"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Let’s imagine that there was a writer who took as his subject World War II. And let’s suppose that because of his ability to amass and cite journals, transcripts, paperwork and all manner of documents, he gained a reputation as a meticulous researcher. Now let’s say that the conclusion the writer drew from all of his research was an unshakable conviction that World War II never happened. It was, he insists, a massive fraud, and he declares under oath, “No documents whatever show that World War II had ever happened.”
Now let’s allow things to get curiouser and curiouser.
Despite this writer’s farcical conclusion, historians of World War II, men who have spent their professional lives studying and documenting the war, still insist on the soundness of his research. It is possible, they say, to draw faulty conclusions from solid fact-finding. They do not bother themselves with the obvious question of how good the quality of any research can be if it can be used to support what is patently false. One historian says he and his colleagues should be able to admit the view of those with whom they may not be “intellectually akin.”
When journalists began writing about the work of this WWII debunker, they refer to it as an alternate interpretation or a controversial point of view. One suggests that the writer has opened a useful dialogue around the question “Who decides what ‘happened’ in the first place?”
Eventually, a historian, aware of the esteem in which some of his colleagues hold this writer, agrees to put the writer’s famed research to an intensive examination. What he finds is a consistent pattern of deliberate misquotation, misinterpretation and outright lies designed to support the writer’s conclusions. Anything that hasn’t supported those conclusions has been either discarded or altered. This historian concludes that “deceptions … had remained an integral part of his working methods across the decades.” Even this does not deter other historians from continuing to profess admiration for the WWII debunker. One even writes that the debunker possesses “an all consuming knowledge of a vast body of material.” And another, apparently unaware of how he is defaming his profession, announces that no one “could have withstood [the] kind of scrutiny” that the historian had subjected the debunker to.
If you change “World War II” to “Holocaust” in the above paragraphs, you have a pricis of how the Holocaust denier and fascist sympathizer David Irving has been both praised and damned. Except for that change, each of the quotes above has been made by or about Irving. The line about Irving’s “all consuming knowledge” was said by British military historian Sir John Keegan. The claim that no historian could have survived the scrutiny accorded Irving was made by another acclaimed British historian, Donald Cameron Watt.
What is particularly notable about those two quotes from the leading harrumphers of the “maps and chaps” school of history is that they came after Irving’s crushing defeat in a libel case that Irving himself brought against the American historian Deborah Lipstadt. (Keegan and Watt were subpoenaed by Irving to testify on his behalf.) Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Atlanta’s Emory University, had, in her book “Denying the Holocaust,” called Irving a “Hitler partisan wearing blinkers” who distorted, skewed and manipulated evidence and documents “in order to reach historically untenable conclusions.”
For this, Irving brought a libel suit against Lipstadt and her British publishers, Viking Penguin, in British courts, a suit Irving offered to settle for 500 pounds and a promise not to reprint Lipstadt’s book. Lipstadt and Viking Penguin declined, even though facing off against Irving in London meant operating under the asinine British libel laws in which the burden of proof is placed on the accused. After a four-month trial adjudicated not by a jury but by Judge Charles Gray (both parties decided the material was too complex for a jury to digest), Gray handed down a decision that, to anyone sentient and breathing, ended the myth of David Irving as a historian. In his judgment, Gray not only said that Irving was an “antisemite” and a “racist” but that his “falsification of the record was deliberate and … motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence.”
Two accounts of the trial followed in 2001. Richard Evans, the British historian who had undertaken a massive examination of Irving’s corpus for Lipstadt’s defense team (the above quote about deception being an integral part of Irving’s working methods is from Evans), published the thrilling intellectual detective story “Lying About Hitler” (whose publication was delayed in the United Kingdom because Evans’ original publisher was nervous that Irving might sue). And the writer D.D. Guttenplan wrote “The Holocaust on Trial,” which provides a lucid narrative of the trial while playing right into Irving’s hands with a sophomoric and shallow discussion of what Guttenplan believed to be the issues raised at that trial. In one passage, Guttenplan writes that taking “so much” for granted — “so much” referring to “Adolf Hitler’s murderous intentions, the horrifying efficiency of the death camps, the fatal consequences for the Jews” — “conceals” the questions of “How do we know these things really happened?” and “How do we know [the witnesses] are telling the truth?” To which the only response is: How do some people live with themselves?
Now, five years after crushing Irving in a British court, Deborah Lipstadt has provided her own account of her ordeal in “History on Trial: My Day in Court With David Irving.” Hers is the most detailed account of the trial yet, and the most crazy-making.
It isn’t Lipstadt who drives you nuts — it’s Irving. The man comes off as something dreamed up in a collaboration between the Monty Python crew, George Orwell and P.G. Wodehouse (who might well have been forecasting the arrival of David Irving when he concocted the homegrown fascist Sir Roderick Spode). To sit in a court for weeks on end and listen to Irving’s endless insistence that black is white and up is down would be enough to make the most patient among us feel as if we’d slipped into Bizarro world, and Lipstadt is clearly not a woman blessed with patience. (Having a similar temperament, I find that one of the most likable things about her.)
