As Denial, the film adaptation of the infamous libel case between Deborah E. Lipstadt and David Irving, enters UK cinemas, we revisit Will Storr's account of his tours around concentration camp sites with the historian and Holocaust denier from his book The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science.
We arrived at the concentration camp after a light lunch, and made halting progress through the grounds.
‘I wonder how fertile the land is with all the ashes they dumped here,’ mused one of my fellow holidaymakers - an American called Mark, as we walked towards the long, low wooden barracks.
Our host, the notorious historian David Irving, pointed to a hatch in the base of a guard’s tower. ‘That’s the box office.’
We entered the museum. Two nuns in brown habits silently read a display. ‘David?’ asked one of our party, eyes shining upwards, the eager schoolboy. ‘What do you think of the swimming pool in Auschwitz?’
‘I don’t care,’ he said.
Minutes later, Aldrich the German asked him a question about gas chambers.
‘You’ve got gas chambers on the brain,’ he snapped.
He was browsing the exhibits alone, paying close attention to a period photograph of the Nazi headquarters in Warsaw. I approached him gingerly.
‘Is that building still there, David?’
‘I’m reading something,’ he growled.
Mark shot me a sympathetic look. We walked to the safety of the shadow of an SS sentry booth. ‘Don’t take it personally,’ he whispered. ‘A couple of weeks ago, I sent him an SMS with some information that he’d requested and he shot back, “I haven’t got time for this. I’m in the archives.”’
Mark’s impression of Irving was so accurate, and so unexpected, that I couldn’t help but let out a snort of laughter. I stopped myself with my hand and glanced fearfully at the nuns.
We rejoined Irving. ‘No more than fifty thousand people died here,’ he announced to the group. ‘A lot, but no more than was killed in a single bombing raid by British Bomber Command’. Behind him, a sign that read, in large English letters, ‘Some 78,000 died in the camp’.
I’ve come on holiday with David Irving and a band of his most fervent followers. To be honest, he doesn’t appear to be enjoying himself much on this, the second World War II tour that he’s hosted.
Organised with the help of his beautiful blonde associate Jaenelle Antas, he charges $2500 (flights not included) for the trip, with any profits presumably welcome following the loss of his libel trail against the historian Deborah Lipstadt, and the order made that he pay costs of nearly £2 million, plus £150,000 to Lipstadt’s publisher. On April 11 2000, the Honourable Mr Justice Gray concluded that ‘he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-semitic and racist and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo- Nazism.’
I’m not enjoying it that much either. Ostensibly here to research a book on the psychology of modern heretics, who are brave enough to stand up to the orthodoxy, I’ve been pretending that I’m a racist. Which becomes exhausting and depressing after about the first ten minutes. It’s now day two.
Day two, of seven.
I shuffled behind Irving as he considered a grainy photograph of Hitler saluting some guards. ‘Adolf Hitler never, in his whole career, visited a death camp,’ he snapped. ‘I am convinced that the decisions involved with the Holocaust were made on the periphery and then filtered up to the Führer’s office who were by then too weak to say, “Stop this.”’
He lurched out towards building number 42 – the fumigation plant, showers and gas chambers. As soon as we entered the cold, concrete structure, the mood of the group changed. There was an uplift, a surge, a dangerous volt of activity. There were flashes of cameras and raised voices and people bunching in corners and pointing, running this way and that, tugging arms, explain that, check this out ...
‘This is a mock-up of a gas chamber,’ announced Irving.
We were joined by a crowd of visitors. Dozens of them, young and female, many swollen-cheeked and teary.
‘You’ve got to be very sceptical about what you see in here,’ Irving told the schoolgirls, interrupting their guide. ‘The gas cylinders and pipes are quite clearly of recent provenance. This is an air-raid shelter. These are standard air-raid blast doors.’
The girls exchanged glances of alarm. ‘You’re fighting a losing battle here,’ said Martin, a lorry driver from London.
‘I don’t care,’ said Irving. He pointed at some metal canisters that were strapped to the wall. ‘Those cylinders are carbon dioxide not carbon monoxide. A typical Polish botch job. There are handles on the inside of these doors. If this was a homicidal gas chamber, you wouldn’t be going, “Excuse me, I’m just going to let myself out now.”’
