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Christopher Hitchens, David Irving and the Holocaust

Regarding Richard Seymour’s new book on Christopher Hitchens, I’m sure Michael Ezra is correct that it is not brilliant and not worth reading. I’m not writing this to undermine Michael or strengthen Mr Seymour’s position. But I would like to address the issue of Christopher Hitchens’ intellectual support of David Irving.

Some think Hitchens was just defending Irving’s “free speech”. I think Hitchens went beyond this.

In June 1989, Irving had a new quest:

David Irving [...] during the Zundel trial declared himself converted by Leuchter’s work to Holocaust denial and to the idea that the gas chambers were a myth, described himself as conducting a “one man intifada” against the official history of the Holocaust.

In 1992, David Irving told the Jewish Chronicle:

“The Jews are very foolish not to abandon the gas chamber theory while they still have time [...] [they] have exploited people with the gas chamber legend.”

In the same year:

Irving himself was convicted and fined 10,000 marks (about $6,000) when a Munich court ruled in May 1992 that he had violated hate crime laws by asserting that Auschwitz gas chambers were “fakes” built after the war to attract tourists to Poland.

So we should know the type of person David Irving is, and the quality of historian we are dealing with. If you are in any doubt, read the Van Pelt report on Irving, section Auschwitz and David Irving. Here you will learn how, from 1977, David Irving began his conspiracy theorising about the Holocaust, claiming that Himmler carried out the Shoah without Hitler’s knowledge. The document provides overwhelming evidence of Irving’s revisionist tendencies.

In June 1996, Christopher Hitchens wrote an article for Vanity Fair, portraying David Irving as a victim of a disgraceful decision by his publishers, St. Martin’s Press. Hitchens wrote:

I have thought about this a lot and I feel the need to say, very clearly, that St. Martin’s has disgraced the business of publishing and degraded the practice of debate.

Strong words. St Martin’s Press had terminated their contract with Irving. Irving had a right to say what he wanted – but St Martin’s Press chose not to be associated with this. That is their right, and actually a morally sound decision.

Let us look closely at Hitchens’ column. The quote most people remember is this:

“David Irving is not just a Fascist historian. He is also a great historian of Fascism.”

I question how anyone who denies the gas chambers, can be considered a historian in any sense of the word. But Hitchens said far more than this too. Here is Hitchens mocking criticisms of Irving in the press:

And then, after a few hysterical and old-maidish articles in the press (Eek–a Nazi!), Irving is told that his contract is void.

Is it “hysterical” or “old-maidish,” to suggest that it is wrong to publish a Holocaust falsifier, treating him as a historian of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany? Surely not!

Hitchens concluded his article by arguing:

Currently, though, there is a taboo. And who really believes that if it were lifted any honest person would be the loser?

There was no “taboo” – St Martin’s Press had chosen not to publish Irving.

Hitchens claimed in a US TV interview that Irving was:

“one of the three or four necessary historians of the Third Reich and of the Nazi period.”

Hitchens spoke of how Irving “knows the documents, knows the subjects, knows German,” and listed triumphantly the other contemporary historians who had praised or leaned upon Irving’s work.

Hitchens on Irving:

“He’s doubted certain things that some people take as read, and therefore he’s thought of as someone who needs to be handled with very great care, as a sort of toxic substance. What I’m really arguing in the piece is that America is a sufficiently grown-up and mature culture to take the risk of admitting this historian into the canon of those who we can read and review and discuss for ourselves as well.”

You can see here how Hitchens dilutes the criticism of Irving, in order to strengthen his own argument. Claiming that Hitler knew nothing of the Holocaust, and there were no gas chambers in Auschwitz, becomes “he’s doubted certain things.”

In the LA Times, Hitchens says of Holocaust denial:

This movement contains some Nazi revivalists in Germany and elsewhere, some crackpots and conspiracy theorists and one practicing historian, an Englishman named David Irving.

This gave Irving a veneer of respectability – it is true he was a practising historian, but was equally true that Irving himself counted as a crackpot and conspiracy theorist – the one does not preclude the other. People of any and all professions can be crackposts, historians included.

In the same article, Hitchens claimed the Holocaust was now a religion:

While in the United States, protected as it is by the 1st Amendment, the Holocaust has become a secular religion, with state support in the form of a national museum. Accusations of ill will or bad faith are often made against anyone with reservations about the elevation of this project into something combining a cult, an entertainment resource and an industry, each claiming to represent the unvoiced dead.

He asked rhetorically:

“Would it surprise you to know that there were no gas chambers or extermination camps on German soil, in other words, at Belsen or Dachau or Buchenwald [...] These are, however, the now-undisputed findings of all historians and experts on the subject”

But this was not true – there were 5 gas chambers at Dachau, a gas chamber at Ravensbruck in Germany, and a gas chamber at Sachsenhausen, for example. Without doing his research, Hitchens used this false information which is propagated by the revisionist movement, in order to strengthen his argument that revisionists like Irving in particular, ought to be included within contemporary discussions about the Holocaust.

Hitchens later in this article, speaks of how Irving made antisemitic remarks in his company, which seemed to surprise him. But Hitchens never brings into focus, the antisemitic conspiracy theories that Irving perpetrated for so many years. In his TV interview, instead, Hitchens claims Irving’s book was not considered “anti-Jewish or anything of the sort.”

I am not saying Hitchens was anti-Semitic, or wanted to rewrite the Holocaust, or anything of the sort. Of course Hitchens acknowledged the historical fact of the Holocaust, and wrote to oppose Holocaust denial – even in some of his defences of Irving. However this should not excuse Hitchens’ defence of Irving along the lines of free speech, which was a false and dishonest line to take, in my view.

Saying Hitchens was wrong on this issue is not to dismiss the man’s considered views on many other issues. But there are concerns that Hitchens simply ignores about Irving, and treats as irrelevant, due to Irving’s apparently groundbreaking work and his subject knowledge, and his fluent German. It really is worth watching the interview to see how Hitchens ignores the points made by the man opposing Irving – clearly Hitchens is not simply ignorant of how bad Irving was, but being wilfully ignorant.

So there is an issue here, and we shouldn’t just assume the best about Hitchens, because I believe that leads to other problems. At the very least, you could admit he had a blind spot on this issue.