Should Respectable Historians Attend and Speak at Conferences Hosted by David Irving?


Mr. Kirstein is professor of history at St. Xavier University in Chicago. He is the author of "Academic Freedom and the New McCarthyism," Situation Analysis (Spring, 2004). Recently he was elected to the Illinois AAUP State Council and is secretary of his university's AAUP chapter.

Note from the Editor: This month, as he has for several years, David Irving sponsored a conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, known as"Real History, USA," which, according to the conference website, featured speakers, seminars, and the showing of some home movies of Hitler from Hermann Göring's private collection. Since Mr. Irving was branded a Holocaust denier by a British court he has become a pariah among historians. Usually, academics do not attend his conferences let alone speak at them.

When we heard that Peter Kirstein, a professor of history known for sending an email to an Air Force Academy cadet in protest of the impending Iraq war, had agreed to speak at the conference despite Mr. Irving's reputation, we asked him to tell our readers why. This is his response.

W. B. Yeats wrote The Second Coming in 1919:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

While this reflected a poet's disconsolate mood following the Great War, should the center hold if it confers a stifling conformity and excludes radical and visionary alternatives to the current order? Should only the "better" sorts engage avidly in societal matters and the "worst" remain inert to the world around them? "Passionate intensity" is a virtue that should traverse all social classes and especially mark the marginalized and exploited. In America, if one deviates too far from the confining ideology of the oxymoronic Vital Center—the title of an Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. paean to liberalism—one is vulnerable to significant public rebuke that moves beyond mere critique towards censorship and possibly career termination.

Recently I spoke at a conference hosted by the controversial British historian, David Irving, who has written several seminal works on World War II. These include Hitler’s War and The Destruction of Dresden (later revised under the title, Apocalypse 1945: The Destruction of Dresden). Sir John Keegan described Hitler’s War as one of the “half dozen most important books about” World War II, and Dresden represented a considerable historiographical triumph—despite the controversy over the numbers slaughtered by Anglo-American bombing of the undefended city—in which the revelation of civilian casualties suggested the allies were also guilty of murderous moral depravity as well. Indeed, Howard Zinn, who participated in aerial combat during World War II, recently described the immorality of strategic bombing in the Progressive (August 2004): “It was accompanied by too many atrocities on our side—too many bombings of civilian populations. There were too many betrayals of the principles for which the war was supposed to have been fought.” In Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich, Mr. Irving appropriately referred to these bombing raids as “aerial terrorism.” (502) Mr. Irving’s exploration of the targeting of German population centers was an exemplar of antiwar revisionism that suggested the allies committed war crimes including wanton destruction of cities and targeting noncombatant populations not justified by military necessity. Such insights pioneered subsequent assessments of strategic bombing such as W. G. Sebald's, On the Natural History of Destruction.

Mr. Irving’s Goebbels was withdrawn shortly before publication in April 1996 by St. Martin’s Press, and in the following month was removed as the selection of Doubleday’s History Book Club’s Book of the Month. The censorship of the work resulted primarily from stop-publication demands from the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (ADL). Abraham H. Foxman, ADL’s national director, charged in a March 22, 1996 letter to St. Martin’s that Mr. Irving was an “apologist” for Nazism, did not possess the requisite “academic credentials” to engage in historical analysis and, without citation, claimed his previous scholarship was “replete with errors, oversights, poor research and fantasy.” Mr. Foxman sardonically suggested that if St. Martin’s released Goebbels, the publisher should designate the biography as “fiction.” Even though the book had not been read by those seeking to prohibit others from exercising independent judgment, Deborah Lipstadt, Professor of Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University, believed an author’s reputation alone could warrant the suppression of his or her work. Professor Lipstadt, whom Mr. Irving would eventually sue unsuccessfully for libel—as well as her British publisher, Penguin Books, Ltd.—told the Washington Post (April 3, 1996), “Of course the reputation of the author counts. And no legitimate historian takes David Irving’s works seriously.”

According to Mr. Irving only six copies were in the United States and all were in the possession of St. Martin’s Press (e-mail to author, July 29, 2004). Hence an unexamined biography of Dr. Joseph Goebbels, a major historical figure of the twentieth century that contained the first utilization of Goebbels’s Moscow-archived diaries, was suppressed due to rage over the reputation of its author and not the content of the work. While the censoring of any book, even if content based, raises significant questions of free speech and the public’s legitimate access to information, banning the dissemination of a historical work, for reasons other than content, should prove troubling for historians as un-American and a threat to the enterprise of historical scholarship. Imagine if the next Howard Zinn book were not published due to influential-elite opposition that claimed his prior writings were seditious and a clear and present danger to the vital interests of the United States.

