AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 3/2006

Holocaust Denier on Trial: The Swastika Wielding Provocateur

By Malte Herwig

British historian and Holocaust denier David Irving, arrested last month in Austria where his views are illegal, is busy preparing his trial in a Vienna prison. Could this be the eccentric Hitler admirer's final act of provocation?

At night, when the pale winter sun has slipped behind the rooftops of Vienna's Josefstadt district, a jungle comes to life in the prison yard at the city's old Imperial-era prison. "That's when they start yelling from the windows and talking to one another," says David Irving, "it all begins at nightfall, just like in the jungle."

David Irving
AP

David Irving

The elderly gentleman in a suit and tie who sits down behind the plate glass window in the prison's visitors' room doesn't seem to belong here. But, despite his appearance, David Irving seems to have settled in quite nicely. According to the prison's administration, Irving, who is here in detention awaiting trial, gets along well with the other prisoners. If only they could all be so polite, says a guard, clearly impressed by Irving's model behavior.

Irving, 67, appears cheerful and focused and says he is being treated well. Occasionally he does betray a penchant for hyperbole, though. "Someone sent me ink, thank God," he says. Irving is writing his memoirs, 20 pages a day. There is little else to do for a writer behind bars, and there's a tradition about writing while incarcerated. "Perhaps I should call it 'Mein Krieg' ('My War')," says Irving, grinning on his side of the plate glass divider. His daughter finds it "cool that Daddy is in prison," he adds, and one has the impression that Daddy himself still sees the whole thing as part of an adventure. David Irving is a man marooned on the fringes of society, but adventure is part of his business.

Before leaving London for Austria, he left behind 60 blank checks and packed eight shirts, even though the trip was only scheduled to take two days. He is always prepared for anything, says Irving, meaningfully raising his bushy eyebrows. "Be prepared," the motto of the Boy Scouts is apparently also his motto.

He knew that there was a warrant for his arrest in Austria. In 1989, then Chancellor Franz Vranitzky personally threatened Irving with immediate arrest if he ever showed his face in Austria again. But the stubborn Hitler apologist saw Vranitzky's threat as an invitation to return to Austria as quickly as possible. "I come from a family of officers," he growls from behind the plate glass, "we march towards cannon fire." But he did make a mistake when it came to picking suitable shoes. Prisoners are allowed to walk in the prison yard every day, but Irving has, "unfortunately, only one pair of very expensive shoes," and they're slowly falling apart.

Lust for Controversy

He plans to have his pinstripe suit sent to him for his trial on February 20. It's Irving's battle outfit, the same suit he had made by the most expensive Savile Row tailor for his London trial six years ago. This polite Anglo-Saxon treats Holocaust denial in the same way his countrymen treat rugby: a sport for hooligans, played by gentlemen.

The self-confident, self-taught writer has always enjoyed causing uproar, especially among mainstream historians, ever since the 1960s when he began digging up documents written by Hitler's cohorts. Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel's memoirs, SS leader Adolf Eichmann's notes, Hitler's propaganda minister Josef Goebbels' diaries -- the media-savvy author has been adept at marketing his finds to the public and promoting his own works. His sensationally written and extensively documented biographies of leading Nazi figures were bestsellers up until the 1980s.

Despite admiration for Irving's detective skills, his work increasingly came under fire after 1977, when his biography of Hitler was published. A respected military historian until then, Irving quickly became Hitler's willing discoverer, using his finds to prove the guilt of Himmler, Heydrich and others while claiming that his revered Führer was entirely blameless.

Irving, who was still giving lectures in the fading East Germany in 1990 under the title "A Briton fights for the honor of the Germans," chose contemporary history and not politics as his pulpit. "Standing in front of 10,000 people who waited an entire day, and who are now sitting on hard benches drinking their beer, waiting for you to speak -- that's the ultimate reward," he said in 1992 during a speaking tour. Auschwitz expert Robert van Pelt considers Irving hysterical. "He's quite a good speaker, but he gets his energy from his audience, and he tells them what they want to hear."

Far-Right Figurehead

David Irving denied the Holocaust, denied Hitler's guilt and mocked the survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. Thanks to his derisive remarks on what he called the Allies' "victors' view of history" and his snide treatment of established historians, Irving soon became a figurehead for right-wing extremists and a welcome agitator at events hosted by the far-right German People's Union (DVU), where the eternally unteachable could listen to him lecture on "what it was really like" in the "Third Reich."

British historian David Cannadine has called Irving's books "abnormally biased and irresponsibly sensationalist." In a court hearing in 2000, fellow historian Richard Evans testified at length on Irving's clever manipulation of his sources.

