Friday, February 4, 2000
Where are all their holes?
David Irving, a British historian, aims to prove that Deborah Lipstadt, an American historian, libeled him when she accused him of denying the Holocaust. He argues that there is no evidence for the destruction of millions of Jews; she must prove there is. A bewigged judge in a London court will decide which one is right
By Tom Segev
ONE day David Irving hosted several acquaintances for dinner at the large, red-brick London home in which he has lived for more than 30 years. Although he shares the building with a ground-floor laundromat and sandwich bar, his Duke Street address in West London, not far from Grosvenor Square on the outskirts of Mayfair, is considered very posh.
In the course of conversation, the diners talked about their work. David Irving happened to mention a book he had written about Adolf Hitler. All at once Irving got up and brought in a drawing about the size of a postcard, which he claimed to have received from one of Hitler's secretaries. It was a self-portrait of the Fuehrer, sketched in simple lines with a crayon. One of the men who was present that evening shuddered this week as he recalled how Irving showed Hitler's drawing to each guest in turn, full of pride and awe, as if he himself had done it.
When I visited David Irving at his home this week, accompanied by Ha'aretz correspondent Sharon Sadeh, we asked to see the drawing. "Later on," Irving said. "Later on." In her book, "Denying the Holocaust," Deborah Lipstadt writes that Irving had a portrait of Hitler hanging in his office. This is one of the items in the book that prompted Irving to press a libel suit against Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin. When we visited this week, a large portrait of President Roosevelt was hanging in his study. We asked why, and Irving explained that Roosevelt was the greatest American leader of all. That he extricated himself and his country from a deep crisis. "Like Hitler," Irving said. I asked if that was what led him to admire Roosevelt so, but Irving replied that we would not be able to trick him into making such a statement.
He assumed that we were there in order to get him to say terrible things. "I'm talking with the enemy now," he said - in German - to someone on the phone, while we were with him. In fact, there is no need to trick Irving into saying anything; that which he says intentionally is quite enough.
On Friday morning Irving and Lipstadt found themselves in a narrow corridor on the second floor of the east bloc of the High Court of Justice in London. The door to Chamber No. 73 was locked. An embarrassing moment for both. Irving is representing himself, but brought along one of his admirers, a fellow named Rae West, who was in need of a shave. West is responsible for maintaining Irving's Internet site, and also serves tea in his home. (Irving, later that afternoon: "He looks a little Jewish, doesn't he?")
Lipstadt is aided by a sizable team of attorneys that includes Anthony Julius, who also handled Princess Diana's divorce. His law firm is headed by Lord Victor Mishcon, 85, a Jew who represents, among other clients, the Board of Deputies, an umbrella organization of Jewish communities in Britain. Lipstadt's barrister, the behind-the-scenes attorney who actually prepares the case, is James Libson, a brilliant young man who is also a graduate of Netzer, the Zionist youth movement. Libson himself never addresses the court. That job is left to Richard Rampton, who bears the title of Queen's Counsel ("Q.C."). A congenial man with an easygoing manner, pink cheeks, white hair and round spectacles, he exhudes a dignified tranquility and looks just like one of the lawyers you might see on a BBC television series. No mere twist of fate, this: The court oftentimes provide the best theater to be had in London.
We stood there in the corridor, shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the door to open; Irving and Lipstadt ignored one another. She is a professor of Jewish studies at Atlanta's Emory University, and speaks Hebrew, but in deference to her attorneys' instructions, she is not granting any interviews; nor, it seems, will she be testifying in court. She seems to be a kindly woman, but looks tense. The case is important to her: It has occupied her thoughts and energies for over two years, and has disrupted her normal academic routine. Preparing the defense is no simple task; it has required a great deal of time and expense, ranging into the millions of dollars. Jewish organizations in America are helping out. They consider the lawsuit a challenge for the Jewish people.
Lipstadt believes that denial of the Holocaust is dangerous, and more increasingly so as the generation of Holocaust survivors dies. She explains her belief in part by a personal story: Lipstadt has relatives who used to employ a black servant named Charles Washington. He was born a slave. There is a great deal of difference between what her relatives know about the Civil War and what she knows: for her, it is only history; for her relatives, it is someone's life story.
