Philadelphia, March 2, 2000
Theater of the Absurd: Holocaust Denial on Trial in Britain
Rela Mintz Geffen
As I flew from Philadelphia across the Atlantic on Feb. 13, I mused about what the past few years and, especially, the most recent month had been like for my friend, Deborah E. Lipstadt, Dorot Associate Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
She had written me on Friday, Dec. 31, that "I leave motzei Shabbat next week; minchah, we start bo bo el Pharoah shelach et ami -- I am going to another Pharoah."
But once the first apprehension was over, she wrote with great energy and confidence of her courtroom struggle in London against the calumnies of David Irving, the "historian" who denies the Holocaust. Irving is suing her for libel for describing him as a Holocaust denier. I had come to be by her side.
For her, it was and is a silent struggle. She sits at her laptop in court, surrounded by solicitors, barristers, researchers and representatives of Penguin Books, the publisher who, along with her, is the object of the libel suit brought by Irving.
She does not speak. Irving speaks constantly.
Acting as his own advocate, he makes the most of the opportunity to demonstrate his brilliance, "wit," command of detail and more guardedly, his admiration of the Nazi leaders, especially Hitler, and their reign of terror.
Irving is graceless, even awkward in his mannerisms and sometimes in his language, but his command of prodigious materials is undeniable. It is this erudition that makes him so dangerous. Yet, this is also a man who, while under oath, admits to teaching his young daughter a nursery rhyme "I am a baby Aryan, not Jewish or sectarian. I have no wish to marry an ape or Rastafarian."
Over the course of three days during the week of Feb. 14 to 17 in Q.B. (Queen's Bench) 73 of Her Majesty's Law Courts in the Strand, I sit for 18 hours, watching and listening to the drama unfold. The spectacle is at once horrifying and engrossing, absurd and seductive.
Although we are in the courtroom with the largest gallery, only about 75 observers plus members of the press can be accommodated at one time. Many people stay all day, queuing up shortly after 9 a.m. to get into the morning session, and again, during the lunch break, to re-enter the courtroom.
Deborah sits surrounded by more than a dozen people and they, in turn, sit next to a library-like wall of meticulously arranged reference books and binders at the ready for any eventuality. His Lordship, the Judge, presiding from a raised platform, has a laptop on the desk before him. He also has, by his side, a large rotating carousel of numbered binders of documents for quick reference.
Irving stands in the questioner's box opposite and below the witness he has been interrogating for several days. The witness is the distinguished historian Professor Richard Evans of Cambridge University. At the behest of the defense, Evans has written an analysis of Irving's oeuvre that exceeds 600 pages.
Evans, a cool Welshman, responds to the often badgering style of Irving with polite but emphatic disdain. Asked by Irving to characterize Irving's work as a historian, Evans replies that the work is "a tissue of lies on your part -- a shameless manipulation of text."
I later discover, when we compare notes over a quick lunch in a coffee shop across from the courthouse that the eminent historian Sir Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill, has written down the same quote. We both write in hard-bound blank books -- this is a record to be kept for the long term. I write so as to remember, but also because it is so frustrating to listen, absorb the absurdity and to be unable to comment or reply.
Spectators come and go -- young and old, women and men, survivors, law students, the curious and the intensely involved. Someone tells me that a man wearing an SS ring was sitting next to me on Tuesday. Deborah warns that we should take care with our words when waiting on line in the ever lengthening queue. Anthony Julius, her solicitor (right), says that you can't be sure of who is standing next to you.
Friends at home have mentioned that they haven't seen much in the American press about the trial. It doesn't feel that way in London, where seats at the trial are at a premium and shop assistants recognize Deborah and wish her luck.
On Thursday, Irving tries to demonstrate that Hitler saved Jews. He points to a chain of documents and telephone records which indicate that Hitler called a subordinate on the carpet for having a trainload of Jews from Berlin killed. The number and specificity of the German records, including detailed telephone logs, are incredible to me.
Evans points out that delaying the murder of Berlin Jews was a propaganda gesture, so as not to alarm the Jews of Berlin. Irving insists on interpreting a December 1941 order to continue the killings more discreetly as an order to halt the murder of Jews. Evans points out that during four days that same week, all of the Jews of Riga were murdered. Irving tries again. He shows that Hitler agreed to spare one Jew in Vienna who had skills useful to the Reich.
"One Jew in all of Vienna, Mr. Irving," Evans says with such withering disdain that a chill blows through the courtroom.
Court adjourns for the weekend. I must return to Philadelphia, but don't want to leave. How often does one get the opportunity to watch history in the making?
The sense of something important happening is inescapable. The fear that Irving could prevail through some legal technicality is palpable. As I fly home I resolve to return, if at all feasible, for final arguments in mid-March.
I also make one final promise to myself: to bring this trial to the attention of as many Americans as possible, hoping that awareness will lead to knowledge and future vigilance.
Rela Mintz Geffen is a professor of sociology at Gratz College
March 2, 2000
Website fact: The stamina of the defence team is aided by a six million dollar fund provided by the American Jewish Committee, which enables them to pay 21 lawyers and "experts"; the experts like Evans, Longerich, etc. earn £750 (DM2500) per day (while the defence's star legal team is paid considerably more). Nobody is paying for Mr Irving, who has been fighting this battle for three whole years. [Help!]