Toronto, February 8, 2000
On Tuesday, February 8, between 7:05 and 7:25 host Mary Lou Finlay of the CBC Radio program As It Happens interviewed journalist D. D. Guttenplan about the British historian David Irving's libel suit against the American professor, Deborah Lipstadt.
As it Happens (AIH): In a libel suit like no other, David Irving has filed suit against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books. Mr. Irving is the controversial British historian, a man who believes the death toll in the Holocaust is grossly exaggerated. Deborah Lipstadt is an American Holocaust scholar. She's been sued for calling Irving a "Holocaust denier." Those are the bare bones of the case. But observers say that what's unfolding in a London courtroom is nothing less than a trial of the Holocaust itself.
D. D. Guttenplan has been following the trial and his report on the case is the cover story in the current Atlantic Monthly magazine. He joined us from our London studio.
Mr. Guttenplan, what is exactly the issue here? What did Deborah Lipstadt say about David Irving [picture] in her book?
DDG: Well, in her book, which is called Denying the Holocaust, she calls Irving "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial." Now, Irving says that those words are libellous and he's filed suit against Deborah Lipstadt and against her publisher in England, Penguin Books.
AIH: And of course in England the burden of proof is on her in a libel case, is it? How does that work?
DDG: That's right. Unlike some of your listening audience in the United States will be used to hearing the burden of proof being on the ...
AIH: The plaintiff!
DDG: ...The plaintiff in a libel trial. In England and, I believe, in Canada as well, the burden of proof is on the defendant. So. She has to prove, essentially, three things. She has to prove that certain events happened; that the evidence existed that Irving should have been aware of that these things happened; and that he distorted or suppressed evidence. I mean, that's essentially insofar as the Holocaust itself is an issue, and it is an issue in this trial -- that is why it's an issue.
AIH: That's a pretty heavy burden, isn't it?
DDG: Well, it is a pretty heavy burden and, in a sense, a British libel court is a pretty bad place to try and prove these things because the record of British libel courts on matters of history is not fantastic. On the other hand, so far her team has been doing a very good job.
AIH: All right. Tell us a little about David Irving. What does he believe about the Holocaust -- if you know?
DDG: Well [laughs]. I'm glad you put it like that. His statements on the Holocaust have a kind of quicksilver quality. He's perfectly capable of saying -- as he has to me -- 90 percent of what they're, meaning the defence experts, are going to say I'm going to agree with. Just this afternoon [February 8], at the trial, they were taking evidence from a Professor Christopher Browning, who's a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And they were talking about two of the Nazi death camps -- Belzec and Treblinka. And Irving was saying... Well, first he was appearing to say that he didn't deny that Jews were killed in large numbers, in other words, hundreds of thousands, at these camps. But then he appeared to suggest that, well, actually, he himself wasn't convinced, but for the sake of making the trial quicker he'd concede that it was true. I mean, even under oath, even in a trial, it's still very difficult to get him to be specific about what it is he believes. He has been specific about what he doesn't believe. What he doesn't believe is that Jews were murdered at Auschwitz in gas chambers in large numbers.
AIH: But he has been, I mean, he began ... he's not a historian by training, I gather. But ...
DDG: He's not a historian by training, but, although, as he frequently says, neither was Herodotus or Thucydides. So. You don't have to have a PhD to be a historian.
AIH: And, in fact, some noted historians, as you point out in your article, like Hugh Trevor-Roper, have called him ... Was he the one who said, "He's not only a Fascist historian, but a great historian of Fascism?"
DDG: No, that was Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair.
AIH: OK. Oh, all right.
DDG: But Gordon Craig of Stanford says that... he pays tribute to Irving's energy as a researcher and to the scope and vigour of his publications. And John Keegan, who's the author of The Face of Battle, and other books on military history, has said that Irving's work is "indispensable to understanding the Second World War in the round."
AIH: So. How much weight is to be given to his historical research?
DDG: Well. That's one of the questions at issue in the trial, in a way. I mean, up until now Irving has had a kind of an interesting ride, facing two ways. In other words, facing to the community of historians, he's been regarded as a documents man, industrious, somebody who likes to winkle things out of archives. And, meanwhile, his growing sort of camp of fellow ... they call themselves "revisionists" -- Lipstadt calls them "Holocaust deniers" -- he's been their most respectable spokesperson. And one of the questions that the trial will address, and does address directly, is whether you can face both ways at once like that. In other words, the defence isn't just saying David Irving is wrong about the Holocaust, although they are saying that, they're also saying -- and next week they'll be hearing evidence on this -- that he has distorted or suppressed or misused evidence all the way along through his career. In other words, from his first book, The Destruction of Dresden, which was published in the early 60s, up until now, he's always been, as they say in Britain, "bent."
