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The Jerusalem Post April 9, 2002, Tuesday


Murdering history

Arnold Ages

The reviewer is a Canadian academic. Tuesday Books

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

ROBERT Jan van Pelt, author of this compendious report on the infamous Irving trial held in London between January and April 2000, relates that when Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt's travail was over and Judge Charles Gray corroborated the legitimacy of her "libelous" accusations against David Irving, her colleagues retired to have dinner.

Richard Rampton, Lipstadt's able attorney, would have been expected to exult at his impressive victory. He did not. This steely intellectual, who had conducted a take-no-prisoners approach in his highly successful interrogation of Irving, burst into tears before the final course was served. Rampton explained that his response was occasioned by the knowledge that the court triumph would not bring the six million Jewish victims back to life.

David Irving comments:

DURING the trial I successfully expended some effort on demolishing "Professor" Van Pelt's credentials (see my trial diary and the verbatim transcripts): firstly, he is not a qualified architect, and he admitted that it is a criminal offence to call himself one.
   He has never studied architecture: nor toxicology, statistics, aerial photography or any of the other subects on which, extraordinarily, the Court allowed him to expatiate from the witness box.
    An educational expert has now commented:
   "According to his own admission, Pelt possesses a 'D.Lit.' and NOT a Ph.D. He claims to have taken 'a doctorate in the History of Ideas'. His passing over the exact name of his doctorate seems strange: it seems he wishes to be regarded as a Ph.D. In the US, there are three categories for evaluating doctorates: Highest is Ph.D. (with its academic and research emphasis); the next is the M.D. and D.D.S. types (i.e., medical); and the lowest is the D. Min. (Doctor of Ministry, which numerous chaplains now hold: a professional degree and more practical oriented), the E.D.D. (Doctor of Education: in academic fields, much deprecated by Ph.Ds for its educationistic gobbledegook and low level standards set by other EDDs themselves).  

Who can obtain for us a copy of Van Pelt's degree as affixed to his wall? This is an architectural charlatan who urgently needs exposing.

But van Pelt, in his almost 600 pages of narrative, has breathed life into an event which most of us learned of only indirectly through newspaper accounts or web site reportage. His exhaustive account, not only of the trial, but of the demimonde of Holocaust "negationists," (as he prefers to call them), as well as his historical reconstruction of the city of Auschwitz and the death camp associated with its name - these things explain why Rampton cried. But this reviewer experienced a different reaction in reading the massive documentation compiled by van Pelt - a kind of existential nausea in the face of incomprehensible brutality.

The author, a specialist in cultural history at the University of Waterloo in Canada, appeared at the trial as an expert witness on Auschwitz, primarily because of the book he coauthored with Deborah Dwork, Auschwitz 1270 to the Present. He delivers his indictment of Irving, his mentors and disciples with an almost maddening calm, given the magnitude of the lies, distortions and braggadocio associated with Irving and his coterie of supporters.

The editorializing and indignation are kept to a minimum as van Pelt sifts through the history of Holocaust negation incarnated in the small but venomous library of books written by a rogues' gallery of "researchers" who have denied the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz.


UNTIL THE inquest in London in 2000, Holocaust negators had been mostly peripheral figures without real intellectual standing. David Irving, however, did enjoy considerable prestige as a historian whose lengthy sojourns in Germany had provided him with a mastery of the German language and contact with people who had been close to the Nazis.

Moreover, Irving's engaging English style, with occasional cadences that approached the eloquence of the English historian Macaulay, earned him - before he sullied his reputation with Holocaust negation - the respect and admiration of many readers including, sad to report, this reviewer.

For reasons that would require a battery of experts to analyze, Irving bolted from his conventional, if quirky, writing on World War II and gradually began to embrace the negationist ideology. He did so with a passion and vividness of language, however perverted, that immediately drew attention. The conversion of a gifted writer to a propagandist on behalf of Holocaust negation is one of the most lamentable developments in recent times. A virus known as anti-Semitism began to infiltrate his writing, and a formerly gifted historian became a purveyor of Holocaust negationism.


VAN PELT'S book does not deal with all aspects of the Irving trial. He alludes to the compelling evidence introduced at the trial regarding Irving's anti-Semitic predilections and racism, and to the testimony of one expert historian (right) who demolished Irving's research and writing techniques. However, the author's primary focus is on the question of Auschwitz. The author cites chapter and verse from Irving's writings, speeches and interviews in which the latter identified Auschwitz as the Holocaust "battleship" - the symbol and signifier par excellence of the destruction of European Jewry.

Irving referred often to this nautical image in proposing, through his own energies, to sink the Holocaust battleship called Auschwitz, just as the British had sunk the German battleship Bismarck.

In the past several years, as van Pelt documents it, Irving was wont to use extreme, unsavory language to characterize what he called the "myth" of Auschwitz. This included dragging in a famous US Senator in one of Irving's most odious remarks - "that more people died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car in Chappaquiddick than ever died in a [sic] gas chamber in Auschwitz."

Despite his outrageous prose, Irving was no intellectual slouch, and while his reading of Holocaust literature - official histories, archival materials, Nazi records, personal testimonies - was tendentious, he was agile enough to buttress his negationist stance with what he argued was irrefutable scientific evidence, especially the infamous Leuchter Report on the chemistry of "alleged" gassings at Auschwitz.

It has been said that the devil can quote Scripture, but a superior devil can even quote Talmud. In van Pelt's account, it turns out that Irving was as ignorant of chemistry as he is of Talmud.

