Anyone who may have thought that, after the Holocaust, antisemitism would be passé is revealed in retrospect as naïve.
Sixty-eight years after the genocide, antisemitism remains rampant in the Arab world and much of the Muslim world. It’s back with a vengeance in Europe, largely—but not solely—Israel-focused. Today the world’s only country to be subjected to a global delegitimization and BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign is the Jewish one.
A study released last spring by Tel Aviv University found that worldwide antisemitism rose 30 percent in 2012 compared to the previous year. That particularly involved “violent acts against Jews,” with “273 attacks on persons of all ages; in addition, 190 synagogues, cemeteries and monuments were desecrated, and over 200 private and public properties damaged.” Most of the attacks occurred in countries having the largest Jewish communities outside Israel—in descending order of attacks, France, the U.S., the UK, Canada, and Australia.
The report also “noted the rise of anti-Semitic parties on the far right in Greece, Hungary and the Ukraine” and observed that in those countries,
vociferous representatives of these parties openly incite in parliament against local Jewish communities. Blatant anti-Semitic and anti-Israel expressions appeared to ignite violent activity in Hungary, and a significant rise in desecration of cemeteries and Holocaust memorials was recorded in Poland.
This series, counting down from 10 to 1, will profile ten of the worst purveyors of antisemitism—whether individuals or groups—in the world at large; an ensuing series will focus on U.S. antisemitism. In our era, antisemitism is most endemic in the Arab and Muslim sphere; outside of that domain, it tends to be most concentrated on the far right (both religious and political) and far left. All the categories will be “represented” in the series.The Anti-Defamation League calls David Irving “one of the world’s most effective purveyors of Holocaust denial.” He is indeed probably the most effective in the English-speaking world. Though perhaps best known for his failed libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt in 2000, the scope of his activities goes far beyond that episode.
David Irving was born in Hutton, England, in 1938. Before dropping out of Imperial College in London in 1959, he published a special supplement to the school paper that included “a ‘spirited defense’ of South African apartheid” and “an appreciative article about Nazi Germany.” At that young age, he had already embarked on his lifelong adoration of Adolf Hitler. As Irving told the Daily Mail in an interview:
I have just come back from Madrid…. I returned through Germany and visited Hitler’s eyrie at Berchtesgaden. I regard it as a shrine.
In 1963, only 25, Irving crossed over into fame with his bestselling book The Destruction of Dresden. It focused on the Allied bombing of the city and the casualties it caused. Later, in the Irving v. Lipstadt trial, British historian Richard Evans demonstrated that Irving had inflated the death toll ten times beyond the most reliable estimate.
Irving’s next hit was Hitler’s War, published in 1977. The book depicted Hitler “as a rational, intelligent politician, whose only goal was to increase Germany’s prosperity and influence on the continent, and who was constantly let down by incompetent and/or treasonous subordinates.” Hitler, Irving maintained, had no knowledge of the Holocaust, and the main force behind World War II’s escalation was Winston Churchill.
American historian John Lukacs, writing in National Review that year, called Hitler’s War “appalling” and said it contained “hundreds of errors: wrong names, wrong dates and, what is worse, statements about events, including battles, that did not really take place.”
Meanwhile Irving was striking up alliances with some of the world’s most virulent antisemitic outfits. They included Germany’s Deutsche Volksunion, and, in the U.S., the National Alliance and the Institute for Historical Review, America’s leading Holocaust-denial organization.
Not surprisingly, in the 1980s Irving himself started to espouse outright Holocaust denial. In 1988, testifying in Canada at the trial of neo-Nazi and Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel, Irving stated:
I am not familiar with any documentary evidence of any such figure as six million…it must have been of the order of 100,000 or more, but to my mind it was certainly less than the figure which is quoted nowadays of six million.
From there it wasn’t far to positing that the Holocaust was actually a legend promulgated by crafty Jews. In a speech in Canada in 1991, Irving called the Holocaust a “big lie” and said it was,
designed to distract attention from even bigger crimes than what the Nazis did…designed to justify, both in arrears and in advance, the bigger crimes in the financial world and elsewhere that are being committed by the survivors of the Holocaust.
