous to those committed by Nazi Germany. He is, more precisely, a “Holocaust relativizer,” not a “Holocaust denier.”

Thus when asked by Eduardo Suárez of El Mundo whether on his account Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Truman “were all equally bad,” Irving responded as follows:

Of course. All of them had absolutely no respect for human life. The real crime of the Second World War was not genocide, but what I call “innocentocide.” The killing of innocent persons. The killing of the Jews is not a crime because they were Jews, but rather because they were innocent Jews. But the Jews don’t want to hear this, because as a result the Holocaust ceases to be something special.

As discussed in my PJM reports on President Obama’s June visit to Dresden (see here and here), in at least one European country such “Holocaust relativization” has become entirely commonplace: namely, in Germany. This is why Obama’s visit to Dresden was so symbolically loaded, since for the German public, the city of Dresden itself is the symbol of “innocent” German suffering at the hands of the Allies.

As it happens, David Irving’s first book was on precisely The Destruction of Dresden. The book was published in 1963, long before Irving had ever been accused of Holocaust denial. When asked by Eduardo Suárez whether he was placing Churchill and Hitler “on the same plane,” Irving returned to the topic of Dresden. “I’ve seen Churchill’s papers,” he said,

And I remember what he told the officers who in spring 1944 were planning the invasion of France. The generals told him that many people would die and he replied, “How many?” And they told him: “Around 10,000.” And Churchill said: “It’s okay. That’s the price.” For Churchill human life was irrelevant. Or consider the calculated brutality of the bombing of Dresden.

By visiting not only Dresden, but Dresden and Buchenwald, Obama, in effect, provided a symbolic endorsement of the central thesis of David Irving’s life work. (Although a fitting symbol of Nazi crimes in general, Buchenwald was not in fact one of the principal sites of the Shoah. Out of a mix of ignorance and political expediency, however, it was stylized into such by the Obama administration. See my “Obama Flunks History, Again.”)

In his El Mundo interview, Irving makes little effort to conceal his anti-Semitism. Asked point blank whether he is an anti-Semite, he replies: “I try not to be one, but believe me it’s not easy.” À la Norman Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry, he accuses “the Jews” of having converted the Holocaust into a “trademark” and having “made millions” on it.

While clearly accepting the historical veracity of the events comprising the Holocaust, Irving attempts to shield Hitler from direct responsibility for them. On his account, the real author of the Holocaust was Himmler. “Hitler was the head of state and as such responsible for what happened,” he tells Suárez. “But one can be both responsible and ignorant. Hitler was a simple man who was constantly being deceived by his subordinates.”

Irving’s open admiration for Hitler obviously puts him well outside of the contemporary European mainstream. (“I admire him because he persevered,” Irving says, “in the same sense that I admire Hillary Clinton. …”) But Americans and even many Europeans would be surprised how little one has to scratch the surface of the mainstream to arrive at similar views.

Consider the case of Manfred Nowak, the Austrian law professor and UN special rapporteur on torture who has called for criminal prosecutions of Bush administration officials. Nowak’s acknowledged intellectual mentor was one Felix Ermacora, himself a long-time member of the UN Human Rights Commission. Ermacora was a notorious revisionist who openly accused the Allies of having committed genocide against Germans. Not surprisingly, he was also a fan of David Irving. In a glowing 1984 review of Irving’s Hitler’s War, Ermacora praised the author for, among other things, “try[ing] to free our image of Adolf Hitler from the clichés that have attached to it in the course of the last 60 years.” (For the details, see my “The Road to Condemning Guantanamo.”)

El Mundo is the leading “center-right” daily in Spain: the main rival of the daily El País, which has long served as a kind of organ of Spain’s ruling Socialist party. Via a spokesperson, Spain’s Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos criticized El Mundo for giving space to a “historian who denies one of the greatest tragedies in modern history.” “These sorts of statements profoundly hurt the feelings of the Jewish people,” Moratinos added.

If Moratinos’s name sounds familiar, it might be because in 2002 as EU Middle East envoy, he sent his security advisor, Alistair Crook, to Cairo to facilitate talks between Hamas and Fatah. The anti-Semitism and negationism that are rampant in both organizations were apparently no obstacle to him in this connection. At the time, moreover, the bombs of Hamas and the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades were, of course, regularly hurting more than “Jewish feelings”: they were killing and maiming Jews.