Where did David Irving go Wrong?

by Gord McFee

On doit des égards aux vivants; on ne doit aux morts que la vérité1
(We owe respect to the living; we owe only the truth to the dead)

It has been said that though God cannot alter the past, historians can... 2


It is hard to imagine a more damning indictment of a historian than the verdict pronounced against David Irving in Irving v. Lipstadt on April 12, 2000. In his decision, Mr Justice Charles Gray said:

In my view the Defendants have established that Irving has a political agenda. It is one which, it is legitimate to infer, disposes him, where he deems it necessary, to manipulate the historical record in order to make it conform with his political beliefs. 3

Irving was motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence. 4

This essay makes no attempt to assess the legal issues surrounding this case. I refer readers to the brilliant analyses by Yale Edeiken elsewhere on this website. It is noteworthy that Mr Edeiken's analysis was written before the verdict was pronounced, and it is clear that the legal holes in Mr Irving's case were gargantuan indeed. But complementing that is the result in respect of Mr Irving as a historian.

The reader is reminded that Mr Justice Gray made no finding in respect of the historicity of the Holocaust. Indeed, he said that is left to historians. As he put it:

But it is not for me to form, still less to express a judgement about what happened. That is a task for historians. It is important that those reading this judgment should bear well in mind the distinction between my judicial role in resolving the issues arising between these parties and the role of the historian seeking to provide an accurate narrative of past events. 5


Historians are obliged to deal with the past as it is, not as they wish it had been. Their task is to try to make sense of what has gone before, to take the myriad facts and events and to try to determine what they all mean. The better we understand our past, the better we might understand how we got to the present and, one hopes, the better we can prepare for -- better, prepare -- our future. That is why deliberate misstatements as to the past are reprehensible; they rob us of the opportunity to better ourselves. If historians were nothing more than chroniclers or researchers, then they would serve only a marginal purpose.

This is important. Historians have in their possession far more information than the average reader. It is highly unlikely that average readers will have the time or the means to verify the facts as the historian presents them. Hence, they will rely on the historian, assuming that the facts as presented are accurate. Of course, readers develop their own opinions on the meaning of the facts, but they have the right to assume that the facts as presented are true. Deviation from that robs the reader of the chance to arrive at the truth.

This mission of interpreting the past is one of the most important and fundamental that historians face. And it is one of the most difficult. Put most tritely: the historians are to interpret and explain what has gone before; they are not to alter what has gone before to fit that interpretation. This does not mean that historians do not have pre-existing ideas or theories when they begin their studies; of course they do. But it does mean that if the events of the past contradict the idea, then historians have no choice but to change their thinking. To do otherwise is intellectually and morally dishonest.

This can be very nuanced, so it is worthwhile to give an example or two. Thousands of biographies have been written about Adolf Hitler. They have ranged from very bad to very good and the scholarship has ranged from impressive to shoddy. Some of the authors were more sympathetic to Hitler than others. There is nothing wrong about that per se. But it is wrong to allow that sympathy for Hitler to result in the author falsifying the record or deliberately omitting information that is unflattering of Hitler, because the reader then gets a distorted picture. Misrepresenting the past is hardly a way to understand the present.

A spirited debate took place in the 1980s and 1990s amongst mainly German historians. They disagreed on whether Hitler was central to the Holocaust, and it was therefore the inexorable result of his antisemitic obsession, (the so-called "intentionalists"), or whether it was more a byproduct of the war and mainly the work of lower level functionaries, the so-called "functionalists." 6 What is important to remember is that they disagreed on the genesis of the Holocaust and Hitler's role in it. They did not try to claim that it never happened at all.


Shortly after Hitler assumed power in 1933, his government began the first series of measures against German Jews. As early as late March 1933, the first laws were passed excluding Jews from the civil service. The boycott of Jewish businesses began on April 1. Over time, Jews were excluded from virtually all walks of life in Nazi Germany: doctors, lawyers, teachers, all were forbidden to practice their livelihoods. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 forbade sexual relations between Germans and Jews, and prohibited Jews from employing German domestics under 45 years of age. In addition, they defined Jews, and mixed Jews (Mischlinge), and severely limited Jewish movement in the Reich.

