We Caught ‘Historian’ David Irving Denying the Holocaust on a Hot Mic
Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker write about their new doc “The Meaning of Hitler” and catching David Irving revealing his ugly true colors on a hot mic—which you can see below.
For 30 years he was an obscure failure; then almost overnight a local celebrity and eventually the man around whom the whole of world policy revolved. How does that go together?—Sebastian Haffner
When Sebastian Haffner’s The Meaning of Hitler was published in 1978, Germany had just reached the peak of what historians call the “Hitler wave.” Just over 30 years after his suicide, Hitler’s character was enjoying a pop-culture rehabilitation. Hitler biographies filled bookstore windows, SS eroticism oozed from art films, and tabloid covers excitedly told tales of Hitler’s “escape.” Susan Sontag, commenting on the moment’s newfound praise for Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, dubbed it “fascinating fascism.”
But Haffner, a journalist who witnessed Hitler’s rise and then fled the Nazis in the ’30s, was having none of that. He rejected the gawking obsession with biographical minutiae and instead wrote a slim volume that thoroughly deconstructed the Hitler cult. The book immediately rose to the top of the German bestseller list and stayed there for 44 months, a testament to Germany’s need for a sober antidote to the mythologizing tendencies of the Hitler industry.
In 2017, shortly after the shock of Charlottesville, we took Haffner’s book as our guide and set out to make a film about the meaning of Hitler today. Why were we seeing a rise in nationalism, antisemitism, white supremacy, and truth-defying fascist thought? Had the lessons of history been lost?
Over the next three years, we traveled to nine countries to visit key locations from Hitler’s life and crimes, and interviewed historians and writers not only about Hitlerism, but also the battle over history itself. Among the subjects were some of our greatest living historians: Yehuda Bauer, Saul Friedlander, Sir Richard Evans, and Deborah Lipstadt.
Lipstadt had been famously sued by British author David Irving in 1996 for defamation after she described Irving as a “dangerous spokesperson for Holocaust denial” in her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust. Following a sensational trial, where Lipstadt’s defense team relied on Richard Evans as an expert witness, the court ruled against Irving.
Reading his verdict, the judge said, “Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favorable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is antisemitic and racist and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.”
Two decades earlier, Haffner had taken exception to Irving’s insistence that there wasn’t any proof that Hitler had ordered the Holocaust, so we decided to seek an interview with Irving. Not only was there a link to Haffner, but Irving was also a key player in the mainstreaming of Holocaust denial under the guise of history. And that misrepresentation of history was suddenly everywhere.
When asked about combating fake news on Facebook in 2018, Mark Zuckerberg replied, “I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened. I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong.” (Following years of backlash, he reversed his stance.)
When we asked Lipstadt for a clarifying definition of historical denial, she explained, “It is a form of antisemitism, clothed in historical-like garb. You know, ‘We’re just examining history. We only want to get to the truth in history.’ But if this history can be rewritten, any history can be rewritten. And we’re seeing that today. We’re seeing that in the United States and we’re seeing that today in parts of Europe.”
When we finally reached out to Irving, he quickly responded and suggested that we could meet him in Poland during one of his “Real History” tours, where he’d be leading a group of international tourists through infamous Hitler sites and Nazi extermination camps.
He’d been doing these tours for a decade with very little opposition, but it was hard to believe that a man who was imprisoned in Austria and banned over the years from traveling to Canada, Germany, and Australia for promoting Holocaust denial would be given free access to any site in Poland where the Nazis murdered an estimated 5 million people, including 3 million Polish Jews. However, a few weeks after contacting him, we found ourselves standing next to Irving as he blew a brass whistle and led his clients off a bus to visit the extermination site of Treblinka, where the Nazis killed more than 900,000 people.
Twenty years after being financially hobbled by the cost of the Lipstadt trial, Irving paints himself as the victim of a conspiracy by “the traditional enemies of truth” to “smear him out oblivion” and claims that the intentions of these tours and his research is to simply reveal the truth. However, as we walked deeper into Treblinka and he began to feel at ease with his followers, the real David Irving—and the real face of denial—came out as you can see in the clip provided here:
Irving’s tours aren’t about history. They are about transgression. The act of being there is a kind of victory. When it comes to those who “find community by rejoicing in the suffering of those they hate and fear,” The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer observed, “The cruelty is the point.”
IFC Films’ ‘The Meaning of Hitler’ is now playing in select theaters and on demand.