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Oct 04 2013

Never mind about de mortuis nil nisi bonum

I don’t think I knew that Christopher Hitchens was a defender of David Irving, even after Irving failed in his attempt to censor the historian Deborah Lipstadt by suing her for libel. That’s all the more revolting since the reason Irving failed is because the historian Richard Evans demonstrated that Irving had systematically falsified evidence in his books. Irving wrote “history” that was a tissue of lies. No responsible intellectual should defend that.

An “antifascist, otherwise known as Soupy” I encountered on Twitter, @InTheSoupAgain, alerted me to this, and since I don’t think I knew it and I think it matters, I feel obliged to point it out.

Hitchens wrote a piece on the subject for the Wall Street Journal in 2006, six years after the libel trial, apparently still blithely unaware that Irving had faked his evidence. The soupy one publishes it in a blog post:

Now may I mince a word or two? I have been writing in defense of Mr. Irving for several years. When St. Martin’s Press canceled its contract to print his edition of the Goebbels diaries, which it did out of fear of reprisal, I complained loudly and was rewarded by an honest statement from the relevant editor — Thomas Mallon — that his decision had been a “profile in prudence.” I will not take refuge in the claim that I was only defending Mr. Irving’s right to free speech. I was also defending his right to free inquiry. You may have to spend time on some grim and Gothic Web sites to find this out, but he is in fact not a “denier,” but a revisionist, and much-hated by the full-dress “denial” faction. The pages on Goebbels, as in his books on Dresden, Churchill and Hitler, contain some highly important and damning findings from his work in the archives of the Third Reich.

That’s pathetic. Apologies for speaking ill of the dead and all that, but really. Irving’s findings from his “work” in the archives of the Third Reich were riddled with alterations. You can’t trust a word Irving wrote because he falsified. His “work” is entirely worthless, and very dangerous if it is read and believed, because it’s falsified.

It’s really rather disgraceful that Hitchens apparently didn’t know that when he wrote that sentence about the “highly important and damning findings.”

 

31 comments

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  1. 1
    A Hermit

    Wow.

    Anyone who wants to know just how bad Irving’s deception was can get all the gory details here:

    http://www.hdot.org/en/trial/

    The full transcripts of the trial and the appeal are there, including the Judge’s decision…which is pretty unambiguous…http://www.hdot.org/en/trial/judgement/13-67.html

    I find myself unable to accept Irving’s contention that his falsification of the historical record is the product of innocent error or misinterpretation or incompetence on his part. When account is taken of all the considerations set out in paragraphs 13.140 to 13.161 above, it appears to me that the correct and inevitable inference must be that for the most part the falsification of the historical record was deliberate and that Irving was motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence.

    That he could be taken in so easily by this fraud is one of the things that makes me cringe a little at the hero worship directed at Hitchens (as if the sexism wasn’t enough…). The man had his charms, but he had his flaws and some pretty big blind spots as well…

  2. 2
    Ophelia Benson

    Exactly. I was and am a major admirer in many ways, but dang he had huge flaws too. This was a biggy.

  3. 3
    A. Noyd

    The denial vs revisionism hairsplitting is especially stupid. And the “superduper extremists hate this person” argument does not actually work to support someone’s credibility. I mean, should we consider GirlWritesWhat an astute and educated commentator on matters of gender because she’s reviled by the MGTOW sorts for having—compared to their unsurpassable zeal—insufficient hatred of women? Well, maybe Hitchens would have been taken in by her as well.

  4. 4
    Eamon Knight

    Irving has managed to insinuate himself a little too much credibility over the years. Science fiction author James P. Hogan has defended his right to “free inquiry”, though it must be noted that Hogan is a bit of a nut on other topics as well, eg. being a fan of Velikovsky’s pseudoscience. More disturbingly, the figure given by Kurt Vonnegut in the intro to Slaughterhouse Five for the civilian death toll of the Dresden bombing, 135 000, seems to be an exaggeration promoted by Irving as part of his general strategy of eliciting sympathy for Nazi-era Germany. (The actual death toll was in the neighbourhood of 25 000. Not that that makes it all OK, or anything).

  5. 5
    Simon

    Here’s a Hitchens 2001 article about Irving as well: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2001/may/20/books/bk-144

  6. 6
    Ophelia Benson

    Eamon, true. Richard Evans’s terrific book about Irving and the trial, Lying About Hitler, has a lot of information on that.

  7. 7
    rnilsson

    Can’t someone simply stone Dr Irving?
    Oh. Wait. My bad.
    Low tech.

