In reporting the death of author Kurt Vonnegut, the Today programme this morning managed to slip in a piece of misinformation that would no doubt have pleased David Irving and other Holocaust deniers.
Vonnegut's best known book Slaughterhouse 5 is in part based on his experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the Allied bombing raids of February 1945. The Today report referred to this and stated that ‘more than 100,000’ people died in the Dresden bombings.
In fact, nearly all scholars who have researched this episode put the figure much lower – somewhere between 25,000 and 35,000. The only one who persists in claiming 100,000+ deaths is David Irving. In his original book The Destruction of Dresden he referred to 135,000 deaths, which he revised upwards to 250,000 using a document that was later shown to be a forgery. Since then he has persisted in the 135,000 figure, contrary to the evidence uncovered by other historians.
Given that Dresden was undeniable a human tragedy on an enormous scale and morally questionable at best, does quibbling about figures matter? Yes, it does, partly because truth matters and partly because deliberately exaggerating the Dresden death count is part of a revisionist project of Nazi-sympathisers like Irving designed to imply a moral equivalence between the Nazis and the Allies in the Second World War.
Irving’s misrepresentation of the figures is well-known. It was exposed in detail in the Irving-Lipstadt libel trial by Professor Richard J. Evans. It is dealt with in a chapter of Evans’s book Telling Lies About Hitler. Any BBC researcher wanting to check the information could have found Evans’s report on the web. Or if they couldn’t be bothered they could have looked at Wikipedia which has quite a detailed entry on the Dresden bombings.
Although Irving wasn’t mentioned by name in the Today report, by repeating his fictions rather than the conclusions of genuine scholars, they give him a small propaganda victory.
POSTSCRIPT: I have noticed in the past Today’s indulgent treatment of Irving. Earlier this year, the programme featured an item on laws against holocaust denial. To represent the views of those who oppose such laws, they interviewed David Irving. In the first place they referred to him as a ‘historian’, a label that many consider inappropriate given his persistent and deliberate falsifications. Then they misleadingly stated that he was no longer a holocaust denier. And when he said that if Britain passed a law outlawing holocaust denial he would be the first to break it, the interviewer failed to challenge him as to why he would do this if he accepted that the holocaust happened.