London, Friday, February 11, 2000
Auschwitz comes to Court No 73
Hitler, the Holocaust and the minutiae of mass murder are being re-examined daily in a libel action brought by controversial historian David Irving.
CAL McCRYSTAL reports
"The word 'denier' is particularly evil - it is like being called a wife-beater or a paedophile": David Irving
IN THE visitors' book at Auschwitz, the Jewish Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal has written: "Information ist Verteidigung" -- "Information is defence". According to his biographer Hella Pick, what he meant was that "historical truth becomes an essential deterrent to the practice of evil"
Wiesenthal's words might aptly be chalked on the door of Court No 73 in the Royal Courts of Justice, where, for the past four weeks, Auschwitz and other Holocaust horrors have been revisited daily and where arguments about their malevolent originators and expositions as to their motives fume and flare discordantly.
Yet, for many of us squeezed into the court, there are times when the sheer volume of information being exchanged seems almost a barrier to historical truth, as the Hitler historian David Irving pursues his libel action against American academic Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books. Having claimed that Irving is "a liar and falsifier of history", they deny libel and plead justification.
To settle the argument -- without the help of jurors, it being thought the intricacies would daunt them -- Mr Justice Gray is obliged to graze upon the communal pastures of recorded history and scraps of paper that are capable of misleading as well as informing. He will look out for ideological partisanship as much as for scientific errancy, and be reminded from time to time that the continued influence of the past upon the present is inexorably manifested in all our destinies. Irving, asserts Richard Rampton QC, for the defendants, has made statements deliberately "designed to feed the virulent anti-Semitism still alive and kicking throughout the world".
The judge may give thought to Heinrich von Treitschke's advice:
"The historian must candidly explain the moral significance of the confused facts with which he is dealing, and this is why the compelling force of a historical work subsists ever in the strong personality of the narrator."
And he will have to decide whether David Irving, 62, has been stigmatised as a mere contrarian, or may be regarded as a panegyrist of Adolf Hitler.
So stupefying is the information overload that nerves occasionally fray, and the usually unflappable judge vents his distress. "Really, this is most irritating," he exclaims on falling to locate a document concerning an order to liquidate Jews. And later: "I am still trying to find this ..." Later still: "I have tracked down the document, and there appear to be two versions in German. It is not for me to plough through these with my inadequate German. What I'm looking for is an English translation, which I think is not an unreasonable request for a document that is quite important."
Rampton gazes pinkly around him and jiggles his knee. David Irving, conducting his own case, drops his spectacles on the floor. The courtroom lapses into a three-minute reverie.
'Well," says the judge, breaking the silence and startling his interlocutors. "Am I going to be supplied with it or not?"
Irving: "My Lord, I will prepare a translation of that document overnight."
Stacked in teak bookshelves around the walls are nearly 400 files of information. Teak tables groan beneath the weight of further boxes, books and laptops. A large number of Jews are in the public gallery -- a veritable yarmulka archipelago in a teak sea -- listening intently to every word, many of them Holocaust information repositories in their own right.
This trial is stuffed with the minutiae of mass murder: Zyklon B pellets, racism, the operations of the Einsatzgruppe, the Nazi military mission in the Ukraine and Crimea, and the geography of a war which for many of us still seems recent, even though time has already consigned it to the last century. Irving insists he never has claimed that the Holocaust did not occur, but he questions the number of Jewish dead (usually estimated at six million) and the manner of their destruction. He has suggested that British intelligence spread the "propaganda story" about Germans systematically using gas chambers to kill millions of Jews and other "undesirables". And he claims to be a victim of a "global conspiracy", led by Jews, of which Professor Lipstadt is, he says, a major part.
It is a case that should interest sociologists as much as it does historians. One finds traces of the mind-set of Middle England as well as Mittel Europe where, to this day, xenophobia determines caste and fuels politics. During the giving of evidence and in cross-examination, I pick up little sighs and gasps from the gallery and ominous pleasantries from the well of the court as adversaries rake over the smouldering past for what they call the "smoking gun" -- an order signed by Adolf Hitler himself for the liquidation of the Jews. Since this has failed to turn up -- and seems unlikely to do so -- the dispute revolves around "circumstantial evidence", "inference", "context" "atmosphere", Hitler's speeches, Himmler's diary, Heydrich's communications, Eichmann's testimony, Britain's intercepts, and so on.
Grotesqueries are matched by bizarreries. The words "deny" and "denier" are uttered often. Irving says he intends to show that "far from being a Holocaust denier", he had repeatedly drawn attention to major aspects of the Holocaust. Early in the proceedings, a line from Goethe spins into mind:
Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint -- "I am the spirit that ever denies" -- as Mephistopheles declares when Faust demands his name.
