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Posts Tagged ‘Pseudo-history

David Irving – Free speech defender?

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See also: The parallels between AIDS denial and Holocaust negationism

It’s becoming something of a modern media tradition that whenever freedom of expression is discussed on TV, the pseudo-historian David Irving needs to be wheeled out to talk about the trials he has faced over his denial of the holocaust. Irving was famously jailed in Austria for a while after falling foul of the country’s laws that make denying the holocaust a criminal offence. Irving had given an inflammatory speech in Austria in 1989 which resulted in the case being initiated, and was arrested and put on trial when he returned in 2005.

I don’t doubt that there are some interesting (well, mildly interesting) questions around the wisdom and morality of locking people up for telling lies about the holocaust. The writer Deborah Lipstadt has argued that such measures are heavy-handed and counter-productive. Far more effective, she argues, to confront and expose a racist liar rather than giving him a chance to make a play for the moral highground by claiming martyrdom.

Lipstadt is in a good position to make this call. In 2000, Lipstadt’s legal team trounced David Irving in court, after he had sued her libel for describing him as a falsifier of history, a liar, an anti-semite and a holocaust denier. Armed with some of the most draconian and plaintiff-friendly libel laws in the western world, Irving had sought to impose a heavy penalty on Lipstadt for her criticisms of him. The move had backfired disatrously. Lipstadt had definitively proven her criticisms of Irving to be true, and helped in the process to destroy  what was left of his reputation as a historian.

Irving, it seems, is a supporter of free speech only when it suits him. He has sought actively  to use Britain’s libel laws to suppress legitimate criticism of his work, and arguably has rather more in common with the litigious fraudster Robert Maxwell than with the likes of Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi…

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at David Irving’s pseudo-history as a classic example of “bogus scepticism”.

The judgement that brought down David Irving

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Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, David Irving enjoyed a kind of rogueish mainstream appeal as a “controversial historian”, whose iconoclastic views on Nazi Germany were ruffling feathers in academic circles. Irving had, on the basis of his claimed expertise, dismissed historical accounts about Auschwitz as “baloney”, claimed that the gas chambers never existed, and ridiculed the testimony of holocaust survivors. Many respectable historians who rejected Irving’s political views praised him nonetheless as a good “historian of fascism”, whose historical work deserved to be taken seriously. But all of this changed in 2000, with the conclusion of a libel trial, triggered by Irving’s decision to sue the writer Deborah Lipstadt for describing him as a “holocaust denier”.

It was a decision that backfired, catastrophically. In a damning judgement, Lord Justice Gray rejected Irving’s complaint, concluding that: “He is an active Holocaust denier, anti-Semitic, racist and associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism”. Gray found that “Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence… For the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews.”

During the trial, a team led by the eminent historian Richard Evans had painstakingly gone through four decades-worth of Irving’s work. Evans had, he said been shocked at the “sheer depth of duplicity” he found. Irving had, he concluded, “fallen so far short of the standards of scholarship customary among historians that he doesn’t deserve to be called a historian at all”. Evans was able to show how Irving had, right from the earliest stages of his career in the 1960s, systematically misrepresented the historical sources that he cited in support of his arguments, even as praise was being heaped on him for the quality of his work.

The David Irving is both a prime example of “pseudo-history”, but also as an illustration of how easy it can be for bogus experts to gain uncritical acceptance in the mainstream. In Don’t Get Fooled Again I look at the similarity between Irving’s bogus work and other forms of “denialism” – from the insidious cult of “AIDS denial” to the smoke and mirrors put out by the cigarette industry during the 1960s and 1970s in an attempt to misrepresent the risks from tobacco.

The full ruling from Lord Justice Gray in the Irving vs Lipstadt libel case can be read here.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 3, 2008 at 9:37 am