That is what will happen to the Holocaust, she fears. Soon there will be no more survivors left, and then, when the Holocaust is only history, the influence of the Holocaust deniers is liable to increase. As she sees it, they and the Nazis are cut of the same cloth: one group murdered Jews in gas chambers, the other wants to expunge their memory and in so doing murder them a second time. She exaggerates the significance of the phenomenon.
Irving is a large, square-jawed, broad-shouldered man of 62 who wears an elegant, striped three-piece suit. He has an impressive head of thick hair, silver threads running through it. (That afternoon at his home, Irving explains to his young daughter Jessica that my baldness is characteristic of the Jews. I raise my eyebrow. "Yes, yes," Irving insists, patting the sides of his head with both hands. "The Jews have a problem of hair loss. That's well known. But it's not something that speaks against them - they also happen to be good at playing the violin.")
While we are standing in front of the closed courtroom door, I ask Irving about his website. It features pictures from his family album and a poster of Hitler and his generals. The poster is available for sale. Several of Irving's books, on the other hand, can be downloaded from the site for free. Each day he provides the full transcript of the court hearings, as well as a personal diary he has been writing. He writes well. Irving claims that the site is intended to provide a balance to the media reports. I ask if he is unhappy with the coverage. He looks at me with a combination of disdain and pity. "If you're trying to get a statement out of me that I am a victim of a conspiracy against me by world Jewry, by means of its domination of the international media," he says, "don't bother. It's true." At this point, the door to the chamber is opened.
Above one of the doorways to the High Court of Justice is a rendering of Moses the Lawgiver inscribed in stone; King Solomon appears on a nearby frieze. Inscribed above the judges' entrance are a cat and a dog, as symbols of the goings-on in the courtrooms. The architect of the building, which stands not far from the Thames River, specialized in designing churches. The High Court of Justice looks like a house of prayer. Queen Victoria dedicated the building 118 years ago, and although it has gone through structural changes since then, with the addition of new wings, the building is rather shabby.
The court secretariat offers an information pamphlet to visitors that includes an enlightening explanation about the wigs that judges, attorneys and some officers of the court wear on their heads. Three hundred years ago, the wigs were made of human hair, and had to be combed each day. However, since 1834, the wigs have been made from horses' manes, relieving their owners of the need to comb them. Wigs of different types are used by different members of the judicial system on different occasions. The wig that barrister Richard Rampton wears has two slender pigtails in back. The one worn by the judge is a little different. The judge is Charles Gray, a man of about 50. He wears a black robe with a scarlet tippet across one shoulder. His robe has wide cuffs, which from afar look to be white fur. He is seated on a red armchair and is addressed as "My Lord."
In this trial there is no jury: The two sides agreed that the issue was too complicated. Gray was made a judge only one year ago. Previously, he was a renowned and skillful attorney who specialized in libel suits. This is the second time that Gray is involved in a trial that has its roots in World War II. About ten years ago, Gray represented Lord Aldington, a British army officer who brought a suit against a historian who described him as a war criminal. It is a fascinating story that appears in a new book on libel trials in England, by David Hooper ("Reputations Under Fire," Little, Brown and Company, U.K.). Gray won the case. The court awarded his client damages of 1.5 million pounds sterling, but the Lord never received the money. His legal expenses alone came to about one million pounds. Meaning that in many cases it isn't worth embarking on a libel suit, even when there is a great chance of success.
The historian who lost the Aldington case was Count Nikolai Tolstoy, a descendent of the author. Tolstoy's attorney was none other than Richard Rampton, who is now Lipstadt's attorney. He and Justice Gray battled one another, but remained good friends. Count Tolstoy, a somewhat eccentric man, also appeared as a defense witness at the trial of John Demjanjuk in Jerusalem. Demjanjuk's name was also mentioned at the Irving-Lipstadt trial this week. "Ask Demjanjuk what he thinks of eyewitnesses," Irving said to one of the defense witnesses, an expert in the history of Auschwitz, who among other things bases his statements on eyewitness accounts. Only "the brave Israeli judges," Irving said, saved Demjanjuk from hanging, after he was at first convicted primarily on the basis of eyewitness testimony.
