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August 17, 2001
'The Most Important Holocaust Trial Since Eichmann'
From Inside and Out, Two Books Deconstruct the Irving Case Against Deborah Lipstadt
By JACK FISCHEL
IF Holocaust revisionist David Irving had won the libel trial and lawsuit he brought against historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books in July 1996, it may well have vindicated the claims of Holocaust deniers that the genocide of European Jewry was a hoax, inasmuch as Mr. Irving claimed that there were no gas chambers, no systematic extermination of 5 to 6 million Jews and no involvement of Hitler in the Holocaust, other than evidence that was invented by the British and the Jews.
With so much riding on the outcome, two new books -- one by a trial insider, one by an informed outsider -- take great pains to set the record straight by summing up the trial that has been called the most important Holocaust case since the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1960-1961.
Richard Evans's book, "Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial," is in large part an indictment of those historians who promoted Mr. Irving's reputation as a scholar, but whom Mr. Evans accuses of being insufficiently discriminating in their reading of his published works. Mr. Evans, who is professor of modern history at Cambridge University, was the principal expert witness for the defense in the defamation trial, and his book recounts how he came to conclude that the body of Mr. Irving's writings about the Holocaust distorted the historical record for purposes of rehabilitating Hitler by denying the Holocaust.
Mr. Evans reminds us that Mr. Irving initiated the libel suit against Penguin Books when the defendant, Deborah Lipstadt, who teaches at Emory University, denounced Mr. Irving as a dangerous Holocaust denier in her book, "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory" (Penguin, 1994). Under English law, defamation cases tend to favor the plaintiff, inasmuch as the accuser simply has to demonstrate that the defendant had published statements that on the face of it were damaging to the plaintiff's reputation or honor. This is different from American law, where the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, and a plaintiff who is a public figure must show both falsity and malice on the part of the author of the objectionable statements.
As chief historical adviser to Penguin Books, Mr. Evans spent two years researching Mr. Irving's writings in preparation for the case, and ultimately provided convincing evidence that Mr. Irving had not only made mistakes in his books but had deliberately done so in order to bolster his preconceived and politically motivated view of the Holocaust. Judge Charles Gray, in his April 2000 decision, agreed with the defense that, in his treatment of the Holocaust, Mr. Irving had misrepresented the data. Judge Gray concluded that Mr. Irving's use of historical evidence surrounding the Holocaust fell short of the standards to be expected of a conscientious historian. "It was also incontrovertible," the judge stated, "that Irving qualifies as a Holocaust denier. His denial of the gas chambers and of the systematic and centrally directed nature of the mass shooting of Jews was contrary to the evidence."
D.D. Guttenplan, a journalist living in London, wrote about the Irving trial for The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly and The Guardian; "The Holocaust on Trial" is the culmination of his labor. Like Mr. Evans, Mr. Guttenplan concludes that Judge Gray's ruling was the correct one, but he enhances our understanding of Mr. Irving's motives when he astutely explains why Holocaust deniers devote so much energy to creating doubt about the gas chambers. When you build a gas chamber to specifically kill people, states the author, it is constructed with a purpose: "Once you have a gas chamber, you have a vision, and the vision is total annihilation." For Mr. Guttenplan, when Holocaust deniers negate the existence of the gas chambers, they deny the fact that the Nazis were bent on the total annihilation of the Jews.
Mr. Evans's major contribution to the defense was to provide documentation showing that Mr. Irving manipulated his research to serve his agenda of Holocaust denial. During the trial reputable scholars, including John Erickson, Sir John Keegan and Douglas [Donald] Cameron Watt, gave testimonials on behalf of Mr. Irving's credibility as a historian. Mr. Evans discredited their testimony by pointing out that they had not bothered to subject Mr. Irving's publications to detailed analysis by "taking his historical statement and claims and tracing them back to the original and other sources on which he claimed they rest." Many historians, Mr. Evans notes, assume their fellow historians are reliable in their footnoting, translations and document summaries, as well as in their treatment of the evidence. The naivete of those historians who viewed Mr. Irving as a legitimate historian, states Mr. Evans, rested on the assumption that while scholars make mistakes and errors of fact, "they did not generally deliberately manipulate and distort evidence that ran counter to their interpretations," which, as the judgment against him proved, Mr. Irving was guilty of doing.