He barracked the guide again, this time in Russian. I could not stand it any more. I left discreetly and headed for a building that was kept in darkness as a memorial. Hiding myself in a corner I did something that I am uneasy about admitting, and that I still cannot explain. I stood in the shadows and I crossed myself and prayed.
Returning to building 42, I examined the doors. Yes, there was a rudimentary U-shaped handle on the inside, but it had no opening mechanism. And there were bolts on the outside, two of them, huge ones, each attached to clasps that would have locked the door closed over airtight seals. He saw the handle and he used it to angrily damn the manifest truth. He kept talking about it as we drove back to Warsaw. He saw the handle. What happened in his mind when he saw the bolts?
As soon as I sat down with Irving, in the lobby of the Warsaw’s luxurious Polonia Palace Hotel, he began to speak at length about the Lipstadt trial.
‘They said, “Mr Irving is an anti-Semite, he’s a racist, he’s a pro-Nazi, he has an agenda, he consorts with Palestinians, he has Nazi associates”. All these things were untrue.’
As he was talking, Aldrich, a former east German soldier, walked past and politely bid us good morning. Irving failed to respond, apparently not noticing. As soon as I was able to wrench an opportunity between his words, I asked about his changing opinions regarding the Holocaust. His denial came in 1989, and followed the publication of a flawed study by a man named Fred Leuchter, who had brick samples from Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek tested for hydrogen cyanide and used the results to argue that only ‘lice’ were killed there. Irving described Leuchter’s report as ‘the biggest calibre shell that has yet hit the battleship Auschwitz’ and claimed that it ‘totally exploded the legend’. In 1991 he reissued his most lauded book, Hitler’s War, saying, ‘You won’t find the Holocaust mentioned in one line, not even in a footnote. Why should you? If something didn’t happen, then you don’t even dignify it with a footnote.’
He had some advice for the Jewish people too, telling the Jewish Chronicle that they ‘are very foolish not to abandon the gas chamber theory while they still have time’. The year after that, he was fined 3,000 marks in Germany for ‘defaming the memory of the dead’. During the appeal, Irving declared, ‘there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. I will not change my opinion.’ The judge multiplied his penalty by ten.
Then Irving’s views appeared to waver. In 1994 he said that he was glad that he ‘never adopted the narrow-minded approach that there was no Holocaust’. The following year he told an Australian radio host that ‘four million’ were killed in concentration camps, mostly of disease. In 1996 he admitted some Jews were systematically killed, but blamed Goebbels. Over the same period, he was banned from Germany and Australia, deported from Canada, spent a short period in a Munich prison and was dropped by his publishers in Britain and the US. In 1993 he complained that his ‘life has come under a gradually mounting attack: I find myself the worldwide victim of mass demonstrations, violence, vituperation and persecution.’
How much of this wavering, I wondered, was caused by the pressure that was being applied by his growing league of enemies?
‘I have changed what I say because of the pressure of evidence, not because of the threats that have been applied to me,’ he replied. ‘I’ve come to my own conclusions. This makes me unpopular with a lot of revisionists. Like the person who’s walked past us just now, the German. He’s unhappy about some of the things I said at Majdanek yesterday. He was saying, “The gas chambers! The gas chambers!” I said, “Forget about the gas chambers.” I’ve not set out determined to be a nuisance to historians. I’m basically so lazy, I can’t be bothered to falsify. To falsify is like lying.’
Because of the focus of his legal trials, it is commonly assumed that Irving is a self-declared expert on the Holocaust. This is not true. In fact, his principal interest is Adolf Hitler, and the epicentre of his controversial view is that the Führer was a friend of the Jews who would have been horrified to know that millions were being killed in his name.
I want to understand the emotional source of Irving’s stubborn, passionate and decades-long defence of the Nazi leader. It doesn’t make sense. After all, he comes from a patriotic British military family. His brother, John, was an RAF officer, while his father was a naval commander who fought in the Battle of Jutland in the First World War, and had his ship, HMS Edinburgh, torpedoed by the Nazis in 1942. He survived the attack, and yet didn’t return to the Irving home, in Ongar, Essex, instead moving to Wales. I wondered if Irving was affected by this abandonment. Perhaps it all began as an unconscious rebellion against his dad.
