David Irving: The Swastika Wielding Provocateur

Historians in the News




British historian and Holocaust denier David Irving, arrested last month in Austria where his views are illegal, is busy preparing his trial in a Vienna prison. Could this be the eccentric Hitler admirer's final act of provocation?

At night, when the pale winter sun has slipped behind the rooftops of Vienna's Josefstadt district, a jungle comes to life in the prison yard at the city's old Imperial-era prison. "That's when they start yelling from the windows and talking to one another," says David Irving, "it all begins at nightfall, just like in the jungle."



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David Irving
The elderly gentleman in a suit and tie who sits down behind the plate glass window in the prison's visitors' room doesn't seem to belong here. But, despite his appearance, David Irving seems to have settled in quite nicely. According to the prison's administration, Irving, who is here in detention awaiting trial, gets along well with the other prisoners. If only they could all be so polite, says a guard, clearly impressed by Irving's model behavior.

Irving, 67, appears cheerful and focused and says he is being treated well. Occasionally he does betray a penchant for hyperbole, though. "Someone sent me ink, thank God," he says. Irving is writing his memoirs, 20 pages a day. There is little else to do for a writer behind bars, and there's a tradition about writing while incarcerated. "Perhaps I should call it 'Mein Krieg' ('My War')," says Irving, grinning on his side of the plate glass divider. His daughter finds it "cool that Daddy is in prison," he adds, and one has the impression that Daddy himself still sees the whole thing as part of an adventure. David Irving is a man marooned on the fringes of society, but adventure is part of his business.

Before leaving London for Austria, he left behind 60 blank checks and packed eight shirts, even though the trip was only scheduled to take two days. He is always prepared for anything, says Irving, meaninfully raising his bushy eyebrows. "Be prepared," the motto of the Boy Scouts, is apparently also his motto.

He knew that there was a warrant for his arrest in Austria. In 1989, then Chancellor Franz Vranitzky personally threatened Irving with immediate arrest if he ever showed his face in Austria again. But the stubborn Hitler apologist saw Vranitzky's threat as an invitation to return to Austria as quickly as possible. "I come from a family of officers," he growls from behind the plate glass, "we march towards cannon fire." But he did make a mistake when it came to picking suitable shoes. Prisoners are allowed to walk in the prison yard every day, but Irving has, "unfortunately, only one pair of very expensive shoes," and they're slowly falling apart.

He plans to have his pinstripe suit sent to him for his trial on February 20. It's Irving's battle outfit, the same suit he had made by the most expensive Savile Row tailor for his London trial six years ago. This polite Anglo-Saxon treats Holocaust denial in the same way his countrymen treat rugby: a sport for hooligans, played by gentlemen.

The self-confident, self-taught writer has always enjoyed causing uproar, especially among mainstream historians, ever since the 1960s when he began digging up documents written by Hitler's cohorts. Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel's memoirs, SS leader Adolf Eichmann's notes, Hitler's propaganda minister Josef Goebbels' diaries -- the media-savvy author has been adept at marketing his finds to the public and promoting his own works. His sensationally written and extensively documented biographies of leading Nazi figures were bestsellers up until the 1980s.

Despite admiration for Irving's detective skills, his work increasingly came under fire after 1977, when his biography of Hitler was published. A respected military historian until then, Irving quickly became Hitler's willing discoverer, using his finds to prove the guilt of Himmler, Heydrich and others while claiming that his revered Führer was entirely blameless.

Irving, who was still giving lectures in the fading East Germany in 1990 under the title "A Briton fights for the honor of the Germans," chose contemporary history and not politics as his pulpit. "Standing in front of 10,000 people who waited an entire day, and who are now sitting on hard benches drinking their beer, waiting for you to speak -- that's the ultimate reward," he said in 1992 during a speaking tour. Auschwitz expert Robert van Pelt considers Irving hysterical. "He's quite a good speaker, but he gets his energy from his audience, and he tells them what they want to hear."





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