Nevertheless, the sheer wealth of material in Irving's books has always made them a treasure trove for historians, and they can be found in many German libraries. "Historians of the period between 1933 and 1945 appreciate his energy as a researcher more than they would ever care to admit," says world-renowned American contemporary historian Gordon A. Craig. "If we wanted to silence Irving, we would be paying a high price for eliminating what we view as an annoyance."

The fact that his books turned into right-wing underground literature available only through obscure publishing houses and on the Internet is not just the result of his revisionist approach to history, but also his provocative appearances in the neo-Nazi scene. Ever since the 1990s, when it became clear that he could no longer convince any respected publisher to publish his books, the historian has transformed himself into a traveling salesman on all things relating to Hitler. His London apartment, which the Sunday Telegraph has called a "one-man Hitler university," is filled with Hitler, Göring and Goebbels monographs which he has published himself and sells from the trunk of his car whenever he speaks in basements and bars.

"They have burned my books," Irving sighs. A master of the insinuating bluff, an expert at setting false trails, Irving adores the glitter of the outrageous. He knows that burning books is a taboo, but conveniently ignores the point that the publisher had to pulp some of his books for legal reasons, and that that isn't the same as book-burning.

When David Irving entered the public arena in the 1960s, he quickly became a star. According to historian Richard Evans, the early writings of the "revisionists" were more of a "perverse form of entertainment" for readers. Someone like Irving, who in fact had displayed considerable talent as an author, was practically tailor-made for the talentless pamphletists.

Smokescreens of Historical Detail

The vast quantities of archive material he deploys in his thick books is intended to suggest objectivity. In truth, criticizes contemporary historian Peter Hoffmann, this overwhelming wealth of detail is nothing but a smokescreen.

British historian Paul Addison described Irving as "normally a giant when it comes to research, but often a schoolboy when it comes to judgment." As horrific as it sounds, there is reason to believe that he is not just driven by the lucrative business of the Holocaust denial industry, but also by a scurrilous and ultimately banal delight in provocation.

This delight is not uncommon among the upper classes in England, as Prince Harry's recent appearance at a party wearing a swastika armband demonstrates. Irving takes advantage of the considerable tolerance of his countrymen, whose regard for freedom of opinion protects even the most tasteless pronouncements of an eccentric.

It is no coincidence that a man like Irving comes from a country where "Führer" jokes are still part of the standard repertoire of the tabloid press, and where delight in provocation is considered acceptable even in polite society. Irving undoubtedly has as many detractors in Britain as anywhere else. But statements such as "more people were killed in the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car in Chappaquiddick than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz," with their blend of sexual innuendo and deliberate affront, are a reflection of the trivial ignorance with which many a product of the British boarding school system tries to show the world belongs to him. "He is a megalomaniacal class tyrant," says Holocaust expert Deborah Lipstadt, against whom Irving filed a spectacular lawsuit six years ago, at the end of which, however, the judge in the case declared him an anti-Semite, a racist and a liar.

"Yes, I did many silly things", says Irving simply, noting that the British way of doing things isn't always polite.

Young Rebel

Irving, who grew up without a father, started rebelling against the established order when he was a schoolboy. When he won a book award at school, he asked for Hitler's "Mein Kampf" as his prize. It was the same impetus that prompted him to drape a Soviet flag over the gate of his school. He had merely intended to shock people, Irving told Britain's Observer newspaper in 1992. "It was all in good fun, and when I write, I try to introduce a bit of fun onto each page." In 1993, he told another interviewer that he had no political agenda apart from enjoying seeing "other historians make fools of themselves."

Irving is unaware of moral or even human contradictions. He is too amoral to even understand that jokes such as the one about Kennedy's car are an affront to the survivors of the Holocaust. Irving's understanding of history is not unlike that of the Nazis. History is a panorama of eating or being eaten. Only the strong can win, and Irving reserves his unabashed admiration exclusively for the strong.

One of those people is "Bomber" Harris. In his first book, Irving turned the world's attention to the horrors of the bombing of Dresden. Nevertheless, he insists that Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris was a great man. "I'm talking about a commander. Like Dönitz," he explains, his eyes flashing. "Someone who can send 20,000 young people to their deaths each day is a great commander." Given these views, Irving's admiration for Hitler comes as no great surprise.

Irving seems proud to answer questions through the prison's plate glass window. Questions about everything. For example, why did he first call the Hitler diaries forgeries at the legendary Stern press conference, only to recant a short time later and tell a British newspaper that they were genuine? "It was a gag," he is quick to say, "something like entertainment. None of that had anything to do with contemporary history. I wanted to see how the historians would react." Judging by Irving's expression, he seems to believe that this kind of behavior is perfectly normal, and that the humorless Germans are nothing but spoilsports.