In 1992 a German court found Irving guilty of Holocaust denial, and he was soon banned from the country. Italy followed suit and so did Canada, where he was arrested late that year and deported back to the UK. In 1993 Australia also denied him entry.
In 1996 Irving embarked on his own legal venture by filing suit in Britain against Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of history at Emory University in the U.S. Irving claimed that in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt had libeled him by calling him a Holocaust denier.
Since British libel law tends to favor the accuser, Irving waited to sue until Lipstadt’s book was published in his own country, and the trial ran from February to March 2000.
Lipstadt and Penguin Books turned to expert witnesses who exposed Irving’s distortions in detailed reports. One of these experts, the aforementioned Richard Evans, wrote in his report, which ran to 700 pages, that he was not prepared for
the sheer depths of duplicity which I encountered in Irving’s treatment of the historical sources, nor for the way in which this dishonesty permeated his entire written and spoken output.
And yet, said Evans:
Irving’s claim to have a very good and thorough knowledge of the evidence on the basis of which the history of Nazi Germany has to be written is completely justified. His numerous mistakes and egregious errors are not, therefore, due to mere ignorance or sloppiness; on the contrary, it is obvious that they are calculated and deliberate. That is precisely why they are so shocking.
Justice Charles Grey, ruling in favor of Lipstadt and Penguin, said it was “incontrovertible that Irving qualifies as a Holocaust denier” and an “antisemite.” He went on to remark:
I have found that in numerous respects, Irving has misstated historical evidence; adopted positions which run counter to the weight of the evidence; given credence to unreliable evidence and disregarded or dismissed credible evidence.… [All] Irving’s historiographical “errors” converge, in the sense that they all tend to exonerate Hitler or to reflect Irving’s partisanship for the Nazi leaders.… Mistakes and misconceptions such as these appear …unlikely to have been innocent. They are more consistent with a willingness on Irving’s part to knowingly misrepresent or manipulate or put a “spin” on the evidence so as to make it conform with his own preconceptions.
Irving, however, soldiered on in his life’s work of spreading Holocaust denial and hatred. In November 2005 he was arrested in Austria on charges of “trivializing, grossly playing down and denying the Holocaust” and sentenced to three years in prison. In December 2006 he was released and permanently banned from Austria.
These days Irving’s lectures, which have attracted protesters in the past, are often held in secret locations with carefully vetted attendees. He has remained, the ADL notes, “extremely active in the United States,” including a spring 2011 lecture tour on his greatest hero apart from Hitler—Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and the Gestapo and chief architect of the Holocaust.
Irving also keeps lecturing in those European countries, including his own UK, where his presence is still legal, and leading tour groups to “shrines” where Hitler and Himmler spent time. And Irving also leads tour groups of his loyal followers to concentration camps in Poland—which perhaps surpass, in their eyes, even the places hallowed by Hitler’s or Himmler’s presence.
Last August 30 a reporter for Britain’s The Independent caught up with Irving in the lobby of a hotel in Peterborough where he had come to “welcome ticketholders for the latest stop on his secretive UK lecture tour.” Asked by the reporter about the Holocaust, Irving replied:
“If you read the memoirs of Churchill or Eisenhower or de Gaulle, they don’t mention it at all. It never happened as far as they were concerned.” In around 1970, he adds, the Jews were “advised by a PR firm to give it one name, stick to that name, and stick to those figures and gradually you’ll make billions out of this. That’s what happened.”
Perhaps what is most striking in this story are the fervent assertions by both Evans and Justice Grey that Irving knows what he is doing: systematically distorting the historical evidence, with which he is familiar, to fabricate repugnant lies. Irving, apparently, wouldn’t have been content to be a decent, respectable historian in an academic department, and instead seized—successfully—on a path to much greater renown.
That said, it is clear that Irving genuinely reveres some of the twentieth century’s worst butchers, while at the same time achieving widespread notoriety by claiming their butchery never occurred. It’s a strange, convoluted form of evil.
It would be, though, a crowning irony if Irving’s greatest “legacy”—quite contrary to his own wishes—turned out to be the Lipstadt trial with its clear-cut results.