IF Mr. Evans is critical of the scholars who vouchsafed Mr. Irving's professional reputation, Mr. Guttenplan is disparaging of the Jewish organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, that came to Ms. Lipstadt's support. Although Mr. Guttenplan's book is a product of his observations at the trial, his conclusions appear to have been influenced by Robert Novick [sic. Peter Novick], whose controversial "The Holocaust in American Life" (1999) accused American Jewish groups of using the moral capital of the Holocaust to promote its own political agenda, including the defense of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, as well as by Norman Finkelstein's criticism in "The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering" (2000).
Although Mr. Guttenplan agrees that Mr. Irving was guilty of distorting history in order to rehabilitate the reputation of Adolf Hitler, he nevertheless tempers his condemnation when he writes,
"as for Mr. Irving's charges that his enemies conspired against him...and were in many cases Jews, this too cannot be dismissed as entirely the figment of a paranoid imagination."
For Mr. Guttenplan, the Anti-Defamation League represents a sinister force in its effort to silence Mr. Irving and his writings. He writes:
"In other circumstances Irving might be entitled to a measure of sympathy. The ADL in the United States maintained dossiers not just on Irving, but on African-American groups... on leftist organizations like the National Conference on Black Lawyers...and even on the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee... Where Mr. Irving's reasoning goes off the track is not in seeing himself as the object of an organized campaign, but in his apparent surprise that this should not be so."
Mr. Guttenplan concludes that
"in the wake of the assassination of...Rabin, it would also be naive to dismiss the cruder manifestations of the campaign against Irving -- such as the placard 'gas Irving' seen in a demonstration outside his Mayfair flat -- as mere rhetorical excess."
If Mr. Guttenplan has little positive to say about the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish critics of Mr. Irving, he displays even less empathy for Ms. Lipstadt [right], unless one takes as a compliment his description of her as "a woman with a bad back and a New York manner -- more Bette Midler than Bess Myerson."
Elsewhere, the author accuses Ms. Lipstadt of hypocrisy, saying he was made queasy by Penguin attorney Richard Rampton's examination of Mr. Irving's attitude toward intermarriage between the races,
"when the defendant (Lipstadt) has written 'We know what we fight against: anti-Semitism and assimilation, intermarriage and Israel-bashing,' but who uttered not one word of public protest when her American publisher issued Charles Murray's neo-eugenicist tract 'The Bell Curve.'"
Echoing the sentiments of Messrs. Novick and Finkelstein, Mr. Guttenplan argues that the American Jewish community cannot enjoy its prosperity and access to power while wearing the Holocaust as a badge of "martyrdom on the robes of power, a kind of amulet to ward off criticism," especially in attacking those who criticize Israeli policy. Indeed, Mr. Guttenplan agrees with those who write that when it comes to the "victimization Olympics," Jews have won the gold medal.
The author concludes his book with criticism of those Jewish groups that would outlaw Holocaust denial and hate speech in general. For Mr. Guttenplan, such censorship is far riskier than inviting the state to break down the protections around speech and writing that have been the backbone of American democracy for hundreds of years.
Unfortunately, the efforts to rehabilitate Hitler by denying the Holocaust will not end with the Irving trial. Holocaust deniers have already charged that "Jewish influence" made the ruling against Mr. Irving inevitable. Nevertheless, both books should provide the reader with the last word on at least this chapter on the devious lengths to which Holocaust deniers will go to attain their neo-Nazi agenda.
Mr. Fischel is the author of "The Holocaust" (Greenwood,1998) and "Historical Dictionary of the Holocaust" (Scarecrow, 1999).