When a cult figure of the neo-Nazi movement comes to this town, it is not so hard to track him down. David Irving, who, for at least 50 years, has written sympathetic and revisionist books about Hitler and the Nazis, announced months ago on his Web site that he would arrive in Boise on Wednesday, July 15, as part of a 17-city Western and Midwestern book tour.
But he never said where he'd be speaking, for fear of protesters showing up and disrupting the thing.
Well, we found him, there was a minor disruption and we got kicked out of the talk. Here's how it went down.
BW Editor Rachael Daigle happened to be sitting at the bar at the Red Feather Lounge at 6:30 that night when Irving and his attractive young assistant walked in with their box of books.
We had spent much of the afternoon trying to track down the venue. Earlier in the day I got a tip that Irving was going to be hosting a buffet somewhere in Boise that evening. The tip led me to Irving's Web site where there is a page to register for his talks and a number to call for information.
I dropped four quarters in our nearest pay phone and dialed the number. It was just a few hours before the talk, but Irving, who answered the cell phone himself, took my name and told me to call back at 7 p.m. to get the address, just as the event was about to start. It was advertised as a buffet and Irving said it would be in the "heart of Boise near Sixth Street."
In Phoenix, where the New Times crashed the event, Irving's talk was held at a greasy spoon. So we called up and down Sixth Street—no greasy spoons came to mind—asking if anyone had a private party coming in. No one did.
Irving's two-block ruse, his security measure, had fooled us. I figured I'd just call at 7 and see if he had Googled me in the meantime. We never expected to see him show up at Red Feather, a high-class bar with a decidedly progressive mission. According to Red Feather's management, Irving's assistant, Janelle Antis, had called the night before to reserve the private wine cellar downstairs, saying only that it would be a book signing.
"Had we known who this guy was and what they were going to use the cellar for, clearly we wouldn’t have booked them," Red Feather proprietor Dave Krick said. "Once they were in there, for me it would have been really hard, without some kind of disturbance to ask them to leave. Everybody’s got a right to speak their mind even if we radically disagree with it."
When Rachael called to tell me Irving had just showed up, I rushed back downtown, took a seat at the bar and watched a dozen or so people filter in and head down the narrow stairs to the basement.
We tried to come up with a reporting game plan. Rachael would work the iPhone video while I did the talking. My goal was to sit in on this talk and then deconstruct it for our readers. And to see which of our neighbors were on the Holocaust deniers mailing list.
It almost worked out that way.
Irving, a British national who posits himself as a World War II historian and has written some two dozen books about Nazi Germany and the war, has been a controversial figure since the 1960s. In the late '80s and '90s he turned increasingly to Holocaust denial, claiming that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were a myth of post-war propaganda, that Adolph Hitler was not aware of the mass killing of Jews and that Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves. His writings have made him popular among neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups in the United States.
In 2000, Irving filed a libel suit against Professor Deborah Lipstadt, whose book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, accused him of being a dangerous Holocaust denier. The ensuing trial put many of his theories up to public scrutiny; British Judge Charles Gray found that Irving was indeed a Holocaust denier, anti-Semite and racist, and had not been libeled.
"Not only has he denied the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz and asserted that no Jew was gassed there, he has done so on frequent occasions and sometimes in the most offensive terms. By way of examples, I cite his story of the Jew climbing into a mobile telephone box-cum-gas chamber; his claim that more people died in the back of Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz; his dismissal of the eye-witnesses en masse as liars or as suffering from a mental problem; his reference to an Association of Auschwitz Survivors and Other Liars or 'ASSHOLS' and the question he asked of Mrs. Altman how much money she had made from her tattoo," Judge Gray wrote in his decision.
The entire case file, which documents hundreds of Irving's statements over the years, has been archived at Emory University.
Phoenix New Times writer Stephen Lemons spoke to someone who attended the talk there and described it this way: "I later learned from an informant in the group that Irving lectured them on decoded German documents that he claimed proved only 1.74 million Jews died by Nazi hands during WWII, instead of the 6 million most scholars agree on."
Irving's latest book, Banged Up, which he is promoting on his tour, chronicles his imprisonment in Austria for the crime of Holocaust denial. In 2005, Austrian police arrested Irving on a 10-year-old warrant. He was charged with denying the existence of the gas chambers and the murder of 6 million Jews, according the British paper The Independent. Irving was sentenced to three years in prison and served 13 months of the sentence.
