The Fascist Historian and Me

He’s a pro-Nazi polemicist and convicted felon who calls me a “dumpster diver.” So how acceptable is it to draw on David Irving’s work?

Alessia Pierdomenico/Reuters

Earlier this week, the Daily Telegraph reported that Jeremy Clarkson, host of the hit motoring show Top Gear, has been accused of plagiarism by the pro-Nazi polemicist, historical falsifier, Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, racist, neo-fascist, convicted felon, and writer David Irving.

The subject was not Clarkson’s opinion of some latest muscle car, but rather the content of his recent BBC documentary on the Arctic convoys of the Second World War, by which the British shipped vital supplies to its ally the Soviet Union.

Clarkson’s program focused on the dismal fate of one convoy, PQ17, which, in the middle of 1942, lost 24 ships and some 150 sailors to a deadly combination of German submarines and aircraft. It was one of the worst maritime disasters that befell Britain during the war, and, as Clarkson demonstrated, its fault perhaps lay as much within poor leadership in the British Admiralty as it did within the effectiveness of the Nazi assault. The show was well received, even by those who normally baulk at the use of celebrities to present TV programs about specialist subjects.

However, it left Irving fuming, who claimed that at “least half of Clarkson’s script and storyline” was “anonymously quarried” from his bestselling 1967 book The Destruction of PQ17. According to Irving, the script was “sprinkled with sentences and passages lifted from my work”, all of which were uncredited.

After informing the Telegraph that he was intending to send the BBC a “letter before action,” he went on to say:

“It is shameful, but, alas, characteristic, the way the BBC overpays its ‘stars’ and gives neither cash nor credit to those who toiled at the coalface, so to speak, 50 years ago. There are limits to how far fair usage can go.”

The BBC was robust in its defense, even if it did not know the meaning of the word ‘refute.’ “The BBC utterly refutes Mr. Irving’s claim that the program plagiarized his book,” a statement thundered. “The tragic events surrounding the convoy codenamed PQ17, including the role of those featured in our documentary, have been described in detail in a number of publications and secondary sources covering the disaster.”

Clarkson himself, while admitting that he had indeed read Irving’s book, denied that it was simply a matter of ‘regurgitating’ the writer’s work. Apparently adding to his defense of historical rigor, the presenter claimed that he had also “had lunch with Patrick Bishop, a distinguished historian,” which must have been nice.

I am in no position to judge to what extent Clarkson and the BBC did indeed ‘quarry’ Mr. Irving’s book, but as I am indeed a betting man—and knowing how TV production companies operate—I am willing to wager good money that they did. Television is a magpie, and it will take back to its stuffed nest whatever shiny things it can find. I suspect that the production stopped short of plagiarism, but it probably sailed very close to the U-boat.

There are many debates to be had here, not least that of how much of a historian’s factual findings can be protected as intellectual property. (Answer: not much, and rightly so—anything that copyrights truth is dangerous.)

However, a more fascinating debate is this: How acceptable is it to draw on the work of a man, who is, as I think I may have mentioned, a pro-Nazi polemicist, historical falsifier, Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, racist, neo-fascist, and convicted felon?

For historians such as myself, the figure of Irving looms very large indeed. Despite his negative qualities, he is without doubt a researcher of the Nazi period without equal. (Note to Mr. Irving: You are not permitted to use that last clause in any promotional literature. Not that you would, because you hate me, but more of that in a bit.)

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I cannot think of any other writer who better knows his way around the arcana of, say, the German Foreign Ministry Archives or the Ultra intercepts. As well as being a great archival researcher, Irving has also spent half a century interviewing every surviving Nazi of any significance. When I interviewed the late former Gestapo officer Erich Priebke, I recall him speaking admiringly of Irving with his twinkling old Nazi eyes. As the late Sir John Keegan observed, “David Irving knows more than anyone alive about the German side of the Second World War.” With qualification, he was right at the time, although I would use the words ‘senior Nazi’ rather than ‘German’.