Due, I’m guessing, to her discipline as a historian — an ability to follow an argument, to provide evidence along the way, to quickly seize upon contradiction and prevarication — Lipstadt gives a detailed account of the trial that never loses its suspense, readability or momentum. Or humor. Lipstadt feels guilty when some absurdity of the trial causes her to laugh. But how else do you react to a moment like the one that occurred during Irving’s closing statement, when he addressed Judge Gray as “mein Führer”?
Long before she landed across the aisle from him in a British court, Lipstadt was fighting not only Irving’s reputation as a reputable historian, but also the people who simply wanted to dismiss him as a crackpot. David Irving is surely that, but he is not just that. And Lipstadt’s deepest accomplishment in “History on Trial” is in the doggedness with which she drives home the danger of David Irving.
I have to admit to losing patience with Lipstadt at times. When the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris shows her his film “Mr. Death,” about Holocaust denier Fred Leuchter, Lipstadt says that Morris’ amusement with Leuchter’s cracked theories “was, however inadvertently, helping Irving make his case.” Morris certainly has a penchant for treating the people who come before his camera as freaks, and he often milks their oddities for laughter, but that’s far from helping Irving to make his case. It’s more likely that Morris finds Leuchter’s claims so outrageous he can’t conceive of how anyone can take them seriously. But you understand how Lipstadt’s experience keeps her from laughing: She is all too familiar with people, and not just fools, willing to take Holocaust deniers seriously.
Sooner or later, every Jew who perceives anti-Semitism as an encroaching danger gets described as hysterical or paranoid. The flattering self-deception at the root of that reaction is a way of consigning anti-Semitism to the past, of saying, “Surely we’ve become more civilized than that.” “History on Trial” makes the case, as did “Lying About Hitler,” that we have not become so civilized we are above tolerating David Irving.
Irving’s supporters — and I include in that group not just the pathetic fools who greet with laughter his comments about “Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust, and Other Liars,” or “ASSHOLS,” at the white-supremacy rallies and conferences he often addresses, but the more upscale fools who are not Holocaust deniers but who continue to believe in his efficacy as a historian — have long tried to cast those who oppose Irving as enemies of free speech.
This is the tack Christopher Hitchens has long taken when writing about David Irving, and it is worth dwelling on him, as his writing provides a useful compendium of Irving apologias. In a June 1996 Vanity Fair column after St. Martin’s Press canceled its contract with Irving to publish his biography of Joseph Goebbels, Hitchens, styling himself the macho defender of the First Amendment, called the anti-Irving articles that led to St. Martin’s actions “hysterical and old-maidish.” Of the historians condemning Irving he wrote, “These are supposedly experienced historians who claim to have looked mass death in the face, without flinching. And they can’t take the idea of a debate with David Irving?”
The sly implication of those lines is that Irving’s opponents are afraid to confront him. What Hitchens ignores is the position that Deborah Lipstadt has taken for years: that to debate Holocaust deniers implies they are expressing a fact-based vision of history. Shilling for Hitler, Irving is expressing no such thing.
To see this you need look no further than the Goebbels biography that Hitchens is so hot about. In a May 2001 review of the Evans and Guttenplan books for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Hitchens wrote, of St. Martin’s decision, “St. Martin’s gave no reason of historical accuracy for its about-face.” The implication being that none exists.
What Hitchens perhaps did not know in 1996, and seemingly chose not to mention in 2001, are the falsifications in the Goebbels bio that Richard Evans discovered in his examination of Irving’s work. An example: In the book, Irving cited a statistic on the number of cases of fraud perpetrated by Jews in 1933 Germany. Irving’s rather insalubrious source for this claim was Kurt Daluege, the head of the German Order Police in the early ’30s, and later in charge of the extermination of Jews on the Eastern Front. But having decided to quote a Nazi, Irving apparently decided that he himself could do a better job of making the Nazi case. Daluege had claimed that, under the Nazis, the number of fraud cases dropped from 31,000 in 1933, to 18,000, a majority of which he claimed were committed by Jews. In Irving’s book these statistics were twisted into the following sentence: “In 1932 [sic] no fewer than thirty thousand cases of fraud, mainly insurance swindles, would be committed by Jews.”
Giving Hitchens the benefit of the doubt about the lies of the Goebbels book still does not excuse this claim from his 1996 Vanity Fair article: “And, incidentally, [Irving] has never and not once described the Holocaust as a ‘hoax’.” Restricting ourselves just to what Hitchens could have known before writing that, we find that, testifying at the 1988 trial of a Canadian Holocaust denier, Irving said, “No documents whatever show that a Holocaust had ever happened.” What’s the defense of this? That Irving doesn’t use the word “hoax”? OK then. How about these?
In a 1991 speech, Irving said, “Until 1988, I believed that there had been something like a Holocaust … but [in] 1988 … I met people who knew differently and could prove to me that story was just a legend.”
In 1990: “The holocaust of Germans in Dresden really happened. That of the Jews in the gas chambers of Auschwitz is an invention.”
And, again, in 1991: “More women died on the back seat of Senator Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.”
