David Irving, Hitler and Holocaust Denial: Electronic Edition, by Richard J. Evans

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2.3 Professional historians and archival research

2.3.1 Historians reconstruct and interpret past events on the basis of a variety of sources. These include interviews with survivors, where the subject is very recent history; published collections of documents and texts of various kinds; memoirs and reminiscences of contemporaries; photographs, drawings, maps and plans, particularly where contemporaneous   with the subject under investigation; and many other kinds of material. Most important of all are archival sources, that is, unpublished official and private, manuscript or typescript material stored in repositories designed for the purpose and administered by the state or by non-governmental institutions and organizations or in some cases by private individuals.
2.3.2 Irving tells anyone willing to listen that he is 'an expert historian on the 'Third Reich'; I have spent thirty years now working in the archives in London, in Washington, in Moscow - in short, around the world. (If I) express an opinion it's probably a reasonable (sic) accurate opinion which I have arrived at, over a period of years...'5 In researching Hitler, he claims to have
adopted strict criteria in selecting my source material. I have burrowed deep into the contemporary writings of his closest personal staff, seeking clues to the real truth in diaries and private letters written to wives and friends. For the few autobiographical works I have used I have preferred to rely on their original manuscripts rather than the printed texts, as in the early postwar years apprehensive publishers (especially the "licensed" ones in Germany) made drastic changes in them...But historians are quite incorrigible, and will quote any apparently primary source no matter how convincingly its pedigree is exposed.6
Irving argued in the Introduction to the 1991 edition of Hitler's War that other historians had been almost uniformly 'lazy' in their attitude to the sources and that therefore everyone else's work on Hitler was unreliable. 7
2.3.3 He listed a whole variety of diaries and other sources on which he claimed - without any references to back his assertion up, however, - previous historians had relied, and which   he himself had exposed as falsifications. All these falsifications, he argued, were to the disadvantage of Hitler. Yet his 'idle predecessors' in writing about Hitler had failed to detect them.8 'Each successive biographer' of Hitler, he declared in 1977, 'has repeated or engrossed the legends created by his predecessors, or at best consulted only the most readily available works of reference themselves.'9 They had never bothered to visit the surviving relatives of leading Nazis to search for additional material. And they never troubled to consult the most basic documentation. In a debate held in 1978 in the German town of Aschaffenburg, Irving attacked establishment historians for allegedly simply copying out of each other's books, while he was the only Hitler specialist who actually consulted the original sources. 10
2.3.4 In June, 1989 Irving declared - without naming any examples or providing any evidence at all for his statement - that 'the German historians themselves are now beginning, rather shamefacedly, to admit that they have all just been quoting each other for the last forty five years...They have all just been quoting what each other historian has written.'11 His critics, he charged, had 'relied on weak and unprofessional evidence.'12 He himself had spent 'twenty years toiling in the archives'.13 'Who', asked Irving rhetorically in 1991, 'are those overemotional historians of the Jewish holocaust who have never troubled themselves even to open a readily available file of the SS Chief Heinrich Himmler's own handwritten telephone notes, or to read his memoranda for his secret meetings with Adolf Hitler?'14 Historians were   inveterately lazy. 'A lot of us, when we see something in handwriting, well, we hurriedly flip to another folder where it's all neatly typed out...But I've trained myself to take the line of most resistance and I go for the handwriting.'15 Most historians, he averred, only quoted each other when it came to Hitler's alleged part in the extermination of the Jews. 'For thirty years our knowledge of Hitler's part in the atrocity had rested on inter-historian incest.'16 Thus Irving contemptuously almost never cites, discusses or uses the work of other historians in his own books, though he is happy enough to quote them, as this Report will show, when they write something favourable about his own researches in their reviews of his work.
2.3.5 Irving is particularly proud of his personal collection of thousands of documents and index cards on the history of the ''Third Reich''. He points out that he is 'well known for providing every assistance to and answering the queries of his colleagues, regardless of their attitude to his works', and that he has made his research materials generally available for historical study at the German Federal Archives and at the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich. He has published some of his documentary discoveries, including the diaries of Hitler's personal physician, Dr. Morell, in 1983. All this adds up, in Irving's self-presentation to the court, as he says, referring to himself in the third person, 'to the scrupulous diligence for which he had already earned a justifiable reputation'.17
2.3.6 Yet Irving is misleading his readers when he gives the impression that he is the only historian of this subject with a thorough knowledge of the archives. He is certainly right to criticise those who have written biographies of Hitler. From the early (and for its time very creditable) biography by Alan Bullock through the stylish, but overblown and overpraised study by Joachim Fest, to the hopelessly inaccurate life by John Toland, biographies of Hitler have   been more notable for their number than for their quality.18 Only with the new biography by Ian Kershaw do we have a study of Hitler's life that is both based on a thorough knowledge of the archival material and scrupulously careful and balanced in its judgments.19 But simply to concentrate on biographies of Hitler is to deliver a completely misleading account of the state of research on the field in which Irving works. There are hundreds of historians - German, British, American, Israeli, Swiss, French, Dutch, Canadian and so on - and thousands of books and learned articles which have treated in detail, and on the basis of the most painstaking archival investigations, the subjects with which Irving concerns himself. 20
2.3.7 The major documentary collections have been generally available to historians for decades. Already in the immediate aftermath of the war, Allied war crimes prosecutors sifted through tons of captured German documents to prepare their indictments in the Nuremberg Trials. Many of these were printed in the published record of the trials. The eventual return of the original documents, many times more voluminous than the printed selection, to the German Federal Archives provided the stimulus for a massive new research effort, spearheaded by the Institut für Zeitgeschichte (Institute for Contemporary History), described in the Acknowledgements to the 1977 edition of Irving's Hitler's War as 'exemplary'. Since then vast new masses of documents, both official and private in provenance, have become available. They are widely available to scholars in a variety of public state archives in Germany and other countries. This is not an area of history like, say, the fifth century, when historians have to make do with sparse and obscure source material to reconstruct what happened. Historians of the 'Third Reich' and the Second World War are more in danger of drowning in a sea of   sources. There is no reason for historians of Nazi Germany to copy from each other, nor in fact does Irving anywhere present any solid evidence that they do so. This is in many ways one of the easiest areas of history to research. The British Government, for example, still keeps many documents of the 1930s and 1940s classified and bars access to them by researchers. This is not the case with German government records of the time, nor has it been for many years.
2.3.8 The training of a professional historian in Germany, Britain, the USA and elsewhere has for long been based on the Ph.D., which requires proof of mastery of all the necessary techniques of archival research and historical investigation based on original documents, and from the 1960s onwards, generations of PhD students from these countries and others have descended upon the German archives and the microfilmed editions of captured German documents available in the National Archives in Washington D.C., the Imperial War Museum and elsewhere, and produced a mass of published research into the history of Germany under Nazism and during the Second World War that is almost overwhelming. The techniques of documentary investigation in which Irving presents himself as the master are in fact a normal part of the stock-in-trade of every trainee professional historian. Of course, Irving has discovered new documents and obtained new evidence, for example, by interviewing surviving eyewitnesses of the time. But this is true of a vast number of other historians too. The difference is that normal professional historians do not make such a fetish of it. Moreover, new discoveries in this field are quite normal. Such is the vastness of the documentary legacy left by Nazi Germany - twelve years in the life of a major, modern industrial state - that much of the archival record still remains to be worked through, though the main outlines have long been known.
2.3.9 Nor is what Irving portrays as his own critical attitude to the documents in any way unusual. All historians are trained to adopt such an attitude. Of course, like everyone else, historians make mistakes. But it is quite misleading to give the impression that historians in general are incapable of properly evaluating historical documents, gullible about forgeries and   falsifications, or content to accept each other's opinions on these matters. Irving is quite correct to say that it is necessary to inquire of every historical document whether it is authentic, why it came into being, and what was the vantage point of its author. To put it another way, historians need to know what were the motives behind a particular document coming into existence, so that they can control it for possible bias, tendentiousness, or downright intention to mislead. Obviously, however, every historical document must be subjected to the same critical scrutiny in this way. This is where it begins to become clear that Irving is no ordinary professional historian in this sense. Instead of observing them as scrupulously as he claims, Irving in fact abuses the professional conventions to which he pretends to subscribe. For, as this Report will demonstrate in detail, he does not apply the normal criteria of source-criticism in a consistent or professional way.


