British historian David Irving has a reputation for arousing controversy. In 1975 he created a storm by saying that there was no documented proof that Adolf Hitler knew about the mass extermination of Jews in Nazi concentration camps. Then, in 1983, he was one of the first experts to declare publicly that diaries purportedly written by Hitler were fake—although he later changed his mind and pronounced them genuine. Now Irving is at the centre of another uproar. In his latest book, Churchill's War:
The Struggle for Power, he claims that former British prime minister Winston Churchill was a drunk who deliberately prolonged the Second World War in order to promote his own political career. Said Zara Steiner, a respected Cambridge University historian: “Most people would agree Irving is a brilliant researcher and that there is some basis for what he writes. But he ruins his case by inflating it out of all proportion.”
Irving himself is unrepentant, insisting that the British establishment has closed ranks against him to preserve the popular image of Churchill as a wartime hero. Although he completed the book three years ago, Irving said that his publisher, Michael Joseph Ltd. of London, declined to publish it and has now asked him to return a $20,000 advance. Two other Britishbased firms, Macmillan London Ltd. and William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd., also rejected the manuscript. As a result, Irving, 49, turned to a littleknown Australian firm, Veritas Publishing Company Pty. Ltd. “The British establishment has tried to hush me up,” Irving told Maclean's. “The word has gone around that my book is going to cause a lot of red faces, so the old-boy network has thrown a blanket of silence over me.” Irving’s critics dismiss those charges, arguing that the British publishers rejected the book because of historical inaccuracies and unproven allegations. Even so, the controversy over its contents clearly has not harmed sales. Since publishing the
book last September, Veritas has sold 7,000 copies of Churchill 's War in Australia. Irving says that he personally sold another 600 copies during a fiveday speaking tour of British Columbia
and Alberta last October. He added that he has distributed 2,000 copies by hand to British bookstores and says that demand for the book has been so strong that he recently decided to import 10,000 more. Declared Geoffrey Bailey of London’s Hatchards booksellers: “The reason for the interest is that Mr. Irving is such a contentious figure—and he is very good at generating publicity.”
The book says that Churchill ignored German peace overtures in 1940 and deliberately kept the war going to satisfy his craving for power. Far from portraying Churchill as a hero, Irving paints him as a megalomaniac, an alcoholic and a coward who frequently fled London to avoid German air raids. “For 40 years we British have been sitting in a warm bath of illusions,” Irving said. “The truth is that, had Churchill not needlessly prolonged the war, 20 million lives would have been saved, the Holocaust would not have occurred and the British Empire would not have been bankrupted.”
Some historians say that they are incensed by Irving’s claims. Churchill’s official biographer, Martin Gilbert, refuses even to discuss the matter of Irving, while another distinguished historian, Henry Peiling of St. John’s College, Cambridge, said that his book is “interesting in parts” but deeply
flawed. Added Peiling: “It is possible that Churchill and Hitler could have come to terms in 1940, but think of the price. The Nazis would have been left alone to rule Europe.” Steiner said that much of what Irving has written is not new. She added, “While it is true that Churchill drank a lot, I simply do not believe that it interfered with his ability to direct the war effort.” Although Steiner and other historians praise Irving for his research, some remain troubled by his apparent sympathy for Nazi Germany. But Irving denies that he is anti-Semitic. “There is a certain amount of Jewish hostility toward me in Britain,” he said, “but that does not mean I am hostile to the Jewish community.” Meanwhile, Macmillan London is planning to publish two new biographies by Irving, of former president Franklin Roosevelt and of Nazi politician Hermann Goring. Macmillan has also asked Irving to consider writing his own memoirs. Said the publisher’s editorial director of nonfiction, Adam Sisman: “David Irving is an enfant terrible, but he is not a lunatic fascist. I suspect that he simply likes stirring things up.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.