Irving’s books therefore, draw on a vast amount of primary information that he himself has quarried. In his words, such work is ‘knuckle-breaking’, but as I am sure he would acknowledge, it is also deeply rewarding, and what’s more, it adds vast amounts of plausibility. To the lay reader, when shown an impressive range of endnotes in any Irving book, he or she must only conclude that it looks like a tony work of history.

But this is where the problem lies. Irving may well be a great researcher, but he is not a great historian. In fact, he is not even an historian at all, because any meaningful definition of the job must include words like ‘disinterested’ and ‘open-minded’. Irving is neither of those. In fact, he is the opposite. As the judgment in his 2000 libel suit he brought against Penguin Books and historian Deborah Lipstadt so memorably put it, “Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence”.

I have witnessed at first hand how Irving likes to distort things. Last October, I wrote an article scotching the absurd notion that Adolf Hitler fled to Argentina after the war. A few days later, I saw that Irving posted a link to the piece on his cranky and sprawling website, accompanied by the words, “Daily Mail’s Guy Walters takes seriously the latest dumpster-diving discovery: the survival of Adolf Hitler to a great age in Argentina.”

I took issue, and wrote to Irving, stating that “as usual, it would appear you are misrepresenting sources in order to support your assertions”.

Irving’s reply was evasively laconic: “Writing a whole page and lucrative article in the Mail seems to me to take something pretty seriously. That is dumpster diving. I tend to ignore trash.”

The correspondence ended there, but then something interesting happened. Irving changed the text accompanying the link to: “Daily Mail’s Guy Walters on the latest dumpster-diving discovery: the survival of Adolf Hitler to a great age in Argentina.”

What’s immediately apparent is that, despite his belligerent reply, he backed down. I never asked him to change the text, but he did so anyway, which was good of him, I guess.

However, Irving and I go somewhat farther back. In 2009, WikiLeaks published a selection of emails that had been hacked from Irving’s account. I couldn’t resist going through them, and what I found astonished me. At the time, Irving’s landlord was one Philip Stopford, a partner at the prestigious law firm White & Case. What made this relationship so troubling was that one of Mr Stopford’s clients was the Israeli Government. I wrote as much on my website, pointing out that it was probably somewhat embarrassing for Mr Stopford to be renting out his house to the world’s most notorious Holocaust denier while doing business with the Israelis.

Irving, or course, did not like this revelation one little bit, and ever since, he has referred to me as a ‘dumpster diver,’ which is, I understand, an Americanism for what we in Britain called ‘skipping’. (I prefer the US sobriquet.)

But despite the fact that Irving hates me, and that he misrepresents historical records and all those other ghastly things that I really do think I have mentioned at least once, we must come back to the central question: is it acceptable for others to draw on Irving’s work?

I know many historians who refuse to touch him, fearing that by citing Irving they are running the risk of being tarred with his nasty brush. This is an understandable position to hold, but it ignores the fact that there is much within Irving’s work that is extremely valuable, and it seems a shame to ignore his research just because his motivation is so repugnant.

At the time of writing, I am currently finishing my doctoral thesis on the postwar activities of Dr. Werner Naumann, who was the deputy of Josef Goebbels at the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda. In his biography of Goebbels, Irving makes many references to Naumann, and these are references that I would like to include. I could of course simply ignore Irving, but as an historian, willfully suppressing information on the grounds that I do not like the person who dug it out seems absurd and self-denying.

My solution is quite simple: Use the Irving material, but check it. Of course, you do not need to be the smartest of Alecs to know that I should be doing this with all my sources. Believe me, I do. And so, despite the fact that I hate him and his methodology and motivation, and that he hates me in equal measure, I am happy to draw on Irving’s work.

In this respect, I am very different from one man—Jeremy Clarkson. Whereas I am quite content to cite and acknowledge David Irving, his program apparently did not do so. In my view, he should have done, because to use Irving on the sly is worse than to not use him at all.

The citing of Irving may still be the endnote that dare not speak its name, but it’s time that everybody—TV presenters and historians—came out and acknowledged their debt to a man, who I believe I have mentioned, is a pro-Nazi polemicist, historical falsifier, Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, racist, neo-fascist, and convicted felon.