Lying about Hitler: An Interview with Historian Richard Evans

The new film Denial is now in limited release and will be in theaters around the United states by October 21, 2016, and in the UK in February 2017.

The movie stars Rachel Weisz as American historian Deborah Lipstadt, Timothy Spall as Holocaust denier and Hitler apologist David Irving, and Tom Rampton as barrister Richard Rampton.

It is based on a true story of the trial of David Irving v. Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt (2000) as recounted in Lipstadt’s 2005 book, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (2005).

It began when Lipstadt, who teaches Jewish history at Emory University, referred to Irving as “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial,” accusing him of manipulating historical evidence for his nefarious ends, in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1993). She was certainly not the only one to make such accusations, but she was the one he chose to sue for libel in English court (a British edition of her book had been published in the UK, making the suit possible).

As the trial judge explained, “It is not incumbent on defendants to prove the truth of every detail of the defamatory words published: what has to be proved is the substantial truth of the defamatory imputations published about the claimant.” In other words, in order to defend herself in the suit, Lipstadt’s lawyers had to show that what she said was accurate—namely, that Irving really did distort historical evidence in order to deny the Holocaust.

The defense hired as its star expert witness Sir Richard J. Evans, a noted historian of modern Europe who was a professor at the University of Cambridge and who specialized in German history. Since the trial, Evans has gone on to produce a landmark trilogy on the history of the Third Reich (2003, 2005, 2008).

Soon after the trial, Evans published a book entitled Lying about Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial (2001), a page-turning work. It can be thought of as an extended illustration of his book In Defense of History (1997), which critiqued postmodern skepticism about the possibility of historical knowledge. Lying about Hitler offers readers a unique angle on the careful inductive work of a responsible historian and the painstaking refutation of irresponsible work.

I recently corresponded with Professor Evans, who serves today as president of Wolfson College and Regius Professor Emeritus of History, University of Cambridge, and provost of Gresham College in London.

Historian Richard Evans (L) played by actor John Sessions (R).
Historian Richard Evans (L) played by actor John Sessions (R).

Was there a time in which David Irving was considered a respectable historian? Didn’t Christopher Hitchens used to say that he was “one of the three or four necessary historians of the Third Reich”?*

Hitchens later changed his mind when he discovered Irving’s racism. Irving was considered a “controversial” historian who performed a service in digging up previously unknown sources on Nazi Germany. He was considered eccentric or perverse in his attitude to Hitler but did not move beyond the pale until he became a hard-line Holocaust denier in the late 1980s.

Even though it was Irving who sued Lipstadt, some people defended Irving’s right for free speech as if he were the victim or the one on trial. How could the public have been so confused about the nature of this well-publicized case?

This is because the defence’s tactic was to focus on Irving, repeat Lipstadt’s accusations at much greater length, and back them up with overwhelming evidence.

Had he won, the freedom of speech would have been seriously damaged in the UK. Even though he lost, I still had major problems publishing my book on the case because publishers were afraid he would sue them. The movie makes it clear what was at stake.

Your In Defense of History, in which you argued for the possibility of historical knowledge, had published just a few years before being asked to be the lead expert witness. Was Lipstadt’s counsel looking for someone with not only a command of German history but also someone who had done serious work on issues of historiography and epistemology?

Yes; not his counsel but his solicitor, Anthony Julius, who instructed his counsel, Richard Rampton QC.

How long did it take you to do research preparations for your expert testimony, and how long did the actual trial last?*

Preparations with two researchers took from January 1998 to July 1999. The trial lasted from 11 January 2000 to 11 April 2000.

Was the eventual verdict ever in doubt for you?

No, the only question was by how much the defense would win. In the event, the victory was comprehensive.

In theological circles, we sometimes say that *all* who speak and write about God are “theologians”—there are just “good theologians” and “bad theologians.” Some might say the same for those who write about history: they are “historians,” whether for good or for ill. Yet in Lying about Hitler, you suggest that Irving should not be labeled a “historian.” Why?

Because he lacks the facility of recognizing when documentary evidence goes against his theories or arguments. If they do, he manipulates distorts or ignores them.

Bear in mind, however, that the judge said I was wrong to say he was not a historian because Sir John Keegan in particular said he was.

How is is that reputable, professional historians, seeking to be objective and working with the same evidence, can come to varied conclusions? 

A distinction must be made between fact and argument, even if it is not always very clear. The evidence poses the limits within which interpretations are possible.

One of my favorite sections of Lying about Hitler is where you compare historians to figurative painters sitting at various places around a mountain. Could you repeat the comparison.

The figurative painters paint the mountain “in different styles, using different techniques and different materials, they will see it in a different light or from a different distance according to where they are, and they will view it from different angles. They may even disagree about some aspects of its appearance, or some of its features. But they will all be painting the same mountain. If one of them paints a fried egg, or a railway engine, we are entitled to say that she or he is wrong; whatever it is that the artist has painted, it is not the mountain. The possibilities of legitimate disagreement and variation are limited by the evidence in front of their eyes.

“An objective historian is simply one who works within these limits. They are limits that allow a wide latitude for differing interpretations of the same document or source, but they are limits all the same.”

It’s not often that a living historian is portrayed by an actor in a film about a trial that has to do in part with the epistemology and objectivity of responsible historiography! Assuming you have seen the film, do you have any thoughts on the historical accuracy of the movie itself, recognizing that the dramatic needs and the compressed timeframe for the story lead many screenwriters to play fast and loose with the details?

I have not seen the movie, which is not being released in the UK until February. I have, however, read the screenplay, which sticks very closely to the record, particularly the trial transcripts, and where it deviates from it, for dramatic effect, I don’t think it betrays the spirit in which the case was fought.

[Note from JT: the screenwriter has written about the process of sticking closely to the historical record.]

Can you tell us a bit about your latest book, now published in the UK and due out in the US in November, on The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914?

This is a comprehensive, large-scale history of Europe in the 19th century focusing on politics, economy, society and culture, set in the global context of Europe’s relations with the wider world in a period when it dominated the globe. It includes many portraits of individuals, mostly ordinary people, quotes, and anecdotes to make the period come alive in all its mixture of strangeness and familiarity.

What are you working on next?

I am writing a biography of the historian Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), with the support of his family and access to his papers.