AIH: But if you... you've just said that he will admit that hundreds of thousands, perhaps - we're not talking "millions" (so that's obviously a problem) of Jews were deliberately killed by Hitler or Hitler's people. Then he is by definition a Holocaust denier, isn't he?
DDG: Well [pause]. That is a good question. I mean, he would say that he concedes that, for example, I mean, as he has at the trial, probably over a million. I mean, it's hard to get him pinned down on numbers; probably over a million Jews were killed on the Eastern Front by the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units that the Nazis sent in behind their troops during the invasion of the Soviet Union. And he's never disputed that vast numbers of Jews were killed by these groups, which would be hard to do because we have the groups' reports on how many they've killed. I mean, there's a very good paper trail for this. But what he's said is that these killings were not systematic and that they were not planned or ordered by Hitler. Now in the course of the trial he's appeared to backtrack on both of those assertions. But, in a sense, he's all along... what he's all along denied is the existence of large-scale homicidal gas chambers. Now, some people may say -- "Well, so what?" I mean, if somebody's killed, you know, a million people...
AIH: ... They're killed.
DDG: ...They're killed. But, you know, there is an argument, a serious argument, that says that what makes the Holocaust different from other mass murders, 'cause we've had plenty of mass murder in this century -- or the past century, unfortunately, is precisely its mechanized, industrial quality.
AIH: Why does he deny that there were gas ovens? [sic]
DDG: Why -- or what are his grounds?
AIH: What are his grounds?
DDG: I think Why is in some ways the more interesting question. I'll answer that first, if I might, even though you sort of didn't ask it. You know, if you argue in favour of Fascism, if you say that, after all, all the Germans were doing were fighting the Russians and that we know that the Russians were these evil communists and therefore the Germans were actually, in a sense, on our side -- and there's a strain of right-wing thinking that argues that way -- you have a problem. And the problem is that the most vivid association that most people have with Fascism is gas chambers and the Holocaust. So if you want to rehabilitate Fascism as an ideology, then you have to do something to attack this association. So, that, I think, is The Why. The "on what grounds" -- because there is not the same kind of paper trail for the death camps; the death camps that were solely devoted to killing Jews -- Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka -- were destroyed by the Nazis as they retreated from the Red Army and also were liberated from the Red Army... by the Red Army. In other words, they were captured by Russian troops. The pictures that were all seen of, you know, British Tommies or American GIs handing out chocolates or strolling among the cadavers at a place like Belsen or Buchenwald or Dachau -- those were not death camps.
AIH: They did not have ovens?
DDG: They were concentration camps. They did not have gas chambers. They may have "ovens," i.e., crematoria, in some cases, but people died of typhus, they died of starvation, they died of overwork. But they were not, in the phrase that Irving disputes, "factories of death." In other words, no reputable historian now pretends that they were "factories of death." And yet, if you ask a lot of people, including -- I have to say -- myself, before I started looking at this trial, there hasn't been that sharp differentiation in the public mind. So that, when Irving says "Well, these places weren't 'factories of death,' therefore, no place was a factory of death" -- you know, for half a second, people think, "Well, how do I know this?"
AIH: What evidence is there for the gas chambers?
DDG: Well, that was last week, and the week before, the court heard from Prof. Robert Jan Van Pelt, who's a professor at the architecture faculty at the University of Waterloo, in Canada. And he's the author of a book called Auschwitz 1290 to the Present. And he presented in really staggering detail the kind of evidence that there is, that we now have. This evidence hasn't always been available. And some of it was only released by the Soviet Union who held it in their archives after, you know, the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was only released by the Russian archivists in the last few years. But there are architectual blueprints, there are plans, there are purchase orders for Zyklon B, which is the gas that was used to kill the Jews. So, there is, in fact, a lot of evidence. But it is also true, and has to be said, some of the evidence -- now whether Irving would say most of it, most other people would say almost none of it, but nonetheless some of it, has to be conceded, can be interpreted two ways.
AIH: How else do you interpret it?
DDG: Well, he claims, for example, --or he now claims -- 'cause I should say he has said there were never any gas chambers at Auschwitz.
DDG: Now he says, "Well, yes, I see the plans for gas chambers at Auschwitz, but they were for gassing corpses, they were for gassing cadavers. Now, so why you would want to gas a cadaver before you burn it -- as my 9-year-old son asked me [laughs] -- is a question that I can't answer.
AIH: Tell us a little bit about Deborah Lipstadt, the defendant in this trial.
DDG: She's an American historian, born in New York. Her first book was called Beyond Belief, and it was an account of the press accounts of the Holocaust as it was going on. In other words, why was so little reported and who reported and what was said and why was it not believed. She's now the Dora Professor of Jewish Studies (I think it is) at Emory University. She has made a speciality of "Holocaust denial," as she calls it, and wrote a book about it in the mid-90s.