Irving comes to the United States for his tours because he can. He told me during our brief conversation that he banks on the right to free speech in the United States; he is barred from entering some half-dozen countries including Austria, Germany and Canada.
At first Irving agreed to let me into the talk as a journalist, but he later changed his mind and one attendee threatened to call the police if we did not leave. Irving asserts that he just gives a boring talk on Nazi code breaking and that he is not a Holocaust denier.
He made the same statement to Lemons in Phoenix before barring him from the talk. While the crowd in Phoenix included several apparent skinheads and neo-Nazis, the dozen people who showed up in Boise, paying a $10 to $15 cover charge, were mostly older people with no obvious affiliations.
One man in the room claimed he did not know who Irving was and had come to hear a talk on German history. Others told us it was none of our business why they were there.
Our reporting mission quickly disintegrated as Rachael and I were separated. While I was talking our way into the lecture outside the restaurant as Irving downed a beer and waited for a few more calls, Rachael stayed downstairs, filming the titles of Irving's books and the people in the room.
Apparently the people attending the lecture had a problem with being filmed there. Rachael had no problem ignoring their wishes; they chose to attend the lecture at a semi-public place and we were there to document their presence. But then one man told Rachael he was a veteran and she was not worthy of the sacrifice he paid and told her to leave. The connection between being a veteran and associating with a Nazi sympathizer is not clear to me, but Rachael let the guy have it as she backed up the stairs.
"I think I made the decision to be a protester rather than a reporter when the guy told me to thank a veteran and get out because I wasn't 'worthy' because I didn't know a damn thing about defending my country," Rachael told me.
Rachael grew up as an Air Force brat, her dad is a retired colonel and her grandfather fought in three wars, including against the Nazis. Upstairs, out on the sidewalk, Rachael turned her camera on Irving, aggressively questioning him as to why people attending his book talk were so scared to be on film and why he is so secretive about his tour.
He told us to just come and listen, but as our good cop/bad cop routine escalated he started to get irritated and disinvited us. We went back downstairs anyway and staged a short sit-in.
I was still in reporter mode. Rachael was in fighting mode. We agreed to leave when a manager, whom we had informed of our presence and intentions, asked us to leave and after the threat of police involvement from one attendee.
Neither of us slept that night and now a week later, we are finally publishing our account of the evening. In some ways we never got the story. In other ways we inserted ourselves into the story. For the past week we have both struggled with how to cover this event.
"Why haven't we covered it yet? Because I can't. I completely crossed some line ... although I'd say it's a line that the alt press should probably cross more often, though perhaps with more grace," Rachael reflects.
I wrote something the next day, irritated at the fact that my editor screwed up the interview. But I was also sympathetic with her need to shout down those people; neither of us wanted them to think they could just slink into Boise, spread ignorant and hateful ideas and leave with no questions asked.
There were actual protesters around the corner, waiting to find out where Irving was, but we did not know that, nor would I have called them in. I can't speak for Rachael.
My goal was to determine the level of Irving's fraud, expose him and observe the extent of his audience here, but I never got to hear him speak.
I'm taking solace in the fact that at least two people in the room left when Rachael starting using words like "anti-Semitic" and "neo-Nazi" (just before getting booted), and the fact that only a dozen people showed up—in Idaho—to hear Irving.
In other cities Irving's talks have been disrupted by protests and he has become very paranoid of people infiltrating his events. On a strangely composed blog that he is writing during his book tour, Irving documents some of his paranoias; the trunk of his rental car was unlatched, a laptop was tampered with as he slept, people of color and Jews interfere with his journey.
The blog is littered with more racist and anti-Semitic statements like this entry from Salt Lake City.
"We have several confirmed reservations for this evening's talk ... They are all Mormons, quiet, decent, and respectable; how unlike some Jews this clean-living sect is. I deliver a quiet lecture on the Enigma codebreaking topic for an hour; DD gives us a donation, and we just about break even. That is the way it goes some days on a countrywide tour like this."
From Boise, Irving drove north to Spokane and then down the West Coast, including stops in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.
For a few days I thought I would just drop the story. But then Rachael published an abbreviated account of the incident in her Editor's Note and several Irving sympathizers commented on it.
Some of the comments imply that we were not open-minded; one even rehashes the debunked arguments that Holocaust deniers like Irving review again and again, hoping we will forget history. Reviewing our video of the people huddled on the benches in the dark restaurant basement, awaiting some new information to confirm their deep-seated prejudices, we marvel at the absolute right to free speech.
And our absolute American right to be blissfully, ignorantly wrong.