Saturday, February 5, 2000
He haunts us still
by John R. MacArthur
By equating the likes of Joerg Haider with Adolf Hitler, we devalue the currency of evil, says Harper's publisher John MacArthur
I'VE ALWAYS considered libel suits to be a refuge for cowards, bullies and scoundrels and, so far, the "Holocaust denial" trial under way in London, instigated by David Irving, the "revisionist" historian of Nazi Germany has done nothing to change my opinion.
Mr. Irving belongs in the subcategory of publicity-seeking scoundrels; his crocodile tears about the supposed offence given by U.S. historian Deborah Lipstadt (she called him "one of the most dangerous spokesman for Holocaust denial") obscure his great talent for creating sensation and selling books. I'm not qualified to judge Mr. Irving's extensive research on the Third Reich -- he has, it must be said, his defenders among mainstream academics -- but the very idea of suing somebody for criticizing your writing or your speeches strikes me as intellectually fraudulent. If Mr. Irving is so sure of his ground, why can't he win his argument with Ms. Lipstadt in ordinary public debate, instead of tying up the British courts for months and wasting a great deal of money? Why can't vindication in the court of public opinion restore both besmirched honour and lost book sales, if that is what Mr. Irving seeks?
We can guess that, besides free publicity, Mr. Irving would like to extract some money from Prof. Lipstadt, but the case seems so weak that it's hard to believe he expects a favourable ruling. According to D.D. Guttenplan's excellent article in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Mr. Irving "cheerfully admits to having said 'There were never any gas chambers at Auschwitz' and 'the structures which you can now see as a tourist at Auschwitz were erected by the authorities in Poland after World War Two' and are 'a fake'"
At best, this is the voice of a crank and political provocateur, at worst that of a Nazi propagandist. What it's not is the voice of a rational man with a good legal case. A Freudian psychoanalyst might find something in the fact that Mr. Irving's Royal Navy officer father went off to fight the Nazis in the Second World War, survived the sinking of his ship, but then decided to abandon his family. Childhood rage against an absent father could have turned Mr. Irving toward twisted ends, including, I suspect, the search for substitute patriarchs inside the German fatherland.
Of course, there's more involved here than can be found in the voluminous legal briefs now before Judge Charles Gray, or in Mr. Irving's tangled psyche. Mr. Irving's, shall we say, skepticism about Hitler's campaign to exterminate the Jews does force us to consider some ugly aspects of contemporary politics, the Nazi legacy and the differing libel laws in the English-speaking world. Among other things, it reminds us that, in the United States, where being a right-wing crank or crypto-Nazi can lead to elective office or your own AM radio talk show, Mr. Irving's lawsuit wouldn't survive the first defence motion to dismiss.
I prefer the U.S. system of special protection for public figure and the press to the stricter British and Canadian libel laws precisely because the great difficulty of winning a libel suit deters thugs, especially the well-known rich ones or ones backed by rich people, from stifling criticism. Besides, there is something fundamentally absurd about a dignified British jurist in a white wig seriously entertaining Mr. Irving's "arguments," which, in true crank fashion, are being made personally by the plaintiff rather than a lawyer.
But the greater stakes in the Irving trial concern not legalities, but the way the Holocaust is exploited for present-day political purposes. This week, in just a day's worth of newspapers, I found a remarkable number of stories about Nazis: One told of a memorial dedicated to the 4,000 Jews massacred by the Waffen SS on the beach at Yantarny, Russia, a story hidden until recently by the inane postwar realpolitik of the Soviet Union in which Jews killed by the Nazis were reclassified as Soviet resistance fighters. Another concerned European fears about the rising fortunes of Austria's Joerg Haider, the far-right Freedom Party leader who once reassured a group of Austrian war veterans, including officers of the Waffen SS, that "our soldiers were not criminals; at most they were victims." Yet another summarized an official Syrian's newspaper's editorial calling the Holocaust a myth; and, finally, one reported on a British Catholic cardinal's denial that he really meant to compare political lobbying by British homosexuals to the German Blitz of 1940.
The Nazi legacy is everywhere, taunting and tempting the world with its horror, enticing the vilainous [sic] among us to reduce its breadth or eliminate it altogether. Paradoxically, in challenging Prof. Lipstadt to a legal duel over her scholar's interpretation of his writing, Mr. Irving has also forced a through re-examination of his own scholarship, until now given at most grudging respect. The key defence document has been produced by eminent British historian Richard Evans, whose lengthy analysis of Mr. Irving's work declares that he
"was not prepared for the sheer depth of duplicity which I encountered in Irving's treatment of the historical sources, nor for the way in which this dishonesty permeated his entire written and spoken output."
This is bracing stuff that couldn't have been accomplished outside of the trial discovery process that granted Prof. Evans access to Mr. Irving's private diaries, letters and primary historical documents obtained from friendly Nazis after the war.
I doubt, however, than [sic] even a complete legal repudiation of Mr. Irving will do much to reduce the powerful impulse to reject the unique nature of the Holocaust. Holocaust denial comes in many forms, the most insidious being the current campaign by Communist-obsessed historians to equate the mass, often random political murders of Stalin to the Nazis' systematic and wholly calculated racial murder of the Jews. If Stalin can be proved to be just as bad as Hitler, and Stalin was our military ally, then maybe Hitler wasn't quite so awful. If Hitler the staunch anti-Communist and Stalin-hater wasn't so awful, then maybe McCarthyism and U.S. atrocities in Vietnam can be excused as mere idealistic excess. (Vietnam revisionism is all the rage in the United States these days -- just a losing battle in an overall victorious campaign against the Evil Empire.)
Besides Stalin's victims, the Holocaust equivalency movement lobbies for every well-known group that suffered in the past century: Armenians, the Chinese of Nanking, homsexuals, Gypsies, Ukrainians, Cambodians, Tutsis and Kosovo Albanians. While one set of well-meaning opportunists searches for victims equivalent to the Jews, another not-so-well-meaning one looks for tyrants to match Hitler. Thus are preposterous comparisons made between the facist [sic] leader of highly advanced Germany, who very literally set the world on fire, and relatively small-time bad guys such as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic (with Mr. Haider soon to be inducted into the ranks of these new "Hitlers"). Besides justifying military intervention to defend "human rights," such propaganda serves to undercut the enormity of the Holocaust while lightening the guilt of self-righteous nations such as my own that did nothing to prevent it when they had the chance early on.
And what's so different about Hitler's war against the Jews? For the Jews caught in the Nazi web, there was no escape, no faking identities, no deferment, no switching sides, no accidental mercy. In the final analysis, however, it is the Auschwitz gas chambers and crematoria that set the Holocaust apart and it is the existence of these gas chambers that David Irving seeks to erase. As the great Holocaust scholar told D.D. Guttenplan: "People are shot or hacked to death in other countries, even after World War Two -- Rwanda, for example. You built the gas chamber with a view to killing a mass of people. Once you have a gas chamber, you have a vision, and the vision is total annihilation. In a gas chamber you don't see the victim."
John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper's Magazine.
Saturday, February 5, 2000