5. David Irving on Freedom of Speech. Speech at Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. October 28, 1992.Transcript on Irving's 'Focal Point' website.
6. Irving, Hitler's War (London, 1977), p. xii.
7. Ibid, p. 6; also in the preface to Hitler's War (London, 1991).
8. Irving, Hitler's War (London, 1977), pp. 6-7; also in the preface to the 1991 edition.
9. Hitler's War, 177 edn., p. xxii.
10. Gitta Sereny, 'Building up defences against the Hitlerwave', New Statesman, 7 July 1978.
11. lnterview with David Irving on Radio Ulster, 23 June 1989.
12. Ibid., p. 11 (also in the preface to the 1991 edition).
13. Ibid., p. 13 (also in the preface to the 1991 edition).
14. Ibid, p. 7 (also in the preface to the 1991 edition).
15. lrving, 'On Contemporary History', p. 273.
16. Ibid., p. 10 (also in the preface to the 1991 edition).
17. Reply to the Defence of the Second Defendant, p. 29.
18. John Toland, Adolf Hitler (London, 1976); Alan Bullock, Hitler. A Study in Tyranny (Harmondsworth, 2nd ed., 1962); Joachim C. Fest, Hitler. Eine Biographie (Frankfurt am Main, 1976)
19. Ian Kershaw. Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (London, 1998; second volume forthcoming, 2001).
20. See for example Paul Madden, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Epoch:An Annotated Bibliography of English-Language Works on the Origins, Nature and Structure of the Nazi State (Lanham, Maryland, 1998), which runs to over 700 pages just on the literature in English.
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accessed 12 March 2013