U. S. historian vs. British denier -- London case could put the Holocaust itself on trial
By Elli Wohlgelernter
The fight against Holocaust deniers is nearly as old as the Shoah itself, but, come January 2000 the biggest battle ever will begin, one whose outcome will echo long after the perpetrators and survivors are no longer around.
The showdown will take place in a London courtroom in a libel suit brought by renowned denier David Irving against Penguin books Ltd. and historian Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.
October 29, 1999
In the book, the first full-length study of the history of those who attempt to deny the Holocaust, Lipstadt cites Irving among many other Holocaust deniers. After the book was published in Britain in 1994, Irving took Lipstadt and her publisher to court, claiming-- according to Irving's website--that Lipstadt defamed his reputation by saying he "is an historian who has inexplicably misled academic historians into quoting historically invalid points contained in his writings and who applauds the interment of Jews in Nazi concentration camps."
Irving also claims that Lipstadt further tarnished his reputation by calling him "an Adolf Hitler partisan who wears blinkers and skews documents and misrepresents data in order to reach historically untenable conclusions, specifically those that exonerate Hitler."
The book's publication in England was the moment Irving was waiting for. Considered a brilliant media manipulator, he knew that his best chance for a successful lawsuit was in Britain, where the laws of libel--unlike those in the U.S. protect the defamed and place the burden of proof on the writer to show the veracity of his or her statements.
The trial, expected to be the most highly publicized Holocaust trial since that of Adolf Eichmann, is scheduled to begin Jan. 11 and could last three months. Some historians, like Yehuda Bauer of Yad Vashem, see the trial as a wonderful chance to debunk the deniers. The Holocaust, he said, "is not on trial. It's a question of describing the truth. This is not a danger; this is in opportunity." The best venue for clarifying such issues is in the defense of a libel charge, he added.
Others see in the trial an inherent danger, fearing it will in effect put the entire Nazi operation on trial. Should that happened, the slightest legal infraction could lead to a judgment that would reward Irving with a technical victory, one he would be sure to exploit to further his agenda.
"That's always the danger," said Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Israel office. "[T]here is a theoretical possibility that the verdict could in some way diminish those crimes, or question those crimes It seems unlikely, but every time you go to court there is always the danger of losing a case. Any victory for Irving, any defeat for Deborah Lipstadt on any major point, will be a loss for truth and historical accuracy."
Lipstadt, whose British lawyers don't want her to talk about the trial, makes clear in her book that she does not believe the Holocaust belongs in the courtroom. "Let me point out here that I am the defendant; I did in go seek this out. If I hadn't contested this, then he would have won by default, and his definition of the Holocaust would have become a standard definition recognized by the High Court in London. So there was no option but to fight it -- someone comes after you, you have to do it."
It was the whole cottage industry of denial that moved Lipstadt Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, to write Denying the Holocaust.
"I wrote the book because I was intrigued that there seemed to be serious people, students, who knew very little above the Holocaust, who didn't recognize from the outset that these guys were turning fiction into fact," Lipstadt said. I also wanted to show the modus operandi of the deniers, sort of unpack what they do and how they do it.
"Do I thing that the Holocaust deniers have had a tremendous impact on the history of the Holocaust? Not for a minute. Look at the Swiss bank case, the number of people coming to the [U.S.] Holocaust Museum, the number of books published on the Holocaust, the number of movies.
"I don't believe Holocaust denial is a clear and present danger; it's a clear and future danger. When there won't be anybody around to say, 'This is my story, this is what happened to me, it would become easier to deny."
Lipstadt maintains a policy of refusing invitation to debate deniers: "Would you ask someone who works for NASA to debate someone who believes that the earth is flat?" She asks.
Even the language used by the deniers is faulty, says Lipstadt. She prefers "denier," a term which as a result of her work has replaced at the denier's use of "revisionist", a legitimate historical stance. As Lipstadt points out in her book the deniers don't revise they deny.
THE history of the Holocaust denial began in Nazi Germany itself, according to Yad Vashem's chief historian, Yisrael Gutman. It was part of the very language used to obscure the Nazis' acts of murder: Aussiedlung (evacuation); Endlösung (the Final Solution); Sonderbehandlung (special treatment); Umsiedlung (relocation); Abschiebung (deportation); Aktion (operation).
