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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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Van Pelt . . . was aware, for example, that the gas chamber displayed at Auschwitz was a reconstruction based on the original, but not identical to it.


© 2002 Theodor Herzl Foundation
April 2002 v48 i3 p46(3).


The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial

bookreviewed by Arnold Ages

Robert Jan van Pelt: The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2002, 570 pp.

ROBERT Jan van Pelt, author of this compendious report on the infamous Irving trial held in London between January and April 2000, indicates that when Deborah Lipstadt's travail was over and Judge Charles Gray corroborated the legitimacy of her 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 melancholic response was occasioned by his knowledge that the court triumph would not bring the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust back to life.

But van Pelt, in his almost 600 pages of narrative, has breathed life into an event that most of us learned of only indirectly through newspaper accounts or website reportage. His exhaustive account, not only of the trial but of the demimonde of the 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 and digesting the massive documentation of the real "axis of evil" compiled by van Pelt -- a kind of Sartrean existential nausea in the face of the incomprehensible brutality foisted on one group of human beings by another.

The author [Van Pelt], a specialist in cultural history at the University of Waterloo in Canada, who appeared at the trial as an expert witness on Auschwitz, primarily became of the book he coauthored with Deborah Dwork, Auschwitz 1270 to the Present, delivers his indictment of Irving and 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 bare minimum, as van Pelt patiently sifts through the history of Holocaust negation as it is 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. In retrospect, van Pelt's cautious, even understated, approach to the facts served Lipstadt well.

Van PeltUntil the assizes in London in 2000, the people who had been associated with Holocaust negation had been mostly peripheral figures without real intellectual standing. David Irving, however, did enjoy considerable prestige as an historian whose lengthy sojourns in Germany had provided him with a mastery of the German language and contacts with people who had been close to the Nazis. Moreover, Irving's engaging English style, with occasional cadences in his books 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 -- and he did so with a passion and a vividness of language, however perverted, that immediately drew attention to him. The conversion of a gifted writer to a propagandist on behalf Holocaust negation is one of the most lamentable developments in recent times. Had he understood the real role of an historian, that is to say, examining honestly all the relevant material, Irving could have made a contribution to the genre of history writing. Alas, it was not to be. That non filterable virus known as antisemitism began to infiltrate his writing to the point where the formerly gifted historian became a purveyor of Holocaust negationism.

Robert 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 antisemitic predilections and racism -- and to the testimony of one expert historian who demolished Irving's research and writing techniques -- but 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," that is to say, in the language of semiotics, 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 battle-ship 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 an American senator in one of Irving's most odious remarks -- "that more people [sic. women] died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car in Chappaquiddick than ever died in a [sic. the] gas chamber in Auschwitz." Despite his outrageous prose, Irving was no intellectual slouch; 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, 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 screed, 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 own 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 hapless 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 imagination. 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 Ponsonby, which 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 by escapees and other principals to expose the horrors of the concentration camps to the world in the 1940s. What was untrue about German atrocities in 1914-1918 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 his interrogator, David 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 Richard Rampton and Judge Gray, Irving was able to extricate himself often (though not always) through some very nimble cerebral footwork.

cns of Zyklon BIn the end, Irving's considerable skills were ineffective in the face of the malice and ignorance that 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 epidemics -- and not to kill people -- was derisively rejected as preposterous. 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's 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 Vergasungskeller, 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, the crematoria, and the other apparatuses of death associated with Auschwitz. Surprisingly, Judge Gray permitted this deposition by an anonymous architect, whose anonymity Irving claimed was necessary to protect him from the cabal that 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 a 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 (van Pelt) or nonexistence (Irving) 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 flying over Auschwitz, did not, because of their low resolution quotient, 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 to the court the design specifications of the various components that went into the manufacture of the gas chambers, sketches of the gas chambers, and correspondence between officials involved in this ghastly 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 Deborah Lipstadt's statements about David Irving. Irving was required, moreover, to pay the court costs. His subsequent appeal was denied.

The readers of this book, which will become the sine qua non of all writing about the Holocaust, should be warned that its perusal will involve exposing themselves to the gruesome nature of Holocaust history and the equally gruesome role of those who have sought to deny it..

© 2002 Theodor Herzl Foundation

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 has been exaggerated by a factor of ten
Van Pelt testifies on oath Jan 25, 2000 that he has no plans to publish 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
"Ratface" Cesarani reviews the book for The Jewish Chronicle
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"
"Ratface" Cesarani: Britain was 'wary' of Nazi [sic. Jewish] refugees
Van Pelt book reviewed by Theodor Herzl journal Midstream