Remember, Hitchens’ defenses of Irving did not appear on, to use his own phrase, “some ghastly Brownshirt Web site,” but in Vanity Fair and the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Inevitably, in the L.A. Times piece, Hitchens brings up the totem of Irving enablers, “the censorship of Irving.” What is he referring to? St. Martin’s Press did not censor Irving; it chose not to publish his book because its chairman, Thomas J. McCormack, was sickened by the thought of publishing a book whose subtext, he said, was “the Jews brought this onto themselves.” St. Martin’s did not prevent the book from appearing elsewhere, and in fact, the Goebbels bio was published in Britain, from where the faithful could order it.
Any honest person who talks about David Irving and the censoring of history has to acknowledge that the censoring has been attempted by David Irving himself. This is what the libel trial was about — Irving’s attempts to censor Lipstadt’s “Denying the Holocaust” — though, as the trial showed, the claims Lipstadt made against Irving are demonstrably true. This is not the only piece of litigation Irving has attempted or threatened. His lawsuit threats delayed for years the British publication of historian John Lukacs’ “The Hitler of History.” When it did appear in Britain, it was published in an edition that bowdlerized Lukacs’ case against Irving. These very real attempts to quash the work of historians are never mentioned by Irving’s defenders. But somehow, the work of historians who set out to prove the deceptions in Irving’s work is depicted as an attempt at censorship, or a way of inhibiting historical examination.
It might be worth pointing out here that Lipstadt, who is Jewish, makes a point in “History on Trial” of speaking against censoring Holocaust deniers, not just from a freedom-of-speech standpoint but from the standpoint that censorship gives work the allure of the forbidden. And she is harsh and direct on the use of the Holocaust to strengthen Jewish identity. “Jews,” she writes, “have survived despite antisemitism not because of it.”
But even pointing those things out feels somewhat shameful to me. It’s almost as if Lipstadt has to be proven “not too Jewish” before her case against Irving can be taken seriously. The only thing that makes her Jewishness relevant is that the reaction against Lipstadt (especially some of the initial British press reaction, which Evans wrote of in “Lying About Hitler”) seems to me to be of a piece with the chiding given Jews for being too sensitive or fearful or paranoid about anti-Semitism.
But to paraphrase the old ad for Levy’s Real Jewish Rye, you don’t have to be Jewish to be alarmed at David Irving. Considered solely as a historian, how could Deborah Lipstadt be privy to knowledge about Irving’s long history of lying, deliberately misquoting documents, and baiting Jews in his speeches and not be appalled and disgusted at the persistent myth of David Irving as a misguided chap who is nonetheless a reliable researcher? If the practice of history means taking into account verifiable facts, how could Lipstadt not be alarmed by the failure of two eminent historians, John Keegan and Donald Cameron Watt, to alter their view of Irving after the trial proved his work worthless? Irving did not lose, as Keegan claimed he did, for “faults” of interpreting “an all consuming knowledge of a vast body of material.” He lost for a consistent pattern of deceit. Keegan’s claim that Lipstadt was a member of the “self-righteously politically correct” when she had not testified, and when he, by his own admission, had not read her work, raises the question of what political correctness possibly has to do with an assertion that the Holocaust actually happened.
Lipstadt is probably right in suspecting that Keegan and Watt were annoyed by what they saw as the impertinence of a woman and a Jew who did not know her place. What seems to bother Irving’s defenders is the very notion of professional and intellectual accountability. Running into Lipstadt after the trial, Watt said to her, “None of us could have withstood that kind of scrutiny.” In a column for the Evening Standard, he said, “Show me one historian who has not broken out into a cold sweat at the thought of undergoing similar treatment.” What Lipstadt was perhaps too polite to say to Watt was that any historian who wishes to be worthy of the title had damn well better be able to withstand that kind of scrutiny.
On the other hand, the case made against Irving has consistently been made to sound like intellectual tyranny. And that risks obscuring one of the most important lessons to be gleaned from Irving’s unsuccessful libel case against Lipstadt, namely that intellectual accountability entails moral accountability. The work of Keegan and Watt, and of other historians who have more tentatively applauded Irving’s “scholarship,” should not be dismissed because of that praise. But now that Irving’s mendacity has been revealed, and his research proven thoroughly and irrevocably worthless, those who have praised him have a choice to make. If they choose to stand by their view of Irving, they must, in this at least, be judged as having abandoned the very concept of historical fact, which Richard Evans defined as “something that happened in history and can be verified as such through the traces history has left behind.” It is not a simplification but the essence of this case to ask how you can trust any historian who defends a Holocaust denier.
When my piece on the Evans and Guttenplan books ran in Salon in May 2001, I received an e-mail from David Irving that ended, “You appear not to know that June 20, 2001 sees the start of our appeal in the London courts, and after that a lot of journalists, not just you, may well be quaking in their evil smelling boots.”
The next month, Irving’s attempt to appeal Judge Gray’s decision was unequivocally turned down for the third and final time. I won’t speak for the odor of my shoes. But, to paraphrase something said to her during the trial, I do know that Deborah Lipstadt has managed to scrape a major piece of shit off the boots of history.
Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.More Charles Taylor.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)