On Truth & the Role of the Historian

Dylan Howarth

The truth is that [Mr Irving] is not an historian at all but a falsifier of history’ (Richard Rampton, QC)

In 2000, David Irving, after having taken Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books UK to court, claiming that her book Denying the Holocaust was libelous and had damaged his reputation, was found by Mr. Justice Charles Gray to have deformed facts to serve his own political beliefs. Richard Rampton, Deborah Lipstadt’s lawyer, had said that Irving was ‘not an historian at all but a falsifier of history’. While some may maintain that Irving’s works prior to Hitler’s War had merit as well-written and -researched military history, I believe (in agreement with Richard Rampton and Richard Evans) that Irving, by lying about the Holocaust, had gone against one of the most fundamental obligations of the historian: to tell the truth (based on discernable factual data). By doing so, Irving had stripped himself of the title of historian and become a fully-fledged Holocaust denier and anti-historian.

While the study of history is first and foremost an end in itself, a cultivation of the soul for its own sake, it is important to be reminded that this imaginative and scientific exercise has a moral worth for an audience wider than the historian community, as Thomas Frederick Tout noted. First of all, we must distinguish between natural duties and (artificial) obligations, two important Rawlsian concepts. The first of these are the duties that arise out of living in a society without regard to our voluntary acts. They are distinguished from obligations, moral constraints that one has voluntarily adopted. Natural duties apply to everyone while obligations usually arise out of voluntary acts, such as making a promise. Historians’ ethical responsibilities are of the latter kind. Rawls’ theory of justice also helps us understand when certain obligations are to be assumed and how these are not necessarily overruled by duties (for example, a judge has the obligation to apply the law even if this is in conflict with certain of his moral beliefs).  To voluntarily enter into a particular job or position means to also adopt the duties associated with that said position. Historians therefore have obligations that specifically apply to their profession. What are the Historian’s moral responsibilities? And to whom does he or she owe them? Such questions also relate to the definition of what an historian is and what an historian is for. To summarise the UK’s Higher Education Quality Assurance Agency’s 8500 benchmark, historical knowledge is of great value as it helps us gain awareness of the development of human societies and values and is key to the “inculcation of critical yet tolerant personal values”. Historians are thus important as they have possibility to contribute to the development of historical knowledge and help others understand it or have access to it, be it through scholarly mediums or entertainment. This is not to say that only historians do history, however. Everyone does history, in a way, by thinking about the past. Yet, historians, through the very nature of their position, have the potential to educate, raise awareness and promote greater objectivity of history. Historical knowledge being central to this, the historian has the obligation to try to find tenable conclusions (what I would call the truth, or truths). The historian’s audience has a right to be given tenable conclusions, meaning that historians thus owe this truth to their audience. Historical knowledge should be independent of political uses, however, the emotional pull attached to it means that historical knowledge is never fully independent from morality and politics. Nevertheless, as Richard Evans has rightly noted, “when we allow our appropriation and representation of the sources to be framed by a knowledge or estimation of these political and legal consequences, then we are no longer acting as historians”. Historians must therefore be self-critical and self-aware to ensure that these political and legal consequences do not affect the objectivity with which one must approach a topic of historical analysis. History is concerned with the contents of sources and not their nature. This means that despite the constraints of political and moral beliefs and literary models (this was the focus of the Postmodernist critique of history), a careful and rigorous reconstruction of the past can yield an interpretation that may not be entirely ‘objective’ but will still be ‘true’. As Thomas Haskell has pointed out, it is important not to confuse objectivity with neutrality. The study of history requires detachment, the capability for self-criticism and ability to understand others’ points of view. In this, postmodernism helped historians understand and rethink the assumptions that they work with. The need to make the past meaningful is important and is a part of life as a society, as has noted Jonathan Gorman. The understanding of the past is valuable, whether postmodern or not. Ultimately, as Gorman has written, “Being a historian is essentially a matter of searching for historical knowledge as part of an obligation voluntarily undertaken to give truth to those who have a right to it. Factual knowledge and judgments of value are both required, whatever philosophical view we might have of the possibility of a principled distinction between them”. While Evans may believe that historians are not trained to make moral judgments, morality is shared by the whole of society. Historians therefore have an obligation to analyse and (when necessary) judge past events in order to provide the historical knowledge and truths that are rightly expected from them.

