Anti-fascists, the British left and the David Irving libel trial

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Coverage in Searchlight (May 2000)

On 11 April 2000, Mr Justice Gray found in favour of Penguin Books, who had been sued for libel by David Irving after the publication of Deborah Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust, which stated:

Irving is one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial. Familiar with historical evidence, he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda. A man who is convinced that Britain’s great decline was accelerated by its decision to go to war with Germany, he is most facile at taking accurate information and shaping it to confirm his conclusions. A review of his recent book, Churchill’s War, which appeared in New York Review of Books, accurately analysed his practice of applying a double standard to evidence. He demands “absolute documentary proof” when it comes to proving the Germans guilty, but he relies on highly circumstantial evidence to condemn the Allies. (114) This is an accurate description not only of Irving’s tactics, but of those of deniers in general.

Irving had become increasing infamous for his denial of the Holocaust and veneration of Hitler throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, and viewed by many as giving a ‘respectable’ façade to an obsession of the far right.

This was also the time of the rise of the British National Party, which had reignited anti-fascist activism in Britain, with Anti-Fascist Action involved in street clashes with the BNP and the reformed Anti-Nazi League holding large scale demonstrations against the far right. At times, the BNP championed David Irving (a small number of BNP members routinely attended the court proceedings), but at other times, felt that he detracted from the BNP’s own Holocaust denialism. As Mark Hobbs has written, Nick Griffin, a rising figure in the BNP and leader of the party by the time of the decision in the Irving trial, saw Irving as a rival to his own denialism. Irving attracted significant far right support during the trial, but the far right in Britain were quick to downplay their own Holocaust denialism in the 2000s as the BNP sought to become a ‘populist’ anti-immigrationist party.

The Irving trial thus became a lightning rod for both those on the far right who still maintained their anti-Semitism and believed that the Holocaust was a ‘hoax’ and those who saw the trial as a defence of Irving’s free speech to deny the Holocaust (although the libel suit had been brought by Irving against Penguin and Lipstadt).

Opposite to the support that Irving received from the far right, the left and the anti-fascist movement in Britain also followed the trial. Both the Anti-Nazi League and the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight had previously highlighted the problem of Holocaust denial and its links to the far right in Britain, North America and Europe. The ANL had been involved in demonstrations against Irving when he attempted to speak at invited talks and had supported a demonstration outside his house in the 1990s. The Morning Star reported that during the trial, Irving ‘blamed the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight for his reputation as a Holocaust denier’.

Searchlight first mentioned Irving’s legal case in late 1998 and suggested that it had led to ‘relative public inactivity’ by Irving, which left Griffin ‘trying to capture the revisionist limelight’. When returning to the topic of the trial in early 2000, an editorial in Searchlight proposed that the trial ‘could nail the lie once and for all that there is any doubt about the extermination of six million Jews in Europe’. An article by Kate Taylor in the February 2000 edition of the journal stated that consequences of the trial, if the judge found in Irving’s favour, were ‘unthinkable’ and wrote elsewhere that this was because Irving’s pretence of being a serious academic ‘attempt[ed] to give mainstream legitimacy to such destructive ideologies’. Writing on the final days of the trial, Taylor wrote that if Irving won, ‘it will be due to the peculiarities of English libel law and nothing else; it will not condone his position’, but there was a fear that a ruling for Irving would bolster him and other Holocaust deniers.

The Anti-Nazi League did not publish its journal or paper in its reincarnation, but its activities were reported on closely in the Socialist Workers Party’s press. In January 2000, Charlie Kimber in Socialist Worker argued, similarly to Searchlight, that ‘across the world Holocaust deniers look to David Irving’ and stressed that Holocaust denial was part of an attempt to rehabilitate Nazism. Kimber wrote, ‘Holocaust deniers should be confronted whenever they raise their heads, and Irving’s books should be banned from every public, college and school library.’ Another article in the SWP newspaper in March 2000 reported upon the trial revealing that Irving had spoken previously at BNP meetings and had met with BNP members.

The Morning Star, the left-wing daily newspaper with links to the Communist Party of Britain, reported frequently on the trial, although it did not editorialise on the case until after the judgment in April 2000.

When the judgment was handed in April, Mr Justice Gray concluded his ruling with:

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 favourable 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 anti-semitic and racist and that he associates with right wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism. 

