Washington, Thursday, April 6, 2000
Historians Fight Battle of the Books
by T.R. Reid,
LONDON--The emotional and engrossing legal battle playing out here this spring was initially billed as "the Holocaust on trial." In fact, it has turned out to be "history on trial," as the litigants argue over what historians should be allowed to write about World War II and about each other.
At one end of courtroom 37 in the Royal Courts of Justice sat Deborah Lipstadt, the American scholar who coined the term "Holocaust denier" and who has made it her mission to combat the contention that the Holocaust did not happen.
At the other end stood David Irving, a maverick British historian whose unconventional books on World War II were once put out by leading publishers and praised by prominent historians, but who has now been reduced to giving his work away on the Internet.
Taking advantage of Britain's plaintiff-friendly libel laws, Irving sued Lipstadt for describing him as "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial." Irving says that description ruined his career, causing publishers to spurn his work and costing him hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost book royalties. A verdict is expected next week, and if Irving wins, he could seek monetary damages and the court could ban publication of Lipstadt's books in Britain.
The case, with some of the world's leading World War II historians in the witness box, was initially expected to put the fact of the Holocaust itself on trial. But Irving scotched that issue in his opening statement. "No person . . . can deny that the tragedy actually happened," he said, "however much we dissident historians may wish to quibble about the means, the scale, the dates and other minutiae."
Instead, the courtroom battle dealt mainly with why Irving and his books are now so vilified. Is it because Irving is "a liar . . . a racist and a rabid antisemite," as Lipstadt's lawyer argued? Or is it, as Irving sees the issue, because "an international conspiracy" determined that "there is a single politically correct view of that war, and no historian will be allowed to challenge it."
There's no question that Irving, in more than a dozen books on the German high command, broke with conventional interpretations. In essence, he offers a defense of Adolf Hitler, portraying the Nazi dictator as a rational but over-stretched war leader who did not know until late 1943 that his subordinates were involved in the mass murder of Jews.
In one of the more stunning moments of the trial, Irving argued that no one has ever found a signed order from Hitler calling for the extermination of Jews. Turning toward the transfixed spectators, he said: "I have to remind you of a basic principle of English law -- that a man is innocent until he is proved guilty."
Irving does not stop there. He maintains that Anne Frank's diary is "a romantic novel rather like 'Gone With the Wind.' " He says the number of Jews killed by the Nazis was "far smaller" than the widely accepted figure of 6 million; in an interview, Irving said the number was "of the order of 1 million." He says that most of the victims died of disease or were shot to death, and "there was no industry-scale gassing of Jews."
Finally, Irving fills his books with comparisons that Lipstadt calls "immoral equivalencies." He denies that the Jews suffered uniquely in World War II. He compares the Nazi killing of Jews to the Allies' killing of German civilians in bombing raids. He argues that the word "holocaust" should be used to describe the Allied bombing of Dresden.
Years ago, Irving received respectful attention for his research from some mainstream historians. John Keegan, Britain's leading military historian, described Irving's 1977 book "Hitler's War" as "a key corrective to the Anglo-Saxon version" and "indispensable," even though Keegan considered its conclusions to be "perverse."
But over time, Irving became increasingly isolated. He was convicted of violating Germany's Holocaust-denial laws and barred from several countries. Publishers dropped his books and backed out of contracts for new ones.
Irving concluded that these sanctions were the work of a conspiracy, at the heart of which was Lipstadt, a professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. In her 1993 book "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory," she described Irving as "a Hitler partisan" who "bends the historical evidence" to support pro-Nazi views.
Lipstadt's book became a central element of contemporary Holocaust studies, and publishers worldwide brought out local editions. Penguin Books published a British edition in 1995.
That gave Irving the opportunity he wanted -- to sue Lipstadt in a British court. To prevail in a libel case in the United States, Irving would have had to prove that Lipstadt was factually wrong and that she was motivated by malice against him. In Britain, a libel defendant has the burden of proof. That is, it is up to Lipstadt and Penguin to establish that Irving has denied the Holocaust and twisted historical evidence.
The case is so complex that both sides agreed to forgo a jury. The verdict and the amount of damages, if any, will be left to the presiding judge, Charles Gray, a former libel lawyer and a pillar of the legal establishment. Lipstadt is being defended by Richard Rampton, another star of the libel bar. Irving has represented himself -- partly, he says, because he cannot afford a lawyer and partly because "it is better to have a good historian on this case, even if he's a bad lawyer." The result has been a trial studded with long lectures, angry exchanges and bitter insults -- with Gray, in his periwig, black robe and red vest, growing increasingly vexed in the midst of it all. At one point, Irving looked out from the mountain of books, photos, maps and binders at his end of the courtroom and launched into a long exegesis on the ballpoint-pen markings found in the manuscript of Anne Frank's diary. Rampton stood up and complained: "Really, my lord, I really do think this is becoming the most frightful waste of time."
"Well," Gray responded, "at least this one is relevant."
For all the tedium, the two litigants appeared to be in their element. Lipstadt, a lively 52-year-old New Yorker, sat at the defense table with two laptops -- one loaded with evidentiary records she kept giving her lawyer and one for the book she is writing about the trial. "I would have loved to go in the witness box myself and take him on," she said, but "all the legal advice was against it. The hardest part for me was keeping silent." Irving, 62, enjoyed his lonely courtroom struggle. "You have the great relish of looking like David against Goliath," he said.
Even if Irving wins, it's difficult to imagine that any trial result could make up for the losses he has sustained in recent years. His books once earned him more than $100,000 a year, he says; now they are free on his Web site. His only invitations to lecture come from neo-Nazi and far-right groups. His twin brother changed his name to avoid the "Irving" taint.
Lipstadt says that regardless of the result she is sure she was right to fight the suit. "Oh, a lot of people told me to settle and get it over with," she says. "But what's in the settlement? How many gas chambers would you like me to settle for? What number of Jews killed should I agree to in the letter of apology? You have to stand up for the truth of what happened."
Thursday, April 6, 2000