Richard Evans: The historian who took on a Holocaust-denier

by Diana Wichtel / 18 November, 2017
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Historian Richard Evans. Photo/Simon Young

When Holocaust denier David Irving addressed the judge in his libel case as “mein Führer”, expert witness Richard Evans couldn’t believe his ears. 

There’s a moment near the end of the movie Denial, about the 2000 libel case taken by self-styled historian David Irving against US academic Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, that is both excruciating and deeply satisfying. Lipstadt maintained, in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust, that Irving was a Holocaust denier and a falsifier of history. The case went against Irving, a man who once famously claimed, “more women died on the back seat of Senator Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in the gas chamber in Auschwitz”. The defeated Irving, played by Timothy Spall, walks over to Lipstadt’s barrister, Richard Rampton, and holds out his hand. Rampton regards him with fathomless contempt and walks away.

There was a little poetic licence in the casting. “Timothy Spall plays Irving brilliantly, but as a quite small, slightly creepy fanatic. Whereas Irving is large, bulky and has a rather bullying manner with a loud voice,” says historian Richard Evans. He would know. As an expert witness for the defence, Evans gave evidence for 28 hours over 10 days. Rampton refused to make eye contact with Irving, who was representing himself in the case. Evans was advised to follow suit. “I began by looking him in the eye and I realised it only made me cross. Someone wrote that I treated him rather like a very dim student who couldn’t get the point when I was giving a lecture.” The hostility was mutual, if colourful insults directed at Evans on Irving’s website are any indication. In his 2001 book about the trial, Telling Lies About Hitler, Evans doesn’t hold back. “For all of us, he became someone with whom the least contact was defiling.”

Evans got another piece of good advice: “Don’t drink too much water from the carafe on the witness stand or you’ll have to ask for a comfort break.” The atmosphere in the courtroom was dry. So, often, was the evidence. As Evans notes in his book, “On one or two occasions it was touch and go.”

For the dialogue in Denial’s courtroom scenes, writer David Hare stuck strictly to the transcripts. It might have been dull, but the case had its share of theatre. “In a sense it was theatre of the absurd, because it shouldn’t have really happened,” says Evans. “That comes over very well in the movie, where Deborah Lipstadt is completely astonished that she has to prove that she is innocent of the libel on David Irving.” The case took place in an English court. Proof rested on the defence.

At the gates of the Third Reich’s Auschwitz concentration camp. Photo/Getty Images

At the gates of the Third Reich’s Auschwitz concentration camp. Photo/Getty Images

Ghost of Hitler

After the trial, Evans had a call from a psychiatrist who was working on the case’s store of Freudian slips. Had Irving really inadvertently addressed the judge as “mein Führer”? “Indeed he had,” says Evans. “I couldn’t quite believe my ears. But he clearly did.”

What to make of Irving? He was forced during the trial to make concessions. Some things didn’t change. “What was consistent, of course, was Irving’s conviction that Hitler was a good guy, that he was, as he said, ‘probably the best friend the Jews ever had in the Third Reich’.”

The psychiatrist had a theory, says Evans, about Irving’s infatuation with Hitler. Irving’s father went off to fight as a naval officer during World War II. He survived the war but abandoned his family. “So Irving’s resentment at the loss of his father prompted him to find a kind of substitute father figure,” says Evans. “You can think of better ones, really, but there we are.”

Holocaust denier David Irving. Photo/Getty Images

Telling Lies About Hitler is a definitive dissection of Irving’s historical distortions. It also records some of the trial’s more bizarre exchanges, such as one during which Irving attempted to demonstrate that he had more expertise than Evans when it came to digging pits. “In the midst of all this surrealism,” Evans writes, “it was sometimes difficult to remember that what we were actually talking about was a large number of completely innocent civilian men, women and children, having been brutally snatched from their homes, being summarily machine-gunned into pits for no other reason than they were Jewish.”

