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The Atlantic Monthly

Boston (USA), February, 2000

[Verbatim trial transcripts | Radical's Diary Feb 1 | 2 | 3 | 5 | 7 | 8 | 10 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 20 | 24 ]
For a similar article in Spanish by Guttenplan

 [Reader's Reply to this article, May 2000] [Guttenplan's subsequent article in The Nation, May 1, 2000: History and the Holocaust]


The Holocaust on Trial

A controversial British writer, David Irving, has instigated a libel suit against an American historian for calling him "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial." The trial, just beginning in Britain, will almost inevitably be used by some to claim legitimacy for Holocaust "revisionism" -- as if the Holocaust as a historical fact were open to debate

by D. D. Guttenplan

CoverOF all the "lessons" of the Holocaust, Pastor Martin Niemöller's unsparing account of his own complicity in the escalating brutality of life in Nazi Germany is probably the best known. When Americans talk about the Holocaust -- from Vice President Al Gore speaking at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony in Washington, D.C., to the AIDS activist Mary Fisher at the 1992 Republican Convention -- Niemöller's litany of indifference, "but I was not a Jew ...," almost always comes up. It is one of the things everybody knows about the Holocaust, along with the bars of soap made from the fat of murdered Jews, and the gas chambers at Dachau and Belsen.

The problem is, what everybody knows about the Holocaust isn't always true. Although the grisly tale of human beings rendered into soap figured in some of the earliest accounts of events inside Nazi-occupied Europe, it is now universally rejected by historians as a fabrication -- similar to the atrocity stories that were a staple of Allied propaganda during the First World War. The concentration camp at Dachau did have a gas chamber, but it was never used. There were no gas chambers at Belsen.

Nor, as it happens, did the Nazis come first for the Jews. In fact, as Peter Novick explains in his brilliant and provocative new book, The Holocaust in American Life, "First they came for the Communists" -- a circumstance acknowledged by Niemöller, who continued, but I was not a Communist -- so I said nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrats -- so I did nothing. Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist. And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew -- so I did little. Then when they came for me, there was no one left who could stand up for me.

Novick describes Gore, Fisher, and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as "prudently omitting Communists" from their versions of Niemöller's homily. But as Novick makes clear, prudence and political calculation have influenced our knowledge of the Holocaust from the very beginning.

Even the word itself -- from the Greek holos, for "whole," and kaustos, for "burnt" -- is contested. In some circles the Hebrew word Shoah, meaning "destruction," is preferred. The Princeton historian Arno Mayer coined the term "Judeocide" to describe the subject of his controversial study Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? (1988).

For a long time after the war the fate of European Jewry was hardly mentioned, partly because, as the cartoonist Art Spiegelman's father says in Maus, his "survivor's tale" in cartoon format, "No one wants anyway to hear such stories," and partly because in the camps liberated by American GIs -- Dachau and Buchenwald, for example -- only about a fifth of the prisoners were Jews. In Edward R. Murrow's famous 1945 broadcast from Buchenwald the words "Jew" and "Jewish" are never spoken. Deborah Lipstadt, the author of Beyond Belief (1986), a study of American press coverage of the Holocaust at the time, says that even when confronted by the evidence, many correspondents were reluctant to admit "to themselves -- and to their readers" the reality of genocide. Lipstadt attributes a portion of this reluctance to anti-Semitism.

Novick, who teaches history at the University of Chicago, suggests a different reason for postwar American reticence: with the realignment brought about by the Cold War, talk of the Holocaust was positively inimical to U.S. interests. "In 1945," he writes, "Americans had cheered as Soviet forces pounded Berlin into rubble; in 1948, Americans organized the Airlift to defend 'gallant Berliners' from Soviet threat." The accompanying ideological retooling took place at breathtaking speed, but in 1950s America few besides Communists shouted, "Remember the six million!" For most Americans, including American Jews, the Holocaust was "the wrong atrocity" -- mention of it was at best an embarrassment, at worst a cause for suspicion.

