A recent report stated that David Irving, who lost a defamation suit against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin publishers who accused him of Holocaust denial, had planned to lead a tour of Holocaust sites in Poland. According to Irving’s website, his 2019 tour begins on September 1 from Warsaw and ends there on September 9. The group will visit the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s primary headquarters on the Easter Front, not far from the town of Rastenburg in East Prussia. They will also tour Hochwald; the nearby bunker of Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS; and Treblinka, Sobibór, Belzec and Majdanek.
For those who know little about David Irving and Ernest Zündel, who before his death in August 2017 was the leading Holocaust denier in North America, this article will help provide some insight.
In “Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?” Michael Shermer and I wrote, “There is no more paradoxical character in the Holocaust denial movement” than David Irving. He seeks the respect and recognition of the academic historical community, while at times derides them for their failure to recognize the value of his works,” which include “Apocalypse 1945: The Destruction of Dresden,” “Hitler’s War,” “The Trail of the Fox: The Search for the True Field Marshall,” “Goring: A Biography,” and “Churchill’s War: The German Atomic Bomb.”
He ridicules academic historians for being haughty and verbose, yet this is the manner he projects at times. Of all the Holocaust deniers, he is the most historically sophisticated, even though he has no professional training in history. In a widely quoted interview with Michael Shermer, Irving said “Without Hitler Israel probably would not exist today. To that extent he was probably the Jews’ greatest friend.”
Irving denies that 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. He told Michael that although Heinrich Himmler admitted to killing Jews in his famous speech to Nazi party officials on October 4, 1943, in Posen, “nowhere does Himmler say ‘we are killing, millions.’” Furthermore, “Nowhere does he say we are killing hundreds of thousands. He is talking about solving the Jewish problem, about having to kill off women and children.” Himmler, Irving said “is admitting what I said happened to 600,000.”
In an article in the British Daily Mail on September 27, 2010, Irving proclaimed that “Hitler was a great man, one of the greatest Europeans for centuries.” In addition, Irving said “The Gestapo were fabulous policemen. They sent 300,000 to Auschwitz and 800,000 to Treblinka.” He told a group of 11 people from Britain, America, Germany and Australia, whom he hosted on a “death camps tour” that though Hitler could be extremely cruel, he was not immoral.
Most, if not all, of my fellow Jewish historians, refused to meet with Irving or any other Holocaust denier, perhaps in order not to give them legitimacy. While Michael and I were researching “Denying History,” we took the opposite approach. Michael attended their conferences, which I could not participate in because they were held on the Sabbath.
We met with Ernest Zündel in his home/office in Toronto, Canada, several months after his home had been bombed by unknown assailants. We were accompanied by architectural historian Robert Jan van Pelt, one of the world’s foremost experts on Auschwitz. Michael and I met Robert at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, to prepare for our visit to Auschwitz.
Michael knew Zündel from the conferences they attended and asked if he, Robert and I could meet with him, which he readily agreed to. Michael had not mentioned our last names. When I introduced myself, Zündel immediately acknowledged knowing me by enumerating my academic and professional background. Sometimes we think there is a one-way mirror where we can watch them in secret, when, in fact, the mirror is transparent and they observe us as well.
Given the firebombing of a section of his home had not yet been repaired, Zündel appeared apprehensive that we might have come to do him some harm. Once I assured him that he could check to see if we were armed, he seemed reassured of our intention of just talking.
Meeting Zündel, whose self-proclaimed goal was “the rehabilitation of the German people,” allowed us to understand the extent of his obsession with exposing the Holocaust as a hoax in order to restore Germany’s good name. Germany’s reputation had been vilified by this ruse, precluding “many thinkers from re-looking at the options the National Socialism German style offers.” In other words, once the Holocaust had been debunked as a myth, National Socialism could be considered a legitimate alternative to democracy.
He estimated that, at most there were “300,000” Jews killed “from all causes, in concentration camps.” “To the Germans, Dresden was the Holocaust—burning by fire.” He warned that if I continued disseminating Holocaust propaganda, I and the Jewish community would suffer physical harm.
In response to a historical question I raised, Zündel suggested I speak to David Irving in London, which I did. After Irving answered my question, he tried to tell me Yad Vashem has Himmler’s diary that proved the Holocaust never happened, which they were hiding from the world. This is a typical strategy the deniers use, as Michael and I point out. They seldom say anything definitive about their position. Instead, they focus on some far-fetched notion to oblige you to prove it false.
Irving asked me for a favor. He wanted my definition of the Holocaust. I faxed him one from the “Holocaust Encyclopedia,” which he rejected. He wanted mine, since he planned to sue The Times of London and wanted me to be his expert Holocaust witness. When I said I could not provide a better explanation, our conversation ended.
Just before the Irving-Lipstadt trial began, the BBC contacted me and a leading British historian for our comments. The producer explained the focus of the segment would be on whether the trial involved the issue of free speech. He assumed I would be against free speech and gently indicated not to be too upset when humiliated by my counterpart. When I said during the interview that Irving had the right to express his opinion in an open forum, there was no debate, no embarrassment.
After the trial, I appeared once again on BBC. I spoke to Irving briefly, though he was not in the mood to talk. I also talked to Deborah Lipstadt after the trial. Like the prophet Deborah, she had led our people into battle and prevailed against those who sought to deny our history.
By Alex Grobman, PhD
Grobman, a Hebrew University-trained historian, is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.