ww2 Archive

Irving ad nauseum

Irving ad nauseum

Well it’s too bad to see David Irving in the news again. What makes it worse this time is that he’s not in the newspaper because of some dastardly speech or because Austrian or German authorities got hold of him once again, but rather because he was, unbelievably, invited to be in a newspaper. The Spanish El Mundo actually and deliberately sought his opinions on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. They ran his interview as part of a series that included the likes of historian Ian Kershaw and Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev.

This is probably the most opinionated you’ll ever see me at German History Buzz, so let’s get it over with and move on. I can only assume that someone with authority at El Mundo either subscribes to Irving’s “theories” about the Holocaust (or lack of a Holocaust), or at least finds them compelling, serious and scholarly enough to present them as being on par with, say, Ian Kershaw’s biographies of Hitler. It would be interesting to know if there was much dissent in the editorial offices when some genius suggested including Irving in the series. It terrifies me to think that there might have been no dissent.

My first reaction when I saw Kershaw’s name was, “Why did he agree to take part given that Irving was involved?” But I see in a later report that Kershaw was not told about Irving and would not have participated had he been told.

I tweeted about this topic on Wednesday and referred people to the transcript of the judge’s opinion in the case of Irving v. Lipstadt. In my own head I tend to refer to that opinion rather colloquially as “The Great Smackdown”. Now I’m a bit of a historical nerd so I anyway like reading this kind of stuff, but really I find the opinion simply breathtaking. Having read Lipstadt’s book about the trial, I found it interesting that she and others, throughout the proceedings, were really unsure and occasionally quite worried about Mr. Justice Gray. In the end, as you’ll see if you read the opinion, they had little to worry about.

It’s a huge, comprehensive, and thorough opinion, so I know that few will actually read it. If you want to get to the meat of the judge’s views on Irving’s merit as a historian, you can jump to section XIII, Findings on Justification, though you’ll be lacking some context when you land there. In those Findings, Mr. Justice Gray throws one bone out to Irving (“My assessment is that, as a military historian, Irving has much to commend him” [13.7, my emphasis]), before spending the next umpteen paragraphs grabbing it back and more.

If you are not planning to read the whole judgement, let me help out by ending this rather lengthy blog post with a close inspection of one of the defense’s (Lipstadt’s) historiographical criticisms of Irving. I’ll show the pattern followed by Mr. Justice Gray throughout the judgement: lay out the issue rather dispassionately, present each side’s arguments and, later, announce his own findings.

The Issue: Three speeches by Heinrich Himmler in 1943 and 1944 and how Irving treats them as a historian.
Mr. Justice Gray starts by presenting parts of the three Himmler speeches. I’ll just quote one of them here, Himmler’s speech to generals on 5 May 1944, presented in paragraph 5.223 of the judgement:

“The Jewish question has been solved within Germany itself and in general within the countries occupied by Germany. It was solved in an uncompromising fashion in accordance with the life and death struggle of our nation in which the existence of our blood is at stake. You can understand how difficult it was for me to carry out this soldierly order (soldatische Befehl) and which I carried out from obedience and from a sense of complete conviction”.

Defense’s allegations.
Mr. Justice Gray then presents the defense’s allegations of Irving’s faulty treatment of this issue in his books. For brevity’s sake, I’ll put just one of the defense arguments here, that of paragraph 5.227:

The Defendants direct particular criticism at Irving for the way in which he deals at p630 of Hitler’s War (1977 edition) with the speech of 5 May. He there paraphrases what Himmler in such a way as to conceal the uncompromisingly brutal language used by Himmler. After the reference to Himmler’s speech, Irving adds:

“Never before, and never after, did Himmler hint at a Fuhrer order, but there is reason to doubt that he showed this passage to his Fuhrer”.

The Defendants reply that it is pure surmise on Irving’s part that the relevant passage was not shown to Hitler but it is presented by him to the reader as established fact. They point out that in the 1991 edition the reference to Himmler’s speech of 5 May has been omitted altogether. The Defendants maintain that it is an important part of the narrative because it casts light on Hitler’s role in the extermination of the Jews. The inescapable inference is that Irving was determined to avoid compromising Hitler.

Irving’s response.
Mr. Justice Gray then summarizes Irving’s response to the defense’s allegations. I’ll quote here part of 5.229 because it’s relevant to the allegation I quoted above:

He [Irving] disputed the contention that the speech of 5 May points towards the existence of a Hitler order. From the facts the transcript of the relevant page of the speech has evidently been typed on a different typewriter and the pagination has been altered, Irving deduced that the document has been tampered with and is accordingly unreliable. He rejected the mundane explanation that Himmler was simply revising what he proposed to say in his speech. Irving further argued that it is to be inferred that the transcript was sanitised before it was submitted to Hitler because Himmler did not want Hitler to know that he (Himmler) was claiming falsely to have been acting on the order of Hitler.

