David irving's reputation as a historian of the Third Reich has been in tatters for years, with publishers refusing to print his books and some countries, including Germany and Canada, refusing him entry. But if he retained any professional credibility it was extinguished last week in a British High Court when a judge branded him an anti-Semitic, racist Holocaust denier who associated regularly with neo-Nazis and deliberately distorted history to serve his own political views.
For Irving, 62, the libel case ruling, which he called "perverse" and will seek to appeal, also threatens financial ruin. Although he pleaded his own case, the two-month trial ran up legal defense costs of more than $3 million, most of which Irving will now have to cover. Probably far worse for this self-taught historian and author of some 16 books is what Richard Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge University, predicts will now happen: "If there were any publishers left who still took him seriously, they won't any longer."
Irving has only himself to blame for his predicament. It was he who brought the libel case against American professor Deborah Lipstadt, whose book Denying the Holocaust: the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory accused Irving of being "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial," and her publisher Penguin Books. Irving, who relies on income from self-publishing and from right-wing supporters, maintained he had to sue to protect his livelihood. He says he has never denied that the Holocaust occurred, but he questions the number of Jewish dead and that there was a systematic plan of extermination in the camps. He has stuck by other highly controversial claims, including those that Hitler was unaware of the mass murder of Europe's Jews until late 1943, that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were a myth and that most prisoners died there of disease, starvation or hard labor.
The defendants, who employed a battery of historians, put forward 19 instances in which Irving had distorted the evidence. The judge found that the criticisms were "almost invariably well-founded," that Irving appeared to "take every opportunity to exculpate Hitler" and that "no objective, fair-minded historian would have serious cause to doubt that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz."
Yet the judge also credited Irving with an "unparalleled" knowledge of World War II and for painstaking research that had unearthed many undiscovered documents, an evaluation with which most historians agree. So how did this son of a British naval officer get it so wrong? A long-time admirer of Germany, Irving always enjoyed his role as a provocative historian. But after claiming in Hitler's War, published in 1977, that the Fhrer was ignorant of the mass extermination of Jews until 1943, he was courted by neo-Nazi groups and his theories and associates became more and more extremist.
Historian Donald Cameron Watt worries that this case could have one undesirable outcome -- to drive the Holocaust deniers underground. "We need to have this stuff out in the open, to thrash out the reality before the witnesses are all dead," he says. Maybe, but for most, Irving as a provoker of debate has been one provocation too far.