New York, Wednesday, January 12, 2000
LIBEL TRIAL LINKED TO BOOK ON HOLOCAUST DENIAL OPENS IN LONDON.
By SARAH LYALL.
LONDON -- "I have no intentions, and neither is it the purpose of this trial, to refight World War II." So declared the revisionist historian David Irving in his impassioned opening statement in High Court here Wednesday, first day of the libel case he hopes will salvage his reputation.
But in a way, World War II is exactly what the case - Irving vs. Penguin Books Ltd. and Lipstadt -- is about.
Irving -- who has said, among other things, that Hitler did not approve the mass killing of Jews during the war and that Auschwitz was merely a brutal labor camp with an unfortunately high death rate -- is suing Deborah Lipstadt, author of "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory" and her British publisher, Penguin. His main claim is that his reputation has been irrevocably damaged by the book's assertions that he is a Holocaust denier who manipulates history to serve his own ends.
It is a case about free speech and historical methods, and about, peripherally, the magnitude and circumstances of the Holocaust. It is being closely watched outside of Britain, including the United States, where Ms. Lipstadt holds the Dorot Chair in Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
"It's almost inevitable that the major focus of the case will be the crimes of the Holocaust, and whether they took place, and how they're interpreted," said Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem in an interview. "Any victory for Irving is a loss for historical justice and a blow to the memory of the Holocaust."
The case arises from Ms. Lipstadt's book, first published in the United States in 1993, which examined Holocaust deniers and their connections to a worldwide network of right-wing and neo-Nazi groups. In the book,published in Britain by Penguin in 1994, Ms. Lipstadt charged that Irving, the author of more than 30 books on the Nazi era, was "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial" and a researcher who "bends" historical evidence "until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda."
Irving brought the case, he said, because Ms. Lipstadt and Penguin, supported by "an organized international endeavor," set about to destroy his career. As a result of their campaign against him, he said, St. Martin's Press withdrew his 1996 biography of the Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels, which argues that Goebbels, not Hitler, was behind the murder of the Jews.
"I have since 1996 seen one fearful publisher after another falling away from me, declining to reprint my works, refusing to accept new commissions and turning their backs on me when I approach," said Irving, who is representing himself in the case. "Such is the nature of the odium that has been generated by the waves of hatred recklessly propagated against me by the defendants."
He insisted that he is not a Holocaust denier, although he has disputed standard accounts of how many people died in the war and under what circumstances. "No person in full command of his mental faculties, and with even the slightest understanding of what happened in World War II, can deny that the tragedy actually happened, however much we dissident historians may wish to quibble about the means, the scale, the dates and other minutiae," he said.
Irving has had a curious career. Some of his works, especially "Hitler's War" (1977), have earned high praise from some reviewers for the elegance of his writing and thoroughness of his research.
But in recent years, more and more questions have been raised about his methods and ideology. In the United States, Publisher's Weekly called his Goebbels biography "repellant." In 1992, Irving was convicted and fined by a court in Germany, where Holocaust denial is a crime, after saying publicly that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Because of his early reputation as a formidable historian, Irving has confounded efforts to write him off as a simple crackpot. The Nazi-era historian Gitta Sereny, who was sued by Irving after she wrote that he was a "brilliant propagandist" made "dangerous" by his "clever mixture of truth and untruth," said in an interview that it was hard for general readers to know just how much he distorts the facts.
Richard Rampton, the lawyer arguing on behalf of Ms. Lipstadt and Penguin, charged that Irving was not a historian at all. "To put it bluntly, he is a liar," Rampton said in court.
He said, as Irving himself had, that he did n ot intend to be drawn into a debate about whether the Holocaust occurred, although the question surely underlies the issue of whether Irving is a Holocaust denier.
"The essence of the case is Irving's honesty and integrity as a chronicler -- I shy away from the word 'historian' -- of these matters," Rampton said. "By exposing that dangerous fraud in this court, the defendants may properly be applauded for having performed a significant public service, not just in this country, but in all those places in the world were anti-Semitism is waiting to be fed."
Wednesday, January 12, 2000