Mr. Justice Gray’s conclusions regarding this issue.
Only near the end of the entire opinion do we get to read Mr Justice Gray’s own conclusions (findings) concerning the various issues in contention. And so at paragraph 13.46 we learn of his assessment of Irving’s handling of the three Himmler speeches:

It is a common ground that in these three speeches Himmler was speaking, with remarkable frankness, about the murder of the Jews. The question is whether Irving dealt in an objective and fair manner with the evidence which those speeches afford as to Hitler’s knowledge of and complicity in the murder of the Jews. I am satisfied that he did not. Two of the speeches provide powerful evidence that Hitler ordered that the extermination of the Jews should take place. Yet in the 1977 edition of “Hitler’s War” Irving suggests that the existence of a Hitler order was an invention on the part of Himmler. It does not appear to me that the evidence supports that suggestion. I consider that Irving’s deduction that the transcript of the speech of 5 May was either altered after Himmler delivered the speech or sanitised before it was shown to Hitler is fanciful. The absence of any mention of that speech in the 1991 edition of Hitler’s War was in my judgment another culpable omission.

Recommended reading:
I recognize that Mr. Justice Gray’s judgement, being as dispassionate as it is, doesn’t make for particularly exciting reading (though I enjoy reading it!) Therefore if you are interested in reading more about the trial, I can recommend the books which I’ve read. They are as follows:

  • Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, by Deborah Lipstadt (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english]). This is the book that caused Irving to sue for libel.
  • History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, also by Deborah Lipstadt (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english]). This book covers the trial itself.
  • The Holocaust on Trial: History, Justice and the David Irving Libel Case, by D.D. Guttenplan (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english]). If reading an account from the defendant herself, Ms Lipstadt, doesn’t feel objective enough for you, you can read this book by a third party.

And then there is this book, which I haven’t read but which I very much want to read:

  • Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History and the David Irving Trial, by Richard J. Evans (Amazon US, UK, CA). Professor Evans was a witness for the defense and is a prominent historian of Modern Germany.

Image credit:
The lead image to this blog post shows part of an actual deportation list. Willie Glaser is credited as the source and author of the image and has licensed it for “anyone to use it for any purpose including unrestricted redistribution, commercial use, and modification.” I didn’t want a photo of Irving on my blog, so I chose instead to show part of a document that represents a small part of the great tragedy which Irving and others like him choose to either disbelieve outright or minimize.

Stefan Zweig, “The World of Yesterday” (Book of the Week)

Stefan Zweig, “The World of Yesterday” (Book of the Week)

Some autobiographies manage to go beyond the subject’s own life and capture the very essence of an entire epoch. I consider The World of Yesterday (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [eng], DE [deu]) at the top of any list of such autobiographies. I have certainly never read another that made me feel so connected to the times in which the author lived.

Given the turmoil which the world saw during the span of Stefan Zweig’s life (1881-1942), we can say that he witnessed not just one but a handful of epochs. His generation “was loaded down with a burden of fate as was hardly any other in the course of history,” enduring as it did both World Wars. Zweig and his wife chose to no longer endure their fate as stateless, homeless refugees after he finished this book; they ended their lives together in Brazil in 1942 after sending off the manuscript to the publishers in New York.

Zweig was born into what he calls the “World of Security”, the late Habsburg era during which one could theoretically plan out one’s life in the finest of detail. Each knew his position in that society. Families had budgets, incomes were pre-determined, everything was insured, risks were frowned upon. School — a topic to which he devotes an entire chapter — consisted of curricula so finely tuned that instructors could get through a year without learning the names of their students; they merely needed to repeat what they had done the previous year, and the year before that … with such consistency that they could do it with their heads down, practically avoiding the faces of individual pupils.

Events would later prove just how fragile the security and confidence of that era were. The trauma of the First World War, followed by massive inflation and the unsteady inter-war years, and then the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of war in 1939 … Zweig experienced all of this, and, at the risk of sounding elitist, he did so not just as any ordinary person, but as an “international” intellectual with close friends in many of those countries which, ostensibly, would become “enemies”. His pan-European outlook, which permeates the book, provides a perspective on the events of that time which is quite different than, say, the perspective of a statesman or a general.

Most importantly, Zweig pens his memoir as the same able storyteller who told so many other excellent stories, such as Beware of Pity, Letter from an Unknown Woman and The Invisible Collection, to name just the few that I have read.

Given that I present a “Book of the Week” each week, I’ve got to be careful to not get into the habit of saying the following: You really must read this book. Please indulge me as I say it this week, because if there is any one book that I would recommend which covers the period from a personal perspective, it would be this one. I’ll let The New Republic have the last word:

It is not so much a memoir of a life as it is the memento of an age, and the author seems, in his own phrase, to be the narrator at an illustrated lecture. The illustrations are provided by time, but his choice is brilliant and the narration is evocative. [From the back cover of the University of Nebraska Press edition of the book.]

