London, Sunday, January 16, 2000
[Click for index to verbatim trial transcripts]
Last battle of Hitler's historians
Neal Ascherson, chronicler of the great events in postwar Europe, spent the past week in court assessing a case that goes to the heart of the last century's worst crime
Sunday January 16, 2000
ARMAGEDDON in Courtroom 37? Some older people on the public benches hope for that. As David Irving begins his libel action against Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust, they sit there with faces stiffened by the memory of pain.
All the same, there are invisible last chances in the room. The first is about handing on truth. It is 55 years this month since Soviet troops entered what was left of Auschwitz: the Nazis had dynamited the gas chambers and the Russians now set fire to the typhus-infested huts. Those who saw what happened there and elsewhere, to Jews and to the other human categories redefined as vermin, are today few and near the end of their lives.
Idealists, like some of those vigilant old people on the public benches, dream that this trial will culminate in a mighty rite of transmission. It will lay out one last time the evidence about what was done in the Holocaust (to how many, by whom, in what manner and why). The young generations will lose the voice of the witnesses. But they will be armed instead with a judgment.
The other last chance, more convincing, is Irving's. For something like 40 years, this strange figure - historian or chronicler or propagandist - has laboured at a single gigantic project which could be called (begging some questions) the rehabilitation of Adolf Hitler. Book after book, lecture after lecture and libel action after libel action, Irving has slogged on with the world's most unpopular historical enterprise. His skill at sniffing out unknown Third Reich documents is a legend. But the way he chooses to interpret them has so far condemned him to failure.
This trial may be his last throw, although he has a similar action pending against this paper. Last week in Court 37, Irving hurled himself at those he regards as his real foes. In the person of Professor Deborah Lipstadt, he is trying to defeat a new generation of Jewish-American intellectuals, who have spread their own version of 'Holocaust Studies' and defined 'Holocaust Denial' as an offence - in some places, as a crime.
The declared purpose of Irving's libel suit is to punish them for calling him a 'Holocaust Denier', and thereby allegedly wrecking his career. Irving accepts that an enormous slaughter of European Jews took place. What he disputes is its scale, circumstances and authorship. He will bring witnesses to 'prove' the Auschwitz gas chambers were mostly mythical. He refuses to accept the killing as 'systematic'. And he insists Hitler didn't know and wouldn't have approved.
But if Irving were to win this case, the impact would be far greater than damages. At the last possible moment, his reputation as a credible historian would be salvaged. His version of Hitler and the Holocaust would be given a degree of plausibility.
A last chance for David Irving in Court 37 - that can be argued. But a last chance for truth and history? Watching last week, I remembered the saying that for establishing what really happened in history an English libel court is the worst place in the world.
That saying emerged, as far as I remember, from one of the most famous, spectacular and (for once) really important libel suits of the last century, the 'Cossacks Trial' of 1989 in which Lord Aldington sued Count Tolstoy. Tolstoy had blamed him for the handover of 70,000 anti-Soviet Russian soldiers to Stalin's vengeance at the end of the last war.
Aldington won: the jury awarded him £1.5 million damages. But in the process the trial churned the business of historical inquiry into a sort of Passchendaele of fear and confusion. The jury found that Aldington was not to blame but the trial actually made it far harder to find out who was really responsible for the only serious war crime committed by the British Army in World War II.
The judge lopes in with a sort of athletic impatience, and as we rise I recognise in Mr Justice Gray that Charles Gray QC who was Aldington's barrister 11 years ago. And here - ironic, relentless - comes Richard Rampton QC, counsel for Lipstadt and Penguin Books. He fits his wig on, and reveals himself as the man who was Count Tolstoy's advocate and Charles Gray's duelling opponent.
Well, there. Both men did their best for their clients, and neither is to blame for the way that trial reduced history to toxic sludge. But the tale of the Jewish Holocaust, the worst deliberate act in modern European history, is like the Cossack tragedy in two ways: it is neither entirely simple nor entirely known.
There are areas piled high with documentation - passenger lists, death lists, crematorium blueprints. But there are also huge gaps. How many died? We are less certain about that than 20 years ago. Did Hitler know, did he order it? I am certain he did. But the signed directive, even the secondary letter or phone note confirming this, has never been found. What chance is there that this trial in London will clear up mysteries and bring clarity rather than thicken the fog?
It's unfair to say an English libel trial is not about truth. It has something to do with proof, after all. But above all it is about people. It is about the personalities of libel litigants, the way they can be made to seem liars and cheats or selfless victims, their breaking-strain under interrogation, their motives for suing. This trial is unusual. Given the wall-stacks of documents, largely in German, the parties agreed that a jury would be overwhelmed, So Mr Justice Gray will decide verdict, costs and any damages on his own, without even a pair of lay judges or assessors to help him.
And David Irving has no lawyer. He is conducting his own case. This is impressive, but it means the judge has to make allowances for any amateurism and make sure Irving knows his rights. As for Lipstadt, she has decided not to testify. She sits quietly in the front row, busy with her laptop, looking unhappy.
All week, Irving has been defending his reputation, while Richard Rampton seeks to prove he is a liar and distorter. Irving, at bay, hunches giant blue-suited shoulders around his ears, his eyes glittering like a badger's. Fragments of history are snatched out of context, dried, treated and used as firelighters to scorch an adversary.
We spend hours on the timing of a scribbled Himmler phone-note about how a transport of Berlin Jews should be treated in Riga, on a bugged conversation between captured SS men in London about whether somebody said he had an order from Hitler to kill Latvian Jews, on the meanings of words such as Vernichtung (destruction) or Judentum (Jewry).
The civilised voices fence on. But they drop names too, and the shadows of human beings flit across Court 37: SS monsters from the pit such as Odilo Globocnik and Dieter Wisliceny. Or the unnamed human reality of that Judentransport steaming from Berlin towards death in Riga (whose grandfathers, whose maiden aunts?).
Once, in a bout with Rampton over whether the Führer had ordered the extermination of the Jews, David Irving reminded him that no signed order had been found. That, said Rampton, was just negative evidence. Noisily, Irving retorted: 'I have to remind you of the basic principle of English law that a man is innocent until he is proved guilty: am I right?'
And at that second there was a tiny stillness in Court 37. We were talking about Adolf Hitler.
Sunday, January 16, 2000