Professor Richard Evans' problems with the libel law
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My report found that Irving, who was conducting his own case, had manipulated historical documents and falsified the evidence in his crusade to exculpate Hitler from wrongdoing against the Jews.
-- Prof. Richard Evans
[Pictures added by this website]


London, Tuesday, March 20, 2001

A trial under cross examination

A controversial account of the Irving libel trial

D D Guttenplan: The Holocaust on Trial: History, Justice and the David Irving Libel Case Granta Books 19 March 2001 Hardback 186207397X

IT'S 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 sued the American academic Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, for libel.

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 witness report.

My report found that Irving, who was conducting his own case, had manipulated historical documents and falsified the evidence in his crusade to exculpate Hitler from wrongdoing against the Jews.

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 Auschwitz 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 historical record.

RamptonIt 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 case.

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 rather different.

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 [sic: 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 delivered.

Similarly, the experts -- in particular Robert Jan Van Pelt, the Auschwitz specialist -- did much better in the witness box than Guttenplan gives them credit for.

In the end, the judge upheld almost all the points they made in their reports. And what of the trial's overall significance?

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 that.

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.

Nobody, 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 different.

Prof. Richard Evans deserves the sole credit for writing the text on the left.

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 proceedings.

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.
His book on the Irving libel trial will appear later this year.

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We urge all our readers: keep the Richard Evans items coming, and we will post them here (besides, there is quite a special reason why we are collecting them).

Related items on this website: 

Index on Richard Evans
New Zealand Judges lash Evans for lack of objectivity
Mr Irving warns new publisher Granta
Die Zeit reviews Menasse's book
Richard Evans: Lying About Hitler: History, the Holocaust and the David Irving Trial [Our book review]
Evans smears Prof. Ernst Nolte, says world's Jews "never declared war on Nazi Germany"
Bertelsmann-Ableger [Heinemann-Verlag] kneift vor David Irving | Mr Irving warns new publisher
The Guardian: Top historian's work, rejected amid libel fears, finds new home

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