David Irving once remarked that historians possessed a power greater than the gods - they could change history. It is precisely that conceit which is placed under the spotlight in Richard J. Evans "Lying About Hitler." If the Lipstadt Trial had reified the orthodoxy of what Irving calls "the enemies of truth," then Evans' critique is the final word on the subject; the coup de grace, if you will. Assuming, then, that Irving is nothing more than an erroneous fraud and vociferous anti-Semite; having been dispatched to the historical wilderness after his calamitous appearance in court, why does the zealous persistence of the opposition continue unabated? Is it not flogging a dead horse? In my humble opinion, yes, that is the case. While I can freely disagree and refute numerous historical "truths" submitted by Irving, I cannot in all good conscience find compulsory justification in excoriating him with threats of intimidation and intellectual thuggery. Surely, no democratically minded person can square themselves off with the idea that free expression ought to share a jail cell with common criminals - a fate Irving suffered, while he waned in an Austrian prison. That having been said, let's examine the structure of Evans' thesis. Evans' indictment against Irving is unequivocal in its objective; that is, to reveal Irving as a conscious fraud. The most deficient aspect of Irving's body of work, says Evans, is his literalist approach to historiography, which is consciously self-serving in its omission and embellishment.
Evans purports that Irving's so-called religious adherence to primary sources is a matter of convenience, particularly where his aesthetic treatment of Hitler is concerned. It would be less than honest to claim (as many have) that Irving is as insidious and morally repugnant as the men he studies, but in no way is it a stretch of the imagination to call him a Hitler apologist. Having read several of Irving's books, I concur with Evans that his critique of Hitler always feels perfunctory and stilted; written in such a way as to suggest that he penned it out of obligation rather than conviction. Hitler wasn't a totalitarian mass murderer and vicious demagogue, but a modern Napoleon whose image has fared poorly in the ex post facto coverage of his death. In Irving's "Hitler's War," we follow Pyrrhic victory after Pyrrhic victory in his conquest against the East, without moral repercussion having been considered as a direct result of these terrible policies --Austria and the Rhineland a fait accompli; Poland and the Low Countries a bold endeavour; Russia an ill-fortuned failure. In no way does Irving's catalogue of the Third Reich's foreign policy permit space for moral reflection. In defence of Irving, it is not the role of the historian to paint with a mosaic brush, and Evans overemphasizes the aestheticism of historical literature. What we principally want to take away from a serious historical work is the facts. How does Irving fare here? In "Hitler's War," Irving submits an interesting proposition: if Hitler had personally intervened in preventing a trainload of Jews being massacred at Riga, would this exonerate him of responsibility for the Holocaust? To Irving's mind this intervention amounts to a smoking gun; to Evans it is trivial and, ironically, incriminating. Irving has contended for decades that the Holocaust was Himmler and Heydrich's racket, as Hitler was too busy with his conquests in the East to concern himself with the machinations of the destruction process. What Irving neglects (deliberately, in my opinion) is that the processes behind the Final Solution were efficiently interwoven bureaucratic systems that guaranteed the output of genocide, not just the SS and its related agencies. Hitler had granted the civil administrations in the occupied territories with the privilege of "Germanisation" and these administrations worked in tandem with the Security Police, the Gestapo, the Todt Ministry and other relevant agencies in achieving this aesthetic vision. It is simply unfeasible that Hitler was ignorant of the goings on, when these institutions continually sought his approval.
These are all valid critiques of Irving's literary corpus, to be sure, but Evans' implicit sense of self-satisfaction and fraternal solidarity often give way to partisanship that hampers his objectivity. He often deviates from the substance of his thesis and imbues it with aesthetic overtones. He proceeds from this framework in a fashion similar to another key figure in the dramatis personae, Deborah Lipstadt. The reader will have to forgive me for taking a short digression Lipstadt, but I believe it to be a relevant one. Deborah Lipstadt is an unremarkable scholar, one whose work is generally viewed as a synthesis of cultural masochism and litigiousness. She is what Norman Finkelstein calls a "uniqueness doctrinaire," and her work dialectically interposes two radically different concepts: deniers and the truth. Lipstadt is not a historian, but a sociologist, and her emphasis on the aesthetic of Holocaust denial and memory is typical for her discipline. Despite appearing as an expert witness for the defence in the Lipstadt Trial, Evans' regard for the defendant is clearly underwhelming. The most positive thing Evans can say of Lipstadt is that she comported herself with dignity on trial. Her knowledge on the subject, unlike Irving's, is fairly pedestrian and Evans does not obfuscate his thoughts on the matter, either. Since the trial, Irving has been apt to revel in Lipstadt's implicit inferiority as scholar and researcher. True, his characterisation of Lipstadt is certainly stinging and pernicious, but it is not entirely false. Here, at least, Evans agrees. Irving's cherry picking and obfuscation considered; how does he fare as an archivist and researcher? In a word: formidable. Actually, Evans comes across as something of a prig on this point. Irving's accomplishments as a researcher are well known, a sentiment shared by eminent historians like Raul Hilberg and Ian Kershaw, Evans, however, does not feel so inclined to pay overtures. On the contrary, Evans consigns much of Irving's important discoveries to the dustbin of impertinence. Make no mistake; Evans is clearly the right horse to back, but his work, especially his Third Reich Trilogy, isn't particularly original. Yes, it's certainly accurate and sufficient in its acknowledgement of secondary sources, but therein lays the problem. It would be wild speculation to infer that Evans begrudges Irving on the basis of his research methods, but the barbs feel more personal than detached.
Not even Evans, the self-appointed vanguard of history, can take refuge in the charge that he solely undertook his mission to expose a fraud; no, it becomes apparent throughout that the lofty aims set by him are emasculated by personal issues. To summarise:
+ Well written and accessible to the general readership
+ Keen eye for historical detail
+ Fascinating insight into the trial
+ Sufficient refutation to Irving's tendentious claims
+ Overstates the case against Irving
+ Too much credence given to the aesthetic approach of history
+ Mildly self-righteous
+ Undermines Irving's talents as archivist and researcher
Is this book worth your time? Certainly, but the information therein can be sourced elsewhere for next to nothing. If you're on the fence about purchasing the book, then I'd suggest watching the excellent PBS documentary "NOVA: Holocaust on Trial" or citing transcripts from the trial online.