Not in the cellar

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July 10, 2008 by Tracey S. Rosenberg

As is probably obvious from the books I’ve been reading and reviewing on this site, the novel I’m working on involves Nazis.

Incidentally, remember when I complained that Bernd Freytag Von Loringhoven‘s memoir couldn’t be about ‘the last witness’ because Rochus Misch was, as far as I knew, still alive? Well, not only is Misch still alive, but he’s finally published his own memoir. In German, so I won’t be reviewing it any time soon.

Anyway, one of the websites I found while procrastinating working has the trial documents of Irving v. Lipstadt, otherwise known as Holocaust denial on trial – though of course that was an unintentional side-effect, because it was Irving who brought the case for libel, rather than Lipstadt suing him for denial.

A few random thoughts:
– the trial which brought about Oscar Wilde’s prison sentence and downfall was also brought by him for libel. I think the lesson to be learned is that you shouldn’t sue people for libel if what they’re saying is fundamentally true…though it’s possible that not bringing a suit means you’re tacitly accepting that they’re saying the truth.
– Professor Lipstadt spent something like five years involved in this lawsuit, which no doubt played skittles with her research and publication schedule (at least one book was heavily delayed), but I wouldn’t be surprised if the trial and publicity did more, fundamentally, to bring the issue of Holocaust denial into the public arena than any book she could have written. More power to her.

After the verdict, the Observer (who themselves were gearing up to be sued by Irving along the same lines) wrote an interesting response in which, among other things, they note that Irving has a gift for historical document digging-out. This does not mean library work or even well-catalogued archives:

…Irving’s reputation has always been a double one: as a writer of history, but also a hunter of unknown, sensational documents. The first part – his reputation as an interpreter of those documents – lies in ruins. The second survives.

This is a shadowy underworld, hidden beneath the clean, bright places where scholars write books. Down in the cellar of Third Reich studies, con men and SS veterans, obsessive journalists and forgers and real historians stumble about in echoes of fantastic rumour. And here Irving is a dark prince.

Dunno about you, but that last phrase in particular is giving me Voldemort flashbacks.

Anyway, for the record, even if my German were so much improved that I could not read the memoirs of SS men but order them beer if I met them in person, I would be leaving the cellars to other people. I love archival work, and I can’t think of anything more fascinating than piecing together something that had been covered up, because you pinpointed which dusty document boxes to go to. I also love talking to people who witnessed historical events – and if I run into Herr Misch during my trip to Berlin, I’ll let you know.

But the thought of doing Irving’s research creeps me out. Maybe that’s a bit hypocritical, because we need the primary sources – not that they aren’t problematic in and of themselves. One of Goebbels’ diary entries, for instance, was debated in the trial – and unless J.G. had written ‘I told the chief all about concentration camps and he thought it was a jolly good idea’ interpretation and context was going to have to be the deciding factor.

But for one thing, the worry about forgeries certainly can’t be set aside. And even more importantly, the sort of people who are that obsessed with the Third Reich are probably not only going to be interested in historical documents, and I would rather steer clear. Even if that means missing out on a few primary sources.


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Photo credit: Rahima Subhan

Tiny bio

I live, work, and write in Edinburgh. I travel to other places as much as I can. To contact me, email writingmostly at gmail dot com.


CURRENTLY READING: The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo.

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