Analysis: Listen to him, but remember that he is a liar

V Since his crushing libel defeat in 2000 against Professor Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books, who had identified him as a Holocaust-denier, David Irving has pursued an itinerant lifestyle, selling his self-published works and evangelising for his cause. He has also suffered, disgracefully, a period of incarceration in Austria. But his ill-treatment and pathos should not obscure his character and methods. He is no historian. He is forever a discredited figure owing to his falsifications and bigotry.

Irving came to prominence in the 1970s with the publication of Hitler’s War. This massive work purported to demonstrate that the Nazis’ attempt to annihilate European Jewry was far from being a systematic plan on Hitler’s part. Rather, it was “partly of an ad hoc nature...and partly a cynical extrapolation by the central SS authorities of Hitler’s antisemitic decrees”. Irving’s extraordinary proposition was that Hitler was a leader acting under constraints, whose antisemitism was opportunistic more than ideological, and who was largely ignorant of the Holocaust.

Historians who ought to have known better treated this thesis as heterodox but well-researched. Irving is a man of intelligence, linguistic accomplishment and diligence in scouring archival material. What he does with that material, however, is something else again. Irving’s libel defeat undermined his entire body of work by exposing his methods.

His very first book, written in 1963 when he was 25, affected to demonstrate that the Allies’ bombing of Dresden constituted “the biggest single massacre in European history”. Irving arrived at this conclusion by the simple expedient of arbitrarily inflating the numbers of victims five-fold. As Professor Richard Evans, expert witness for the defence in Irving’s libel suit, later put it, his work consisted in “consistent and deliberate falsification of the historical evidence” to serve the end of “achiev[ing] implicit and in the end explicit comparability with the mass murders carried out by the Nazis at Auschwitz and elsewhere”.

Irving’s aim is to rehabilitate Hitler’s reputation as a wartime leader and to consign the Allies’ wartime tactics to the annals of infamy. This case can be advanced consistently only by denying the central fact of the Nazis’ campaign of destruction: the Holocaust. And that can be advanced consistently only by employing fraud and evincing racism. Irving’s career is testament to both of those qualities.

In the 1980s, he established formal connections with the principal voice of Holocaust denial, the Institute for Historical Review — a pseudo-scholarly body based in California. Irving addressed the IHR’s 1983 Congress, and the experience apparently set him on course for ever more hardline propositions.

Oliver Kamm writes for The Times

    Last updated: 2:27pm, November 8 2010