London, January 15, 2000
Irving's last stand
Holocaust denial on trial
AFTER reeling at Mohamed Al Fayed's allegations about the royal family's plot to kill his son and his famous brown envelopes stuffed with cash, this week the Royal Courts of Justice got down to the more serious business of Irving v Penguin Books and Lipstadt. The anodyne title disguises what is likely to be the most emotive and controversial libel trial for years.
In a highly unusual case, David Irving, a historian, has taken to the courts to defend his professional integrity against allegations of malpractice and distortion made by a fellow historian, Deborah Lipstadt. Seldom have historians taken to the courts. But then the subject of this scholastic falling-out is the most emotionally charged historical subject of them all: the Holocaust.
Ms Lipstadt is professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Mr Irving is the author of numerous books on Nazism and is acknowledged, even by many of his detractors, to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of the Third Reich. But his books have courted controversy with their sympathetic portrayals of Nazi leaders. In 1993 Ms Lipstadt alleged in 'Denying the Holocaust: the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory' that Mr Irving was one of the most prominent of the 'Holocaust deniers'.
Her counsel, Richard Rampton, pulled no punches in his opening statement. He branded Mr Irving a 'liar', alleging that he had distorted history, especially in relation to the Holocaust, to suit his unsavoury, far-right politics.
As a taste of what is to come, Mr Rampton quoted extracts from speeches Mr Irving has given, often to far-right groups, including this one from 1991: 'I don't see any reason to be tasteful about Auschwitz. It's baloney, it's a legend. Once we admit the fact that it was a brutal slave-labour camp and large numbers of people did die, as large numbers of innocent people died elsewhere in the war, why believe the rest of the baloney?'
In court Mr Irving flatly denied that the Nazis had killed millions of Jews in gas chambers in purpose-built establishments. It was 'logistically impossible.' He alleges that being branded as a 'Holocaust denier' has made him a pariah in historical and publishing circles. Once he could earn over Pounds 100,000 (Dollars 160,000) a year from his books about Nazi Germany; now he struggles even to find a publisher.
Always an astute self-publicist, Mr Irving has seen his livelihood from book publishing dry up, and he is now banned from several countries for his pro-Nazi views. He is 62 years old, and his critics suspect that he is using his three-month stint in court to try to revive the flagging public interest in his work. With costs to pay if he fails, it is certainly a high-risk tactic. But then he may feel that he has nothing left to lose.
January 15, 2000