David Irving was once treated with great respect for his historical tomes on World War II and Nazi Germany. But since the 1980s, he has cultivated a reputation as the world's most prominent Holocaust denier, a status he cemented by suing Penguin Books and American scholar Deborah Lipstadt for libel in 2000 after Lipstadt wrote that he was a denier and a pro-Nazi ideologue. In a dramatic judgment, Irving lost his case and most of the considerable amount of money he made over the years selling his books. That, and his 2006 stint in an Austrian prison for denying the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz, have made Irving a hero in extremist circles. Any reputation he once had as a real "historian" has been wrecked.
In His Own Words
"I don't think there was any overall Reich policy to kill the Jews. If there was, they would have been killed and there would not be now so many millions of survivors. And believe me, I am glad for every survivor that there was."
— 1988 comment disputing the Final Solution
"Until the end of this tragic century there will always be incorrigible historians, statesmen, and publicists who are content to believe, or have no economically viable alternative but to believe, that the Nazis used ‘gas chambers' at Auschwitz to kill human beings. But it is now up to them to explain to me as an intelligent and critical student of modern history why there is no significant trace of any cyanide compound in the building which they have always identified as the former gas chambers."
— 1989 comment questioning the gas chambers
"I'm going to form an association of Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust and Other Liars — or the ASSHOLs."
— 1991 speech to a Canadian audience
"I inevitably investigated the extent to which Hitler participated in or had cognizance of the Holocaust. … To my utmost distaste it has become evident that it is no longer possible to write pure history, untrammeled and uninfluenced by politics, once one ventures into this unpleasant field."
— 2000 statement in libel trial against Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt
In 1989, Austrian authorities issued a warrant for the arrest of Irving, who denied the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz in two speeches to radical groups. Irving had left the country by the time the warrants were issued. In 1992, a German court found Irving guilty of Holocaust denial under the Auschwitzlüge (Auschwitz lie/Holocaust denial) section of the law against Volksverhetzung (stirring up the populace through hatemongering). Irving was subsequently barred from entering Germany. The same year, he was barred from entering Australia due to his Holocaust denial activities. In 1994, Irving served 10 days of a three-month sentence at London's Petonville prison for contempt of court. Six years later, in 2004, Irving was barred from entering New Zealand due to his Holocaust denial activities. The next year, he was jailed in Austria on the 1989 warrant for trivializing the Holocaust in two speeches after he illegally sneaked into the country to give yet another speech. He subsequently pleaded guilty to the 1989 charges and was sentenced to three years in prison. That sentence was reduced on appeal in 2006 to time served (13 months) and Irving was deported to the United Kingdom.
David Irving grew up in Essex County, England, in what he described as "very reduced circumstances." His father, a commander in the Royal Navy and author of several books concerning naval history and life, separated from his mother when Irving was a small child. According to a description of his personal background that he wrote for his lawyer in 1969, Irving was proud of his family's service history, stating that a photo of his father reviewing the troops with King George VI (1895-1952) was one of his most prized possessions.
Though Irving never earned a degree, he took courses at Imperial College in London and cut his teeth as a journalist editing Phoenix, the college magazine. He then moved on to The Carnival Times, the London University newspaper, where he began to gain notoriety for his highly conservative views on apartheid in South Africa, and for an accusation that the British press was owned and operated by Jews.
In 1963, at the age of 25, Irving published The Destruction of Dresden, which dealt with the Allied bombing raids on the German city and was written at a time when British interest in the raids was high. The book gained Irving a reputation as a World War II historian and became an international bestseller, even though Irving's figures for the death toll — 100,000-250,000 on first printing, adjusted down to 50,000-100,000 in later versions — were widely questioned. It was later revealed in court that Irving had based his figures on the word of Dresden's Deputy Chief Medical Officer, who himself said that he was just repeating rumors.
Irving has written some 30 books on World War II, most of which tell the German side of the war. His most famous and most controversial book is Hitler's War (1977), a two-part biography describing the war from Hitler's point of view. The book was controversial primarily because Irving claimed that Hitler had no knowledge of the Holocaust. (The book did tacitly admit that the Holocaust had actually occurred, a position Irving would later repudiate.)
Though leading World War II historians such as John Keegan and Hugh Trevor-Roper praised the book (aside from its claim of Hitler's ignorance of the Holocaust), others began to view Irving as a "creative historian" and to question his methods. In response to his subsequent book, The Trail of the Fox, a biography of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, British historian David Pryce-Jones accused Irving of blindly accepting anything Hitler had to say, while applying the strictest standards of suspicion to other sources, notably those with a pro-Allied slant.
Though Irving's later works were received with increasing criticism and skepticism by established historians, he still enjoyed considerable financial success in the late 1970s and early 1980s, even taking a flat in London's prestigious Mayfair district and driving a Rolls-Royce. He began to tackle with less success subjects other than the Third Reich, such as a biography of Winston Churchill that essentially painted Churchill as a reckless warmonger, and Uprising!, a book that portrayed the 1956 Hungarian revolt as "primarily anti-Jewish." Irving's increasingly obvious anti-Semitism drew more and more scrutiny of the validity of his work, with the result that he was progressively isolated from the academic historical community.