The trial was a reminder that there are not always two sides to a story. As Lipstadt says in Denial, “Slavery happened. Elvis is not alive.” For Evans, the case swiftly became more than academic. “I started off by thinking that this trial would be an example of how you draw the line between truth and fiction in history; between an imaginative interpretation of a document and an outright falsification. But as soon as I saw the elderly people in the public gallery with their sleeves rolled up and their Auschwitz tattoos, their numbers, it took on much, much bigger significance.”

At the heart of the trial was a painful silence. “‘Denial’ means two things in the course of the movie. It means Holocaust denial and it means denial of the desire of Deborah Lipstadt and the survivors to testify. But the whole point of the defence in a libel action is to keep the focus absolutely on the plaintiff and show that the plaintiff is wrong in every respect. Anything else would have distracted from that.”

That was clearly tough for Lipstadt. “It was, yes. She’s a very feisty woman who has strong views and it was difficult for her to stay silent during the trial.” The decision, Evans feels, was the right one. “She argued in the book that was the subject of the action that once the Holocaust survivor generation dies out, it will be much easier to deny the Holocaust, because they are no longer around to tell their tale. I think the trial showed historians can be trusted to assemble the evidence in a convincing way to show that these terrible things happened.”

A survivor of the Nazis’ Auschwitz concentration camp. Photo/Getty Images

A survivor of the Nazis’ Auschwitz concentration camp. Photo/Getty Images

Imagining a Nazi victory

When we meet, Evans is on his way home to the UK, where he is Regius professor emeritus of history at the University of Cambridge. He’s been visiting the University of Otago, where he gave the Michael King Memorial Lecture on War in the Nazi Imagination. “It’s a favourite speculation: what would have happened had Hitler won the war. There are novels like Robert Harris’s Fatherland that are built on that premise.” Evans’ answer: eternal war. “Hitler believed in war without end because without continually fighting a war, the Aryan race, the German people, in his terminology, would kind of wither and die. It was a Darwinian struggle of all against all for the survival of the fittest. There are indications in some of his writings and statements in the late 20s and early 30s that once he had conquered Europe, in his mind, he would then use that as a springboard to attack America and so it would go on. Defeat, in that sense, is pre-programmed because his ambitions way, way exceeded anything that could be done to meet them.” There was no possibility of compromise. “As he once said, ‘I’m a gambler. I always go for broke.’ It’s either total victory or total defeat.”

In Auckland, Evans gives a lecture about Denial and the trial. John Sessions plays him in the movie – “He should have lost weight if he wanted to look like me,” Evans says with a laugh. In the lecture, Evans demonstrates that he could very well have played himself. He plants himself squarely in front of the audience and talks without microphone or notes. He does a very good impression of Rampton knotting his gown behind his back with a flourish as he closes in on Irving.

Adolf Hitler. Photo/Getty Images

History on trial. It was an unusual gig for an academic. The arguments could be taxingly detailed. “One reporter complained bitterly that we’d spent half an hour arguing over the place of a full stop in a document.” It was, in one way, historian heaven. “We had as much time as we wanted to go through every point in as much detail as is necessary. As soon as I got into the witness box, the press gallery emptied rather quickly,” he says happily.

Denial was released in 2016. A defence of truth and history seems particularly timely when comparisons with Germany in the 1930s are being made. “There are some echoes, but I don’t think there are real parallels,” says Evans. “Fascism in the interwar years is a product of World War I and even the strong men in countries like Hungary or would-be strong men in America don’t have hundreds of thousands of Stormtroopers parading the streets beating up their opponents.” Though Denial clearly arrived at an opportune moment. “The internet is now awash with what Donald Trump’s spokespeople have called alternative facts and what others have called post-truth. There’s a kind of clarion call to defend the truth and a demonstration that it can be discovered and worked out; that you can tell the difference between truth and lies.”

