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New York, March 8, 2000


New York Post




LAST Friday, testimony ended in a London courtroom in author David Irving's libel suit against Professor Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University and her publisher, Penguin Books. The issue is whether Lipstadt was correct when she labeled Irving -- who has been denounced as "Hitler's spin artist" -- as a Holocaust denier.

IrvingAlthough the evidence of Irving's decades-long historical distortions is overwhelming, he may yet prevail in court, thanks to the complexities of British libel law and his own clever wordplay. That would be a devastating blow -- for Irving has been in the forefront of a sinister and dangerous campaign that has allowed Holocaust denial to slowly, but surely, creep into otherwise respectable institutions.

Irving, to be sure, has his admirers -- and from people who cannot be called neo-Nazis or Holocaust revisionists. Although not a trained historian, he has immersed himself in the facts and details of the Hitler era. Few question the breadth of his factual knowledge -- it's what he does with it that's open to question.

For Irving is the living embodiment of Shakespeare's line that "the Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose." Indeed, his reputation is what makes him so dangerous -- because it means that people who otherwise wouldn't dream of crediting his outrageous theories are willing at least to listen to his arguments.

And there's no mistaking what those arguments are: The Holocaust, he says, was not a systematic attempt by Nazi Germany to annihilate European Jewry -- only a few hundred thousand Jews died in German camps, mostly through disease and overwork. There were no gassings at Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps -- says Irving, "More people died in the back seat of Sen. Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz," which he claims were built by Polish communists after the war as a "Disneyland" tourist attraction.

Because he admits that there was a Holocaust -- although he maintains that the number of victims and the manner of their deaths has been vastly exaggerated by "Zionists" -- Irving insists he cannot rightly be called a Holocaust denier. Indeed, he and his supporters wrap themselves in the mantle of free speech -- claiming that those who attack his work are engaged in censorship and a refusal to accept legitimate historical reappraisal.

That, at least, was the way St. Martin's Press initially responded when it came under fire for publishing Irving's 1996 biography of Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels (the book was later canceled; Irving published it himself). Goebbels himself must be "laughing in hell," said St. Martin's editor Thomas Dunne in an obscene analogy, since "he loved nothing better than burning books."

Irving's ability to win such support is what makes him threatening. Despite his penchant for pro-Hitler remarks (he claims the Nazi leader was totally ignorant of the Holocaust) and his frequent appearances before neo-Nazi and far-right-wing groups (he describes himself as a "moderate fascist"), Irving is not your run-of-the-mill, foam-at-the-mouth Holocaust denier.

Which is why Lipstadt, who wrote a highly praised book about contemporary U.S. press coverage of the Holocaust, chose to confront the growing success of the revisionist movement in her 1994 book, "Denying the Holocaust." In it, she accused Irving of distorting historical data to serve his own ideological interests.

There's no denying that Irving doesn't approach the subject like the dispassionate historian he claims to be. "It's baloney, it's a legend," he tells audiences. "Once we admit the fact that [Auschwitz] was a brutal slave-labor camp and large numbers of people did die -- as large numbers of innocent people died elsewhere in the war -- why believe the rest of the baloney?"

That is precisely what worries Lipstadt and others opposed to Irving. As Holocaust survivors and those who liberated the camps die out -- ending the availability of first-person testimony -- "it's going to be much easier to deny it," Lipstadt told the Los Angeles Times last January. Or at least to minimize the uniqueness and systematic nature of the Nazis' nefarious genocide of the Jews.

Which is what Irving hopes will happen. "The Jewish community is trying to make out that their suffering is unique in its grandeur and the methods applied to achieve it," he says. "It was just one of the many barbarisms committed under the cloak of war." In fact, he says, the Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves by provoking Hitler.

As Lipstadt warns, Irving has opened up a dangerous door that must be slammed firmly shut: The notion that there is "another side" to the Holocaust. Yes, over the past 50 years, historians have revised some of their understanding of what took place in the Holocaust thanks to intensive research.

But the fact that there was a campaign of genocide that systematically took millions of Jewish lives is not a subject for debate. To attack his ideologically driven crackpot theories is not censorship but a necessary defense of historical truth. Make no mistake: Students in the not-too-distant future will take Irving's work seriously because some legitimate publishers and academics remain willing to lend him credibility.

If he wins in court -- and the legal onus is on Lipstadt and Penguin to prove their accusations -- Irving and his revisionist soulmates will have been handed a license to rewrite history and distort the truth.

Copyright 2000 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.


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New York, March 8, 2000
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