This mistreatment reached its prewar nadir on the occasion of the so-called Reichkristallnacht on November 9-10, 1938. Following the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a Jew, the Reich government unleashed a wave of terror against the Jews that resulted in around 100 deaths, and the burning and desecration of thousands of synagogues throughout Germany. Its aftermath saw not only the imposition of a billion Mark fine against the Jews, but also many hundreds of Jews imprisoned in concentration camps, notably Dachau.

After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, many Jews fell into German hands. Although Jews had emigrated from Germany in large numbers after 1933, the Jewish population of Poland alone approached 3.5 million. The first steps undertaken were the establishment of ghettos (something Europe had not seen since the Middle Ages) where Jews were forced to live in appalling conditions. Many hundreds of thousands died of starvation and deprivation. The main ghettos were at Warsaw and Lublin, but there were many more. It was around this time that the marking of Jews with Star of David became obligatory; the patch was to be worn on the outside clothing.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union began on June 22, 1941. Already in March, directives issued by Hitler had foreseen "special tasks" for SS Chief Heinrich Himmler upon the commencement of the attack. 8 As it turned out, the "special tasks" were assigned to the Einsatzgruppen and consisted of shooting Jews wherever they could be found. In two waves of shootings in 1941 and 1942, it is estimated that at least 1.5 million Jews were shot or gassed in mobile gas vans.

Early in 1942, mass gassings of Jews began in the extermination camps. Most of the Polish Jews were killed in the Operation Reinhard camps of Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor,9 whereas the giant extermination center of Auschwitz-Birkenau killed Jews from Poland, Western Europe and Hungary. 10 It is estimated that at least 3 million Jews were gassed in these camps. 11 After a short lull in late 1943, gassings resumed in earnest in 1944 with the deportation of the Hungarian Jews. The killing finally stopped with the surrender of Germany in 1945.


O what a tangled web we weave,

When first we practice to deceive! 12

In a nutshell, Mr Irving's failings can be summarized in the following passage from the judgement:

In my opinion there is force in the opinion expressed by Evans13 that all Irving's historiographical "errors" converge, in the sense that they all tend to exonerate Hitler and to reflect Irving's partisanship for the Nazi leader. If indeed they were genuine errors or mistakes, one would not expect to find this consistency. I accept the Defendants' contention that this convergence is a cogent reason for supposing that the evidence has been deliberately slanted by Irving.14

Put another way, the court found that the theme pervading Irving's work was an unstinting attempt to paint Hitler in the best possible light in a variety of situations. It is not for this writer to speculate why that is, although there are strong indications that Mr Irving very much admires Hitler. Indeed, he may see himself as the carrier of Hitler's legacy, as he himself puts it:

Basically Hitler himself determined who should be his biographer. I know that since I found Hitler 's ear, nose, and throat doctor in Krefeld in early 1970,the man who treated Hitler after the assassination attempt of 20 July 1944,Dr.Erwin Giesing. I called on him in his practice. He had no time at that moment and I had to wait for half an hour for him. Already in the waiting room he gave me a file to read, about 500 typed pages. Can you imagine how one feels when one reads the diary of the doctor who treated Hitler after the assassination attempt? It begins on 23 July 1944. I ask him, why are you giving this to me, Herr Dr. Giesing? He answers me, read page 387.It 's about a conversation between Hitler and Giesing. The doctor writes that he had to treat Hitler for the pain in his ears. He writes, I asked the Führer if he knew that the Kaiser also once suffered from a similar ear pain. He nodded. I asked him if he had read that very good book about the Kaiser written by an Englishman 'A Mythical Creature of our Times ' . The Führer answered in the affirmative to this too. I said, actually the Kaiser came off very well. After all he was an Englishman. The Englishman managed to utilise the Kaiser 's hand-written papers. Hitler said, Herr Doctor Giesing, for two years now I too have also gone over to allowing protocols of my discussions to be taken down. Perhaps an Englishman will also come one day who wants to write an objective biography of me. It has to be an Englishman of the next generation. Because a representative of the present generation cannot write the truth about me and certainly won't want to either. It has to be an Englishman who knows the archives and who has mastered the German language. And that is why you are getting the diaries Mr Irving, the doctor said. 15