History seems particularly up for grabs right now. There’s the debate about the preserving of public memory in the form of statues. Evans would keep Cecil Rhodes at Oxford, subject of a “Rhodes must fall” campaign. “It would be wrong for the memory of the British Empire, for good or for ill – and Rhodes exemplified both sides of that, I think – to be obliterated. But when you have statues of Robert E Lee being the focus for racists and neo-fascists, then I think it’s justifiable to remove them. Exactly the same as great care was taken by the Allies in 1945 and 46 to remove statues of Hitler, to blow up and deny access to the sites where he lived in case they became places of pilgrimage.”

The controversial Robert E Lee statue in Charlottesville. Photo/Getty Images

Best of times, worst of times

The era of fake news presents fresh challenges. “There’s never been a worse time to be a historian because there are so many lies out there in the public, but there’s never been a better time to be a historian because that gives us a much more important role than we’ve had in recent times.” The old gatekeepers have gone or been sidelined. “There’s a huge amount of unsupported opinion out there. The other thing that’s happened is we now have a conspiracy theorist in power in the United States. Trump came to prominence in the birther movement, that’s how he got into politics … There’s now, I think, particularly led by Trump, a disregard for truth. It doesn’t matter whether something is true or not. It only matters whether it’s useful to you as a politician. I think that’s a very dangerous development. Historians have a role to play in exposing these lies. So do journalists.” Lying with conviction, loudly and often, does seem to work. “That’s what [Joseph] Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, said.”

Even the truth can be tricky. One of many odd things about the trial was the confusion about who actually was being tried. “More than once, when I said I was acting for the defence, people said, ‘What, you’re acting for Irving?’ I said, ‘No, no, no. He’s the person who is bringing the lawsuit against Deborah Lipstadt. I’m acting for her.’”

Some media and even some historians fretted over Irving’s right to freedom of speech. “Freedom of speech was an issue in the sense that Irving was trying to have a book withdrawn and pulped, and undertakings given never to publish anything like it again. Had he won, it would have made it impossible for anybody to call anybody else a Holocaust denier, let alone say they falsified history as part of their denial, without running the risk of being sued, so publishers would stop publishing their stuff. But somehow some commentators got the wrong end of the stick altogether and thought that it was Irving’s freedom of speech that was being compromised. He’s still free to say whatever he likes as long as it doesn’t break the law, and he still does so.”

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Photo/Getty Images

In that regard, it was a bit like the Joel Hayward thesis case here. Some commentators saw that as a freedom-of-speech issue rather than one of academic standards. Evans was invited in 2000 by the Jewish Council to write a report for the working party investigating the awarding of an A+ to Hayward’s thesis by the University of Canterbury. “This young academic, Joel Hayward, wrote a dissertation in which he treated Holocaust denial and real, genuine scholarship on the Holocaust as equal and compared them and came down, really, on the side of Holocaust denial. So it was a work of advocacy for Holocaust denial. I was asked, when this created a large storm of controversy, to write a report on it and that was basically what I found. Nobody was stopping him from saying or writing these things.” The thesis was not withdrawn. “He has, I believe, subsequently converted to Islam and is now teaching in [Abu Dhabi].”

It can certainly lead you down some rabbit holes, but Evans believes academics should take on the role of public intellectuals. “I’ve done my best to speak out about these things in public. But in the world of academia, we really have to take each other’s word on trust, otherwise it would be quite impossible,” he says. “In the end, I think people will be found out. And then it’s important to speak up about it.”

The trial was very public. Was the scrutiny difficult? “Oh, it was certainly challenging. Very challenging, yeah. But I like a challenge.” And he’s happy to be talking about it all again, thanks to Denial. “I’ve had a decade in which nobody much has asked me about it and now it’s suddenly become very present. It’s important in the world of post-truth and alternative facts to have a movie like this that puts a very powerful case for the importance of discovering and respecting the truth. I look back on it and I’m very proud of my involvement,” he says. “It’s something I’m very glad I did.”

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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