A great number of Irving’s beliefs, claims and writings contain many historical falsifications that must be examined in order to support the claim that Irving is an anti-historian. First of all, Irving based part of his defense regarding the supposed falsification of the holocaust on a report by Fred Leuchter (The English publication of which he wrote the foreword for) which stated that the traces of Zyklon B found on the walls and floor of the remains of the gas chambers were insufficient to kill humans, meaning that those facilities had been used as delousing chambers instead. As pointed out by Robert Jan Van Pelt and Richard Rampton, this is fundamentally wrong. Evidence (which is, incidentally, even contained in the Leuchter report), indicates that the quantity of hydrogen cyanide (Zyklon B) needed to kill human beings is 22 times lower than that required to kill lice. Additionally, the fact that the doors for the gas chamber at crematorium 1 at Birkenau were gas tight and equipped with glass spyholes protected by metal grilles defies the notion that these were delousing chambers. Irving also went on to claim that these were in fact air raid shelters. Not only could these facilities not be used to house the inmate population of around 100 000, they were too far from the SS barracks (these were located about a mile and a half away from the crematoria) to make them in any way effective as air raid shelters. This interpretation also contradicts that of the crematoria being delousing facilities. While conceding that Leichenkeller 1 was used as a gas chamber (for delousing), Irving also claimed that there were no holes on the roof through which the pellets would be thrown. While examination of the fragmentary remains of the roofs of the crematoria does not allow us to prove the existence of these holes, how then were these pellets to be inserted if there were no windows and only a gas tight door? Not only are there lots of eyewitness testimonies as to the existence of these, the drawing done in 1945 of Leichenkeller 1 by inmate David Olere and aerial photographs taken by the allies in 1944 (not released until 1979) both clearly showed the zigzag alignment of the gassing columns of Leichenkeller 1 with apertures where the gas pellets would have been inserted. Not only did Irving’s interpretation ignore the blatant mistakes of the Leuchter report, he was unwilling to accept a strong, varied body of evidence that points to the gas chambers being used for the extermination of human beings. Why did Irving accept the report with such enthusiasm, if not because he wanted it to be true?

In the introduction of Hitler’s War, Irving claimed that one of Himmler’s notes from the 30th of November 1941 proved that Hitler had ordered that the Jews not be killed. The incident in question that was referred to in the notes concerned a transport of German Jews being sent to Riga. Himmler had apparently called both Heydrich and SS general Oswald Pohl with the order that the Jews were not to be liquidated, in his words (according to Irving), that the “Jews are to stay where they are”. The relevant part of the note in question read “Judentransport aus Berlin, Keine Liquiedirung”, the meaning of which is “Jew transport from Berlin, do not liquidate”. Far from being an order not to exterminate the Jews, this order simply states that that particular transport was not be liquidated. Not only this, but the order was given to Heydrich by Himmler, Himmler only meeting Hitler an hour after the phone call. The next day, Himmler called Pohl to tell him that the “Jews are to stay where they are” (accoding to Irving’s interpretation). In fact, the note for the telephone call stated that “Verwaltungsführer des SS haben zu bleiben”, the meaning of which is “The administrative leaders of the SS are to stay where they are” (there was no mention of Jews in the log). The thing is, Irving speaks German fluently. For someone with such a good grasp of the German language, such a mistake seems quite implausible. In fact, in the 1991 edition of Hitler’s War, Irving decided to keep the translation and interpretation of the sentence as: “Jews are to stay where they are”. These are not innocent mistakes. They are clearly manipulations of evidence intended at giving these sources a far different meaning than the one that they actually have.

These are only a couple examples out of many that may be found in Irving’s writings and speeches. During the trial, Irving was found to have falsified and distorted evidence 19 times, a shockingly high number for someone who would consider himself to be an objective historian with a wide knowledge of the subject and sources. These were not simple mistakes. These were clearly motivated by ideology. Historians are humans too. They too are prone to making mistakes and misread evidence at times. However, in the case of Irving, all of these ‘mistakes’ ended up depicting Hitler in a favourable light, as Mr. Justice Charles Gray told the court at the end of the trial. Not once did any of his errors (out of the 19 counts) have the opposite effect. These ‘mistakes’ were thus very unlikely to have been innocent. In fact, they fit perfectly with Irving’s political beliefs. David Irving is a Holocaust denier. Holocaust denial has several definitions (Richard Evans identified four main points which I will myself use). The first of these is a belief that Jews were not killed in gas chambers or at least not on a significant scale. The second is the belief that the Nazis did not have a program and system for the extermination of European Jews and that deaths were only the result of unauthorised individual excesses. The third is a belief that the death toll did not run in to the millions and was in fact quite low. The final is a belief that the Holocaust was a fabrication of the allies sustained by the Jews to achieve the creation of the Israeli state. David Irving’s thoughts on the subject meet all of the above criteria. It is therefore fair to say that he is a holocaust denier. Irivng’s political views are well known. He is a racist, an anti-Semite and has on many occasions associated himself with militant neo-nazis and right wing extremists (including most famously Oswald Mosley).  In 1991, in front of an audience in Calgary, Canada, Irving stated: “I don't see any reason to be tasteful about Auschwitz. It's baloney. It's a legend. Once we admit the fact that it was a brutal slave labour camp and large numbers of people did die, as large numbers of innocent people died elsewhere in the war, why believe the rest of the baloney? I say quite tastelessly in fact that more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz. Oh, you think that's tasteless. How about this. There are so many Auschwitz survivors going around, in fact the number increases as the years go past which is biologically very odd to say the least, because I am going to form an Association of Auschwitz survivors, survivors of the Holocaust and other liars for the A-S-S-H-O-L-S". This crass and deeply repulsive comment speaks for itself. It clearly shows that Irving had, and still has, no desire to approach the subject from an objective standpoint. Rather, he resorts to insulting and blaming Holocaust victims. This is in no way the behaviour that an historian should have, especially in the public domain. While Irving has these beliefs, it is the fact that these are brought out in wholly inappropriate situations and that he lets these beliefs dictate his work and handling of the sources that shows that he does not have the proper conduct that an proper historian should have. Moreover, Irving has claimed that the Leuchter report was his means to “sink Battleship Auschwitz”. This clearly shows a will to use ‘evidence’ to support a political aim. His speeches and writings are deeply anti-Jewish and show a distinctly pro-Nazi stance. As Mr. Justice Charles Gray explained, Irving’s assertions are unfounded and always exonerate the Nazis for their appalling crimes. Irving has a political agenda and has clearly manipulated and fabricated evidence in order to conform to and push his political beliefs. Nor did Irving state when he speculated, instead claiming these speculations to be established facts. It must also be mentioned that Irving, like most Holocaust deniers, completely disregarded the testimonies of the victims, giving attention only to those of the perpetrators. This is wrong and not the behaviour of an historian. Survivor’s accounts (such as those by Primo Levi, Eli Wiesel, Jean Améry and Tad Borowski) are valuable sources that are uniquely powerful given that they are consistent in their portrayal and precise in their observation the Holocaust. Irving also challenged the authenticity of various documents when there was no reason to do so, only because they did not fit with his thesis. Irving had thus, in doing all of this, departed from the normal standards of objective historical analysis, research and writing, and had consistently ignored, disregarded and gone against the obligations that the historian willingly adopts upon choosing to become so. I wish to add that, far from learning from the verdict and the whole trial, Irving went on to call the verdict ‘perverse’, insulted the Judge by saying that he’d “overestimated the judge’s ability to grasp the intricacies of the German documents” and claimed that he was the target of a Jewish conspiracy. No self-respecting historian would ever resort to such pitiful tactics to attempt to save the scraps of a dignity that was stripped by none other than him or herself. To say it clearly, David Irving is not an historian.