In 1983, Irving played a major role in the "Hitler Diaries" controversy. Initially, he claimed that the supposed diaries were forgeries and crashed the press conference held by Der Stern magazine to publicize them. But a week later, Irving reversed his position. (Many believe he changed his view because the alleged diaries contained no mention of the Holocaust, thus buttressing Irving's argument in Hitler's War.) Later, when the diaries were definitively shown to be fakes, Irving described himself as vindicated, although many pointed out that he had only briefly held that position. The entire affair further damaged Irving's credibility as any kind of scholar.
That may have helped push Irving toward explicitly radical-right groups. During the same year as the diaries controversy, Irving began to speak at meetings of the Deutsche Volksunion (DVU), a party classified as "right-wing extremist" by West Germany's Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Also in 1983, Irving gave a talk in Los Angeles for the Institute for Historical Review (IHR), a group dedicated to disproving the Holocaust. At the time, Irving maintained that there were liquidations of Jews and other minorities conducted by high-ranking Nazi officers, but that these executions were carried out without Hitler's knowledge or consent. This drew a challenge from Robert Faurisson, a prominent French Holocaust denier and IHR member who rejected Irving's claims about Hitler's non-involvement, instead claiming that no Holocaust ever took place. Faurisson did not convince Irving, whose own epiphany, "realizing" there was no Holocaust, came later, during the 1988 trial of Ernst Zundel, a Canadian resident and key Holocaust denier. Zundel had relied on a 1988 report issued by self-styled engineer Fred A. Leuchter Jr., who claimed to have personally discovered there was no cyanide residue on the walls of Auschwitz's alleged gas chambers. Though Leuchter was discredited almost immediately, Irving, too, still cites his report as what changed his mind about the reality of the Holocaust. "That's what converted me," said Irving. "When I read that report in the courtroom of Toronto, I became a hardcore disbeliever."
Irving has denied that racism or anti-Semitism forms the basis of his views. But his own history does not support that claim. During the early 1990s, Irving began to associate with the neo-Nazi American group the National Alliance, which sponsored seven Irving lectures between 1995 to 1998. Irving also began to refer to Jews as "Shylocks" during this period, a nod to Shakespeare's unflattering portrayal of a Jewish moneylender in The Merchant of Venice. In 1992, Irving publicly took exception to the British Broadcasting Corp.'s use of a black man to read the radio news. And, as became public during his later libel suit against Lipstadt, in 1994 Irving composed a revealing ditty for his infant daughter: "I am a baby Aryan, not Jewish or sectarian," Irving's song, recorded in his private diaries, began. "I have no plans to marry an, ape or Rastafarian." His predilection for nannies with a certain type of breast also came to light during the trial.
It was around this time that Irving began to run into trouble with European laws against denying or trivializing the Holocaust. In 1989, a warrant was issued for his arrest by Austrian authorities after he gave two speeches in that country denying the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz. In 1992, Irving was fined several thousand dollars by the German government for denying the Holocaust, and was banned from entering Germany the following year. Today, Irving is also persona non grata in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, most recently, Austria.
Irving's most famous legal battle came when he sued Penguin Books and American scholar Deborah Lipstadt over Lipstadt's portrayal of him in her 1994 book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Irving brought the suit against the British division of Penguin once the book was circulated in that country because British common law states that in a libel suit, the burden of proof rests with the defendant rather than the plaintiff (American libel law shifts the burden of proof to the plaintiff and is far easier on writers' unintentional reporting errors). Still, the London judge sided with Penguin and Lipstadt, roundly denouncing Irving in his judgment and ordering him to pay Lipstadt's court costs — an estimated $5 million. The judge concluded that Irving "displays a distinctly pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish bias" and went on to call him "an active Holocaust denier" who "deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence." Ultimately, the trial had the effect of wiping out Irving's dwindling finances and battering his credibility.
In 2005, Irving was arrested in Austria, where he had traveled secretly to give a speech to a radical group, on the 1989 warrant. He pleaded guilty and told the court that he had changed his views of the Holocaust, and was sentenced to three years in prison. That sentence was later reduced to time served, and he was deported to Britain (where he immediately announced that he hadn't, in fact, changed his views on the war). Since then, Irving reportedly has lectured in Hungary and attended a far-right nationalist rally there on March 15, 2007. He still distributes his now-discredited writings through his own publishing house, run through his website.
In 2009, Irving reportedly made one of his weirdest announcements yet. He declared that, "Hitler appointed me his biographer." Irving told The Independent (U.K) that he discovered this while working on a biography of Adolf Hitler.
"I made a great point of tracking down all Hitler's surviving doctors," he told the paper, "and I identified Erwin Giesing as the doctor who treated Hitler after the bomb attempt on his life in 1944." Irving said Giesing was living in Aachen, West German, in the 1970s. Irving claimed that when he called him, Giesing replied, "I've been expecting you." Giesing then told Irving that Hitler had told him, "One day, an Englishman will come along and write my biography. But it cannot be an English man of the present generation. They won't to be objective. It will have to be an Englishman of the next generation, and one who is totally familiar with all the German archives."