Writing in Searchlight, Taylor proclaimed that Gray had ruled ‘in favour of history, truth and reason’ and reported that the judgment showed that Irving, as well as other deniers, were ‘manipulators and distorters who refute the truth in order to serve an ideological agenda’ that was ‘very often neo-nazi in content’. Taylor conceded that this judgment would probably not stop Irving or other deniers from publishing their tracts, but argued that ‘the verdict will deny Irving and his followers mainstream legitimacy and credibility’. Foreseeing one of the main focuses of the far right in the twenty first century, Taylor suggested that ‘[p]erhaps the only medium left for Irving and his Holocaust deniers is the internet’, lamenting that it was difficult to legally fight racism and fascism on the internet.

The Anti-Nazi League reprinted their 1993 pamphlet on Holocaust denial, including details of the trial and the details of Irving’s duplicity that it exposed. The ANL concluded:

Only one description fits Irving. He is a Nazi. He is a falsifier of history who has devoted his life to sanitising the crimes of Hitler to make it easier to build a new Nazi movement today…

 His action [against Lipstadt] was not about free speech, establishing the truth, or even recouping royalties lost after publishers withdrew his books. It was simply propaganda for Europe’s new Nazis and the platform Irving desperately craves.

Like Searchlight, the ANL highlighted that the internet was the new arena for Holocaust denial and fascism more generally, calling for anti-fascists and anti-racists to write to Amazon to remove anti-Semitic and racist literature from the website. But the ANL also called for libraries to remove Irving’s books from their shelves.

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An editorial in the Morning Star portrayed Irving as pursuing a ‘double career of acting as a pseudo-respectable historian and an apologist for Adolf Hitler’ and that he ‘pushed his luck too far’ with his court case against Lipstadt and Penguin. The editorial repeatedly came to back to the idea that Irving had drifted away from his work as a historian, writing that the judge’s ruling should have ‘remind[ed] him that mere repetition of his training as a historian cannot absolve him from responsibility to base his claims on solid research not parroting the drivel of latter-day nazis.’ It also concluded, ‘[a]s an historian, he had been shown to be a charlatan who has falsified facts to fit in with his own fevered version of history.’ Although as Richard Evans showed at the trial, this was not a recent shift by Irving but something that characterised his work since the beginning.

Anti-Fascist Action, at the forefront of militant anti-fascism in Britain in the 1990s, did not comment much on the trial. After the ruling, AFA called the judgment a ‘reason to celebrate’, but also argued that people should be able to ‘critically discuss the Holocaust’ and claimed that ‘[a]nti-fascists tend to shy away from “difficult” issues’. AFA objected to the calls by Searchlight and the ANL for their calls for ‘censorship’ in the wake of the Irving trial and suggested that this would help foster a sanitised memory of the Holocaust, which ‘doubly damns fascism and exhonerates [sic] liberal democracy’.

Similar sentiment was expressed by Mick Hume, editor of Living Marxism and former leading member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Caught up in their own libel trial around the same time, Hume said that the Irving trial ‘raise[d] once more an issue that has always concerned us at LM: society’s unhealthy obsession with the Nazi Holocaust’. As Living Marxism believed in absolute free speech and were hostile to the idea of ‘no platforming’ fascists, Hume argued that Holocaust deniers, like Irving, ‘should not be banned, but exposed to public ridicule.’

After the trial, Irving remained a figure on the far right, championed not as much for his Holocaust denial, but his reinvention as a free speech martyr. Although the far right had long used the pretext of free speech to propagate their racist ideologies, this become a recurring trope in the twenty first century. Irving was invited to speak at the Oxford Union in 2001, but this was cancelled after protests from students, academics and other activists. But he was invited again to speak alongside the BNP’s Nick Griffin in 2007, which also attracted significant demonstrations.

Anti-fascists and the left in Britain followed the Irving trial because they recognised that at the centre of the trial was an attempt by Irving to convey legitimacy over his Holocaust denial and understood that Holocaust denial was part of the far right’s attempts to rehabilitate Nazism in the latter half of the twentieth century. There was also some acknowledgment that Irving was using the trial to portray himself as a free speech martyr, even though he had been the one to initiate the legal proceedings. While it was noted that Irving and other Holocaust deniers were using the internet to disseminate their propaganda, back in the year 2000 there seemed to be an underestimation of central the internet would become to the organisation of the far right and the spread of far right ideas.

While Irving’s stature on the far right somewhat diminished after the trial (and his jailing in Austria) and Holocaust denial was no longer central to the far right in the new century, the case was still important for anti-fascists in Britain – it discredited Irving’s attempts to portray himself as a historian and cemented the links between him and the organisations of the far right, such as the BNP. But it also foreshadowed the role that free speech would play in far right discourses in the future, at a time when the far right was trying to reinvent itself.

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