While it may seem unfair that I have not defended Irving’s other military history works, I do not believe that I have to do so. Irving had clearly not respected his obligations as an historian since at least 1977. Past actions do not deny accountability for or justify future ones. Not only has Irving deformed historical knowledge of his own free will (and must therefore be held accountable for it), his previous work as a military historian is not the subject of what is being examined here. I therefore feel that it is perfectly normal for me to ignore his previous work, as to do otherwise would be to deviate from the subject whilst simultaneously trying to give Irving credit on a matter where it is in no way due.

David Irving is, in the words of Richard Rampton, ‘a falsifier of history’. His writings and speeches since the late seventies have consistently deformed evidence found in numerous sources in an attempt to, firstly, exonerate Hitler of the Holocaust, and then also deny that the Holocaust ever took place. By lying in order to justify his political, anti-Semitic and racist beliefs, and by letting these beliefs guide the use of sources, Irving has totally discredited himself as an historian. To put it bluntly, while he may have been an historian at one point, he no longer deserves the title. David Irving has again and again disregarded and gone against the obligations that historians must adhere to. Not only is Irving a liar, he is a harmful and dangerous one. As Jonathan Petropoulos has well explained, Holocaust deniers of the stature of Irving are in certain ways more dangerous than simple neo-Nazis. Indeed, these people can advance their cause with incredible skill and give these ideas a scholarly backing that can easily impress and sometimes convince those that are not professional historians. While some may believe Holocaust deniers should not be debated with as it will give legitimacy and dignity to their views and arguments (this was the position previously adopted by Deborah Lipstadt, and, as Richard Evans tried to claim, “a geography professor, after all, does not waste time debating with people who think the earth is flat”), I do not think that this is right. It is important to debate with Holocaust deniers such as Irving and Robert Faurisson. It is important not to be afraid of them, to take them on fairly and honestly, and to intellectually beat them in order to show others just how wrong and unfounded their beliefs are. To do so is to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and to ensure that the moral and historical truths concerning this darkest period of human history are preserved and not damaged and tainted by the ignorance, hatred and malevolence of a minority.


•Evans, Richard, Telling Lies About Hitler: History, the Holocaust and the David Irving Trial, (2002), 233-272.

•Evans, Richard, ‘History, Memory and the Law: The Historian as Expert Witness’, History and Theory, 41,3, (2002), 326-345.

•Evans, Richard, In the Defence of History, (2000), 224-253.

•Gorman, Jonathan, ‘Historians and Their Duties’, History and Theory, 43, 4, (2004), 103-117.

•Greenawalt, Kent, ‘The Natural Duty to Obey the Law’, Michigan Law Review, 84,1 (1985), 1-62.

•Petropoulos, Jonathan, ‘Confronting the «Holocaust as Hoax» Phenomenon as Teachers’, The History Teacher, 28, 4, (1995), 523-539.

• Emory University’s website transcripts of the Irving v Lipstadt trial: http://www.hdot.org/en/trial/transcripts/index.html.

Dylan Howarth

Dylan holds a BA in History from King's College London and an MA in Medieval and Viking History from the University of Oslo. He currently works at the Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen (the Stasi Prison Museum) in Berlin. In a previous life, he trained with the Belgian Kendo National Team, and in his spare time, he collects ancient coins.

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