I began carefully, by asking how his father was viewed among members of the Irving family.
‘My father was a hero figure,’ he said.
‘It must have been devastating when he left,’ I said.
‘Stop trying to get me to say things,’ he snapped.
‘I’m just interested in how you felt about him leaving.’
‘So you didn’t experience it as a loss?’
‘We were a family without a father. It was just the way things were. I don’t feel particularly deprived.’
Irving’s earliest memory of heretical thought is during the war, when he was reading a magazine that contained a comic section called ‘Ferrier’s World Searchlight’.
‘There was a picture of Hermann Göring with all his medals, Goebbels with his club foot, Hitler with his postman’s hat and it was just generally making fun of them. If you’re six or seven, you’re looking at that, you’re thinking, “But I’ve got no toys! It can’t be that these cartoon figures are the ones causing all this nuisance. Your little juvenile brain is so innocent and pure that you begin thinking. You say to yourself, “It’s possible that I’m being sold a bill of goods by somebody here.” And this little worm begins to grow in the back of your brain. You think, When I’m older and have the means, I will investigate and find out.’
Over the last few days I have learned some illuminating facts about my fellow holidaymakers. Both of a slightly aloof Australian’s parents are German (he’ll later decline to watch a screening of Downfall, as his father ‘was there’ and he finds it too upsetting); a university administrator from the US has a German mother; Aldrich’s German father fought in the war, and Mark, the American with the Nazi tattoo, has a German mother. It is hard not to speculate: are these men on an unconscious hero quest, seeking to defend the honour of their parents against history? Are they on a mission of love?
And if so, how do we explain David Irving? If what I have learned is correct, he is likely to sincerely believe that his beliefs are influenced only by superior data, while they actually spring from some irrational, emotional core – something, quite possibly, from his childhood. But Irving’s father was not sympathetic to Hitler. He fought the Nazis. His brothers, too, were straightforwardly patriotic. And Irving admired them all.
It doesn’t make any sense.
Some time in the early 1970s, David Irving had a remarkable idea. What if Hitler hadn’t known about the Holocaust? What if the industrial killing of the Jews was secretly organised by his immediate subordinates, who deliberately kept it from him? He recruited a historian to find proof that he was mistaken. ‘I’m hiring you because you’re sceptical,’ he told her. ‘You’re going to find the evidence to prove me wrong.’
Every argument that she produced was rejected by Irving. Some, he will admit, ‘came close’, such as the entry in Goebbels’ diary from March 1942 which tells of deportations in which no more than 5 per cent of people survived. ‘There’s a whole page or two in his diary which describes this in very vivid terms, and said, “‘The Führer too is in favour of a radical solution,”’ Irving remembered. ‘I said, “I’m sorry no. This is evidence against Goebbels. It shows that Goebbels would like to believe that Hitler was involved.”’
In 1991 more diaries emerged, this time those of Adolf Eichmann, who had responsibility for the transportation of Jews to concentration camps. His journals report a conversation with Reinhard Heydrich. ‘“I came from the Reichsführer [Himmler],” said Heydrich. “He has received orders from the Führer for the physical destruction of the Jews.” ’
Around the period in which Irving was considering this find, the writer Ron Rosenbaum interviewed him for his book Explaining Hitler. The author described finding Irving ‘tormented’ by this discovery. He told Rosenbaum, ‘It rocked me back on my heels, frankly.’ He admitted that he had thought, Oops! How do you explain this one away?
This is how he explained it away: even though Eichmann composed his memoirs before he was captured, Irving dismissed them as being concocted for use as evidence during an imagined future trial. ‘I’m not saying Eichmann does it consciously,’ he told me. ‘But eventually he will begin saying to himself, “What would have been my only excuse in mitigation? That it was the Führer’s orders.”’
‘You’re using any excuse,’ I said. ‘Any way you can think around the problem of exonerating Hitler.’
‘No. You have to be very precise. If Heidrich said that, why does it not exist in any document that followed?’
‘Is it possible that you’re being this forensic only with evidence that doesn’t fit your thesis?’
