Thursday, October 27, 2011

I spy with my little eye

  • An interesting article in Nature on how a US intelligence agency is studying whether social media can predict social unrest.
  • After 10 series spanning nine years, British spy drama Spooks has come to the end of its run. There were several articles about it in the British press, but my favourite was this one in The Daily Telegraph by spy novelist Jon Stock (perhaps because I'm mentioned in it).
  • Who said the KGB was dead? A good old-fashioned honey-trap spy scandal.
  • It's silly season for articles about the next James Bond film - well, when isn't it, really? Ben Child of The Guardian has his cake and eats it, using an article in The Sunday Express which he bemoans as smacking of 'join-the-dots journalism' as the basis for his own article, in which he joins, um, precisely the same dots.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Unbelievable stories

Early in John le CarrĂ©’s The Russia House, the novel’s narrator observes that Americans ‘lack the instinct to dissemble that comes so naturally to us British’. Recently, I’ve been wondering if there’s not something in this, and also if there isn’t something in the British psyche as a result that leads us to be apathetic towards and sometimes even accepting of deception. 

A case in point: when The New York Times discovered that one of its reporters was a serial plagiarist, the journalist in question swiftly lost his job and the newspaper devoted 18 pages to its investigation of what he had done, taking full responsibility for it. But when the British broadsheet The Independent was confronted with a similar problem regarding its star reporter Johann Hari earlier this year, it faffed about for several months before refusing to publish the findings of its investigation, instead offering its readers a self-serving quasi-apology from Hari, along with the news that he was to go on a journalism course in the US before returning to his job as though nothing had happened. 

Something about this seems very British to me – as if the idea of admitting that someone is a liar and a cheat is in itself disreputable, rather than the honourable course of action. This tendency seems particularly rife when it comes to matters concerning the Second World War perhaps because Britains self-image is so tied up with its role in the war that Brits in general, and the British media in particular, are reluctant to ask common-sense questions about its history, or purported accounts of it. 

This came to mind again this morning because a book has just been published in Britain by two authors who claim to have discovered evidence that Adolf Hitler survived and died an old man in Argentina. It’s getting an enormous amount of attention, with an interview with one of the authors already playing on Sky and another lined up with Sir David Frost. Luckily, some people are prepared to step forward to point out that it’s a nonsensical conspiracy theory and not worth publicizing.

Something else that has caught my eye is this week’s Sunday Times paperback non-fiction chart. Sitting on top of it is a book called The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz, by Denis Avey and Rob Broomby. Back in April, I helped historians Guy Walters and Adrian Weale write an article about this book, in which we raised several questions about its central claim. In the book, Second World War veteran Denis Avey, working with journalist Rob Broomby, recounts an astonishing story. He claims that during the war he was imprisoned by the Germans at E715, a labour camp very near Auschwitz III, also known as Monowitz, and that he decided to smuggle himself into that concentration camp overnight on two separate occasions, in order to witness the treatment being meted out to the Jews.

It’s sensational stuff, but our research uncovered several major discrepancies in the story. However, despite these, and serious reservations about the book from the head historian at Auschwitz, former prisoners-of-war from E715 and Auschwitz, the World Jewish Congress and others, the publisher stood by the book. And, clearly, it’s still selling by the bucketload, unquestioned by readers. It has also been sold to publishers in the US, Brazil, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Spain, and Mr Avey has been honoured by the British government as a ‘British Hero of the Holocaust’.

But since our article was published, we have discovered that Denis Avey has told two unreconcilably contradictory versions of his experiences during the war. 

On July 16 2001, Mr Avey gave a long interview to the Imperial War Museum. In that interview, he described his experiences during the war in great detail. However, he gave an inexplicably different account of what he had done than the one that appeared earlier this year in The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz. For example, he told the Imperial War Museum that he had witnessed the death of a Jewish prisoner – who were called ‘stripeys’ by the British PoWs – while he was laying heavy cables:
‘It was winter. It was about eight foot down. I used to work with the political prisoners and the stripeys alongside us. The roll had stopped for some unknown reason, and we stood up looking, and there was one of the stripeys up there, and of course one of the SS feldwebels approached this chap. Immediately addressed by the Waffen SS, these political fellas had to take their hat off straight away and stand to attention. And he stood to attention telling this feldwebel something. And he hit him right across the face and knocked him straight into a pit, and as he fell so the roll of the cable rolled over him, and killed him. And I remonstrated with this – like an idiot – with this feldwebel, and he didn't say a word. He jumped down in the pit well and hit me straight across the face with this Luger. And nothing was said. Nothing at all.’1
This incident also appears in The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz, but with a very different outcome. In the book, Avey claims that while he and others were laying cables a Jewish youth, perhaps 18 years old, removed his cap and stood to attention when an SS officer approached, and the officer hit him in the face. Within a few seconds, the blood was flowing ‘uncontrollably’:
‘The boy managed to haul himself back to attention mumbling something in a language I couldn’t place.’2
The boy was struck savagely again, and managed to pull himself up again. Watching this, Mr Avey claims that he became enraged and shouted at the SS officer, calling him an ‘untermensch’. And as a result, the beating of the boy stopped. However, some 10 minutes later, when Mr Avey had finished his work, he climbed out of the trench and began to walk away. The same officer came up behind Mr Avey without warning and hit him in the right eye with the butt of his pistol. Mr Avey fell to the ground and blacked out for a few seconds. When he had recovered consciousness he found that his eye was closing up, and that the officer had gone. ‘I never saw what happened to the boy,’ he concludes, ‘but he can’t have lived long. If those head injuries didn’t kill him he had been marked out and would die soon anyway.’3

Both accounts cannot be true – they directly contradict each other. And this isn’t a small detail or the sort of thing one might misremember: one either sees a boy knocked into a pit and a cable rolling over him and killing him, or one doesn’t. 