Today the Holocaust is ubiquitous. Films such as Schindler's List and Sophie's Choice, television programs, novels, memoirs, and works of history all add to the sum of what we know -- or think we know -- about what Raul Hilberg, the pre-eminent scholar in the field, called "The Destruction of the European Jews." Hilberg's opus by that title was first published in 1961, but only after having been sat on by academic presses at Columbia and the University of Oklahoma, and rejected outright by Princeton, and only after a Czech refugee donated $15,000 toward the cost of publication. The first reviews were mostly hostile, and it would be years before Hilberg won any prizes.

We need merely consider the reception of Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments (1995) to see how much has changed. Decorated with endorsements by famous academics, Fragments won the National Jewish Book Award for autobiography/memoir, beating out works by Elie Wiesel and Alfred Kazin. Even after evidence mounted that "Wilkomirski" was really Bruno Dössekker, a Swiss musician whose account of a childhood in the concentration camps is completely fictional, Fragments continued to attract readers. Such is the public appetite for Holocaust literature.

How did this change come about? Peter Novick mentions various factors: a gradual easing of the Cold War, outbreaks of neo-Nazism in Germany and the United States, the 1952 publication of Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl, later adapted to stage and screen. But the single greatest catalyst, he says, was the kidnapping and trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Here, too, much of the initial response was negative: The New Republic said that Israel should "confess error and hand Eichmann back" to Argentina. The Wall Street Journal worried that the proceedings would only benefit the Russians. But as the trial wore on, the sheer mass of detail evidently overcame such skepticism. The trial was televised, and for the first time the American public was confronted with the Holocaust as an event distinct from the general carnage of war. The controversy over Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) -- Arendt's focus on Eichmann's ordinariness, on what she called "the banality of evil," struck some commentators as overly sympathetic -- further piqued public interest.


NOW, nearly forty years after Eichmann's capture, the Holocaust is once again on trial. This time the venue is London, Courtroom 37 of the Royal Courts of Justice, where for the next few months Charles Gray, a judge of the Queen's Bench, will preside over the matter of David Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd. and Deborah Lipstadt. To Irving, the author of numerous books on the Third Reich, the Holocaust is "an ill-fitting legend." Irving doesn't deny that many Jews died. Instead he denies that any of them were killed in gas chambers, that Hitler directly ordered the annihilation of European Jewry, and that the killings were in any significant way different from the other atrocities of the Second World War. Of course, many right-wing cranks have argued along similar lines. What makes Irving different is that his views on the Holocaust appear in the context of work that has been respected, even admired, by some of the leading historians in Britain and the United States.

In her book Denying the Holocaust (1993), Deborah Lipstadt argues that it is precisely Irving's considerable reputation that makes him "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial." "Familiar with historical evidence," she writes, "he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda."

Irving claims that those words are libelous. He cheerfully admits to having said "There were never any gas chambers at Auschwitz" and "The structures which you can now see as a tourist at Auschwitz were erected by the authorities in Poland after World War Two" and are "a fake." That doesn't make him a Holocaust denier, he argues, because his comments "are true." In effect Irving is seeking to put not just Lipstadt but the Holocaust itself on trial -- an effort in which he will receive considerable help from British libel law.

In the United States the burden of proof in a libel case is on the plaintiff -- and in an American trial, Irving, as a public figure, would have to prove not just that Lipstadt's criticisms were untrue but also that they were made with "knowledge of falsity or with reckless disregard" of the truth. In Britain the burden of proof is on the defendant. It will not be enough for Lipstadt to point out that even historians who "always learn something from" Irving -- among them Gordon Craig, of Stanford, who pays tribute to Irving's "energy as a researcher and to the scope and vigor of his publications" -- find his views on the Holocaust, in Craig's words, "obtuse and quickly discredited." Lipstadt will actually have to discredit them. She will also have to show that the evidence is so clear-cut that only a willful misreading or conscious distortion of the facts could account for Irving's positions. This will not be easy.

Zyklon cansThe problem is not a lack of evidence. The destruction of European Jewry was, in Hilberg's central insight, essentially a bureaucratic process, the result of "a series of administrative measures." In their pursuit of the Endlösung -- the Final Solution to the Jewish question -- the Nazis left all the detritus of any large organization: memoranda, requisition forms, purchase orders, files, and blueprints. Approximately one million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz, for example, and all of them had to be taken there by train from somewhere else, in the middle of a war in which the railways were the lifelines of the German army. The gas to kill them -- Zyklon B -- had to be paid for. And the ovens that disposed of the bodies had to be specially built -- by Topf and Sons, a German firm that patented the design. Finally, for each Stück -- "piece," as the Nazis referred to a Jew -- processed, certain items had to be accounted for: money, jewelry, personal effects, dental gold, hair.

