Sixteen years after an English court discredited his work and the judge called him “antisemitic and racist”, the historian David Irving claims he is inspiring a new generation of “Holocaust sceptics”. On the eve of a major new Bafta-nominated film about the trial, Irving, who has dismissed what happened at Auschwitz concentration camp during the second world war as “Disneyland”, says that a whole new generation of young people have discovered his work via the internet and social media.
“Interest in my work has risen exponentially in the last two or three years. And it’s mostly young people. I’m getting messages from 14, 15, 16-year-olds in America. They find me on YouTube. There are 220 of my lectures on YouTube, I believe, and these young people tell me how they’ve stayed up all night watching them. “They get in touch because they want to find out the truth about Hitler and the second world war. They ask all sorts of questions. I’m getting up to 300 to 400 emails a day. And I answer them all. I build a relationship with them.”
Irving v Penguin Books Ltd was one of the most infamous libel trials of the past 20 years. An American historian, Deborah Lipstadt, had accused him in her book, Denying the Holocaust,and Irving, then a somewhat respected if maverick historian, sued her and her publisher. The film, Denial, with a script by David Hare, is released at the end of this month and stars Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt and Timothy Spall as Irving. It depicts how Lipstadt’s legal team fought the case.
James Libson, a junior solicitor in the case and now a senior partner at Mishcon de Reya, said that the verdict seemed “momentous at the time”. Lipstadt won, with the judge concluding that Irving was an antisemitic, racist Holocaust denier. He was forced to declare bankruptcy and his scholarly reputation was shattered. “We really thought the verdict marked a line in the sand,” says Libson. “That it marked Holocaust denial as a done subject. We’d proven it, conclusively, in a court of law.
“We naively thought that the internet would help that. All the material from the case was published online and we thought that would provide sufficient answer to anyone who could possibly doubt it. Whereas, of course, the internet has actually done the opposite.
“I wasn’t aware until recently of how Holocaust denial has now taken off online again to such an extent. I was really excited to watch the trailer for the film and I couldn’t believe the number of absolutely vile comments beneath it about the holohoax and so on, more than 4,000 of them. It’s incredibly disturbing. It’s actually way worse now than even Irving was because they’re so abusive.”
Libson was assisting Anthony Julius in the case another Mishcon lawyer who had made his name representing Princess Diana in her divorce. Irving lost the case and another that he brought against the Observer over a review by Gita Sereny but speaking from his home in the Scottish Highlands, a 40-room mansion near Nairn provided by an anonymous benefactor, he says that history has “vindicated” him.
“History evolves. The truth about the Holocaust is gradually coming out. And this is thanks to the internet. It’s how this new generation finds me. There’s a general belief among people out there that they are being misled. The people I’ve called the traditional enemy [Irving’s term for Jews] are very worried about this phenomenon. They don’t have a handle on it.
“Newspapers are dying. And the internet is suddenly there. And they don’t have an answer for it. It’s like some ugly weed they don’t know how to deal with. Eventually they will hack it down but by then it may be too late.”
Google, which owns YouTube, has come under pressure for disseminating hate speech about Jews and promoting Holocaust denial after the Observer revealed that its top results for searches around the Holocaust were directing people to denial sites. After weeks of pressure, Google agreed to make changes to its algorithm, but they are far from comprehensive. Google auto-complete still suggests the Holocaust is a “lie” and a “hoax” and still directs to neo-Nazi websites such as Stormfront, where Irving is considered an authority on the subject. He also has a presence on Facebook, where his page has gathered more than 7,000 likes.
Lipstadt said the idea that Irving had been vindicated by history was “preposterous”. “There was nothing, zilch, in the historical claims that he made. We proved that. But this is the world we are living in. Where facts don’t matter any more and it’s absolutely terrifying.
“I’ve no idea of knowing if his claims about his newfound popularity are true or not but you’d have to be living under a rock not to see that this proliferation of racism and antisemitism is being disseminated by the internet. “This has nothing to do with freedom of speech. It’s about truth and lies.”
Irving, however, says that he is speaking to people who have lost trust in mainstream sources of information. “It’s all to do with this phenomenon of people not trusting what they are told by their governments and newspapers. They seek around to find someone who provides some remedy to this. And they find me. “I am part of the remedy. It’s not just that I’m selling huge amounts of books around the world. One of the big changes of the last two years is the amount I’m getting in donations.
“It used to be small amounts, and they still come in, but people are now giving me very large sums indeed five-figure sums. I now drive a Rolls-Royce. A beautiful car. Though money is completely unimportant to me.”
His new fans, he says, are the same people who in the US are supporting Donald Trump, who he believes will make a good president and “has his heart in the right place”. Though, he says, he is also impressed by the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. “The Labour party is tearing itself apart with these allegations about antisemitism,” he says, “but Corbyn seems like a very fine man. Maybe it’s because he’s near my age, but I’m impressed by him.”