  8. 8
    Soupy One

    Long before Irving’s attempt to silence Professor Lipstadt many historians had raised serious questions about Irving’s conclusions, methods and failure to engage with historiography.

    It is almost inconceivable that Hitchens with his immense intellectual grasp would have missed that.

    Naturally, the trial removed any doubt about Irving’s fascist sympathies. Hitchens responded by giving Irving an almost perpetual “last chance”.

    Even after Hitching’s wife wanted nothing to do with David Irving and his racist ditties, the two still met.

    Hmm.

  9. 9
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes. That’s downright creepy.

    I once listened to a BBC interview of Irving shortly after the trial (I think – or possibly shortly before). He was horrible – his voice brimmed with contempt for Lipstadt.

    And it’s pathetic that Hitchens presented it as a free speech and free inquiry issue when it was irving who tried to silence Lipstadt, not the other way around. And he did it knowing she was right and he had falsified the evidence. It was intellectual bullying of the worst kind, and Hitchens of all people should have spat on it.

  10. 10
    Soupy One

    Yes, but to do otherwise would mean that Hitchens would have had to admit his error?

  11. 11
    Ophelia Benson

    He did do that sometimes. But I don’t know. I’ve reached the end of my capacity to guess.

  12. 12
    specialffrog

    You are welcome to disagree with him but I don’t get the sense that Hitchens is defending more than a small subset of Irving’s actual work.

    I’d suggest reading this Hitchens article titled”The Strange Case of David Irving” for a more complete sense of his thoughts on the matter:

    http://articles.latimes.com/2001/may/20/books/bk-144

    In it he acknowledges that it is clear Irving’s work has involved numerous deliberate falsifications and that Irving seems to be the source of most of his problems (for instance the libel trial).

  13. 13
    Soupy One

    Please, we have all read Hitchens writings in the LA times.

    I have covered his shifting arguments over time in several posts.

    http://soupyone.wordpress.com/?s=Hitchens

    I recommend you check each link and watch the type of curious argumentation emanating from Christopher Hitchens. Not pretty.

  14. 14
    Al Dente

    rnilsson @7

    Can’t someone simply stone Dr Irving?

    Irving doesn’t have any type of degree. He attended a couple of universities but did not graduate.

  15. 15
    Ophelia Benson

    Reading the LA Times piece. This is interesting – on Irving’s book on Goebbels -

    For the publisher, it was a simple question of avoiding unpleasantness (“Profiles in Prudence,” as its senior editor Thomas Dunne put it to me ruefully).

    Note that in the WSJ piece, quoted about, he says Thomas Mallon – who is a novelist.

  16. 16
    Ophelia Benson

    Well he acknowledges everything, but then says “I still regard it as ridiculous that Irving’s books are almost impossible to obtain in the homeland of the 1st Amendment.”

    ???

    Why should Irving’s books be available when Irving’s been shown to be unreliable as a historian? There’s no value in publishing lies that purport to be scholarly truth.

  17. 17
    Soupy One

    But Irving’s book were available, from the neofascist press.

    I assume that mainstream publishers probably did not want to be tainted by proximity to a neofascist partisan and novelist!

    Not unreasonable.

  18. 18
    Ophelia Benson

    And it frankly just seems a stupid complaint. Most books are unobtainable, because most books go out of print, most of those quite quickly. Why would it be important for Irving’s books to remain in print when they’re full of lies? And what’s the First Amendment got to do with it?

  19. 19
    Al Dente

    During the Lipstadt trial the eminent military historian Sir John Keegan praised Irving as a military historian. His book Mare’s Nest, about the German V-weapons program and Allied intelligence and countermeasures towards those weapons, is still highly regarded. When Irving let his fascination with fascism and his admiration for Hitler influence his writing that he went skidding towards the bottom of the heap.

  20. 20
    Soupy One

    Sorry, I am not participating in any discussion leaden with David Irving apologists.

    A few point before I go.

    Keegan had to be subpoenaed to testify. He is a military historian, not an academic historian.

    Every competent academic historian that has ever commented on Irving’s work has slated it.

    Irving manipulates evidence, lies, mistranslates and makes every effort to exonerate Adolf Hitler.

    From his earliest book’s Irving manipulated the figures to suit his predetermined conclusions. That is not a historians method. It is the tactics of a neofascist partisan.

    Finally, the court case judgement http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/i/irving-david/judgment-00-00.html

  21. 21
    Dave W

    Seems to me that Hitchens was a free-speech/free-inquiry absolutist: that Irving’s books were full of lies was irrelevant, any sort of censorship was tyrannical. Hitchens’ sympathies would lie with the victim whose ideas were being stifled, especially if those ideas were unpopular.