Irving is backed up by a team of 25 associates, including a few historians. Several lawyers are also advising him, gratis. A well-known architect from New York, Irving claimed this week, helped him decipher the blueprints for the gas chambers at Auschwitz, which were submitted by defense counsel. He receives money from supporters abroad - organizations and individuals - everywhere from Canada to Australia. He has spent three years preparing for this trial, neglecting all other work. This week, Irving received a letter of encouragement from the son of Hitler's aide Rudolf Hess. Hess sent him an article about the Wilkomirsky affair, in which a Swiss music teacher pretending to be a Holocaust survivor wrote a bestseller. "A typical example of the representatives of the Holocaust industry," Hess wrote Irving, who wasted no time in uploading the letter to his Internet site.
David Irving is well prepared. He wears a scowl most of the time, even though he seems to be enjoying every moment. This is also evident in his body language, which looks as if it were borrowed from a typical BBC series. When he sits, he tilts his head to one side, narrows his eyes as if in concentration, sticks one of the temples of his glasses in his mouth, writes notes with his right hand, using a fountain pen. Sometimes he stands, left fist on his hip. At other times his arm dangles along the length of his body, fingers rubbing against one another in a nervous tick, up and down, up and down. He effects a slight stutter of hesitation when he begins to talk, a not uncommon practice among members of the English upper class, including the defense attorney and the judge in this trial. The courtroom atmosphere is very civilized, seemingly devoid of emotional involvement. Everyone maintains a veneer of good manners and consideration; at times the legal representatives of the opposing sides help one another to find documents, which amount to hundreds of thousands of pages arranged in boxes on shelves that run the entire length of one of the courtroom walls.
It is a relatively new and spacious hall. The initial sessions were held in a courtroom that lacked sufficient room for all those who wanted to follow the proceedings - journalists and curious onlookers, Irving supporters and Lipstadt supporters. Now there is room for about 50 spectators, and most of the seats are taken most of the time. A taciturn woman is responsible for order in the courtroom; every whisper draws her furious glance, a cellular phone that dares to ring brings a bloodcurdling smile to her lips.
The stenographers who take down the protocol employ an incredible system. They type in syllables, the computer assembles them into words, and the words appear on the screens of laptops on the attorneys' tables. While the attorney is talking, the words appear on the screen before him, split seconds after he has uttered them. The contrast between the high-tech notation system and the piles of horsehair worn by the judge and the attorneys lends a somewhat grotesque effect to the proceedings.
Lipstadt wrote that Irving denies the Holocaust, that he is friendly with neo-Nazi organizations and that he knowingly distorted the historic truth. Irving does not deny that the Nazis murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews; he does deny that they murdered millions. He claims that Hitler did not know about it, that the murder was not carried out in any systematic fashion, that gas chambers and other extermination facilities were not built for this purpose. Irving claims that Lipstadt's book and a series of actions taken by Jewish organizations in England and in the United States have destroyed his reputation as a historian. An individual who is highly familiar with the publishing world assessed this week that Irving is indeed finished, that no one will publish his books, but that he finished himself off. Years ago there were historians who admired his work, but the more he associated with neo-Nazi organizations and downplayed the Holocaust - the more they ostracized him from proper society. This occurred even before Lipstadt published her book.
The judge seems more inclined to focus on the question of whether Lipstadt harmed Irving's reputation as a historian and less so on the question of whether the Holocaust happened or not. But in order to prove that Irving disregarded historical evidence that proves the mass murder of the Jews, in other words that he "denied the Holocaust," the defense must prove in court that this evidence is reliable and that the destruction of millions of Jews, and not the more limited killing of Jews that Irving is prepared to confirm, informs the term "Holocaust" with its true meaning. The two sides, then, are arguing over the meaning of the term. Essentially, Lipstadt must prove that the Nazis systematically murdered millions of Jews in gas chambers in Auschwitz and the other death camps.
This isn't hard to prove; there is a plethora of solid evidence, both written and oral. Nor is there any danger that the Holocaust will be forgotten. On the contrary: from year to year, Holocaust consciousness reinforces its position as an international code for absolute evil - though films, books, curricula, museums, memorials and countless other ways, in nearly every country of the world. Active, strident "denial of the Holocaust" is primarily found on the Internet, and is for the most part characterized by lunatic-fringe groups that are not really worth the prodigious research effort invested by Lipstadt in her book. Ironically, Holocaust denial is practiced primarily among neo-Nazi groups which, one would think, should be proud of and pleased by the extermination of Jews, and not deny that it happened.
