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David Unnerving

29 March 2017

CONTENT WARNING: HOLOCAUST DENIAL

Two years ago, the wind symphony at Northcote High, my high school, performed an impressionistic piece based on the 1945 Bombing of Dresden. It was jarring, atonal and harrowing – representing one of World War II’s most brutal events, where German civilians were slaughtered vengefully and indiscriminately by the Allies. To give the audience some context before the piece was played, our senior music captain introduced the item with a short speech, handed to him by a member of the music staff, in which he cited some figures of the bombing’s apparently extremely high death toll. Of course, nobody batted an eyelid.

I realised only later that these figures had been sourced from the ‘research’ of English ‘historian’ David Irving – an infamous Nazi sympathiser and Holocaust denier. And no, there are no secret Neo-Nazis amongst Northcote High’s music staff. What had happened was that someone had quickly googled some info about the bombing and Irving’s figures had popped up somewhere near the top, pretending to be a reliable source. In times past, one might have consulted an encyclopaedia and found a valid figure relatively easily. However, on this occasion, the internet, inundated as it is with misinformation and paranoid conspiracy theories, had let nonsense slip through the cracks.

What this meant was that the information conveyed to these poor parents had actually been manipulated by a reckless ideologue. Irving had, according to historian Richard Evans, reported the Dresden death toll at 10 times the most reasonable estimate – painting the Germans as the true victims of World War II, in line with his fascist and anti-Semitic worldview.

Irving is so loose with the facts that he was even told by Justice Charles Gray in a highly publicised court case in the late 1990s that he had “persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence” by claiming that the Auschwitz complex had not been used by the Nazis to exterminate Jews. This scathing assessment was the culmination of Irving’s failed attempt to sue historian Deborah Lippstadt for libel. Lippstadt had argued in a 1994 book about Holocaust denial that Irving himself was a ‘denier’ – that he had not lived up to acceptable standards of rigour by ignoring the vast body of evidence pointing to the extermination of millions of Jews. As such, the case assumed a symbolic significance well beyond that of your average libel suit. It was as if the truth itself was being put on trial. It was up to some of our esteemed formal institutions – namely, academia and the courts – to defend our basic understanding of an epoch-defining historical event. As it turned out, they did. Emphatically.

What was supposed to happen thereafter was for Irving to fade into obscurity; disgraced and never taken seriously again. Unfortunately, however, he has never had more influence than he does today. He boasted recently to The Guardian that he is receiving record interest from young people in particular – receiving “up to 300 to 400 emails a day” from fans who have been exposed to some of his several hundred YouTube lectures. He has become something of a cult hero, even receiving tens of thousands of dollars in spontaneous donations. He now drives a Rolls Royce and lives in a 40-room mansion gifted by an anonymous benefactor. In fact, being rejected by the world of facts and rigorous standards of evidence was probably a blessing in disguise. He now works in a realm where all that matters is being as provocative as possible; a technology-fueled world where mainstream academic and journalistic bodies are far less able to regulate people’s exposure to wild and unsubstantiated beliefs. Fanciful assertions are increasingly prevailing over intellectual rigour and David Irving is rich and famous.

In fact, Irving exists amongst a plethora of ultra-conservative conspiracy theorists who have made their name online. American internet sensation Alex Jones, as one example, has put a more modern spin on classic right-wing anxieties. He has claimed on his website InfoWars that, among other things, the US Government has orchestrated a plot to make people gay by putting chemicals in food and fruit juice products. There is, of course, nothing that comes close to qualifying as evidence to back this up – despite Jones’s claim that he has access to “government documents” which apparently explain their insidious plans.

Stuff like this would be more hilarious and far less frustrating if it weren’t making a genuine impact on contemporary politics, and by extension millions of people’s understanding of the world around them. In the top 15 most read political news websites, far-right publication, InfoWars – which is highly sympathetics to America’s notoriously dishonest newley-elected president – ranks seventh in terms of traffic. In fact, a BuzzFeed analysis showed that the top-performing fake election news stories were generating more Facebook activity than top stories from 19 mainstream news outlets. These stories had a generally right-wing slant and included reports that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump and that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS.

Right-wing populists like Trump have been able to take full advantage of this decreasing role that facts play in people’s conceptions of politics and history. In a time of incredible inequality and global instability, not for a while has there been so much distrust for ‘the Establishment’ in Western countries, and ‘experts’ – people like Professor Lippstadt – are seen as a part of this. Furthermore, there has never before been such a perfect platform – the internet – for filling this void, allowing new fears and old prejudices to bubble to the surface.

David Irving is, after all, incredibly old-school. He espouses conspiratorial hatred of what he terms the “traditional enemy” (the Jews) as if it were the 1930s; drawing on centuries of distrust for Jews in Christian Europe. Ironically, however, his plight so perfectly encapsulates the insanity of the 21st century. His trajectory says it all – relatively obscure before his academic pretensions were shot down, the anarchical online realm has turned him into a hero. He is, perhaps, the perfect figurehead of our post-truth age.