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Irving & History
on 6 January 2014
The first thing to admit about Mr. Irving is that he does work very hard, has an excellent grasp of German, and has unquestionably done interesting archival work. He has probably read more and discovered more in the German, Russian, and Anglo-American archives than any other person alive, but it's the way he reads these documents that's crucial. In 'Codebreakers' (Hinsley, Stripp,1994,OUP) a signal was intercepted at Bletchley Park (c. late 1943) that Jews were being transported from Greece (Rhodes or Kos) to Piraeus then hence for "zur endlosung" (final solution). Any intelligent unbiased person reading that signal would I think conclude the Germans were not about to perform some benevolent service but, no, according to Mr. Irving there was no plan, no intention, or, if there were, Uncle Adolf knew nothing about it and it was all the fault of Himmler who could murder all these people without Hitler knowing about it and in any event the Fuhrer was kindly disposed to Jewish people. Right.
His best book far and away is 'Hitler's War' but if it's his best it also shows to full effect his faults not as a writer, he can write very capably and in an exciting way but as an historian. Mr. Irving is not an historian, he is what used to be called a chronicler, in areas where, as I understand it, he considers that he IS an historian. He has little grasp of context and the relationship of different factors, social, economic, political etc. that are ESSENTIAL to try to understand something as complex as WW2.
I read his book on Goebbels,and despite the prodigious archival work that was on display he showed no real, or even basic, understanding of what propaganda is, how an historian would relate it to classical models, like the Roman schools of rhetoric, how one would compare Goebbels with, say, Cicero, whether he was influenced by Hegel (a key figure in progress of the 'world spirit' that Hitler believed he was the embodiement of) the notion of high art that Goebbels believed propaganda represented in the way you could sway the masses. Lots of relevant questions like this seem to pass over a completely unawares Irving.
So, he cannot really be classed as an historian in the same way as, say, Denys Hay or Michael Roberts. He also cannot be trusted to deal with the material fairly.
Then we have the problems with the story that he tells, fascinating enough but because he doesn't really think through his material, or read more widely, it's like reading some report from the front. You immediately think bias, distortion, suppression. He's clearly intelligent so why doesn't he think more? This is what gives fuel to people who simply think he's prejudiced, and has another agenda.
He knows a lot but it's not clear he's thought a lot. There is simply no structure to his books which gives them a cranky, partisan feel.
He clearly admires a person that most us, reasonably enough on the record, would regard as one of the greatest fiends in history.
He doesn't persuade us when he describes how kind the Fuhrer was to his dogs and his secretaries.
We are not quite as stupid as that, Mr. Irving.