At times, Holocaust denial also fuels anti-Israel arguments. Lipstadt's book began as a research project at the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Apparently, her basic premise is that anyone who denies the Holocaust denies Israel's right to exist. This in fact happened this week in a semi-official Syrian newspaper, but that was more of a case of foolish and abhorrent name-calling than a genuine threat. Therefore, it may not make sense to pass laws against Holocaust denial, and thereby curb freedom of speech; this happens whenever and wherever Holocaust denial seems to present a significant threat. England has no law forbidding Holocaust denial, but David Irving is done for as a historian nonetheless, forevermore. With all due respect to the court, the verdict handed down by Mr. Justice Gray will contribute no more and no less than that real-life judgment. Let him decide whatever he wants. So what?
Although the courtroom is not the ideal forum for historical clarification, the destruction of the Jews has been already been proven countless times to the satisfaction of judges in countries around the world. Nevertheless, Lipstadt's attorneys have gathered abundant material to back up her claims. The material may be useful for other historians.
Irving is trying to disprove the evidence submitted by the defense. He continually asks to pore over the most minute details discussed in the hearings, which often sound like lawyers negotiating a property deal, and other times like a seminar for undertakers. An expert witness for the defense, Robert van Pelt, presented the blueprints for the gas chambers and crematoria in Auschwitz. Irving's questions about the buildings made it sound like he was considering buying it for his own use: the property's location, the directions it faces, square meterage, (how much is that in real terms please, feet that is) where the elevator and the stairways are, where the dressing room is and where the sewage system is, thickness of the walls and what the door is made of. Every so often he would come closer to the slides that were shown in the courtroom so as to get a better look at the blueprints, at which time his large shadow would fall on the screen, resembling the shadow of a black vulture.
He wanted to know exactly how the bodies were brought down to the crematoria, by stretcher or by sliding them, where the gold teeth were extracted from the mouths of the dead, how many kilograms, please (can you translate that into pounds?) and exactly what they did with the teeth. There was an oven for melting down the gold. "Ah," Irving said knowingly and delightedly enunciated the German term: "S-C-H-M-E-L-Z-O-F-E-N." He inquired about the ovens for burning bodies: "How many corpses can you do in a day?" he wished to know. His central argument is that, technically speaking, it was not possible to annihilate so many people in the facilities that remained.
But what interested him more than anything else were the holes that were supposed to be in the ceiling of the chambers, which were ostensibly used for introducing the poison gas. No holes were marked on the plans displayed by the defense witness. Perhaps these were not suffocation chambers, but rather shelters to protect from aerial bombing, suggested Irving, and dramatically promised to withdraw his libel suit if he could only be shown the holes. Where are the holes, he asked again and again. "We had so much fun that day," he said later, because it turned out that there were no holes. But the media, of course, did not report that, Irving complained, and informed Internet surfers that Rudolf Hess' son was also infuriated about the gap between the protocols he reads and the media reports.
By the time we came to his house that afternoon, by prior arrangement, Irving had a chance to change his suit vest for a green sweater. He walked us up to his study, equipped with a large copier, as well as document files and books and a colorful ball and toys belonging to his six-year-old daughter Jessica [left, with friend]. She is the daughter of his second wife, a Danish-born woman. In all, he has had five daughters. One, who was born without any limbs, recently died at the age of 18. After the funeral he received a wreath of flowers with a condolence card signed 'Philipp Bouhler,' the man who was responsible in Nazi Germany for euthanasia performed on the ill, which developed into the program for mass destruction of the Jews. Bouhler took his own life in 1945. It was a cruel joke that was very painful for him, Irving said. He claims that whoever did it was influenced by Lipstadt's book. Irving says he receives constant death threats. Originally, he planned to appear in court with a bodyguard at his side, he says, but was afraid that it would not look good, and decided to take the risk.