‘No, you’re extra-careful because of this huge muck heap of world opinion that has been built up over the last sixty years. They’ve been piling more and more muck on top of it. It doesn’t mean to say it’s any righter. They’re just quoting each other.’
I moved on to further evidence that Hitler not only knew about the annihilation of the Jews, but predicted it. In a speech that he gave on 30 January 1939, Hitler said, ‘Today I want to be a prophet once more: if the international finance Jewry inside and outside of Europe should succeed once more in plunging nations into another world war, the consequence will not be the Boleshevisation of the earth and thereby the victory of the Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.’
‘Unfortunately you’ve got a problem with language,’ said Irving. ‘At no point does Hitler anywhere say, “We’re going to liquidate the Jews.”’
‘He says “annihilate”.’
‘He uses a very common word in Germany, which is “ausrotten”. Then he says it’s a “prophetic warning for the Jews”. That’s a weird phrase.’
‘But he’s saying . . .’
Irving shook his head dismissively.
‘You’re not, you’re not, you’re not, fine tuned.’
I thought for a moment. I tried to tune myself up.
‘It means he’s looking into the future,’ I said. ‘Predicting.’ ‘Yes,’ said Irving. ‘That’s right.’
‘Predicting the annihilation of the Jews.’
‘But you would say “warning” to the Jews. You wouldn’t say “prophetic warning”. The speech itself is six pages, single spaced. The actual reference to the Jews is three lines long. Only three lines in one column. Only that.’
They were three lines. They were in one column. And they prophesied the annihilation of the Jews.
‘But the word he uses for annihilation is “ausrotten”,’ he said. ‘That’s a word in German which came to mean liquidation.’ According to Irving, the meaning of ‘ausrotten’ has changed since 1939. He knows this, because he has studied its use in a number of Hitler’s speeches, and amassed several period dictionaries in preparation for the Lipstadt trial. Back then, he says, it meant ‘extirpation’, a word with a Latin origin whose literal definition was ‘pulling the roots out’. Compared to today, its implication to Hitler’s audience would have been mild. ‘He was, at that time, using the word effectively to mean “emasculation”.’
‘And that also goes for the later speech when he said the annihilation had begun?’
‘He never said that.’
I looked down at my notes.
‘December the twelfth 1941, in a speech that recalled his prophecy of 1939, he said, “The world war is here. The annihilation of the Jewry must be a necessary consequence.”’
‘He’s now saying the world war is going to lead to the destruction of the “Judentung”, which is this vague concept of the Jewish entity.’
‘For an outsider,’ I said, ‘it’s hard to square that quote with the idea that Hitler somehow wasn’t up for the annihilation of the Jews.’
‘There’s a great temptation here to extrapolate backwards from history and say, “Well, this happened, therefore he was saying it.” I’ve been more selective.’
‘It sounds to me like he’s up for an annihilation.’
‘That’s because you’re prejudiced by the history that has been propagated since the end of World War II. I can’t do that. I’ve got to go back to the meaning of the words at the time. What you’re doing is reading between the lines.’
‘It’s not between the line. It’s on the line.’
‘It depends how you translate the words.’
I found myself once more in the dilemma that is often faced when debating experts, no matter how controversial. Any argument can be closed down by an appeal to any evidence at all, as long as you are unfamiliar with it. Without immediate access to a 1939 English–German dictionary, I realised, there was nothing I could do.
I could, however, explore his more general feelings about the Jews. For a man who is so easily infuriated by accusations of anti-Semitism, he is remarkably anti-Semitic.
‘The Jews like being talked about,’ he told me. ‘They’re not happy if they’re not being talked about. I always say if you want to be the bride at every wedding you run the risk of ending up being the corpse at every funeral. But I try to keep out of it.’
For Irving, many Jews share a common weakness, in which they cannot critically examine their actions. ‘I can look at my own misfortune and say, “Well, I had it coming.” But they will never look at their own misfortune and say, “Perhaps we as a people had it coming.” They then say, “Well, we’re hated because we’re so financially successful.” And I say, “Well, that’s a racist remark that implies there is something in your genes that makes you good with money.”’
‘What do you think it is?’
He shrugged. ‘Probably something different in their brains.’
For me, I told him, it is because humans are by nature tribal and the Jews’ historical statelessness has probably made them unusually vulnerable to prejudice. To my astonishment, he nodded in agreement.
