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David Irving: a study in incompetency and dishonesty

by Eugene Holman

In this brief soundoff I would like to address the issue of David Irving's problems as an historian being the result of incompetency and dishonesty. In particular, I would like to consider some recent remarks he made after recently (December 2006) returning to London concerning his present views on the issue of gas chambers at Auschwitz. I hope to demonstrate that what David Irving calls "real history" is actually mixture of incompetency and dishonesty, spiced up with a generous portion of one-upmanship.

Ever since the 32-page report submitted to Jewish officials in Slovakia by Auschwitz escapees Rudolf Vrba and Alfrëd Wetzler in April 1944, the world has been aware that horrible things were going on at the Auschwitz multifunctional concentration, forced labor, and extermination camp, then in German Upper Silesia. The horrors assumed a more concrete form when the camp was liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945. The camp presented a shocking scene: thousands of dead bodies, thousands more detainees in the infirmary, and the gas chambers and crematoria, although mostly in ruins, still bearing fresh evidence of what they had recently been used for.

Surviving personnel and detainees provided eye-witness testimony of what they had done or experienced. Enough of the machinery of death survived for a rough preliminary estimate of how many victims had been killed there to be made on the basis of calculations based on throughput. Subsequently, forensic examinations conducted on the ventilating system and other structures tested positive for exposure to cyanide, corroborating the testimony of witnesses. The vast amount of testimonial and documentary material obtained about the complex was used as evidence at the trial of Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the RSHA, in 1946 at Nuremberg, in 1947 at Cracow, and running from December 20, 1963 until August 10, 1965 at Frankfurt-am-Main.

David Irving began his career as a writer of books dealing with various, usually neglected or sensational, aspects of the history of World War II in the early sixties. In books such as Hitler's War, the first edition of which appeared in 1977, he had no difficulty accepting the view of Auschwitz that most historians accept, based on a combination of eyewitness, documentary, forensic, and architectural evidence. Reference is made to the Auschwitz gas chambers several times in the text as well as in the footnotes. Although Hitler's War contains some controversial interpretations of other evidence, Irving's understanding of the Auschwitz gas chambers is well within the limits set by the evidence and the additional testimony given at the trials in Germany and Poland. Otherwise, as David Irving’s output increased, his perspective tended to veer towards presenting his material with increasing understanding for the German point of view, sometimes to the point that voices began to be heard that he was becoming an apologist for Nazi Germany and its regime. This notwithstanding, David Irving, who was enjoying considerable success as an author of books regarded as history by the reading public, despite his lack of specialist training or a degree in history or any other field, did not go so far as to express sympathy for extremist views, specifically Holocaust denial, in his writings.

By 1988 David Irving had found himself in a quandary. On the one hand, he seemed to want to continue being taken seriously as an historian. On the other, he felt more strongly attracted to the radical right, particularly to Holocaust denial, which seemed to be undergoing a transformation from the preserve of a few people regarded as crackpots to one which had assumed a veneer of respectability, with seemingly scholarly publications, scientific conferences, and a scholarly journal. The first edition of Hitler's War, contains the following footnote: "I cannot accept the view... [that] there exists no document signed by Hitler, Himmler or Heydrich speaking of the extermination of the Jews." He began lecturing to groups such as the extreme right-wing German Deutsche Volksunion. His message was increasingly radical, including public denial of the the Nazi genocide, in violation of German and Austrian law severly constraining such public discourse.