  22. 22
    Ophelia Benson

    But books going out of print isn’t censorship. It’s a different kind of thing altogether. Then the argument is “hey this brilliant writer is unjustly neglected, her books should be in print again.” The First Amendment is entirely beside the point.

    Yet Hitchens invoked the First Amendment as if Irving had been censored by Congress or some other branch of government. That’s completely ridiculous.

  23. 23
    Al Dente

    Soupy One @20

    Keegan … is a military historian, not an academic historian.

    Keegan was a lecturer in military history at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He was also a visiting professor at Princeton University and was Delmas Distinguished Professor of History at Vassar College. There are legitimate criticisms of Keegan, for instance Christopher Bassford argued that Keegan didn’t understand Clauswitz’s comments about the political factors of war, echoed by political scientist Richard Betts who described Keegan as a “a naïf about politics.” But you cannot claim he wasn’t an academic historian.

    Sorry, I am not participating in any discussion leaden with David Irving apologists.

    And who is that? I don’t see anyone apologizing for Irving. Unless you think an “apologist” is one who isn’t calling for Irving’s immediate drawing and quartering.

  24. 24
    Dave W

    Ophelia @22: You’ve got to remember that Holocaust denial is prohibited by law in a few countries, and Hitchens’ views are all tied up with that. Irving pled guilty to denying the Holocaust in Austria, a case that Lipstadt wasn’t happy about, for reasons similar to Hitchens. While on U.S. soil, the First Amendment protects us from such censorship – maybe that’s what Hitchens was trying to get across.

    Note: I’m not trying to defend free-speech absolutism (I think it’s self-defeating in that it forces one to self-censor statements in the form of “you shouldn’t say ___”), I’m just trying to present some context in which Hitchens’ statements might be seen as internally consistent and make some sense.

  25. 25
    Omar Puhleez

    OB @#9:

    “And it’s pathetic that Hitchens presented it as a free speech and free inquiry issue when it was irving who tried to silence Lipstadt, not the other way around. And he did it knowing she was right and he had falsified the evidence. It was intellectual bullying of the worst kind, and Hitchens of all people should have spat on it.”

    It is not a new problem. Should we allow free speech to falsifers, liars, censorious bastards and others who would use the right to freedom of speech in order to shut it down and deny that same right to others? The liberal philosophical consensus on that last point has so far been ‘yes’. After all., what alternative is there?

    Having followed specialfrog’s link @#12 and not being someone who does social media (Twitter, Facebook etc as distinct from blogs) it surprises me that Hitchens has said or written anything that can be construed as support for Irving’s dodgy historiography, as distinct from supporting Irving’s right to write or say what he likes. As far as I can see from what I have read, Hitchens had no time for Irving’s Hitler-sympathising apologetics, and while being prepared to meet with Irving (at the latter’s request, I understand) at the same time he agreed with his wife’s request that Irving and Hitchens meet somewhere other than at the Hitchens home: for reasons set out in the link at #12.

    No one is infallible. We all make mistakes which in turn can lead on to bigger ones. But let’s not get distracted from possible subtexts here. Hitchens really got up the nose of the left by supporting the Coalition of the Willing in the Iraq War, and in the debate that ensued, making his famous distinction between the ”pro-totalitarian left’ (his left opponents) and the ‘anti-totalitarian left’ (his co-thinkers.)

    Just as Sherlock Holmes was inclined to look behind more than the occasional arras for that blackguard Moriarty, so I am inclined to ask re every attack on Hitchens if its motivation is not a lust for for vengeance on the part of pissed-off parties from the pro-totalitarian left.

    Could well be the case here.

  26. 26
    Setár, Elvenkitty

    Al Dente #23:

    And who is that? I don’t see anyone apologizing for Irving. Unless you think an “apologist” is one who isn’t calling for Irving’s immediate drawing and quartering.

    Oh jezuz, we’ve got a “moderate” on our hands.

    Seriously, if you can’t make your point about why we should tolerate fascists without invoking images of brutal and inhumane punishment, and by doing so insinuating that those who disagree with you support violent silencing behaviour (including censorship), you have a serious fucking problem. I understand that it’s easy for you to claim this, since that’s what the fascists do, but that’s the result of radical authoritarianism, not radical views per se. It’s highly fucking unfair to ascribe those same authoritarian beliefs to radical leftists (or even just anti-fascists in general, since not all anti-fascists necessarily side with the Left) just because they happen to stand at the opposite end shouting back at the fascists.

