Book review

Lying about Hitler

  • Lying about Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial, by Richard J. Evans. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Hardcover. 318 pp.

Review by Samuel Crowell

Doubtless one of the more memorable episodes from last year's libel trial of David Irving v. Deborah Lipstadt was the lengthy clash between Irving, acting as his own attorney, and expert witness Richard Evans, the British historian, who had submitted an eight hundred-page assault on Irving's character and historical career. For eight days, Irving poked holes in Evans's arguments and tried to get Evans to support his positions ex tempore, while Evans, hands thrust deep in pockets, refused to meet Irving's gaze and read out long and stultifying passages from his report.

The present book is essentially Evans's memoir of the trial, accompanied by a condensed version of his expert report in support of Lipstadt, and his observations on the trial's aftermath. The trial, it will be remembered, hinged on Irving's claim that Deborah Lipstadt had libeled him in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust, a book that was bankrolled by the Jerusalem-based Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study of Antisemitism. To bolster her defense, Lipstadt's supporters, including Schindler's List director Steven Spielberg, hired several historians to write reports that argued that Lipstadt's criticisms of Irving were justified. Some of the reports were professionally done and seemed objective, as for example the expert opinion of Christopher Browning, though most revisionists would disagree with his conclusions. On the other hand, the reports of Robert Jan Van Pelt and, in particular, Evans himself were so heavily interlarded with condemnations of David Irving it was difficult to separate legitimate historical analysis from gratuitous attacks.

Lying about Hitler suffers from the same problem. While this book is somewhat milder in tone than Evans's vociferous expert report, nevertheless the seeming compulsiveness with which Evans appears obliged to accuse David Irving of falsifying and manipulating documents gets in the way of whatever historical value this book may have.

The book comprises seven chapters. The first describes Evans's introduction to the Irving suit, the next two discuss Adolf Hitler's role in the "Final Solution," a further chapter discusses Irving as a "Holocaust denier," while a fifth considers the bombing of Dresden, the subject of Irving's first book. Two further chapters discuss Evans's testimony and post-trial perspectives. Of most direct interest to revisionists is the chapter entitled "Irving and Holocaust denial," in which, oddly enough, the kinder and gentler Richard Evans is most apparent.

For the most part Evans gives a fair treatment to revisionists, describing the writings of Paul Rassinier, Arthur Butz, Wilhelm St├Ąglich, and Robert Faurisson more or less accurately and with no evident malice. Evans avoids, for example, the rather silly name calling that mars Peter Novick's Holocaust in American Life. Nor does Evans rush to judgment in assessing the motives of revisionists: for example, Evans sees Rassinier's motives rooted not in anti-Semitism but in his actual experiences in the camps. This generally fair beginning breaks down rather quickly, however, for two reasons. First, because Evans is out to prove that David Irving is a "Holocaust denier"; second, because Evans is clearly out of his depth when discussing the Holocaust in any detail.

Evans tends to focus on such things as Irving's comments about the number of victims, or his ridicule of some claims. Armed with excerpts from Irving's videotaped speeches, Evans goes on to argue Irving's status as a "denier." Yet Evans' standards of what constitutes denial constantly change. On the one hand, Evans stipulates that it is "denial" to claim a wartime Jewish death toll in the hundreds of thousands, but while Irving at one point conjectured a death toll between one and four million, that doesn't count, because many of these deaths were attributed to disease. Nor is Evans above pure ad hominem arguments: a lengthy section in this chapter consists of nothing more than detailing Irving's relationship with the Institute for Historical Review, which is also smeared.

On the subject of gassing, Evans is particularly weak. He claims that there is documentary evidence for gassing at the extermination camps of Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, thus contradicting Christopher Browning's expert report, which explicitly discusses the absence of such documentation, as well as Van Pelt's report, which references only a few ambiguous documents. Beyond this point, Evans simply repeats the standard anti-revisionist lore: how the Leuchter report has been "discredited," how much more Zyklon was needed to kill bugs rather than humans, and so on.

Evans' sole independent speculation on the subject of gassing falls completely flat. At one point, he tries to argue that the spurious "gas chamber" at Dachau is a non-issue for the general credibility of the gassing claim because "not even Irving claimed that the evidence presented at Nuremberg said that the gas chamber at Dachau ever actually came into use" (p. 124). In his footnote, Evans argues that "only one witness at Nuremberg claimed to have seen bodies in the [Dachau] gas chambers: they may have been moved there temporarily from the adjacent crematorium, which was used for executions," and quotes from what is apparently the Dachau tourist brochure (p. 286). Bearing in mind the actual content of Nuremberg witness Dr. Franz Blaha's justly famous affidavit, in which he claimed to have examined gassing victims, two or three of them still stirring, in the Dachau gas chamber (Trial of the Major War Criminals, Nuremberg: 1947, vol. 5, pp. 172-173), we conclude that Professor Evans is indeed qualified to discourse on the falsification and/or manipulation of historical documents, if only on the basis of personal experience.

There are many gaps in Evans's treatment of the gassing claim, particularly for Auschwitz. For example, except for a brief glancing reference in the conclusion, there is no discussion at all of the missing holes in the roof of the Crematorium II "gas chamber," without which any gassing in conformance with all received accounts would have been impossible. Nor does Evans bother to discuss the gastight air raid-shelter interpretation of the crematorium basements, even though it was an important part of Irving's defense, and even though it was discussed by all the relevant parties to the case. This leads to the most mysterious gap of all, the virtual non-existence of Professor Robert Jan Van Pelt in this book. In fact, Van Pelt is reduced to only one substantive mention, when he supposedly counseled Evans not to look Irving in the eye, because "[I]t'll just make you angry" (p. 199). Thus the expert who was the most highly paid, who covered the camp where the most people were supposedly gassed, and whose expert report most nearly rivaled Evans's in sheer bulk, is mentioned solely in connection with explaining away Evans's rude behavior in the dock.

Toward the end of the book, Evans shifts his sights away from Irving to those who defended him, both before, during, and after the adverse judgment. Here Evans drops his new-found civility and goes after any and all who have had the temerity to praise Irving, or to minimize his errors. This part of the book is amusing, if only when one reflects on the amount of spite and cheek needed to sustain these argumentative assaults on the likes of Sir John Keegan and several others. Donald Cameron Watt, another distinguished British historian, and much Evans' senior, comes in for particularly rough treatment, with several ambushes in the endnotes.

On the whole, the book contributes little that is new or interesting to anyone who followed the Irving trial with any degree of attention. It is obvious that Richard Evans has an animus against David Irving, but such animus could not sustain his expert report nor does it sustain this much shorter book. Furthermore, the title, Lying about Hitler, is a false indication of the book's scope: it is not about Hitler at all, but rather David Irving. Perhaps "Lying about David Irving" would be a better indication of the book's contents.

From The Journal of Historical Review, January/February 2001 (Vol. 20, No. 1), page 47.

About the author

Samuel Crowell is the pen name of an American writer who describes himself as a "moderate revisionist." At the University of California (Berkeley) he studied philosophy, foreign languages (including German, Polish, Russian, and Hungarian), and history, including Russian, German,and German-Jewish history. He continued his study of history at Columbia University. For six years he worked as a college teacher. Crowell's lengthy essay, "Wartime Germany's Anti-Gas Air Raid Shelters," was published in the July-August 1999 Journal, pp. 7-30.