Some time ago (2010 I think) Carl Trueman was visiting south Wales and had agreed to spend a day giving lectures to a number of pastors on church history. Part of the reading Dr Trueman set for us was “Lying about Hitler” by Richard J Evans.
Well, a confession – I have only just got round to reading it, three and a half years later. Never mind.
In the end, it was a great book about the libel suit brought by David Irving, the well known holocaust denier, against Penguin Books and the author Deborah Lipstadt. Lipstadt had had denounced Irving in her book, “Denying the Holocaust”. In the end the trial turned into a detailed examination of Irving’s methods as an historian (hence, Trueman’s motive in getting us to read it). Irving was one who was found to be selective in which evidence he used (the most shocking to me being that he discounted eyewitness testimony of survivors), that he twisted what evidence he had to his view, and that in the end he was in fact a denier of the holocaust.
The author, a professor of history at Cambridge, was enlisted as an expert witness and had the unenviable task of sifting the writings and recorded speeches of Irving with a view to examining his methods. So the book takes us through his findings. Evans examines how Irving dealt with Hitler’s attitude to the Jews pre-war, the question of a “final solution” and the use of extermination camps. While accepting that some Nazis sought to exterminate Jews, Irving, through his analysis of texts, had always given Hitler a “pass”, and sought to show that the actual death toll was a small fraction of the usual figure of 6 million. On the other hand, Irving had also sought to exaggerate the scale of the Dresden bombings by the Allies at the close of the War and to argue that the scale of killing was somehow comparable with the death toll of the Jews. Evans also looked at Irving’s method here also and found it badly wanting.
Most interesting to me was the final chapter which dealt with the judgement int he Spring of 2000, where Irving lost the case, and the aftermath. The trial had been complex and detailed. As a result the press had had a hard time keeping up. Few journalists did. After the judgment in the round of interviews that followed, Irving got more publicity. Because the journalists and broadcasters had not kept up, they were unable to call him to account for the findings of the court. As a result, for a time at least, Irving appeared as a victim of unjust libel laws. Even respected historians were coming to his defence.
The book is a fascinating study of how history is done and shouldn’t be done. It serves as a warning to our superficial culture about the need to check sources carefully. And it is an encouragement that there are some assertions about history that can be verified and some that can be denied, and that we are not just at the mercy of those who shout loud and long.