New York, January 16, 2000
Putting the Holocaust on Trial
By ELLEN TUMPOSKY Special to the Sunday News
T IS a libel case with stakes far higher than mere reputation or monetary damages. The Holocaust itself is on trial.
In a packed courtroom in the Royal Courts of Justice, as author David Irving seeks to convince a judge that he has been libeled by another writer, the evidence will center on whether some of the most horrible events of modern history actually happened.
The case pits Irving, 62, the controversial British author of such books as "Hitler's War" and a biography of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, against Deborah Lipstadt, a professor in Jewish studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
Her book, "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory," slams Irving as a twister of facts and a dangerous spokesman for those who deny that the Holocaust occurred.
The affair is attracting intense media interest in Britain, the U.S. and Israel as one of the most important court cases in years about the Holocaust. Robert Rozett of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, said: "It's important for people to be aware that people like David Irving are out there. It's a trend that's disturbing enough that we have to pay attention to it."
Irving, Rozett said, is "not a maverick and not alone," but is the "darling" of a larger movement led by the Institute of Holocaust Review, a Los Angeles-based center of the Holocaust denial movement.
The Irving case also has sparked debate about whether there are some areas of Holocaust history about which reputable historians disagree, and whether some revisionist approaches to the period are legitimate.
Christopher Hitchens, who writes about politics for U.S. publications, argued in a London paper that "meticulous separation of fact and record, not just from propaganda but also from sentimental exploitation, will be a clarifying and reaffirming thing."
"In the history of the Holocaust, there are disagreements on the levels of interpretation and on the precise facts at times," Rozett said. But he said Irving's claims "are really beyond the pale" and are refuted by stacks of evidence and documentation.
The genesis of the suit against Lipstadt and her British publisher, Penguin Books, was a 1996 decision by St. Martin's Press in New York to kill publication of Irving's "Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich." The book argued that Goebbels, not Adolf Hitler, was responsible for the murders of Jews during World War II.
St. Martin's chairman Thomas McCormack said at the time that he hated the book: "It seemed to me the subtext was the ugly one that Jews brought it on themselves."
The trial, which is expected to last three months and involve many expert witnesses, is taking place before Justice Charles Taylor [sic. Gray] &emdash; a renowned former libel lawyer &emdash; without a jury. Both sides agreed the case was too complex for a jury to digest.
Lipstadt [right] and Penguin are represented by Anthony Julius, Princess Diana's divorce lawyer and the author of a book exposing poet T.S. Eliot's anti-Semitism. Arguing their case in court is Richard Rampton, an eminent barrister who has been unflappable in his cross-examination.
The essence of Irving's argument -- made in his opening statement, as he is representing himself -- is that Lipstadt's book ruined his reputation and shriveled his income of $150,000 a year. Irving says he is now pinned with the label "Holocaust denier," which he calls "a verbal yellow star," &emdash; a reference to the yellow Star of David that Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis.
As a result, Irving claims, publishers refuse to print his books -- even though he contends that privately, those same editors "invite me to lunch in expensive New York restaurants." He has been attacked in cafes, expelled from Canada and is now the subject of an extradition request over a lecture he gave 10 years ago in Germany, where it is illegal to question the Holocaust.
"Mr. Irving calls himself a historian," Rampton said in his opening remarks for the defense. "The truth is ... to put it bluntly, he is a liar." He said Irving is not only a denier of the Holocaust, but an apologist for the far right linked to neo-Nazi groups in the U.S., Germany and Britain.
As an example of Irving's extremism, Rampton quoted a 1991 speech in Calgary, Alberta, in which Irving said he saw no reason to be tasteful about Auschwitz, adding, "I say quite tastelessly, in fact, that more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz."
Irving added, "There are so many Auschwitz survivors going around, in fact, the number increases as the years go past. ... I'm going to form an association of Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust and Other Liars, or the A-S-S-H-O-L-E-S."
Despite such language, Irving is not a stereotypical, wild-eyed hatemonger. A Germanophile since his teens -- he asked for Hitler's "Mein Kampf" when he won a book prize at school, a request vetoed by the headmaster -- he is fluent in German and a skilled reader of original historical sources.
"David Irving poses as a real historian and has all the accoutrements of a real historian," Rozett said. "He uses footnotes, documentation. He uses sources to make points that aren't true."
Irving's basic points are that while huge numbers of Jews -- he puts the figure at between 1 million and 4 million, rather than the widely accepted 6 million -- were killed by the Nazis, they were not the victims of a systematic liquidation.
He specifically rejects the existence of gas chambers at concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau, saying the gas chambers tourists now see were built by American and Polish propagandists after the war. The Jews, along with Gypsies, Communists and other victims of the Nazis, were victims of shootings, disease and overwork in slave labor camps like Auschwitz, he says.
At the trial, he was approached outside court by a woman who said her grandparents were gassed at Auschwitz.
"You may be pleased to know that they almost certainly died of typhus, as did Anne Frank," he told her.
Irving denies he is an anti-Semite, insisting in court that he has had Jewish friends, but -- using phrases that are often anti-Semitic code words-- that he is the target of "an organized international endeavor" to destroy him.
New York, January 16, 2000