Mr. Irving, however, was not without defenders on the implications of censoring history. Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair (June 1996) charged that St. Martin’s “disgraced the business of publishing and degraded the practice of debate. David Irving is not just a Fascist historian. He is also a great historian of Fascism.” Raul Hilberg, who wrote The Destruction of the European Jews, told Mr. Hitchens: “I have quoted [Adolph] Eichmann references that come from a neo-Nazi publishing house. I am not for taboos and I am not for repression.” E. J. Hobsbawm was interviewed by D. D. Guttenplan, the author of The Holocaust on Trial: History, Justice and the David Irving Libel Case . The illustrious Marxist historian noted that “most historians” have political viewpoints, and that Mr. Irving’s politics are irrelevant since historians should be judged “whether they produce work based on evidence.” (New York Times, June 26, 1999) Indeed many who oppose censorship have explored vigorously this dimension in assessing Mr. Irving’s scholarship.

Another opponent of quashing Mr. Irving’s revisionist history of National Socialism is Gordon A. Craig , J. E. Wallace Sterling Professor Emeritus of Humanities at Stanford. In a dramatic book review of Goebbels in the New York Review of Books ( September 19, 1996) he wrote: “Silencing Mr. Irving would be a high price to pay for freedom from [his] annoyance...Mr. Irving, then, ha[s] an indispensable part in the historical enterprise and we dare not disregard [his] views.” Since the tumult over the publication of Goebbels, Mr. Irving has been largely confined to publishing his works, including Goebbels, under his own imprint, Focal Point Publications.

I accepted a speaking invitation from a historian who has been castigated as anti-Semitic—a charge that Mr. Irving has consistently denied—and denounced for a falsified revisionism of Nazi Germany and the destruction of European Jewry. My mission, since my egregious suspension on Veterans Day, November 11, 2002, for an act of conscience through a harshly worded antiwar e-mail, is to demand academic freedom for university historians and no censorship of any historian for antiwar or historiographical incorrectness

As an outspoken peace activist, pacifist and war resister, which were the underlying reasons for my suspension in the twelfth week of a semester, I commend Mr. Irving’s courageous and febrile opposition to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. I was not unmindful of this when I agreed to speak at his conference. If antiwar advocates can build coalitions across the ideological divide, then future degradations of the Palestinians, future Holocausts, future illegal walls of separation, future attacks on Jewish interests and future neoconservative crusades against nonthreatening Islamic nations may be averted. Of course, an acceptance of a speaking invitation does not connote uncritical acceptance of the host’s ethos. While disagreeing profoundly with Mr. Irving on the importance of racial diversity and the value of embracing ardently multiculturalism, I would neither stifle his speech nor banish his provocative and intrepid revisionism of World War II.

I believe historians should welcome the opportunity to address any audience that is willing to listen and respond to their ideas. I stand in solidarity with all historians and other academics who have suffered for their views due to an intolerance of unpopular or infuriating speech. Any McCarthyite suppression of historiography or radical antiwar speech—no matter how offensive to some—must be challenged and condemned as anti-intellectual and antithetical to the advancement of knowledge in an open society.

Without hectoring or condescending to an attentive and receptive audience of history buffs, I articulated my views on racism and war at Mr. Irving’s “Real History Conference.” In my remarks, “Historians v. American Militarism: Resisting Censorship,” I averred:

I denounce anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic bias. History flows with rivers of blood from ethnic and cultural intolerance. The genocide against indigenous peoples and the Trail of Tears, the mass killings of Armenians at the hands of the Turks during World War I, the war crimes of Nazi Germany, the atomic butchery of noncombatant Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Jim Crow-apartheid system that only ended with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the evil and criminal Vietnam War—where debate should explore the ethics of serving in a dishonorable war and not the circumstances by which individuals are awarded medals for killing within it. The destruction of the “cockroach” Tutsis in Rwanda and the killings in Darfur are equally odious. All acts of genocide, discrimination and violence against individuals or groups that are predicated on racialism and ethnocentrism diminish us all, imperil the dream of peace and justice and hinder international reconciliation.

It is ironic that Mr. Irving, who is accused of uncritical adulation of National Socialism—a charge that is refuted by his writings—is a victim of group-identity protest that is quite nationalistic in its repression of historical revisionism. When those who claim appropriately a historical legacy of victimization and persecution attempt to delimit inquiry of the events that gave rise to such a tragic legacy, the threat to democracy in exercising a hegemonic control over the past is more damaging than the pain and fear that revisionist history may inflict upon an aggrieved group.