Mr Irving is by no means the first historian to write history with a certain viewpoint in mind and he will not be the last. Nor is he is the only historian who has attempted to write history to prove a predetermined theory or principle. Finally, he is one among many who has written in an attempt to revise history and as has been noted elsewhere on this website, to revise history, to give it new interpretations is an essential and praiseworthy aspect of the historian's trade.

Hence, departing from the view that Hitler was a man more to be admired than to be detested (whether or not one agrees with that assessment), Irving had two routes he could follow. One option was to reinterpret events in Hitler's life to demonstrate that his thesis was correct. That necessarily meant that he had to deal with the facts of Hitler's life as they were and attempt to cast them in a new and more favourable light. Or, he could manipulate events, facts, words and deeds to make Hitler look less malevolent than the facts indicated. Unfortunately for him, what he was up against was the fact, as virtually all historians have found, and as the evidence indicates, that there was precious little about Hitler that could be legitimately interpreted in this way. Hence, Irving, as the judgement indicates, chose the second option. As Professor Evans put it:

I was not prepared for the sheer depths of duplicity which I encountered in Irving 's treatment of the historical sources, nor for the way in which this dishonesty permeated his entire written and spoken output. [...] His numerous mistakes and egregious errors are not, therefore, due to mere ignorance or sloppiness; on the contrary, it is obvious that they are calculated and deliberate. That is precisely why they are so shocking. 16

Mr Justice Gray was scathing in his conclusion:

Mistakes and misconceptions such as these appear to me by their nature unlikely to have been innocent. They are more consistent with a willingness on Irving's part knowingly to misrepresent or manipulate or put a "spin" on the evidence so as to make it conform with his own preconceptions. In my judgment the nature of these misstatements and misjudgments by Irving is a further pointer towards the conclusion that he has deliberately skewed the evidence to bring it into line with his political beliefs. 17

Thus, the expert testimony and the judgement itself found that Mr Irving's actions were deliberate, knowing misrepresentation and manipulation of the historical record to make it conform (since it did not) with the viewpoint he was trying to get across.

Once Mr Irving had decided to go down his chosen road, there was no turning back. And of necessity the manipulations and distortions piled up one upon the other. As his political views became more and more sympathetic to those of Holocaust deniers, he was obliged to take the final step - to claim that the Holocaust had not occurred. From claiming that Hitler was unaware of the Holocaust until 194318 to claiming it was mainly the work of Goebbels, Himmler and Eichmann, he moved all the way to claiming that although there may have been some shootings and limited gassings, there was no concerted plan to exterminate Jewry and no gas chambers at Auschwitz.


(1) The Beer Hall Putsch

In his book Göring, Irving misrepresents Hitler as having tried to maintain order during the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. 19 He does this by employing unreliable sources that he knew were biased and by ignoring the available evidence that clearly shows that Hitler was the instigator of and prime agitator during the Putsch. None of the available expert analysis lends any credence at all to Irving's claim, 20 and the result is a portrayal of Hitler in a more favorable light than is deserved.

