Judging the judges

Nuremberg, The Last Battle by David Irving, Focal Point, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
David Irving has become, in part at his own instigation, a by- word for historical propaganda in favour of Hitler and his regime. He refers to those who conspired to kill Hitler as traitors. He has spoken of Hitler as his hero. He has challenged historians to come up with hard evidence that Hitler knew of, let alone ordered, the elimination of European Jewry. He has privately circulated the work of that curious collection of self-styled "experts" who have tried to deny the physical evidence of the extermination camps. And in the German-speaking parts of Europe he has lent his support and spoken publicly at rallies of those normally referred to as neo-Nazis. Hence Irving has become the target of a widespread and successful campaign to shut the doors of established British and American publishing houses against him. Focal Point, the publishers of this latest book, is David Irving himself, and operates out of his own house.

Yet alongside Irving the propagandist exists Irving the indefatigable researcher, a man who has in the past been generous in sharing his enormous knowledge of the Nazi records with other scholars who do not share his idiosyncratic (to be polite) views. Some of his books have been major contributions to knowledge. Although disagreeing with him profoundly on his views on the nature of the Nazi regime, I have observed the failure of most of those who tried to challenge him to match his encyclopaedic knowledge and admired his capacity to come up with new and original material.

But this is not one of Irving's better books. It is marked with a meanness of spirit in his unwillingness to acknowledge the detailed work on the trial of the surviving Nazi leadership at Nuremberg in 1946 by the US historian Bradley Smith or by John and Ann Tusa from Britain. As with his book on Hitler's foreign policy before 1939, Irving's mastery of the German sources is matched by his complete lack of any frame of reference for the policies which underlay the decision to stage a large public trial of the Nazi leadership.

In his effort to discredit prosecutors and judges, Irving misses the ironies in the Americans' advancement of the notion of conspiracy - an Anglo-Saxon doctrine that offers the sole exception to the assumption of innocence until guilt is proven. If a conspiracy is proven, then the accused have to prove they were not part of it. This shocked both the French and the Soviet jurists.

There can be no doubt that there had to be a trial. There can be little doubt that the hands of the countries judging were less than lily-white. There can be no doubt that the verdict had been largely arrived at before the evidence was assembled. Yet with the exception of the Nazi anti-semitic pornographer, Streicher, a man so unpleasant of character that the other defendants shunned him, the sentences passed were richly deserved. Above all, the evidence destroyed any possibility of a war-guilt controversy like that which followed the first world war. Democracy in Germany was reborn, free of the guilt of surrender. It proved to be a much stronger plant than anyone expected.