AIH: But lots of people have attacked, over the years, David Irving for his views. The question of whether he's a Holocaust denier is, as we've been talking about, in one sense, is just indisputable. He wouldn't quibble with it himself although... He quibbles with the term, doesn't he?
DDG: The whole trial is about "quibbling" about it.
AIH: Yeah, yeah. But he's almost made a career out of defending people who were called Holocaust deniers and what not.
DDG: I think that's reasonable.
AIH: So. Why has he picked on her? And why?... Her book came out in 1994?
AIH: Why her, and why now?
DDG: That's a very good question. You have to go back to 1996, which is two years after her book came out, when there was an uproar in the United States because David Irving was under contract to St. Martin's Press in New York to publish a book called Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich. And, shortly, before the book was about to be published, the publishers came under a large pressure campaign, basically, saying, "What you doing publishing this guy?" And they dropped the book. And as a result of that campaign, and their dropping the book, and Irving's response to the campaign, he has essentially become a pariah to respectable publishers. So he says... In a sense, this is true, that he had no choice but to try and vindicate himself. The problem is that his means of vindicating himself is basically to continue to dig himself deeper into the same hole.
AIH: What do you mean?
DDG: Well, in other words, he's not saying, "Oh, it's terrible to say that I'm a Holocaust denier -- I never said any such thing." He's saying, "You can't call me a Holocaust denier just... just because I say nobody was gassed at Auschwitz, because nobody was gassed at Auschwitz."
AIH: "...because I'm telling the truth."
DDG: And of course because of the fact the burden of proof is on the defendant, it's a kind of legal jujitsu, in which she has to prove he is wrong. He doesn't have to prove that he's right.
AIH: So this, in a sense, really is the Holocaust on trial.
DDG: Yes, it is.
AIH: Tell me about ... what you can about the other characters in the case. Her lawyer... David Irving is representing himself.
DDG: David Irving is representing himself. He's what they call a litigant in person. On the other side of the courtoom is rather more crowded because there's Deborah Lipstadt's solicitors, and the most notable of those is Anthony Julius, who may be known to some of your listeners as Princess Diana's divorce lawyer. He's also the author of a scholarly book on T.S. Eliot and anti-Semitism. And then there are lawyers for Penguin Books, who are the publisher. And then there's a QC, who does the actual cross-examination -- Richard Rampton, who's a very colourful man.
AIH: And their job is to prove the Holocaust and the details...
DDG: Well, they keep saying that isn't their job.
DDG: They keep saying their only job is to show that Irving suppressed, twisted or distorted evidence. But then you have to ask yourself, "Oh?, evidence about what?" And if he hadn't suppressed, twisted or distorted it, "What would it tell us?"
DDG: So. There's a way in which both sides are kind of, to my mind, colluding in this kind of illusion that history has nothing to do with this trial; that it's only about what happened in David Irving's study. But, in fact, as everyone seems to agree, they have to show... if they want to show that he's ... that he's wrong, they have to show that it happened, that he had evidence that it happened and ignored it.
AIH: And, they have to have convincing evidence...
DDG: That's right.
AIH: Yeah. So what are they?...
DDG: Which they have amassed; they have amassed an enormous amount of evidence. I mean, in addition to Prof. Van Pelt, who, by the way, didn't only give testimony, he also submitted a report of several hundred pages, specifically, about the evidence for Auschwitz. Today there's Prof. Browning, who's submitted a very lengthy report on the evidence for the systematic nature of the Final Solution. They'll also hear evidence from Peter Longren (sp?), who's a historian at the University College in London, about the organization of the Final Solution and the Nazi hierarchy and also about Hitler's involvement in the Final Solution. So there's a parade of world-class historians as expert witnesses.
AIH: The judge -- 'cause this is not a jury trial...
DDG: That's right.
AIH: Who is the judge who has to make this decision?
DDG: His name is Charles Gray, Mr. Justice Gray. He's only been a judge for 18 months. But before that he was one of the most eminent libel lawyers in Britain. He runs a very tight trial. In other words, if he feels that witnesses are straying he will bring them back to the point. It does provide a distorted picture, though, from the press box, because most of the press won't have seen any of these reports; nobody who's sitting in the public gallery will have seen any of these reports. The judge will see a report; for example, the judge will have read Browning's report. Browning will come into court, he'll be sworn in, and then Irving will start cross-examining him. In other words, Rampton won't lead him through his report. So all you'll see if you're sitting in the public gallery or if you're sitting in the press box, is, whether or not, Irving is able to attack the witness' credibility. You don't get what the witness' actual testimony is because it's in these written reports.
AIH: And, and... How is he doing, as you watch it?