The year 1988 also saw David Irving establish associations with dedicated Holocaust deniers such as Ernst Zündel and Robert Faurisson. In conjunction with Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel's trial in Toronto, David Irving uncritically accepted the findings of Fred Leuchter, an American execution technologist who had been paid by Zündel to go to Poland and carry out forensic examinations on the ruins of the Auschwitz gas chambers. Although 14 of the 31 samples taken by Leuchter and then brought back to the United Staes and tested by an independent laboratory tested positive for cyanide compounds, even after more than forty years of exposure to the elements, Leuchter's conclusion was that the structures from which they had been taken did not satisfy the minimum architectural prerequisites for a gas chamber and showed no traces of the engineering safety features that are such prominent attributes of American penal gas chambers. Thus, Leuchter concluded, the undeniable traces indicating previous exposure to cyanide that he found in close to half of his samples did not indicate that the structures in question had served as facilities for homicidal gassing. Summarily rejecting all of the testimonial, architectural, or forensic evidence that had been collected and analyzed since 1945, Leuchter claimed that the undeniable traces of cyanide found in 14 of his 31 samples were the consequences of routine but undocumented fumigations. He concluded that his analysis proved that there had been no gas chambers at Auschwitz. His associates, Ernst Zündel and Robert Faurisson, went one step further: they claimed that the absence of gas chambers at Auschwitz proved that no gassings had taken place at any Nazi concentration camp, and that, this being so, the Holocaust had never occurred. David Irving, uncritically accepting this astounding conclusion, indicated his changed views by removing all references to gas chambers from the next edition of his Hitler's War.

David Irving has subsequently distanced himself from the Leuchter Report. He has admitted that he was so impressed by it that he accepted it uncritically, without subjecting its conclusions to any analysis. Had he done so, he would have understood that it takes far higher concentrations of, and exposure to, cyanide to kill vermin than it does to kill humans, that the fumigation chamber from which Leuchter took a single "control" sample showing a reading more than 100 times the highest reading in his sample had a totally different history of exposure to cyanide, of post exposure maintenance, and of exposure to the elements after the camp was liberated, and that Zyklon-B was specifically designed to allow cyanide to be used for vermin control in ordinarily constructed rooms, buildings, train cars, and even tents by competent exterminators. Indeed, when he arrived at London after being released from his confinement in an Austrian prison, David Irving made the following statement:

On Auschwitz I was mistaken. I said that there were no gas chambers, although that was strictly true because I later discovered evidence that they were in fact just outside the camp.

This brings me to the meat and potatoes of my soundoff.

No historian worthy of the name has ever changed his views on Auschwitz so radically as David Irving. His view on the issue was quite standard until 1988, then he did an about-face on the basis of an amateurish forensic study that he never even read critically. At his trial in London in 2000 evidence was produced that he had quickly been shown by people who know the chemistry better than he does that the Leuchter Report is seriously flawed and not credible, even though he continued to maintain his faith in it in public. But the ultimate example of duplicitous chutzpah appears in the passage above. Irving tries to show that he is indeed a historian making serious discoveries overlooked by everyone because the gas chambers were not at Auschwitz, but rather just outside the camp. Indeed, if you sipulate a definition of Auschwitz as the area at the original and main camp, Auschwitz-Stammlager, delimited by the barbed-wire fence, then David Irving has indeed made an important historical revelation: Krema I is just outside of Auschwitz-Stammlager, and Kremas II, III, IV, and V are a few kilometers away at an extension of the camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Thus it has taken David Irving more than forty years to make this sensational discovery, even though everyone else learns it when first making acquaintance with the Auschwitz physical plant. Irving's "real history" is evidently a pseudo- intellectual construct that takes many years to build and which is as torturous as it is self-aggrandizing for its sole practioner: David Irving. It is semantic shenanigans and puerile obfuscation such as this that caused Deborah Lipstadt, justifiably as adjucated by two levels of British justice, to accuse David Irving of being something other than a serious historian.

Eugene Holman is a lecturer at the University of Helsinki in Finland. This year, he is teaching: Translation from Finnish and Swedish to English I, II and III, linguistics tutorial, proseminar ("The Holocaust in history, pseudohistory, and fiction", "A Linguistic Introduction to Old English", "The Contrastive Typology of English and Finnish"), Intermediate Options "Sociolinguistics", "American English" and "Intonation".

The article above is reproduced with his permission.


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