Postwar attacks on the authenticity of the Shoah began in 1948 with the publication in France of Le Passage de la Ligne (Crossing the line) by Paul Rassinier, who had been sent to Buchenwald [right] as a member of the Resistance. Rassinier argued that there was no extermination policy towards Jews, only an emigration policy, and it was the Jews who declared economic war on Germany in 1933.
In 1965, Austin App, a former professor at La Salle College in Philadelphia and the University of Scranton, published The Six Million Swindle, arguing that no more than 1.5 million Jews had been killed and that the Nazis had not planned to kill all the Jews. In 1973, Thies Christophersen of Germany, a Wehrmacht officer, published in France Die Auschwitz Lüge (The Auschwitz Lie). He argued that documents showed that no more than 200,000 Jews were killed during the war, and that Hitler had never ordered that giving the Jews, only that they should leave Germany. And in 1974 in Great Britain, Richard Verrall, a.k.a. Richard Harwood, published Did 6 million Really Die? The Truth at Last.
According to Ephraim Aye of Yad Vashem, in his 1997 pamphlet Descriptors of Memory: Confronting Holocaust Denial, "until the late 1970s it was hard to speak of denial as a phenomenon with firm research conclusions. The denial publications that had appeared up to that time were over rather of poor quality and terse and crude in their approach."
The turning point came with the publication in 1977 of The Hoax of the 20th Century by Arthur Butz a professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University. Butz claimed that no German documents from Auschwitz mentioned gas chambers and that Zyklon B was used, but only as a disinfectant and an insecticide. He said that Jews were persecuted, but not exterminated, and that the Anne Frank diary was a forgery.
It was this book, with its forum and 450 footnotes and Butz's academics stature that "elevated Holocaust denial several notches," wrote Aye. Two years later, and organized propaganda movement, the Institute for Historical Review (IHR) was formed.
The IHR, which Bauer has called "a pseudo-scientific institute of neo-Nazi intellectuals," publishes a "Journal of Historical Review" and convenes an annual International Revisionist Conference where Holocaust deniers from around the world appear. They include Mark Weber, Bradley Smith, Fred Leuchter from the U.S., Ernst Zündel from Canada; Robert Faurisson from France; Carlo Mattogno from Italy; Ahmed Rami from Sweden and Irving from England.
On the "who's who" list of deniers, the most notorious are Leuchter and Smith. Leuchter, who once claimed to be an engineer, wrote "The Leuchter Report," which claimed that Zyklon B could not have been used in gas chambers. In 1987, Smith established the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust, which places 35-paragraph advertisements in college newspapers across the U.S. They claimed that the main cause of death in the concentration camps was typhus and that gas chambers were "lifesaving" fumigation devices used to the delouse clothing.
But perhaps the most dangerous of all is Irving, the British military historian who has published 22 books since 1965, though many eminent reviewers of his works have dismissed his methods and conclusions, specifically those in the 900-page Hitler's War (1977).
"He is the most dangerous because he has the veneer of a historian" said Bauer. "There is some doubt about [his standing as historian], there are people who will argue that his [other] historical writings are, from a purely professional point of view, suspect. But there's no doubt that he is an extremely intelligent man, and he has read a huge number of documents, and this conscious denial of the truth is something that he has in common with many other deniers.
There is also denial in the Arab world. In the pre-Oslo period, Yasser Arafat's second-in-command, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), wrote in his book, The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and the Zionist Movement, that the Nazis may have killed fewer than one million Jews and that "the Zionist movement was a partner in the slaughter of the Jews."
Imad Falouji, Palestinian Authority communications minister and Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, P.A. general-secretary, were among the leaders of a the January 19, 1998 rally in Gaza in support of Roger Garaudy, then on trial in Paris for denying the Holocaust. Abdel-Rahman said that films and books about the Holocaust "have told what happened to the Jews in an unbelievable and exaggerated manner, so why not give Garaudy the right to state his point over the issue?
P.A television, under the auspices of the Palestinian broadcasting Authority, ran a cultural affairs program in August 1997 in which the moderator said, "It is well-known that every year the Jews exaggerate what the Nazis did to them. They claim there were six million killed, but precise scientific research demonstrates that there were no more than 400,000."
