I couldn't believe it when I flicked around the channels and found David Irving speaking on the Late Late show. I'd heard that his talk in UCC had been cancelled. Nothing new in that. He must be one of the most frequently cancelled speakers in history. So I think fair play to RTE for bringing him in and allowing him to speak. Thankfully they had an articulate young historian, Dr. Robert Gerwarth of UCC, to argue against Irving.
Anyway I tuned in. Inevitably a discussion began on the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. Irving now seems to acknowledge that a vast number of Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime. He has shifted now to a denial that a systematic plan ever existed to exterminate the Jews. Moreover, he argues that Hitler wasn't the author of a deliberate final solution involving liquidation of the Jewish population of Europe. The initiative for that came from out in the field, or from further down the chain of command. Dr Gerwarth argued that this thesis is simply implausable. The death machine was too systematic and Hitler's pronouncements on the Jews so filled with Hatred that all the evidence puts him at the centre of any plan to rid Europe of the Jews. Heydrich and Himmler were acting on the orders of Hitler, according to Dr. Gerwarth, and this makes Hitler's key part in the plan irrefutable. Irving disagrees. Hitler, he concedes was complicit. As head of state, Hitler was complicit, but removed from hard policy decisions. He may have asked Himmler to "do what is necessary" to implement a final solution; but he didn't want to know about what was necessary and was in the dark about the appalling reality of hundreds of thousands passing through the gas chambers.
As a lay person, I find Irving's argument incredible. It seems most historians would agree. There is no doubt that Irving has cherished his journey from revisionist to outright iconoclast. His reputation rests now on his ability to defend his position. But more worrying is Irving's courting of vile neo-nazi groups in Eastern Europe. He has given credence to their bilious hatred - not in an indirect way, but deliberately. That tells us more about the engine of Irving's passion than his intellectual arguments against the chain of command theory.
The wider question of responsibility for the Holocaust or the question, how could it have happened, is perhaps even more interesting than Hitler's role in driving it forward. I have been fascinated and saddened by the way in which the whole project found so many willing participants.
It seems to me that the overall plan, like a giant project to build a national health service or a country-wide road network, gelled into place over time. It melded from rough draft through various revisions until the Final Solution had taken shape. But because the project was so massive in scope, so bold in its aspirations, and utterly unique, it required all the tools and processes of a modern state to implment. Furthermore, it required not just the machinery of state, but the complicity of society itself.
The vile scheme played out differently in various regions. The structure of its operation differed hugely from say Warsaw, which was directly occupied and run, to Vichy France, which was co-opted (and whose complicity in shipping some tens of thousands of French jews to be murdered is one of the most shameful episodes in French history). But the minuatae of the operations - in terms of scouring neighbourhoods, creating networks of informers, drawing up passenger lists, cataloging personal belongings, sorting out desitinations, and ultimately, on the arrival ramps, deciding who would suffer hard labour and who would be murdered. All this is frighteningly thorough, and marks the Holocaust out as a genocide like no other.
But apart from the logisitical preparedness, other acts of complicity stand out. Whole sections of 'sophisticated' society were co-opted. Universities stopped admitting Jews, then fired Jewish academics. The medical profession grasped the project with both hands. They clamoured to be involved with expermients on prisoners. Pharmaceutical companies tested drugs on prisoners in death camps. Some of these 'experiments' weren't even remotely scientific - they were just macabre violations of the human body as if for pleasure. Just sick. And the Church more or less made a deal, leave us alone and we'll keep our heads down. That eventually changed and some heads stood up and were counted, but the general policy stands.
The picture is as clear as it is disturbing. Perhaps the vilest project in the history of humanity required and deliberately sought collaborators from all sections of society. And it got them - in droves. Not everyone volunteered freely, many were forced, but arguably most acts of complicity, from the little to the grotesque, were unforced. Certainly, resistance was paltry.
In the Holocaust mankind plumbed the deepest, darkest recess of his heart, and found there a boundless capacity for evil. It became a nightmare where wicked, appalling cruelty and murder on a massive scale became ... well, ordinary.
Hitler certainly did not create that horrendous darkness in the soul of man. His crime was that he knew it was there and he deployed every ounce of his genious in harnessing it to prosecute his own demented and ultimately doomed, vision of the future. He turned ordinary people, who were leading very ordinary lives, into monsters.
I'll conclude with a photo from this week's New Yorker. Women and three officers run toward the camera, grinning wildly, apparently because it has suddenly begun to rain. It was taken at Auschwitz between May 15 and July 8, 1944, a period called the Hungarian Deportation, when four hundred and thirty-four thousand people were put aboard trains in Hungary bound for Auschwitz —so many people that the crematoriums, which could dispose of a hundred and thirty-two thousand bodies a month, were overrun.