New York Times Wednesday, January 19, 2000
The Stakes in a Holocaust Trial
By WALTER REICH
WASHINGTON -- Alarmists are proclaiming that a libel trial that opened last week in London is nothing less than a trial of the truth of the Holocaust, and that if the plaintiff wins, history will lose. In fact, the reality of the Holocaust, which is overwhelmingly documented, doesn't hinge on the outcome of this trial.
The danger is that the alarms themselves may give the verdict more weight than it deserves, so that if the plaintiff wins, the alarmists will have created the very sort of damage they are trying to prevent: doubt among the ill-informed about whether the Holocaust happened. And because of trial technicalities or the nature of British libel law, the plaintiff could conceivably win.
He is suing Deborah Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University, and her British publisher, Penguin Books. Ms. Lipstadt has called Mr. Irving "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial."
Ms. Lipstadt has said that had she not contested the libel suit, Mr. Irving "would have won by default, and his definition of the Holocaust would have become the standard definition recognized by the High Court in London." An official of the Simon Wiesenthal Center has warned that "any victory for Mr. Irving will be a loss for truth and accuracy." The British historian David Cesarani has predicted that "the consequences for both parties will be enormous." Headlines around the world have echoed this theme.
As a legal strategy, the apocalyptic warnings are understandable. They rally support for the defense, which has deployed a large team of prominent attorneys and expert witnesses.
And they may remind the trial judge that, if he were to decide in favor of the plaintiff, even on a technicality, he might give aid and comfort to those who have denied that the Holocaust happened.
But raising these alarms has also raised the stakes, giving the trial a significance in the public mind that it does not really warrant.
British libel law gives Mr. Irving advantages in the trial that he would not have in the United States. Here, the burden of truth in a libel case is on the plaintiff, and in an American court Mr. Irving, as a public figure, would have to prove that Ms. Lipstadt's statements had been made with "actual malice" -- with knowledge that they were false or with reckless disregard of the truth. In Britain, where the law values the protection of a person's reputation more than the protection of freedom of speech and press, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Ms. Lipstadt and Penguin will try to prove that her statements were true. This will be a challenge because of Mr. Irving's clever and shifting distortions of Holocaust history.
Given the legal twists, it's conceivable that the judge could decide in favor of Mr. Irving. That's why the public should understand in advance that, while such a finding might say something about the nature of British libel law, it would say nothing at all about the reality of the Holocaust.
Walter Reich, professor of international affairs, ethics and human behavior at George Washington University, is a former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.