    Once you’ve gotten off your Golden Mean Pedestal and rejected the horrible, horrible myth that radical leftists are as much fans of authoritarianism as radical rightists, then we can talk about the dangers of tolerating radical-right viewpoints, including “race realism”, “straight/cis pride”, “Men’s Rights Activism”, and, yes, Holocaust denial. That being said, I will take this moment to note that such radical-right views in the halls of power are the reason why the US government is currently shut down — chew on that for a moment before you respond.

    Omar Puhleez #25:
    Framing your rhetoric as though you are some sort of Independent Objective Observer Completely Divorced From All Politics does not magically make that so. It definitely does not give your opinion more weight than anyone else’s simply because they failed to dump on “both sides” as well as you did. And it certainly does not make insinuations like these any less of an ad hominem attack:

    Just as Sherlock Holmes was inclined to look behind more than the occasional arras for that blackguard Moriarty, so I am inclined to ask re every attack on Hitchens if its motivation is not a lust for for vengeance on the part of pissed-off parties from the pro-totalitarian left.

    I would ask the same of you as I did of Al Dente, if that last bit weren’t a giant red flag signalling that you are apologizing and erasing on the behalf of fascists. Instead, I’m just going to ask that you take your condescending neo-fascist shit elsewhere, where it won’t clog up a valuable discussion on why we shouldn’t tolerate fascists.

  27. 27
    ismenia

    Most books never even get published. Should every author who cannot find a publisher claim that this is a violation of their right to free speech?

  28. 28
    johnthedrunkard

    Very strange that so many 1st Amendment enthusiasts seem to believe that pernicious lies deserve some ‘special’ extra promotion.

    Irving has influenced public thought with his Nazi-worshiping work from his earliest publications. The mythology around Dresden is entrenched in public consciousness like old diet fads and quack pamphlets.

    Do we really need to see some special effort to keep bogus scholarship and hateful lies in print? Is it a public service to give a platform to Fred Phelps? How many copies of ‘The Passing of the Great Race’ or ‘The Chalice and the Blade’ should libraries keep on hand?

  29. 29
    Ophelia Benson

    Dave @ 24, I know all that (and I do keep it in mind); I blogged about it heavily at the time. But Hitchens said what he said, not something else. I think it’s ludicrous to claim that systematic falsification has anything to do with “free inquiry.” Systematic falsification is the opposite of free inquiry. Free inquiry depends heavily on accuracy, honesty, truth-telling, and trust. Falsification is highly coercive.

  30. 30
    Al Dente

    Setár @26

    Seriously, if you can’t make your point about why we should tolerate fascists without invoking images of brutal and inhumane punishment, and by doing so insinuating that those who disagree with you support violent silencing behaviour (including censorship), you have a serious fucking problem.

    I have a problem? I was responding to a guy who called me an Irving apologist because I said he’d written a good book and that a prominent military historian said Irving was a decent military historian.

    As for left-wing authoritarianism versus right-wing authoritarianism, I don’t have a clue about what you’re talking about other than you’re against both of them. Well good for you. Have a cookie. Maybe there’s even a pat on the head for you but not from me.

  31. 31
    Omar Puhleez

    Setár the Elf:

    “Framing your rhetoric as though you are some sort of Independent … blah… blah…. blab… does not make insinuations like these any less of an ad hominem attack:

    (My ‘ad hominem’ attack was apparently the following: “…. I am inclined to ask re every attack on Hitchens if its motivation is not a lust for for vengeance on the part of pissed-off parties from the pro-totalitarian left.”)

    I followed Soupy’s link @#13 (see below) and found Hitchens defending the obnoxious Irving’s right to free speech, and that alone; with an observation that in it there was a useful lead in one particular line of historical enquiry. Nothing more.

    Hitchens was not so easy to dismiss as the likes of you would have him. But I must hasten to add, one of the reasons I place liberalism on the highest political deck is that apart from anything else, there is not a single argumentative human being from whom I have not learned something: even if what I have taken away from the discussion is not what the arguer wished me to take away.

    “I would ask the same of you as I did of Al Dente, if that last bit weren’t a giant red flag signalling that you are apologizing and erasing on the behalf of fascists. Instead, I’m just going to ask that you take your condescending neo-fascist shit elsewhere, where it won’t clog up a valuable discussion on why we shouldn’t tolerate fascists.”

    I have been commenting on this excellent site for years, almost going back to its very beginning. In that time I have had the odd suggestion from an outstanding liberal democrat such as yourself to piss off for good (to Outer Mongolia or NE Siberia perhaps?) so that the valuable discussion in process can be relieved of my clogging presence.

    I always decline each offer. No exceptions. Not even when argued as lucidly as in the above rant from you.

    http://soupyone.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/hitchens-on-robert-faurisson-and-defending-david-irving/

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