Suddenly everything begins to make sense: the "Third Reich" as a grandiose, second-hand adventure playground, the revisionists as playmates and the material the stuff of adventure novels, the kind Irving used to read as a child growing up in the country. In those days, in the 1940s in the county of Essex near London, England wasn't a multicultural society, the Empire still existed and a small boy with a dreamy look in his eyes could spend hours listening to stories about his uncle, who was serving far away with the Bengal Lancers.

Yearning for the Days of Empire

Irving is a monarchist, "of course." He mourns the Empire and the lost security that an orderly class society once offered the white English middle class he grew up in. He doesn't like the fact that England's cricket team includes dark-skinned players, he hates the new world and he despises Tony Blair's New Labour.

Only three months ago, he moved to a new apartment not far from Downing Street "to provoke the establishment," but also because it was closer to Buckingham Palace. "I enjoy watching soldiers march by each morning when I look out the window of my apartment." The Austrians, says Irving disdainfully, are merely jealous of the British monarchy.

How does he expect his upcoming trial to turn out? "I would be less confident," says Irving innocently, "if I didn't know that the world's intellectuals are on my side." He says that he has already received "many letters of support."

A few days later, in a Vienna coffeehouse, his attorney, Elmar Kresbach, opens his briefcase and pulls out a stack of letters he has received in recent weeks. Kresbach can only shake his head when he thinks about the bizarre material that's been clogging his mailbox ever since he became Irving's defense attorney. "He doesn't understand it himself," says the attorney, referring to his client, "and I believe that he too is becoming fed up with the crazies."

Back at the prison, Irving growls: "It's ridiculous that someone should go to prison for that." He says he is only responsible for his own books, and that his Hitler biography is even available in the prison library. It's a typical Irving maneuver: triumphantly, he presents a discovery, but without revealing the complete truth, thereby drawing attention away from the actual question. Shouldn't someone have to take responsibility for what he tells a willing public in stifling back rooms and auditoriums? It isn't Irving's books that landed him in prison, but his lectures -- sentences like this one, which he dictated to an Austrian reporter in 1989: "There were no gas chambers in Auschwitz. All witnesses who claim otherwise are psychiatric cases." Indeed, the Vienna public prosecutor's office plans to use tape recordings of some of Irving's appearances in Austria as part of its indictment.

The Irving case is bizarre. "Yes, we did have a book by Mr. Irving in our library," says prison warden Peter Prechtl, but adds that prison officials removed the book from circulation "for security reasons" as soon as they were made aware of it. It wasn't Irving's Hitler biography, but his book about the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Prechtl himself has no idea why the book should constitute a security risk.

Austrian Sensitivity

The Austrians' highly sensitive treatment of the brown Briton shows just how delicate the matter is in Austrian politics. After Irving discovered his books in the prison in Graz where he was being held previously and, as was reported in the press, autographed them for prison guards, Vienna officials wanted to play it safe. "Irving was dropped into their laps like a hot potato," says one insider, "and now they're not sure what to do with him."

The case ultimately exposes a certain irony: A Briton who expresses doubts about the Holocaust is arrested in a country that knows full well that it existed, but spent decades essentially ignoring it. In the past three decades, not a single Nazi war criminal has been sentenced in the Alpine republic, which once styled itself as "Hitler's first victim."

But, like any good Boy Scout, Irving is skilled at setting traps and playing games with the Austrian judiciary and his liberal adversaries -- precisely those who, in the name of freedom of expression, now feel the need to protest the imprisonment of a man whose views they deeply despise. "If you had told me, a few months ago, that I would be demanding David Irving's release one day," says Irving's sharpest critic, Deborah Lipstadt, "I would have called you insane."

But the Holocaust historian doesn't want to see Irving become a martyr in the name of freedom of speech. "I'm against censorship," she says, "no one stands to benefit from throwing this guy into prison." The price Lipstadt is paying for such liberalism? Germany's right-wing, extremist "National-Zeitung" recently quoted her in an article titled "Worldwide Protests against Irving's Arrest."

Shortly after his arrest, Irving announced, through his attorney, that he no longer questions the existence of the gas chambers in Auschwitz, claiming that newly-discovered documents have convinced him otherwise. One can practically see the smokescreen rising from Irving's cell and hear someone uttering the word "epiphany."

Irving's attorney, Elmar Kresbach, a confident and experienced criminal defender who usually represents murderers and Mafia gangs, will highlight his client's naiveté and reformation when he appears before an eleven-member panel of judges on February 20. Kresbach makes no secret of his conviction that "in a free society, it must be possible to be able to say something that is wrong and offensive without being criminally prosecuted."

But Kresbach also wants to prevent his egotistical client from using the trial as a soapbox. "He won't be saying much," says Kresbach, leaning back in his chair as if to emphasize his point. "This is an Austrian jury court and not some Holocaust discussion group."

Irving is playing a despicable game. The Austrians will make short work of him.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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