In Göring, Irving writes:

Meanwhile Hitler acted to maintain order. Learning that one Nazi squad had ransacked a kosher grocery store during the night, he sent for the ex-Army lieutenant who led the raid. "We took off our Nazi insignia first!" expostulated the officer; to no avail, as Hitler dismissed him from the party on the spot. "I shall see that no other nationalist unit allows you to join either!" Goring goggled at this exchange, as did a police sergeant who testified to it at the Hitler trial a few weeks later. 21

In actual fact, this is not what happened. Rather than discipline a follower for having ransacked a kosher grocery store during the night, as Irving's reference implies, the encounter occurred before the Putsch even began. In addition, Hitler was not concerned about the ransacking of the kosher grocery store, he was concerned that it might give his party a bad name. Finally, Irving accepted unreservedly at face value the testimony of a long-time Hitler loyalist, and where necessary embellished it so it would buttress his attempt to cast Hitler in a more positive light. 22 The judgement is unequivocal on this:

I am satisfied that in Goering and to a lesser extent in Hitler's War, Irving misrepresents Hitler's role in the putsch. The evidence does not support the claim that Hitler was seeking to maintain order. Irving embroiders the incident when the ex-Army lieutenant is disciplined in such a way as to present Hitler as having behaved responsibly. But the evidence of Hitler's role in the putsch suggests otherwise. Irving ought to have appreciated that Hofmann's allegiance to Hitler rendered his testimony untrustworthy. 23

(2) The Reichkristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass)

In his book Goebbels, Irving portrays Hitler as having played no role in the outbreak of the violence that accompanied the Reichkristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) of November 9-10, 1938, and as having reacted angrily once he found out what was going on. He also has Hitler ordering the violence to stop, and dressing down Goebbels and other senior Nazi officials for their activities.24 This is a particularly important issue because most observers agree that this pogrom marked a turning point in the Nazis treatment of the Jews and was an especially offensive display in the eyes of the rest of the world.

The facts are, as virtually every study of the event has shown, and as the surviving documentation makes clear, that Hitler was well aware of the activities planned for that evening, that he supported Goebbels in his unleashing of the violence (in fact, may well have suggested it to him), and that he did nothing to halt the activities. On the contrary, he spurred them on and even ordered the police to be pulled back and not to interfere. 25

Irving accomplishes this painting of Hitler in a more benign light than the evidence indicates in a variety of ways. First, he mistranslated a passage of Goebbels diary to have a phrase that said: "pull back the police" read: "hold back the police." 26 The result was that Hitler appeared to be saying that the police should observe the activities, but refrain from interfering whereas the actual passage means that the police were not to be there at all, that is, the violence against the Jews could continue unabated and uninterrupted by the police.

Second, Irving states that Hitler ordered an end to the violence during the night of November 9-10 when the available evidence indicates that he did nothing of the sort. As Mr Justice Gray puts it:

Irving's endeavour to cast sole blame for the pogrom onto Goebbels is at odds with the documentary evidence. Goebbels's diary entry for 9 November, the telegram sent by Muller at 23.55 that night and the message despatched by Bohmcker all suggest that Hitler knew and approved of the anti-Jewish demonstrations. Given the significance of the events of Kristallnacht, an objective historian would in my view dismiss the notion that Hitler was kept in ignorance until a relatively late stage. Yet Irving pays little attention to the evidence which implicates Hitler. He gives a misleading and partial account of Goebbels's diary entry. I cannot accept Irving's explanation for his omission to refer to Muller's telegram and Bohmcker's message, namely that they add little, for both lend support to the thesis that Hitler knew and approved of the violence. Irving also omits to refer to the statement contained in the report of the internal party enquiry into the events of Kristallnacht that Goebbels had claimed in his speech at the Old Town Hall that Hitler had been told of the burning of Jewish shops and synagogues and had decided that such spontaneous actions should continue.27

Third, Irving gives the impression that Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's right hand man, tried to end the violence through a telegram sent that night. In Irving's words:

What of Himmler and Hitler? Both were totally unaware of what Goebbels had done until the synagogue next to Munich's Four Seasons Hotel was set on fire around 1am. Heydrich, Himmler's national chief of police, was relaxing down in the hotel bar; he hurried up to Himmler's room, then telexed instructions to all police authorities to restore law and order, protect Jews and Jewish property and halt any ongoing incidents. 28