"The word 'denier' is particularly evil," Irving says, 'because no person in full command of his mental faculties, and with even the slightest understanding of what happened in World War Two, 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 ... It is a poison to which there is virtually no antidote, less lethal than a hypodermic with nerve gas jabbed in the neck, but deadly all the same; for the chosen victim, it is like being called a wife-beater or a paedophile ... It is a verbal Yellow Star."
One morning Irving draws the judge's attention to a report that the German government has asked for his extradition over a statement years ago that the Auschwitz gas chambers were a fake. "I mention this in case this end of the bench should suddenly be empty." Judicial eyebrows lift almost imperceptibly as the historian says he has written to Jack Straw, warning him that if the Home Office tried to serve a warrant on him he would prosecute the Home Office for assault.
AT one point, Irving calls an American witness, Kevin MacDonald, to give evidence on his behalf. MacDonald, professor of psychology at California State University and an author of books on Judaism and anti-Semitism, is asked by Irving:
"Do you consider me to be an anti-Semite?"
MacDonald: "I do not consider you to be an anti-Semite. I have had quite a few discussions with you and you almost never mentioned Jews, never in the general negative way."
Next day, however, Rampton questions Irving on his "utterances both in public and private on the subject of Jews, blacks, etcetera", and reads out a ditty which he says Irving sang to his nine-month-old daughter while walking past mixed-race children in 1994. The QC reads out the lines, extracted from the historian's diary:
"I am a baby Aryan / Not Jewish or sectarian / I have no plans to marry an / Ape or Rastafarian."
Irving says he doesn't think it anti-Semitic or racist.
Rampton: "The poor little child is being taught a racist ditty by her perverted racist father?"
Irving: "I am not a racist." Disclosure of the "baby Aryan" ditty has an unexpected consequence. Four days later, an emotional Irving complains to Mr Justice Gray that sections of the media have declared open season on him. "The principal of the school attended by my little girl -- the ballet school ..." He pauses, lowers his head, does not finish the sentence. He refers to "waves of hostility affecting this court".
The judge regards him sympathetically. "As long as you can carry on ... The newspapers don't have the last word." No one is likely to have the last word. As another American academic, Professor Christopher Browning, observes under Irving's questioning: "There is no last chapter."
Irving has a dry sense of humour, which sometimes serves him well and sometimes not. In one exchange over the name of a German adjutant on a document, Browning says: "I am not as familiar as you are with the initials of adjutants. I defer to you on the initials .."
Irving throws an amused glance at the defence table. "Professor, I don't think Mr Rampton would wish you to defer to me on anything." A ripple of laughter runs through the gallery. But Irving's wit assumes a blunter edge in a 1992 speech of which Rampton reminds him. In this, Irving declared: "For the time being, for a transitional period, I'd be prepared to accept that the BBC should have a dinner-jacketed gentleman reading the important news to us, followed by a lady reading all the less important news, followed by Trevor McDonald giving us all the latest news about the muggings and the drug busts ..."
It was, Irving explains, the kind of speech a stand-up comic might give at the end of Brighton pier. In court, however, it has lost its hilarity.
Similarly, one feels a chill in court as Rampton recalls a Canadian audience in Calgary laughing when Irving told them in 1991 that "more people died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz", and that he had referred to "Auschwitz survivors, survivors of the Holocaust and other liars" as "A-S-S-H-O-L-S".
To this the supplicant historian replies: "I have the utmost sympathy for people who genuinely suffered the torments and horrors of Auschwitz and the other camps ... But spurious survivors who tried to cash in and say they too were there -- I have the greatest contempt for these people trying to climb on the Holocaust bandwagon."
Irving clearly is endowed with extraordinary critical insight. His contentious book, Hitler's War, shows a literary style that is often vivid, attractive and lucid. But even those who decline to demonise him say he lacks the power of an elementally great and continually growing individuality. In interviews he has described himself as "stubborn". He seems able to live with much of the obloquy surrounding him as a dissentient chronicler.
In this, curiously enough, his experience resembles that of Simon Wiesenthal who, according to his biographer, was to his detractors "an egomaniac who has lost sight of honesty and straightforward action", and whose writings had been accepted only with great reluctance by academics as "major contributions to Holocaust literature".
However, Wiesenthal's reputation was more than buoyed up by admirers, among them an American ambassador to Austria who defined the Nazi-hunter as "raw goodness crushing raw evil". From the tone of some of the High Court exchanges, it is clear that the defence sees itself as embarked on defining Irving as quite the reverse.
London, Friday, February 11, 2000