Robert Fulford's column about David Irving and Holocaust denial

(The National Post, April 18, 2000)

An inner voice instructed Wayne Lo to get a gun and kill some of his fellow students at Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington, Mass. Believing that the voice was divinely inspired, he went out one evening in 1992 with a semi-automatic rifle. Firing at random, he killed two people and wounded four others before his gun jammed. His lawyers claimed he was insane, but a jury disagreed and sent him to prison for life.

It's now clear (The New York Times reported last week) that he was reluctant to plead insanity. He believed his lawyers should have instead "investigated his victims to uncover why a heavenly power had selected them to be shot."

By coincidence, the Times discussed his case on the same day it reported that David Irving had lost his historic libel suit in London. Irving, a British writer who has specialized in German history, is not a homicidal maniac, but his thinking resembles Wayne Lo's. He insists there must be a reason why Jews are persecuted, and that they, the Jews, should find it. "You people," he has said to them, "are disliked on a global scale. You have been disliked for 3,000 years and yet you never seem to ask what is at the root of this dislike." In fact, Jews (as well as Gentiles) have written a library of books about the motives for anti-Semitism.

For example, George Konrad, a Hungarian Jewish writer who distinguished himself as an anti-communist dissident in the 1980s, has recently argued that nations become anti-Semitic when they lose faith in themselves as disparate societies and begin to crave uniformity in faith, culture and politics. "If they accept their manifold nature," he says, "then they will also accept the Jews. If they wish to repress themselves, then they also vent their rage on the Jews." Self-hatred swiftly and unconsciously turns into Jew-hatred.

Irving isn't interested in that kind of speculation. He likes pretending to be curious while shifting the guilt for anti-Semitic atrocities onto the innocent. Years ago, he acknowledged that the Holocaust happened but claimed that it wasn't Hitler's idea. Then he decided there never was a Holocaust but, if there had been, it would have been the fault of the Jews.

Like Wayne Lo, he figures they probably deserved it.

Irving was suing Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books because, in Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1995), she correctly classed Irving among dangerous Holocaust deniers. To defend themselves, Lipstadt and Penguin gathered mountains of research, making a case that eventually did more harm to Irving than Lipstadt ever dreamt of doing.

A historian appearing for the defence, Richard Evans of Cambridge, delivered a 726-page report that traced Irving's work to its archival sources, finding again and again a "web of distortions, suppressions and manipulations ..." He said he was not prepared for "the sheer depths of duplicity" in Irving's treatment of historical sources. The opinion of Justice Charles Gray, dismissing Irving's suit, can be paraphrased in a few words: He's much worse than anyone knew.

Irving v. Penguin will be remembered as a spectacular example of backfiring litigation. Notoriously, a libel suit is a weapon that endangers those who fire it as well as those they fire at. Three famous London cases make the point. In the 1870s James McNeill Whistler sued John Ruskin for a scornful art review; Whistler won, but the costs left him bankrupt. In the 1890s, when Oscar Wilde was privately accused of homosexuality, he sued for libel; he ended up in prison, convicted of the acts he had originally denied. In 1997, a suit brought against the Guardian by a Tory politician, Jonathan Aitken, bounced back on the plaintiff when the Guardian proved he had lied under oath. Aitken was sentenced to 18 months for perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Nothing so calamitous will happen to Irving; in fact, those who have already said he's ruined may well be proven wrong. He has many admiring friends around the world, and in his way he's shrewd. He's certainly not one of those anti-Semites described by Hannah Arendt's famous phrase "the banality of evil" -- he's not ordinary and he's no plodding bureaucrat. He's an energetic researcher, audacious in his lies, and a talented self-publicist. Even enemies sometimes find him charming. His Web site obligingly links us with his critics as well as his friends, and includes a pleasant photograph of Lipstadt.

Industrious research in German history, notably military history, has won him the grudging respect of many historians who vigorously dispute his opinions. One of them, John Keegan, praised him in these pages on Friday and saw a future for his writing. Presumably readers such as Keegan simply ignore whatever he writes about the Jews, a subject on which he's clearly unreliable. (But how can they know he hasn't some other obsession, this one hidden, that will distort his research?)

Tomorrow night, as they gather for Passover Seder all over the world, Jews will be discussing the Irving case. Rightly, they see Holocaust denial as a threat, because any denier must logically be a committed anti-Semite; if you believe that the Jews organized a lie this vast (involving hundreds of thousands of witnesses and millions of documents), then you will think them capable of anything.

But perhaps the events recalled by the Irving case should receive even more attention from Christians at their Good Friday and Easter services. After all, the Holocaust was first of all a crisis in the history of Christian civilization. As with any other historic atrocity, those who acted should be the main focus of discussion, not those who were acted upon. Gentiles carried out the Holocaust, and as a moral issue it is primarily our concern.

This is not to suggest that Jews should ever forget it, or cease to mourn the millions who were killed. For Jews it remains an immeasurable tragedy, but for Gentiles it's an eternal puzzle. We should never stop wondering: How is it that the most sophisticated and cultured people of modern times perpetrated an act so vile that even today it seems to stretch beyond human understanding?

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