In fact, this is not what happened at all. What the telegram actually said was:

a) Only such measures may be taken as do not involve any endangering of German life or property (e.g. synagogue fires only if there is no danger of the fire spreading to the surrounding buildings),

b) The shops and dwellings of Jews may only be destroyed, not looted. The police are instructed to supervise the implementation of this order and to arrest looters.

c) Care is to be taken that non-Jewish shops in shopping streets are unconditionally secured against damage.

d) Foreign nationals may not be assaulted, even if they are Jews.29

As this makes clear, the police were only to interfere if there was looting (destroying was acceptable), and the instruction was the opposite of "protecting" Jewish property. Rather than halt any ongoing incidents, the police were instructed to "supervise the implementation of this order".

For all these reasons, the Judgement has harsh words for Irving's methodology as a historian:

Readers of the account in Goebbels of the events of 9 and 10 November 1938 were given by Irving to understand that Hitler bore no responsibility for the starting of the pogrom and that, once he learned of it, he reacted angrily and thereafter intervened to call a halt to the violence. I accept the evidence of Evans and Longerich that this picture seriously misrepresents the available contemporaneous evidence. 30

(3) Hitler and the Jews

In Hitler's War, Irving misrepresented Hitler's views on the Jews. As mentioned previously, he claims that Hitler was unaware of the extermination of the Jews until 1943. Irving makes a series of claims that Hitler attempted to help the Jews, that he once ordered "no liquidations" and so on, that are simply untrue. He accomplishes this by mistranslating words, glossing over inconvenient evidence, accepting uncritically any exculpatory evidence, and by misinterpreting or omitting documents. 31

One example of this is Hitler's attitude towards the Jews. Irving claims that although Hitler had been antisemitic for some time, he "lost interest" in his antisemitism once he assumed power in 1933.32 This statement is at odds with the available evidence. Hitler's participation in the Reichkristallnacht, described above, is one example. His personal role in ordering the proclamation of the antisemitic Nuremberg Laws, which deprived Jews of their citizenship and otherwise ostracised them from German society is another.33 And Hitler's famous speech of January 30, 1939 hardly sounds like the words of a man who has "lost interest" in antisemitism.

In my life I have often been a prophet and was generally laughed at. During my struggle for power it was mostly the Jewish people who laughed at my prophecies that I would some day assume the leadership of the state and thereby of the entire Volk and them, among many other things, achieve a solution of the Jewish problem. I believe that in the meantime the then resounding laughter of Jewry in Germany is now choking in their throats.

Today I will be a prophet again; if international Jewry within Europe and abroad should succeed once more in plunging the peoples into a world war, then the consequence will be not the Bolshevisation of the world and therewith a victory of Jewry, but on the contrary, the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe". 34

On Hitler's knowledge and role in the Final Solution, one quotation suffices. In the midst of the Einsatzgruppen shootings in 1941, Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller sent the following telegram, as noted by Peter Longerich:

In a radio telegram to the Einsatzgruppen on 2 August, Gestapo Chief Müller, who was responsible for the compilation of situational reports, ordered that "especially interesting illustrative material " should be sent to Berlin because "the Führer should be presented with continuous reports on the work of the Einsatzgruppen in the East from here ". 35

It is hard to believe that a man who had lost his antisemitism was so interested in situational reports on the killings of Jewish men, women and children while engaged in a war.

There are many other examples of this, and readers are referred to the Judgement and the expert reports for exhaustive analysis. The point here is that in each and every case, Irving in one way or another manipulated the evidence in a variety of ways to represent the events in which Hitler participated and Hitler's activities and views, as different than they really were. In every case, this resulted in the portrayal of Hitler in a more favourable light.


David Irving's failure as a legitimate historian is not that he departed with a preconceived notion, or that he tried to reinterpret the past in the light of that notion. The "intentionalist" versus "functionalist" debate described above is an example of historians doing precisely that. So is the controversy about the Munich agreement in 1938. 36 And there is a long list of other similar efforts. As stated previously, there is nothing wrong with this as long as the sources are used honestly, properly weighed and no significant sources altered, omitted or misrepresented.