Historians say that for core deniers it is just one more manifestation of anti-Semitism, while other deniers are irrational but have convinced themselves that the Holocaust really is alive.
"I don't know whether [Irving] believes in what he says," said Yad Vashem's Bauer. "As far as he's concerned, I think he's convinced himself, and this of course makes him more dangerous. He's convinced himself that what he's saying is the truth and therefore he has also the power to convince others."
FOR the deniers to be right, argues Lipstadt, everyone else has to be wrong -- survivors, bystanders, liberators and, most of all, the Nazis who testified at postwar trials and those who wrote and talked about the Holocaust afterwards.
"They say the documents are made up -- do you know how hard it is to forge these documents? Let's say you're in one of the [Nazi] Einsatzgruppen. You're sending back reports saying, 'We need more blankets, we need more ammunition, we need more guns,' And you're also typing up reports on the number of people killed -- it's all being done on the same typewriter.
In discussing the reasons Holocaust denial is accepted, Lipstadt has pointed out that there is something inherently 'beyond belief' about the events. She published a work by that title in 1986 in which she detailed how the U.S. press failed to fully report on the Holocaust for 12 years because reporters couldn't believe what they were hearing.
She observes that there's a part of us that would like to wake up tomorrow and be told that it really didn't really happen. And even survivors, she says, still find it hard to fathom that such a thing really did happen to them.
This would not be the first time Holocaust denial has been on trial. In 1980, the IHR offered $50,000 to anyone who could prove that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. Mel Mermelstein, a survivor, took on the challenge, submitted the proof, and when they failed to pay, took them to court and won.
In Canada, Ernst Zündel and James Keegstra were brought to trial for Holocaust denial in the mid-1980s. Zündel was convicted twice, but the Canadian Supreme Court overturned his conviction. Keegstra was fined. In France, for Faurisson was fined and given as suspended prison sentence in 1983 for making Holocaust denial and anti-Zionist remarks on radio. He was further charged in 1990 and was fine $50,000, of which $20,000 was suspended. Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the ultra-right French National Front, was fine $180,000 in 1997 for referring to the gas chambers as "a minute detail of World War II history."
But this trial will dwarf all the others because of its location, its adversaries, and what it portends for the future. Said Abraham Foxman, [left] national director of the Anti-Defamation League, "In a perverted way, I'm glad it's Deborah, because she is a recognized, established, credible scholar of the Shoah, and it is no one better equipped to have written that book about Holocaust denial. Her credibility and her standing [are] what distresses David Irving."
Zuroff of the Wiesenthal Center, said that what marks this trial is that the stakes are much higher because of who Irving is and because of the charges. "This is not a perpetrator saying it didn't happen, nor a survivor saying it did happen. These are... historians, the people who deal with the events rather than the people who lived through the events. This is the beginning of the future. It would not be surprising if such cases don't happen again and again."
Zuroff said these kinds of denial trials are, in certain sense, like those involving The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. "There were trials regarding the veracity of the Protocols, and it was proven again and again it was a forgery. But it keeps on coming up. The Holocaust is 10 times more important than the Protocols. The future will most likely hold trials like this, but the more unequivocal the verdict is in this case, the [fewer] such trials there will be in the near future."
At the trial, Lipstadt's lawyer, Anthony Julius, will call four main expert witnesses to the stand: Richard Evans on German history; Christopher Browning on the Nazi plan to the Jews; Peter Longerich on Hitler; and Robert Van Pelt, who wrote the definitive work on the history of Auschwitz.
Julius of the London law firm of Mishcon de Reya, is known for being the divorce lawyer for the late Diana, Princess of Wales, but has also written a book on the anti-Semitism of T.S. Eliot. All four experts are heavy hitters, but a courtroom can be a dangerous place.
Foxman, himself a lawyer, said that bringing the Holocaust to trial "is always a very, very uncomfortable and problematic issue, because those of us who are lawyers and who have experience with the law know that frequently 'the law is an ass,' and that decisions can come down on procedural matters which may be spun as a win or a loss which has nothing to do with the essence of the case.
"For Irving, this is the platform ... to gain publicity in the context of the court which gives [deniers] standing in stature. We have always been reluctant to challenge these anti-Semites and propagandists, but when they bring the charge you have no choice, and have to do everything that is possible to defend it. This unfortunately, or fortunately, is the case."
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