Professor Richard Evans' problems with the libel law
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Penguin and their insurers may have spent more than two million pounds in mounting a successful defence of their author and their book, but other publishers seem unwilling to contemplate spending even a fraction of that sum in the unlikely event of having to fight another case of a similar kind. -- Prof. Richard Evans
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London, August 10, 2001

Spot the difference:

Mr Irving wrote to Macmillan (Palgrave) on June 27, 2001 advising them:

I HAVE seen on the Internet reference to your refusing to print an article by Prof. Israel Charny fearing that I would sue for defamation; while I am aware that there is a sustained Jewish campaign to denigrate me, may I state that if you still wish to publish, I would be happy to look at his article -- with his permission -- and tell you of any passage or passages which I felt to be libellous. These may well be fewer than your lawyers advise. I have no desire to seem to be suppressing free public comment, within the law.

He wrote on August 13, 2001 to Granta Books, who are planning to issue the Evans book in England:

  YOU have not responded to my letters about the above title which, as you announced to the press, you would be publishing. I have seen further reference to it by Evans in an article in The Jewish Chronicle last week. I wish to place on record therefore once again that if this book is published within the jurisdiction of the UK courts, in a form that even remotely resembles the US edition, bearing the same innuendoes and allegations, I shall at once and without further notice issue proceedings in defamation against yourselves and the author. You would be very mistaken to doubt my earnest in this matter.


Book Review

An umbrella that's almost too big for the storm




John K. Roth, Elisabeth Maxwell (Editors-in-Chief)



THIS book ran into controversy even before it was published. It gathers together the papers -- over 200 in all -- delivered at a large conference held in Oxford last year. But one paper, by Israel Charny, director of the Jerusalem Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide, was rejected by the publishers and the conference organisers on legal grounds, because it mentioned a number of Holocaust-deniers by name and accused them of falsifying history.

Whatever the qualities of the article in question, its rejection was disturbing. The conference was held in the immediate aftermath of the libel action brought by David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt for mentioning him by name as a Holocaust denier and accusing him of falsifying history. Yet the fact that he lost the action -- recently confirmed by the Court of Appeal -- seems to count for less in the eyes of publishers than the fact that he brought it.

Penguin and their insurers may have spent more than two million pounds in mounting a successful defence of their author and their book, but other publishers seem unwilling to contemplate spending even a fraction of that sum in the unlikely event of having to fight another case of a similar kind.

I myself have suffered under the blight that the English libel law casts on the free discussion of such issues, since my book on the Irving trial -- available in the USA since mid-March -- was rejected by Heinemann earlier this year, although they had originally given it copious praise in advance publicity, because they thought the legal risks of publishing it in the UK were too great.

It was good of various contributors to the conference to thank me and the expert witnesses in the case for the contribution we made, and especially good of Sir Martin Gilbert, whose kind words of welcome to me as a participant in the conference (Vol. I, p. 5) were really more than generous, particularly since I did not actually attend it.

The conference was inspired by Elizabeth Maxwell, widow of the late Robert Maxwell (himself no mean exploiter of the libel laws). Its scale and ambition were a testimony to her drive and dedication. The project "Remembering for the Future" appears to be motivated by the fear that, as survivors die out, the world will forget what they suffered. In fact, there is little evidence of this; rather the contrary, indeed, for as personal memories fade from the scene, cultural memory is taking over.

The past decade-or-so has seen the proliferation of Holocaust memorial exhibits, most recently at the Imperial War Museum in London. It has seen the subject treated in film notably in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List." It has seen Holocaust Memorial Days proclaimed in a variety of countries including our own. It has seen a new wave of legal actions against perpetrators and on behalf of survivors. It has seen the Holocaust debated and discussed in public and in educational institutions as never before. The danger of forgetting has never seemed more remote.

Indeed, this extraordinary recovery of public memory has itself attracted the attention of commentators such as Peter Novick, Norman Finkelstein and Tim Cole, who in their different ways -- and with widely varying degrees of plausibility and sophistication -- have questioned some of its central assumptions.

As for Holocaust-denial -- that absurd and repulsive movement of people who apparently believe that there were no gas chambers, no extermination programmes, no six million dead -- opinion surveys have shown that the number of Americans who believe anything they say is far smaller than the number who believe Elvis Presley is still alive, while there are now almost more books about Holocaust-denial than there are by the deniers themselves.

Rather than countering a trend towards amnesia and denial, therefore, these three huge volumes should be seen as part of this more widespread recovery of memory.

How important are they? The publishers have no doubt that they add up to "the most extensive and powerful reassessment of the Holocaust ever undertaken." I am not so sure. These volumes are simply too huge, too varied, and -- inevitably -- too uneven to add up to anything much at all.

What they do offer, however, is a fascinating kaleidoscope of research, argument, reflection and debate, with papers from the most varied disciplines, from law and philosophy to film studies and theology. Some of the essays are too short to make anything more than a couple of basic points, and the extent to which the format of the conference allowed them to make any really substantial presentation of new research findings is somewhat limited.

These are volumes for dipping into rather than trying to read through as a whole and, according to what your interests are, there will certainly be something here to provoke and annoy as well as instruct and inform. As a historian, I naturally found the first volume more instructive than the second or third, and particularly valued the various, though rather inconclusive, contributions on the relation of the Nazi extermination of the Jews to other acts of genocide, whether by the Nazis against Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses and the like, or more widely in modern history.

On the other hand, I was irritated by the tone in which some critics of the "Holocaust industry," such as Peter Novick were attacked. One contribution even called him a Holocaust-denier.

EvansSurely it is possible to have doubts about the concept of the Holocaust -- was it really a sacrifice, as the term originally meant? If so, by whom, for what? -- and to criticise some of the ways it has been interpreted or instrumentalised in politics, culture and education (not a few of them on display here), without having doubts about the reality of the terrible events which the term has been invented to describe?

At places, I found myself worried by the aura of sanctity and mystification in which some of the contributors seemed to want to envelop the whole thing.

However tempting this may be, it's surely not conducive to the kind of rational debate and dedicated research that the conference originally set out to foster.

Richard J Evans is professor of modern history at Cambridge University. He was an expert witness in the Irving libel trial. His book about the trial "Lying About Hitler," was published by Basic Books, New York, last March.

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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