From behind his desk, Irving came across as full of himself, a condescending man, a consummate egocentric, an indefatigable chatterer. He drank his tea with milk, and did not offer us any. One shelf in the room is lined with the personal diaries that he has been writing since 1959. They will be his secret weapon in this case, Irving said. Fifty-five volumes, somewhere between 20 and 30 million words, of which a mere 13 words bear unmistakably clear anti-Semitic character. They were written at a time that he was in a fury, when he was arguing with his lawyer, [Michael] Rubinstein. That's all. The defense requested and received all of the volumes of his diary for its perusal. They examined them under a microscope and aside from those 13 anti-Semitic words, not another word disparaging of Jews can be found. If he wins the case, Irving says, he will not ask Lipstadt for financial compensation or legal expenses. Only 500 pounds sterling, as a contribution to the charity that bears his deceased daughter's name. This is the arrangement that he claims to have offered before the trial began. If he loses, he will probably lose all his money.
He permitted us to thumb through one of the diaries. June 1967: The great victory of the Jews did not provoke any comments. On the other hand, when the Sinai Campaign began, in 1956, he claimed to have taken part in a demonstration of support for Israel. He himself doesn't know why he did it; he was a student at the time.
Irving does not see any great difference between the Israelis and the Nazis. He thinks that if the Jews would not have received a state in Palestine but had been sent to Madagascar instead, as proposed in the plan he attributes to Hitler, the world would be a happier place. He says that he does not have to go very far to shape his opinions on what is going on in Israel. He learns everything he needs from BBC broadcasts. He assumes that if Israel was a good and beautiful country, most of the Jews would settle there. The fact is that the majority does not want to live there. Evidently, they know why.
Irving claims to be able to differentiate between the Jewish majority and the Jews from the Jewish organizations who have conspired against him in a global conspiracy, with the goal of smearing his name and getting rid of him. In his assessment, they do not represent the majority of Jews. He thinks that the Jews of the United States now wield at least as much influence as did the Jews of Weimar Germany. This is extremely dangerous.
The Jews of the United States are liable to fall victim to the same fate of the Jews of Germany, he says. Irving is frequently asked if he believes the Jews of Europe were themselves to blame for what happened to them. He will not respond with a simple "yes" because the causality is more complex, but the Jews would do well to ask themselves why, really, they are hated so much, and always have been, everywhere. What is it in them that generates this hatred? They would do well to think about that, says Irving.
There is no doubt that they are hated today because of all this propaganda about the Holocaust that they are constantly spreading, he says. It's become impossible to open a newspaper or see a television program these days without coming across the Holocaust. Holocaust, Holocaust, everywhere Holocaust. The Holocaust has "hijacked" all of the media, all of Western culture. The world is fed up with it. People are losing their patience and are liable to resort to acts of violence against Jews. If the Jews don't stop with this, they can expect a genuine Holocaust, Irving said.
Sharon Sadeh asked him where all the Jews that the Nazis did not murder disappeared to. Irving said he doesn't know. The fact is there are Jews everywhere. That's how they are. They always pop up again, everywhere. But what does he know, maybe they changed their names to Israeli names. He's not too interested in that, either. He finds the Holocaust endlessly boring, he said.
Now he no longer wanted to show us the drawing, Hitler's alleged self-portrait. He doesn't remember exactly where he put it, he says, but if we wanted, he would send Jessica to bring her spoon, which is inscribed with the initials A.H., a relic of Hitler's personal silverware. But Jessica didn't want to bring in the spoon, and we got up to go. I'm still not sure if the historic spoon is kept in a safe place or if Jessica uses it to eat her porridge.
According to the daily report provided for his Internet admirers, David Irving had a hard day. He had worked the previous night until 4 a.m., and was already up at 7:50 to take Jessica to school. However, he reported to visitors to his website, he came home from the court that afternoon, at which point two Ha'aretz correspondents showed up. He found us "considerably more fun than Eric Silver [an editor of the Jerusalem Report, with whom he had spoken the evening before], though their final report will undoubtedly express the same line. He continued: pre-empting their inevitable accusations, I said, like Dr. Samuel Johnson: "The charge of anti-Semitism is the last resort of the Jewish scoundrel."
Which is indeed what he told us, but he did not tell his readers how our meeting ended. When we were already in the hall, ready to leave, he suddenly said to us, "Maybe write that I'm half Jewish. That would be quite the story for you. I can already see the headline. David Irving Circumcised. What a story." I got the feeling that he was highly amused by that comment.
February 4, 2000