‘It’s in our microchip,’ he said. ‘We all have this glitch in our microchip. I could never fancy a black woman the way I fancy Jaenelle. It’s my microchip.’
‘So do you not accept, then, that psychological processes are behind anti-Semitism, rather than the Jews being especially “badly behaved”?’
‘I think it’s very likely,’ he agreed. ‘I try not to be anti- Semitic.’ I grinned helplessly, convinced for one ridiculous moment that I might have made a breakthrough. ‘But they don’t make it easy for me.’
The greatest mystery, for me, is in the emotions that ferment wordlessly beneath Irving’s stubborn defence of Hitler. I’ve been researching the psychology of strange beliefs for more than a year, now, and I’ve learned that powerful adult beliefs rarely grow in rational, reasonable isolation. This makes sense of several of my fellow tourists, who had parents who had either served in the war or who saw it from Germany.
But Irving’s was a patriotic family. He didn’t rebel against his parents or siblings – he looked up to his father, idolised his RAF-serving elder brother. I began to wonder if I might have glimpsed a truth about the source of Irving’s mission, however, when I challenged him on the moral relativity that he believes exists between the Nazis and the Allies.
‘We wanted to stop the war,’ I said. ‘Whereas they wanted to take over Europe.’
‘But it was no business of ours,’ he snapped. ‘We had no business getting involved with it. And because we did, we lost the empire, which was a huge force for civilisation around the world. What the empire was doing was worth everything and we should not have risked it. We were fighting somebody else’s war because Churchill had been bribed by the Jews. He had been hired by them in 1936.’
‘So it all comes back to the Jews?’
‘In this case it does.’
‘You would have preferred us to keep our empire . . .’
‘I’m very proud of the empire.’
‘. . . and for Hitler to have Europe?’
‘I don’t mind who has Europe.’
‘You don’t care.’
‘I don’t care. Why should I care? I’m not Jewish, I’m not a Communist, I’m not a faggot. Hitler had this ambition. He was going to build motorways everywhere. He was going to build great cities.’
‘Don’t you have any compassion for them? They were going to be slaughtered.’
‘Well, that’s what they were planning to do to us. Well, maybe not the homosexuals, but the Communists certainly didn’t have any good plans for us.’
‘That’s not my question,’ I said. ‘Don’t you have any compassion for them?’
‘Why should I? What kind of compassion?’
‘You seem to have a worldview in which caring about people that aren’t just like you is pointless.’
‘We used to have a Communist Party in England—’
‘I’m not saying we should all be Communists. The Communists were awful.’
‘I know,’ he said, truly mystified. ‘I can’t understand why you’re sticking up for them.’
For the first time in the three hours that we had been speaking, Irving had lost his usual composure. Gone was the snippy, careful, lawyerly, narrow-eyed academic’s pose. Suddenly, there it was: emotion. It made me wonder. Was that it? Perhaps he identified his family as one of empire. And he blames Churchill and the Jews for its loss. Could that be the wound that seeps beneath all of this?
I asked if any of his relatives served the empire. He smiled proudly. ‘Oh, yes. My uncles were with the Indian Army. One was a Bengal Lancer. They had a very good imperial life in India. And the other uncle was in Malaya and then on my mother’s side of the family, her sister married Peter, who was on the same ship as my father. My uncle Peter was on the ship Discovery. They made several trips to the Antarctic on that. In fact, there are two islands, one named after my father and one after my Uncle Peter . . .’
This went on for some time.
EIGHT WEEKS LATER
Finally, it has arrived. From a second-hand book dealer in America – my Cassell’s German–English dictionary. I can now know how listeners would have interpreted Hitler’s ‘prophecy’ about the ‘ausrotten’ of the Jews in 1939, because that is the year in which this dictionary was published. So what did the word imply back then? Emasculation? Or extermination?
Ausrott -en, v.a. extirpate, exterminate, root out. Comp. -ungs-fried m war of extermination.
This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times.
Will Storr's The Heretics, an investigation into why intelligent people believe things in spite of the evidence against them is out now.
Will Storr's Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It's Doing to Us will be published by Picador on 15th June 2017.
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Denial is now showing in UK cinemas.