Revisionism is the sine qua non of historical analysis. The ideological right, including President George W. Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, has used the term in a dismissive political manner to undermine and excoriate antiwar criticism of Mr. Bush’s decision to wage war against Iraq. James McPherson, when president of the American Historical Association, responded: “[t]here is no single, eternal, and immutable 'truth' about past events and their meaning. The unending quest of historians for understanding the past—that is, 'revisionism'—is what makes history vital and meaningful.”

While Professor McPherson condemned 1970s Holocaust-denial history—which some (Hitchens, Roni Stauber) differentiate from Holocaust-revisionist history—as “misrepresenting the past for nefarious ends,” the general thrust of his article was to champion revisionism and insulate it from politicization and intimidation.

Nation-states denying entry to controversial, independent-thinking scholars is increasingly common. The United States has fallen prey to such retrogressive actions as the revocation of a visa for the renowned University of Notre Dame visiting Islamic scholar, Tariq Ramadan. The politics of historical revisionism in the case of David Irving has similar baleful consequences for the unrestricted dissemination of nonconformist ideas. Mr. Irving is banned from Germany, Australia, Canada, Italy and New Zealand due to criticism of his scholarship and public utterances concerning World War II. The New Zealand decision, while literally applying its immigration law barring the entry of persons previously deported from third countries, has generated a nationwide debate whether Mr. Irving should be prohibited from lecturing on the historiography of World War II before the National Press Club. David Zwartz, president of the New Zealand Jewish Council and honorary Israeli consul in New Zealand, has led the campaign for exclusion. He described Mr. Irving as an “organism—even a two-legged one—that attacks our people.” (New Zealand Herald, July 26, 2004) Mr. Zwartz also claimed that denying entry to Mr. Irving had nothing to do “with suppressing his ideas” because his oeuvre is “available to anyone who wishes to access them.” (e-mail to author, August 3, 2004) The New Zealand Herald courageously demurred and editorialized in favor of freedom for historians. ( July 22, 2004)

Mr. Irving's lot is that of all historians—to constantly re-appraise the events of the past. No event should be out of bounds. If, as in this case, the conclusions are palpably wrong, that is no reason for preventing their presentation—and their challenging by more profound scholarship. The only counter to flawed views is informed debate. Opinions that during this process are shown to be devoid of worth, wisdom or accuracy will quickly be discarded.

If one becomes a public figure due to widespread opposition to one’s speech—whether written or verbal—there are two choices: Fight or flight. If one determines upon reflection to maintain one’s commitment to principled beliefs, then one must avoid flight. Indeed if faced with an ideologically inspired auto-da-fé that threatens one’s occupation and livelihood, bending to the forces of conformity with their armamentarium of suspensions, reprimands, press releases, censorship and aroused public indignation, merely encourages additional coercion. One of the ironies in confronting the consensus orthodoxy of the Vital Center is when the offending rhetoric transmogrifies into protective armor and bestows a fierce commitment to stay the course and resist the firestorm. There emerges a heightened sense of self-worth and renewed dedication to one’s basic values. Recantation is not an option. Surrendering one’s ethics and core beliefs is not an option. Evolving and articulating different viewpoints are possible, and perhaps laudable, but not while under assault by Inquisitions in modern dress that substitute the Internet or economic intimidation for stake burnings.

Father Arthur Terminiello had a reputation for racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Communist epithets. The Birmingham, Alabama priest, who ministered to tenant farmers in Alabama and Florida, was known as the Father Coughlin of the South. Father Terminiello was arrested in Chicago in 1946 for haranguing against a threatening and disorderly mob that sought to disrupt his speech before Gerald L. K. Smith’s Christian Veterans of America. His detention granted his protagonists a Heckler’s veto, whereby a speaker is silenced merely due to protest against the event. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed an Illinois judge’s jury instructions that Chicago’s breach of the peace ordinance proscribed any utterance that “stirs the public to anger, invites dispute, brings about a condition of unrest, or creates a disturbance. ” Justice William O. Douglas, writing for the majority in Terminiello v. City of Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949), affirmed free speech is essential for a free people:

Free speech…may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger…That is why freedom of speech though not absolute…is nevertheless protected against censorship and punishment…For the alternative would lead to standardization of ideas by...dominant political or community groups. [Emphasis added.]

Hopefully Justice Douglas’s stirring reaffirmation of the importance of free speech for a democratic society will dissuade those who wish to abridge it and embolden those who wish to exercise it.