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[verbatim trial transcripts]

The Independent, London

London, January 29, 2000




The Curse of Revisionism


Irving enters courthouse

PACING back and forth across the court, often bouncing slightly on his heels, the historian David Irving looked like a man who could not wait to unleash another devastating point in service of his theories concerning the Holocaust. And when the witness he was cross-examining finally fell silent for a moment, he practically lunged like a swordsman delivering a fatal blow.

"If there were no holes in the roof, there was no gas chamber," he barked, looking around the courtroom as if waiting for signs of approval. And the whole story of 500,000 people being gassed in this one place rises and falls on those holes, does it not?" The witness before him, Robert Van Pelt, a Dutch historian who has spent years combing through the ruins of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, which was the subject under debate, paused for a moment, considering his answer."That roof has weathered badly over 50 years," he said dismissively. "It is impossible to examine it..."

It wasn't a very strong answer, and Irving seemed satisfied that he had won this round. During the previous hour, the two men had discussed some large black and white photographs of one of the Birkenau crematoriums which showed what looked like small chimneys being placed in the roof of part of the complex during its construction. These were Van Pelt's exhibits, aimed to prove that holes had existed and that cyanide gas pellets could be dropped into the underground chamber, where up to 2,000 Jewish prisoners had been herded for slaughter

But Irving, without a lawyer in sight and conducting his own case, seems to be well prepared to challenge any expert thrown at him, no matter how illustrious. He is one of the world's great discoverers of lost and overlooked documents, one of the best diggers in the archival business. Before him, on a 20ft-long table, he has piles of documents, photographs, archival mate-rial and textbooks. He even has a manual of German building regulations, which he plans to put to good use. He had other photographs, he said, showing the same roof, and there was not a chimney in sight.

He also claimed that the roof, now collapsed, rotting and lying on the ground, has been examined by "experts" who could not find not a single hole. Back and forth it went. Hour after hour. There were no holes, said Irving. Indeed there were holes, contradicted the witness. The cut and thrust of polite legal argument, just two learned historians examining the evidence and drawing different conclusions. But still managing to behave like gentlemen and experts.

I sat packed in with about 50 others, in the rear of room 73 in the London Law Courts, listening to this and more. At the lunchtime interval, wandering around the court building and trying to come to terms with what I was seeing and hearing, I felt like a man in some kind of Kafkaesque dream. What was going on here? Was this some kind of grotesque Monty Python episode? Everybody seemed to be in such good spirits. As if they weren't taking part in some kind of historical parlour game. Spot the gas chamber for 20 points.




ANOTHER day, another pile of large retainers for the lawyers and some good copy for the hacks. Irving, once hailed as the brightest young historian of the Second World War, is now claiming that he has been falsely discredited and is thus unable to find a reputable publisher for his books and is effectively ruined financially. He is suing Dr Deborah Lipstadt, also a historian, and her publishers Penguin Books, for allegations within her book Denying the Holocaust that Irving was a right-wing fanatic who had "distorted, manipulated and falsified" history to show that there were no gas chambers for humans in Auschwitz.

During the morning session, Irving repeatedly made the point that he was not denying the existence of the Holocaust. He had never denied it. On the contrary, he agreed fully at one point with Van Pelt's description of how some 180,000 people had been murdered in gas vans further north at a place called Chelmno.

However, when it came to the gigantic Auschwitz-Birkenau complex -- the twin concentration camps in the southern Polish swamps that lie at the very heart of the Holocaust -- he was not prepared, either as a man or a historian, to accept myth and folklore in the face of provable evidence to the contrary.

For much of the time, Irving was not so much cross-examining his witness as making one statement after another about a place that he believes to be partly a fraud, at worst, and a Polish state-run tourist attraction, at best. He attacked the accepted narrative of Auschwitz as the premier Nazi killing ground, and the home of the gas chambers, without the slightest mercy.

There were hospitals full of sick Jewish people still alive when the Red Army arrived in 1945, weren't there? Why were they being fed and medically treated, and why did so many survive when the Germans were killing them at such a rate? Wasn't it a fact that the 12 tons of Zyklon-B gas, allegedly used in the gas chambers, was simply an industrial delousing agent used in the fight against the epidemics that repeatedly swept the camp, killing thousands of slave workers? Why bother cleaning the clothes and beds of people you intended to kill?

His allegations came in a great torrent of words. Van Pelt tried to give as good as he got. For each question he gave a considered answer. He knows this terrible place as no other human being knows it, arid the previous day he had produced an awesome phrase to sum up his years of investigative labour. "In a map of human suffering," he said, "Auschwitz would be at the centre."

He was "absolutely certain" that at least one million people had died there between 1942 and 1944. And he was "absolutely certain" that the gas chambers were used to kill them.


BUT Irving gave him little leeway, and by late afternoon, with another verbal flourish, he suddenly produced what might be the main witness for his case. Not a human being -- but something as mundane as the single lift-shaft con-necting the "alleged" gas chamber with the crematorium ovens above. He called in the bottleneck, or, as he put it, the bottleneck in the glass timing jar, The bottleneck that would blow holes in the Auschwitz story.

Irving knows the value of a strong phrase and the silence in Court 73 seemed to deepen as he said it. We all knew what was coming. Even the judge murmured that he could see where this was leading. How could 500,000 bodies -- the number estimated to have died in that one crematorium -- be transported up a single lift-shaft, only about 9ft square. Irving demanded that Van Pelt now do the arithmetic of nightmares. How much could the lift carry? 750 kilos, 1,500 kilos, 3,000 kilos? How many bodies would that be at, say 60 kilos a body? Were they in gurneys or were they just squeezed in, like people squashed into a telephone box? How long to take each batch up to the ovens? Ten minutes, or more, each batch? Twenty corpses at a time, or 25?

Van Pelt entered into the exercise reluctantly, and his answers were unclear. It was not helpful to count the numbers of lift journeys, but rather the time it took to burn each batch. In the end, no conclusion was reached on this point. Nobody came up with a pat figure that would make such a logistics exercise possible or impossible during the years the crematorium was operational, But Irving repeated his phrase over and over again. The Bottleneck.

And on the way home in the train that night, to my shame, I took out a pocket calculator and began to do some sums. Ten, minutes for each batch of 25. I tapped in. That makes 150 an hour. Which gives 3,600 for each 24-hour period. Which gives 1,314,000 in a year. So that's fine. It could be done. Thank God, the numbers add up.

When I realised what I was doing, I almost threw the little machine across the compartment in rage. I remembered I had felt the same compulsive curiosity when I saw the first "investigative" reports that said that the Diary of Anne Frank may have been a fake. And I remembered the same relief I felt when I did the necessary and simple research and found that every word of this, perhaps the most famous book of the 20th century, was indeed true.

What is happening in Court 73 is more than just another libel action. And David Irving is entitled to challenge those who he claims have defamed him. But the case he has brought has meant something else. For the first time, in a major British arena, we have been forced to enter the strange and flourishing landscape that has come to be known as historical revisionism. It is an area of study with only one subject. The Holocaust. And it is a place where tiny flaws can be found -- and magnified -- in large structures, where great truths can be tainted and wounded by small discrepancies, where millions of dead people can be turned into a chimera. And where doubt can be planted like seed in the wind, to grow and fester as the screams of history grow fainter with the years.

A dark and dangerous place where even reasonable people start to do furtive sums on pocket calculators.

January 29, 2000
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