Even more troublingly, Denis Avey also told the Imperial War Museum that he smuggled himself into Auschwitz II – Birkenau – rather than Monowitz, as he claims in his book. And he told the Museum that he accompanied a Jewish prisoner called Ernst Lobethal into Birkenau so that Ernst could show him the treatment of the prisoners there:
‘So over the days and weeks we arranged to have an ‘umtausch’ – an exchange.  I went in to Birkenau with Ernst and this stripey got into my uniform and got into E715 for the night.  And I went with him to Birkenau and slept alongside him, as was the position of this other fellow, and in this way I got the information, very surreptitiously again.’4
Ernst Lobethal features in the book, but there is no mention that he was involved in arranging for Mr Avey to go into any camp, let alone that he was with Avey when he did it. Neither did Ernst Lobethal mention this astonishing event in his testimony to the Shoah Foundation. Again, Mr Aveys testimony to the Imperial War Museum directly contradicts what he has claimed in his book they cannot both be true. If you’ve done something as extraordinary as break into a concentration camp for the night, you remember if you did it alone or accompanied – and if you don’t remember, you’re not a reliable witness and shouldn’t have your memoirs published by reputable firms.

The smoking gun that proves that Mr Avey is an unreliable witness, though, is the following part of his account to the Imperial War Museum:
‘And the whole thing was to discuss things with him (Ernst), find out the treatment and what was happening.  Now he told me of an Australian POW that was working in Birkenau, and sure enough he did.  I tried constantly to contact him. I couldn’t.  I don’t know why – I couldn’t. And you know what he did? He was an escaped POW. They picked him up just going into Switzerland in civilian clothes, and they interrogated him because of the civilian clothes, and they wanted to know how he got the clothes, how he got the map, how he got the compasses and he wouldn’t tell them. He’d got my temperament and he was an Australian to boot as well. And of course he caused a lot of problems, and they beat him badly, and then they sent him to Auschwitz-Birkenau. You know what he did? He stoked the crematoria. He stoked the crematoria for twelve months.  I tried to contact him after the war:  I couldn’t, but then I found out he’d written a book called “Stoker”.’5
It is perhaps unsurprising that Mr Avey failed to find this man, because he is referring to Donald Watt, author of the memoir, Stoker: the Story of an Australian Soldier who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, published in 1995. Mr Watt’s key claim in that book, that he was a stoker in the crematoria in Birkenau with the Sonkerkommandos, has been revealed to be a hoax. An investigation into it by Yad Vashem, Israel's official documentation and research centre on the Holocaust, concluded that Mr Watt had ‘at no time been a member of the Sonderkommandos in Auschwitz-Birkenau.6 The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum also investigated Mr Watt’s claim, and their report concluded that there was no evidence in the records that he had been a stoker in Auschwitz, and neither was there any evidence that he had ever been in Auschwitz at all.7 In 1997, Professor Konrad Kwiet, the resident historian at the Sydney Jewish Museum and former chief historian of the Australian war crimes commission, wrote an article titled Anzac and Auschwitz: The unbelievable story of Donald Watt, in which he presented even more evidence against Mr Watt’s claim, including that his official Service and Casualty Form kept by the Australian Army revealed that he had been discharged from Stalag 357 in April 1945, and that there was no evidence that he had ever been in Birkenau.8

Donald Watt’s claim that he was a stoker in Birkenau has been debunked as a fabrication by a host of institutions with acknowledged expertise on the Holocaust, including the historians at Auschwitz itself. Denis Avey’s claim that he switched places with a Jewish inmate in Birkenau and tried to seek out Donald Watt in that camp cannot therefore be true: his story relies on another man’s fabrication.

In addition, the story of searching for Watt is nowhere to be found in The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz. Why, then, did Mr Avey claim this in 2001? If the account he gave the Imperial War Museum is true, and he really did go into Birkenau to try to find Donald Watt, the contradictory account he gives in The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz of entering Monowitz, with no mention of searching for Watt, must be untrue. And if the account in the book is true, the account he gave the Imperial War Museum must be untrue.

Either way, at least one of Denis Aveys accounts about his experiences during the Second World War cannot be true. He is therefore an unreliable witness, and all his claims about switching places with an inmate to enter Auschwitz are therefore suspect, including that in his book The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz. Readers and the media should be pressing his publishers to acknowledge this fact, explain why the co-author Mr Broomby ignored the testimony to the Imperial War Museum, and withdraw the book from circulation as soon as they can. 

Alternatively, we can all just look the other way and pretend it never happened. After all, he, his co-authors and his publishers are only telling stories about the Holocaust and making money from it. Nothing wrong with that, is there? It’s not like that usually gets any attention, is it?

1. Imperial War Museum Sound Archive, Interview with Denis Avey, 16 July 2001, Accession number 22065. Available from: Accessed October 17 2011.
2. The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz by Denis Avey and Rob Broomby, Hodder & Stoughton, March 2011, p164.
3. Ibid., p165.
4. Imperial War Museum Sound Archive interview.
5. Ibid.
6. Quoted in Konrad Kwiet, ‘ANZAC and Auschwitz: The Unbelievable Story of Donald Watt’, International Network on Holocaust and Genocide, 12, no. 3, pp. 13–18.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.

With many thanks to Guy Walters and Adrian Weale.