That is not the case with Mr Irving as the court found in unequivocal terms. 37 Where it served his purposes, he misrepresented evidence, mistranslated words and documents, omitted key evidence that disputed his interpretations, included evidence uncritically from biased sources without properly assessing it against other evidence where it supported his interpretations. Hence, his failure is not rooted in his viewpoint, or his amassing of the facts, but rather in the method he employed to buttress his viewpoint.

The historian must above all present the truth. What Irving was found to have done violates that most fundamental principle, and thereby, he forfeited his claim as a legitimate historian. The importance of this lay in the fact that the average reader, as previously stated, does not possess the time or the means to get to the bottom of these things and must therefore rely on the integrity of the historian. In Mr Irving's case, as it turned out, readers would have been seriously misled.

David Irving lost his libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt for a variety of legal and historical reasons. But the seeds for that loss were sown long before, when he decided to manipulate history to make it conform with the facts as he wanted them to have been. Rather than reinterpret the past, Mr Irving attempted to reinvent it.

Professor Lipstadt said of Irving:

Familiar with historical evidence, he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda. A man who is convinced that Britain's great decline was accelerated by its decision to go to war with Germany, he is most facile at taking accurate information and shaping it to confirm his conclusions.38

Because the historicity of the Holocaust was a proven fact, Mr Irving's work could not withstand the scrutiny to which it was of necessity subjected. In order to defend her words, Professor Lipstadt was obliged to prove they were true. And on the historical evidence, she did.


  1. Voltaire, Oeuvres (1785), vol.I, p.15n.

  2. Samuel Butler, Erewhon Revisited, ch.14

  3. Judgement, section 13.162

  4. Judgement, section 13.163

  5. Judgement, section 1.31

  6. See the brilliant analysis in Michael Marrus, The Holocaust in History, Key Porter Books, Toronto, 2000, pages 34-46

  7. There are many sources for this information. Readers are referred to Hilberg's Destruction of the European Jews, especially Volume 1, chapters V and VI, and Volume 2 and Buchheim et al, Anatomie des SS-Staates, Judenverfolgung, pages 569-591.

  8. Directive 21 for the Conduct of the War, March 13, 1941, quoted in Hitlers Weisungen für die Kriegführung, page 102.

  9. See Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps

  10. See Deborah Dwork, Robert Jan van Pelt, Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present

  11. Hilberg, Destruction of the European Jews, Appendix.

  12. Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, Ch. VI, xvii

  13. Professor Richard Evans, who submitted an expert report on behalf of the defence.

  14. Judgement, section 13.142

  15. Evans Report, section 4.1.18. The source is give as Hitler Heute (a book by Irving).

  16. Evans Report, section 1.6.2

  17. Judgement, section 13.144

  18. David Irving, Hitler's War (1978)

  19. Judgement, section 13.12

  20. See Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, pages 200-219; Richard Hanser, Putsch, passim, John Dornberg, Munich 1923

  21. Göring, page 59

  22. Judgement, sections 5.20-5.28.

  23. Judgement, section 13.12

  24. David Irving, Goebbels, chapter 32, pages 488-503.

  25. Evans Report., section 4.3 (c )

  26. Evans Report, section 4.3 (c ) (ii) (a)

  27. Judgement, section 13.16

  28. David Irving, Goebbels, page 276

  29. ND 3051-PS

  30. Judgement, section 13.15

  31. Judgement, section 13.31

  32. Judgement, section 6.3

  33. For a thorough treatment and the text, see Yitzhak Arad, et al, Documents on the Holocaust, University of Nebraska Press, 1999, pages 77-87

  34. Documents on the Holocaust, pages 134-135

  35. Lonegrich Report, section 15.6

  36. Cf. J.W. Wheeler-Bennett, Munich and AJP Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War, pages 190-232 for two completely contradictory, yet legitimate viewpoints.

  37. Judgement, sections 13.162-163

  38. Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, page 181