London, Tuesday, March 20, 2001
A trial under cross
account of the Irving libel trial
D Guttenplan: The Holocaust on Trial: History,
Justice and the David Irving Libel Case Granta
Books 19 March 2001 Hardback
NOT often that I get to review a book that features
myself as one of the main figures, so it was with eager
anticipation that I turned to the American journalist
Don Guttenplan's account of last year's High Court
case in London in which the writer David Irving
the American academic
Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books,
Guttenplan interviewed the litigants, the judge and
others involved in the case, and sat in court throughout.
He read the expert reports and is well informed about the
writings and background of the main participants. I
turned, naturally enough, first of all to the page on
which Guttenplan begins his account of my 28 hours in the
witness box being cross-examined by Irving on my expert
My report found that Irving,
who was conducting his own case, had manipulated
historical documents and falsified the evidence in his
crusade to exculpate Hitler from wrongdoing against
In his books and speeches he had denied
that the Nazis had systematically murdered millions of
Jews and claimed that there were no gas chambers at
or any other Nazi concentration camps.
The judge agreed that Irving had tried to substantiate
these claims by adding words to
quotations from documents, suppressing sentences
or whole paragraphs in them,
falsifying statistics and in
general wilfully and deliberately distorting the
took three months to prove this in the High Court, and
more than two years' work by the defence team, led by
Richard Rampton QC,
(left) to prepare the
Expert witnesses, including myself, compiled reports
that ran to some 2,000 pages. Was it all worth it? What
did it all mean? And did it justify the massive media
attention lavished on the trial, particularly at the end?
Guttenplan's thesis in the book is that the trial was
really about proving that the Holocaust actually happened
-- hence the book's title.
True, he admits, the judge, the defence team, the
experts and indeed Irving himself all agreed that it was
not about this at all. We all thought it was about
Lipstadt's allegation that Irving had falsified the
evidence relating to the Holocaust, which is something
But Guttenplan knows better. His argument will not
convince many of those who were directly involved in the
trial. And yet it's not just this argument, but the whole
way in which Guttenplan tells the story of the trial,
that makes me think he didn't really grasp what was going
on for much of the time.
Perhaps for dramatic effect,
he portrays the trial as hanging in the balance almost
to the very end and shows Irving making one dent after
another in the testimony of the experts while standing
up successfully to many of Richard Rampton's efforts
to break him down under cross-examination.
That's not how the defence saw it, nor how the most
perceptive of the trial's many observers, the German
Austrian-Jewish] reporter Eva Menasse,
reported the way things were going. Right from the start,
nobody on the defence side had any doubt that Irving was
losing the battle.
On one issue after another he was forced to admit that
his views were in conflict with the real historical
evidence. The full scale of Rampton's forensic triumph
became abundantly clear when the final judgement was
Similarly, the experts -- in particular Robert
Jan Van Pelt, the Auschwitz specialist -- did
much better in the witness box than Guttenplan gives them
In the end, the judge upheld almost all the points
they made in their reports. And what of the trial's
Guttenplan portrays it as a battle between the Jewish
concept of the Holocaust and the deniers' anti-Semitic
and anti-Israel offensive. But more was involved than
If, unlike Guttenplan, you accept that the trial was
about the falsification of history, then it was also a
battle between real historical scholarship and the
attempt to distort the past.
And where does this leave the problematic question of
how we can achieve real knowledge about the past anyway?
Here Guttenplan ties himself up in conceptual knots.
least of all myself, has ever claimed that
Holocaust deniers are postmodernist relativists,
only that the relativists' extreme scepticism
about historical knowledge has made it difficult
to criticise the deniers on grounds of
historical objectivity, something quite
Prof. Richard Evans
deserves the sole credit for writing the text on
There really is no contradiction, as Guttenplan
supposes, between arguing that historians have to operate
within the objective limits imposed by the evidence on
the one hand, and agreeing that they can disagree
strongly within those limits on the other.
This is the fifth book to appear on the trial, even
though less than a year has passed since the verdict was
delivered. More are in the pipeline.
Guttenplan's is well written, though in a rather bland
style, and it has some good descriptions of the courtroom
For all its defects, this is the best overall account
we have so far of the trial as a whole and the
personalities involved in it.
Can there, then, be no objective account of the past,
even of a trial where we were all present and which
happened less than a year ago? Of course there can.
We may differ on these matters, but the differences
are differences of perspective. Nobody, certainly not
Guttenplan, is manipulating or distorting the evidence
for what happened in the High Court last year.
As for Irving, his view was summed up in the cartoon
by Matt in The Daily Telegraph the day after the
verdict. It had a browser in a bookshop inspecting a copy
of "David Irving's New Book" in which the first sentence
was: "That Libel Trial Never Happened".
Richard J. Evans is Professor of
Modern History at Cambridge.
you see it -- now you don't
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