DDG: Well. That kind of grows out of what I just said because I think Irving is operating on two tracks. One track is... he's trying to prosecute a libel case -- and, clearly, you know -- if he wins this case, it will be a huge victory for him and for revisionists. And even if he wins it on a technicality, they will make a great deal of it. On the other hand, if he loses it, he will probably have to go bankrupt to pay the other side's cost. But it's also true that he will carry on and he will say what he's saying, but his mainstream credibility will be destroyed. In other words, he will no longer be able to face in both directions. He will only face in the direction of Nazi revisionists or the fans of Adolf Hitler, the kind of people who collect Nazi memorabilia -- things like that. He will not have a mainstrwam audience anymore. So. That's the trial track. But the other track, which Irving is conducting as well, is this kind of... he's got this captive audience of the world's press, and he's making the most of it. He's conducting a big public teach-in on revisionism. I would say that on that track he's not doing badly. I don't mean that he's persuading me, but I mean that he's making the most of his opportunities. He is not an idiot; he's an intelligent man; he's not a clown; and his arguments are serious and they come across, on the surface, as plausible. The defence will obviously try and probe below the surface -- and, certainly, with the judge, I think, they're doing that with great effect. But in terms of the public and the press, I think it's much more of a mixed bag.
AIH: Which is, of course, the risk in these trials. I remember when Ernst Zuundel was prosecuted in Canada, there was a huge debate, even in the Jewish community, about whether it was... it made any sense to pursue this trial because it gave a platform to the views of people who they thought were dangerous.
DDG: That's right! I've read part of the transcript of the Zundel trial and Irving... this is much less of a circus. The judge has a much tighter control on the trial and, in an odd way, even though Irving isn't the defendant -- I mean, that's the other main difference -- he's not the defendant.
AIH: They had no choice in this one.
DDG: Right! They had no choice. So they have to defend themselves. But they're doing it in a much more well-organized way. There's... I wasn't at the Zundel trial, but if you read the transcripts, there's a kind of chaotic quality -- you can't believe this is being allowed to happen ... in the way that some of the witnesses were treated, in the abusive nature of some of the questioning. Irving is not like that. He is not an abusive questioner. He has not been... He's very politely accused witnesses of lying and faking evidence, but it;s been very polite.
AIH: You've actually met him outside the courtroom, too, haven't you?
DDG: Yes. I've interviewed him a couple of times. A couple of times in person and a couple of times by phone.
AIH: What was that like?
DDG: Uh. Bizarre. He's, as I've said before, intelligent. He makes an effort to be -- at least with me -- personable. Uh... He likes to shock you, or try and shock you, but yut get the sense that partways, at least, when he's not in court, it's a kind of game for him. It is also true that there's an almost hypnotic quality to the way that he has an explanation for everything. You know, if you say to him, "Well, what happened?" In other words, one of the big piles of evidence for the Final Solution is the fact that we know that there were all these people sent by train to places like Auschwitz and Belzec and Sobibor -- and then we never heard from them again.
So, You know, you say, "Well, what happened? Where did the Jews go - if they were exterminated?" And he'll give you this rap about how some of them went to Israel and some of them went to the United States. And, you're listening and you're thinking, "Well... I dunno...could be..." And it's only afterwards you realize that it's... it;s insane, that it, you know, basically, implies that Jews are not like other people; they wouldn't seek out their families after the war, you know...
AIH: ...Wouldn't get in touch with anybody.
DDG: Exactly. But, while he's telling you it, it definitely has a kind of surface plausibility.
AIH: Yeah... From the very beginning, there have been disputes about things like The Numbers. In part, that's one of the issues at dispute here. How important is it-- whether there were 6 million or 5.1 million or many hundreds of thousands?
DDG: Well, that depends on... Well, the difference between 6 million and many hundreds of thousands is an order of magnitude, so that's pretty important. And again, you have to look at The Why -- not on the sort of "on what grounds?" -- but The Why. The point of minimizing the numbers for revisionists -- if you take them at their own label -- is to, and Irving is very explicit about this, is to say that, "Well, all wars are dirty; and there were lost of crimes in World War Two; there are lots of innocents killed; and that the Germans killed hundreds of thousands of Jews, but the Americans killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese, the British killed, you know, tens, hundreds of thousands of Germans in fire-bombing Dresden and Hamburg and Pforzheim. So, really, you know, nobody's worse than anybody else. It;s this kind of what Deborah Lipstadt called "false equivalency." And that's really their goal. Whether it matters that 5.1 million or 6 million were killed, I think it matters a great deal because I think facts always matter.
AIH: Thank you very much, Mr. Guttenplan.
DDG: Thank you.
AIH: I hope we'll talk again.
DDG: OK. Bye-bye.
D.D. Guttenplan is writing a book about the Irving libel trial. His feature-length article on the subject appears in the February issue of Atlantic Monthly. Mr. Guttenplan spoke to us from London.
Toronto February 8, 2000