Van Pelt, who writes in a smooth and fast-flowing, felicitous English style, was the perfect expert witness at the Irving trial because he anticipated every weapon in the arsenal of his opponent - except, as we shall see later, one.

As a cultural historian, van Pelt, having read exhaustively in the field, knew what was true, untrue and exaggerated in Holocaust history. He was aware, for example, that the gas chamber displayed at Auschwitz, was a reconstruction based on the original, but not identical to it. He also knew that the Communist authorities had not taken the trouble to make this clear. Van Pelt was well aware of the fact that Auschwitz had not been designed originally as a killing center; that sinister purpose evolved only later. Again, he was familiar with the negationist literature from Paul Rassinier's post-World War II creed, through Robert Faurisson's "literary" deconstruction of the evidence of genocide to Fred Leuchter's analysis of gas residues at Auschwitz - and Irving's indecent trumpeting of that report in his British edition of the document.


ONE OF THE most fascinating segments in this highly readable book is van Pelt's exegesis of the role played by British intelligence in the evolution of Holocaust negationist ideology.

During World War I, British psychological warfare experts deliberately spread propaganda stories about German atrocities. Some of those stories contained allegations about German factories where the bodies of victims were processed, factory-like, in the manufacture of fat. In World War II, some British agents circulated similar stories about Nazi atrocities in the death camps without substantial corroborating evidence.

For Irving, this was "proof" that Auschwitz had never been a killing center but rather a figment of British psychological warfare. Van Pelt, with his habitual industry, tracked down the relevant documents from the archives of British intelligence, and especially a book published in the 1930s by Arthur Ponsoby that revealed the extent of Britain's deviousness in the psychological warfare game. Van Pelt astutely shows that knowledge of Britain's role in spreading atrocity stories about the Germans in World War I frustrated attempts to expose the horrors of concentration camps. What was untrue about German atrocities in 1914-18 was true about Nazi bestiality in 1939-1945.

The richness of van Pelt's documentation can be seen by the fact that it takes him more than 400 pages of introductory survey material before the actual juridical fireworks begin in the incendiary exchanges between himself and Irving.

This part of the book, I predict, has a drama to it that is the stuff of great theater and literature, and when properly edited will compete with Inherit The Wind as a tense dramaturgic vehicle. The reason for this is simple: van Pelt's account shows Irving to have been a brilliant polemicist, despite the abhorrent and dubious nature of his cause. Although pinned down in embarrassing ways on several occasions by lawyer Rampton and Judge Gray, Irving was able to extricate himself often (though not always) through some nimble cerebral footwork.

In the end, Irving's considerable skills were ineffective in the face of the malice and ignorance which animated his argument against Deborah Lipstadt. His explanation that prussic acid gas was used to fumigate the bodies of people who had died from typhoid - and not to kill people - was derisively rejected.

His argument about the burning rate of coke used in the incineration of gassed victims was turned back on him when it was shown that lesser amounts were needed due to the combustion rate generated by the unceasing firing of the ovens.

His ignorance of the basic errors in the Leuchter Report regarding the upper and lower levels of Zyklon B's lethality, exposed him not only as a sloppy reader but as a mendacious one.

Irving's pedantic hairsplitting over the English translation of the German word vergassungskeller [sic] rendered conventionally as "gassing cellars" demonstrated his willful intent to blur the truth in the interests of ideology.

Van Pelt was caught off guard only once during the proceedings, when Irving introduced an analysis of van Pelt's expert report on Auschwitz written by an anonymous architect who not only questioned the propriety of a non- architect like van Pelt delving into architectural matters, but also attempted to refute van Pelt's major arguments about the gas chambers and the crematoria at Auschwitz.

Surprisingly, Judge Gray permitted this deposition by an anonymous architect, whose anonymity, Irving claimed, was necessary to protect him from the cabal which was now targeting him, Irving. What is even more surprising is that van Pelt did not anticipate this line of attack, inasmuch as Holocaust negationists such as Fred Leuchter had been dismissed as credible witnesses because of his lack of proper professional credentials. Luckily, van Pelt had done his homework and was able to parry the criticisms of the anonymous architect.


READERS OF THIS absorbing if disquieting book will be astonished to discover how much court time was spent in discussing the existence or non-existence of ventilation shafts and the holes supposed to be on the roofs of buildings used as gas chambers.

Aerial photographs taken by Allied reconnaissance planes did not, because of their low resolution, provide the definitive answer to this question. Irving argued that the lack of evidence pointing to holes where the ventilating ducts pierced the roof proved that there were no gas chambers.

Since the gas chambers at Auschwitz were dismantled and blown up by the SS in the final period of the war, it was not possible to present concrete evidence of the existence of these apertures. But van Pelt did the next best thing - he offered the court the design specifications of the various components that went into the manufacture of the gas chambers, sketches of the chambers, and correspondence between officials involved in this horrible enterprise. In doing this, van Pelt demonstrated the truth of the dictum that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Judge Gray's findings confirmed the truth of this dictum and the legitimacy of Lipstadt's statements in her book Denying the Holocaust that labeled Irving a Holocaust denier. Irving was required, moreover, to pay court costs, and his subsequent appeal was denied.

Readers of this book, which will become the sine qua non of all writing about the Holocaust, should be warned that it describes the gruesome nature of Holocaust history, and the equally gruesome role of those who have sought to deny it.



Related files on this website:

Index to Van Pelt
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
"Robert Crowell" reviews the book
Matthew Herrington Reviews the book for FindLaw
Brian Renk's critique of van Pelt's arguments on the "holes"