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Sydney, Australia, September 8-9, 2001
Judgment day for Hitler's liar
THE HOLOCAUST ON TRIAL. HISTORY, JUSTICE AND THE DAVID IRVING LIBEL CASE. By D D Guttenplan , Granta, 328 pp, $49.95
Reviewed by Hugh Dillon
David Irving's reputation is thoroughly ruined, but even for those who rejoice, there are more ways than one of looking at the trial that confirmed his bigotry.
Holocaust denial -- the claim that there was no systematic mass murder of Jews by the Nazis and that, in particular, there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz -- is a phenomenon generally confined to the lunatic fringe.
In January 2000, however, it came to the High Court of Justice in London when the historian David Irving sued the author Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books for defamation.
In 1993, Lipstadt, an American academic, published Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory in which she described Irving as a key figure in a movement seeking to rehabilitate the Nazis by denying the extent of their crimes against humanity. She accused him of being a Nazi apologist who had distorted facts and manipulated documents in support of his contention that the Holocaust (defined as the murder of between 5 million and 6 million Jews) did not take place.
Irving has established a reputation as an assiduous researcher in German archives. His career was based on telling the story of the Third Reich from the German point of view.
Reputable historians such as John Keegan, Donald Watt and Hugh Trevor-Roper had praised his work despite, perhaps, some reservations about his sympathy for Hitler. He claimed that Lipstadt's book was part of a concerted plan to ruin his reputation as a historian. The trial was to be his chance to debate the Holocaust with a Jewish professor before the world's media.
Tactically, Penguin's lawyers resolved to turn the tables on Irving. They decided that Lipstadt would not give evidence. This would frustrate Irving's plan. But they would attack his credentials as a historian and justify their defamation of him.
They set out to prove three things:
Guttenplan is an American writer who watched the entire trial and interviewed the main players, including the trial judge, Irving, Lipstadt and the lawyers. Richard Evans is a Cambridge don, and a specialist on modern German history. He was Penguin's expert witness, called to prove Irving's historiographical misdeeds.
Although himself Jewish, Guttenplan surveys all the players with cool objectivity.
He is not part of a Lipstadt cheer squad -- he apparently regards her book as relatively lightweight and simplistic. The evenness of the tone and the sharpness of his observations of the trial allow the characters and the issues to emerge without a thick enamel of his own opinion. This is journalism of the highest order.
Evans spent two years preparing to demolish Irving as a historian. Guttenplan describes Evans as "a short, squat man with beetle brows and an expression of faint disgust.., spoiling for a fight" when Irving (who represented himself) cross-examines. (One senses that the thoughtful Guttenplan does not see Evans as a soul mate.) His chapter on Evans at the trial is entitled "Massive Confrontation".
Massive confrontation is exactly what Evans provided Irving in his 700-page expert report. Lying About Hitler is a condensed and reworked version of that report, with Evans's commentary on the trial itself and his reflections on the suitability of a courtroom as a forum for a critical examination of the way historians work, or should work.
He suspected that Irving might have made a practice of falsifying history from the outset of his career. In a series of trenchant case studies, he proved that Irving had systematically and knowingly misrepresented the historical record virtually from his first book (The Destruction of Dresden) in 1963. Of course, all historians make mistakes, but in Irving's case all the errors tended to fall the same way, suggesting that he was not only biased but deliberately manipulative. The trial judge ultimately accepted virtually all Evans's evidence.
While they are brilliant evocations of a momentous trial, these two books should not be read as courtroom dramas but as meditations on the methods and significance of historiography and politics. For the combative Evans, Holocaust denial is proof positive of the perniciousness of postmodern relativism in history, and the trial was a vindication of "objective" history's attempt to extirpate it. So severely does he punish Irving in Lying About Hitler, the British edition was withdrawn at Irving's demand.[*]
One wonders why the publisher was so craven. Irving surely could not have afforded another £2 million in costs. For the more sensitive and pessimistic Guttenplan the issues are more complex. The trial was, as Guttenplan notes, the first of a new generation of Holocaust trials. Most of the survivors and virtually all the perpetrators are now dead.
There will be few if any trials of Nazis from now on. Irving was found by the High Court to be a liar, a bigot and a manipulator of evidence. His credibility as a historian was destroyed, but he was received in the United States as a martyr by his revisionist friends after the trial. Guttenplan concludes that such trials will do nothing to diminish the attraction of loony theories to the lost and twisted. Objective history means nothing to them anyway. They are not worth arguing with.
The victory over Irving, as Guttenplan sees it, has wider implications. Although, of course, welcome, he fears that it will give further momentum to Jewish isolationism and guilt-based special pleading, even reactive extremism. He argues that a better path for Jews to take would be "as a political act, an existential gesture, a religious observance, even a moral choice, [to] throw in their lot with the excluded", to show solidarity with suffering and disadvantaged humanity.
Shortly before he was killed in Auschwitz, Salmen Gradowski wrote in his secret journal: "Dear discoverer of these writings! I write that my doomed life may attain some meaning, that my hellish days and hopeless tomorrows may find a purpose in the future." Guttenplan's beautiful, sad book is a powerful contribution to the world's conversation on remembering the Holocaust. More importantly, it is an elegy for Gradowski and those who died with him.
Hugh Dillon is a Sydney magistrate.
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