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Van Pelt was an expert witness for the defence in the 2000 Libel Action DJC Irving v Penguin Books Ltd and Deborah Lipstadt
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London, Friday, November 29, 2002


In a special examination of detailed writing between the lines of conventional Holocaust literature, David Cesarani considers an analysis of trial evidence


bookThe Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial by Robert Jan van Pelt. Indiana University Press. 570 pages. $ 45


Ratface CesaraniTHE LAST time I wrote a JC review of a book about Auschwitz by Robert Jan van Pelt (right), it attracted the attention of David Irving [January 17, 1997] and I found myself dragged into the malign world of Holocaust-denial. This time, I suspect Mr Irving will not bother. He's heard it all before.

This book joins several published by expert witnesses in the Irving v Lipstadt libel trial. Although it weighs in at over 500 pages, Van Pelt's tome is actually 200 pages shorter than the report on which it is based. Van Pelt says he decided to publish this version to meet requests from the media and the public for the arguments against those who deny the existence of homicidal gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau or the part they played in the Nazis' systematic effort to annihilate Europe's Jews.

However, it has to be asked whether a volume of such forbidding dimensions will serve such a laudable purpose. Van Pelt devotes so much space and detail to the "negationist" case that the reader is fatigued when he eventually gets to evidence of the gas chambers.

Van PeltThis is a pity, because the core of the book offers an invaluable review of the information available between 1942 and 1947 about the genocide at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Van Pelt operates within this time-frame in order to refute two elements of denial propaganda: first, that the gas chambers were a contemporary invention by British political warfare experts and, second, that they were a post-war fabrication involving false confessions by captured Nazis.

He shows how the Polish underground and escapees from Auschwitz-Birkenau alerted the world to the camp while the war raged. After Auschwitz was overrun by the Red Army, Soviet and Polish commissions of investigation examined survivors, scrutinised captured documents and conducted forensic investigations to establish the infamous details. War-crimes trials merely added confirmation by the perpetrators. Despite some overlong quotations, Van Pelt sustains the pace of this narrative, guiding the reader through the evidentiary maze.

Unfortunately, the chapter on "unintentional evidence" -- the plans, photographs, and remnants of the gas chambers -- is congested and convoluted. Even though we are reminded that horrendous human suffering lies behind the calculations about the concentration of hydrogen cyanide needed to kill lice or humans and the expected residue to be found in the ruins, the effect of the data is mind numbing.

Only a fanatical denier or fanatical advocate for the truth would want this information in this form. It would have been more effective to have the data in appendices -- or on a website.

FaurissonThe detail almost overwhelms some fascinating insights into the conduct of the case and the main personalities. Van Pelt discovered Irving was never wholly at ease with the "negationist" case. But the French denier Robert Faurisson (right) goaded him on, comparing him to a "half-pregnant woman."

Van Pelt also reveals that, on a visit to Auschwitz, Richard Rampton QC, the leading defence barrister, told him "that if he were to stay much longer he would be too enraged to conduct the case." During the victory dinner on April 11 2000, Rampton's composure broke. He sobbed to Van Pelt: 'the judgment doesn't bring back the dead," and confessed: "I am deeply ashamed that for all those years I thought I knew, and I did not." Now, thanks to Van Pelt, everyone who wants to know, can.

David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history at Southampton University. He recently edited, with Paul Levine, "Bystanders to the Holocaust: A Re-evaluation" (Frank Cass).


Website Note: We have now posted the entire 150 page British Army Intelligence Dossier on Aumeier, erstwhile commandant of Auschwitz, in text and pdf form. This was the file which (like the Hoess interrogations) Pelt never bothered to read when writing his famous history of Auschwitz.


Related files on this website:

Index to Van Pelt
Investigation on Auschwitz statistics in reputable journal Osteurropa quietly agrees that the Kremas were not gas-chambers, actual deathtoll exaggerated by a factor of ten
Van Pelt testifies on oath Jan 25, 2000 that he has no plans to publish his Report as a book
Indiana University Press announcement of Van Pelt's new book
First section of Van Pelt's book, posted for research purposes only
"Sam Crowell" reviews the book for this website
The Jerusalem Post review: Murdering History
Matthew Herrington Reviews the book for FindLaw
Brian Renk's critique of van Pelt's arguments on the "holes"
Cesarani: Britain was 'wary' of Nazi [sic. Jewish] refugees