01 September 1939: Other Quotations

01 September 1939: Other Quotations

Below is a collection of quotations concerning the German attack on Poland in September 1939. Not all quotes are from 01 September, but they reference the events that began that day.

You and your men must have plenty to do now. I just can’t grasp that people’s lives are now under constant threat from other people. I’ll never understand it, and I find it terrible. Don’t go telling me it’s for the Fatherland’s sake.

Sophie Scholl to Fritz Hartnagel, 05 September 1939, in At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl (US, UK, CA, DE [eng], DE [deu]).

Finis Germaniae

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, upon hearing that the final order for “Operation White”, the attack on Poland, had been given by Hitler. In An Honourable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler, 1933-1945, by Anton Gill. (US, UK, CA, DE [eng])

The inhabitants are an unbelievable rabble, very many Jews and very much mixed population. A people which surely is only comfortable under the knout. The thousands of prisoners-of-war will be good for our agriculture. In Germany they will surely be useful, industrious, willing and frugal.

Claus von Stauffenberg, reporting from his service in Poland. Here we see a Stauffenberg clearly not yet committed to resistance. From Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944, p. 115.


I do not have the impression that our friends the Bolsheviks are using kid-gloves. This war is truly a scourge of God for the entire Polish upper class. They ran from us eastward. We are not letting anyone except ethnic Germans cross the Vistula westward. The Russians will likely make short work of them, since, as is well known by now, the real danger is only in the nationalistic Polish upper class who naturally feel superior to the Russians. Many of them will go to Siberia. [ibid.]

On 1 September 1939 there were no scenes of enthusiasm, no cheering crowds in Berlin like those in Munich in which Hitler had heard the news of the declaration of war twenty-five years before. When he drove to address the Reichstag at the Kroll Opera House at 10 a.m., the streets were emptier than usual. Most of those who turned to watch the line of cars accompanying the F├╝hrer stared in silence.

Allan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, p. 547. (US, UK, CA, DE [eng], DE [deu])

I am asking of no German man more than I myself was ready to do throughout four years. There will be no hardships for Germans to which I myself will not submit. My whole life belongs henceforth more than ever to my people. I am from now on just the first soldier of the German Reich. I have once more put on that coat that was the most sacred and dear to me. I will not take it off again until victory is secured, or I will not survive the outcome.

Adolf Hitler quoted in Bullock, p. 547.

Question: You believe then that Hitler did not realize in September 1939 that he had started a World War?

Albert Speer: From what I observed, I had to assume that this was not his intention. He intended to carry his plans one step further, as with Czechoslovakia.

On the other hand, there is this consideration. From the standpoint of the balance of military power, 1939 must have been the best year to start a war, better than two or three years later.

Albert Speer responding to questions under interrogation. From Richard Overy, Interrogations: The Nazi Elite in Allied Hands, 1945, p. 331.

01 September 1939: Tragedy

01 September 1939: Tragedy

It was a strange morning. Silently we stepped back from the radio that had projected a message into the room which would outlast centuries, a message that was destined to change our world totally and the life of every single one of us. A message which meant death for thousands of those who had silently listened to it, sorrow and unhappiness, desperation and threat for every one of us, and perhaps only after years and years a creative significance. It was war again, a war, more terrible and far-reaching than ever before on earth any war had been. Once more an epoch came to an end, once more a new epoch began. Silently we stood in the room that had suddenly become deathly quiet and avoided looking at each other. From outside came the unconcerned twitter of the birds, frivolous in their love and subject to the gentle breeze, and in golden luster the trees swayed as if their leaves, like lips, wished to touch one another tenderly. It was not for ancient Mother Nature to know the cares of her creatures.

Once more I wandered down to the town to have a last look at peace. It lay calmly in the noon-day sun and seemed no different to me from other days. People went their accustomed way in their usual manner. There were no signs of hurry, they did not crowd talkatively together. Their behavior had a sabbath-like quality and at a certain moment I asked myself: “Can it be that they don’t know it yet?”

I recalled our old soldiers, weary and in rags, how they had come back from the battlefield, — my beating heart felt the whole past war in the one that was beginning today and which still hid its terror from our eyes. Again I was aware that the past was done for, work achieved was in ruins, Europe, our home, to which we had dedicated ourselves had suffered a destruction that would extend far beyond our life. Something new, a new world began, but how many hells, how many purgatories had to be crossed before it could be reached!

The sun shone full and strong. Homeward bound I suddenly noticed before me my own shadow as I had seen the shadow of the other war behind the actual one. During all this time it has never budged from me, that irremovable shadow, it hovers over every thought of mine by day and by night; perhaps its dark outline lies on some pages of this book, too. But, after all, shadows themselves are born of light. And only he who has experienced dawn and dusk, war and peace, ascent and decline, only he has truly lived.

From Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (US, UK, CA, DE [eng], DE [deu].)