'Britain's most disliked historian' Irving: David Irving has been called "Hitler's PR man" for his revisionist accounts of the Third Reich. An interview with the British historian leaves one alternately mesmerized and outraged.

Sun Journal

June 17, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- David Irving may now be the world's most reviled historian.

Banned from Germany and pilloried in the United States, the British-born Irving remains unrepentant. He clings to a revisionist view of the Third Reich that has earned him scorn as a "a Nazi apologist" and "Hitler's PR man."

"I've been called Britain's most disliked historian," he says. "I can live with that. Is it an historian's job to be liked? It's not your job to be liked. Churchill said the historian's job is to find out what happened and why. Very good description."

Irving spent the last month driving a van 4,000 miles to peddle and promote his latest self-published book "Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich." The work is based on thousands of pages of Goebbels' diaries found in Soviet archives in Moscow.

Earlier this spring, the book became the focus of a publishing controversy in the United States: St. Martin's Press in New York pulled out of the project in April after a series of scathing pre-publication reviews ignited a public furor over the author's views. Executives of the company claimed they had been unaware of Irving's past works.

Yet Irving's views on the Nazis and World War II are well known in Britain.

'Hitler is his hero'

Donald Cameron Watt, a professor of history at the London School of Economics and a one-time collaborator of Irving's, says: "Hitler is his hero, or so he wrote me at one point."

Irving says that he never wrote such a letter. But he revels in his outcast role among World War II historians. His major work, "Hitler's War," was famously savaged by one critic as "the autobiography Hitler didn't write."

"I'm not a denier," he says. "I'd call myself a skeptic."

Spend a few hours with Irving, and prepare to be alternately mesmerized and outraged. He deplores the death of one innocent. He denies gas chambers were used at Auschwitz.

He is a self-confessed misogynist, who adds that his daughters are the treasure of his life.

Irving has four daughters by his ex-wife -- they divorced after 20 years of marriage -- and one by his 32-year-old girlfriend, Bente Hogh, whom he laughingly calls his "concubine."

At age 58, he appears like any other overindulgent father. He has absolutely no control over his 2 1/2 -year-old daughter, who sits on his lap and rifles through family photos and Nazi documents that lie on his desk near the bust of Goebbels.

He says, "I want students in a 100 years' time to be told, 'Ignore the books of Martin Gilbert and A. J. P. Taylor' [two of the most respected British historians of World War II] 'and look at books by David Irving, and you'll be pretty close to what the archives have contained.'

"I think that will be possible. There will be none of the resentments around at present, and fewer of the prejudices and a greater willingness to look back at the extraordinary events of the 1930s and 1940s objectively.

"As Hitler himself said to his doctor, 'People are not going to want to evaluate me objectively for 50 years.' "

It's difficult to be objective about Irving.

Like him or not, Irving shows that historians have the power to stir passions. He is by any definition a "revisionist," part of a tiny band that seeks to overturn the conventional history of World War II. But he has also been labeled a "propagandist" whose views have been trumpeted by extreme right-wing groups.

Irving's views have divided his own family. His twin brother, Nicholas, changed his surname. The parents of his Danish girlfriend won't talk to him.

His thesis could be summed up as Hitler -- the excuses. Irving consistently weaves a tale that Hitler was not the architect of the Final Solution to wipe out European Jewry.

Instead, Irving claims other Nazi leaders masterminded the policy without Hitler's knowledge. He also claims that between 600,000 and 1 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust -- a word he declines to capitalize -- far below the accepted figure of 6 million.

Irving says Nazi documents buttress his works. Even some of his severest critics say he is a master at hunting down documents, yet many claim he misreads what he discovers.

Irving has been dogged by two linked charges: that he is anti-Semitic and that he is a revisionist about the Holocaust.

He says Jewish groups have engaged in a "campaign of terror" against him. He hopes, "Jewish reviewers are capable of reviewing a book by me objectively. I'm beginning to doubt this. I think they lack the objectivity you'd ask for."

He concludes the subject, saying, "People ask me if I'm anti-Semitic. I say, not yet. But it's a mighty and a manful struggle not to become anti-Semitic. I have to remind myself every day, turn the other cheek."

Irving is also shadowed by his former penchant for speaking to neo-Nazi groups, an action that led to his banishment from Germany. Canada and Australia followed suit, a fact that Irving claims to be proud of.

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