Hilberg's mapping of this bureaucracy fills three volumes, but the essential facts of the Holocaust are contained in a series of tables at the end. "Deaths by Cause," for example, shows that more than 800,000 Jews died as a result of "ghettoization and general privation," more than 1.3 million were killed by "open-air shootings," and up to three million were murdered in camps -- as many as 2.7 million of these in death camps: specialized extermination centers such as Sobibór, Treblinka, and Belzec. By comparison, 150,000 died in other camps, including concentration camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald. In "Deaths by Country," Hilberg's list ranges from the up to three million Jews of Poland to the fewer than 1,000 from Luxembourg, and in "Deaths by Year" he charts the genocide's rise and fall. But in all three tables the total is the same: 5.1 million Jews.

Other historians dispute Hilberg's arithmetic, arguing for a figure closer to six million. Scholars also remain divided on exactly when and why the Nazis shifted from a policy of encouraging Jewish emigration (which saved half of Germany's Jews) to a policy of extermination (which murdered perhaps 90 percent of Greece's Jews). And they argue about the role of the camps in the German economy. David Irving uses these divisions -- just as he uses ambiguities about the Auschwitz complex, where factories run by Siemens and Krupp, an IG Farben plant for making synthetic rubber, and several coal mines all co-existed with Birkenau, a highly specialized killing center where nearly a million people were gassed to death. But his argument is something different.

What David Irving actually believes about the Holocaust remains mysterious. He can appear the soul of reason, eager to concede common ground to his adversaries. "I'm not going to dispute most of what they say about the Holocaust," he told me recently, "most of which -- or ninety percent of which -- I agree with wholeheartedly." But he has also referred to "the absurd legends"of the Holocaust, especially the "myth" of the gas chambers, as a "blood libel on the German people." Irving claims that Hilberg's arithmetic is not just mistaken but off by an order of magnitude, and that Jewish victims of the Nazis number in the hundreds of thousands, not millions. He is, as he told a BBC interviewer, "a gas-chamber denier." Finally, he dismisses evidence refuting his claims as postwar fabrication.

Irving's arguments have a quicksilver quality, and over time he has occupied a number of contradictory positions. But his aim is consistent: "Cutting the Holocaust down to its true size," he said on Australian television in 1996, "makes it comparable with the other crimes of World War Two."

To Deborah Lipstadt, David Irving is "an ardent admirer" of Adolf Hitler who skews documents and misrepresents data "to reach historically untenable conclusions." The sum of his arguments, she says, equals Holocaust denial -- a position that in her view has no more credibility than the claim that the earth is flat. To Irving the label "Holocaust denier" is itself libelous, a tool to silence his inconvenient truths. The two sides have agreed that the issues involved are too complex, the questions of evidence and interpretation too subtle, to be argued in front of a jury. Instead it will be up to Judge Charles Gray to decide who is telling the truth. But the whole world will be watching.

The "Scamp"

DAVID John Cawdell Irving was born on March 24, 1938, the youngest of four children. His father was a naval officer, and in some interviews Irving strives to give an impression of Country Life. "My mother," he says, "was an artist." Then he catches himself. "A commercial artist. She did pen-and-ink drawings for Nursery World." For an Englishman with Irving's keen sense of social distinctions, the difference is considerable. The Irvings lived in Ongar, "the end of the Central Line," a dreary suburb made drearier by a lack of money.

When Irving was four years old, his father's ship, the HMS Edinburgh, was torpedoed by the Germans. His father survived, but never returned to his wife and family. "I saw my father about twice in my whole life,"Irving says. "During the war years we had a motorcar which was up on blocks. It was a Ford, and I remember as a child climbing through the door. Underneath the car I found a battered old board suitcase, which my mother had obviously thrown there, and it was full of a very musty naval uniform, which was beginning to rot."

The war dominated Irving's childhood. "I remember standing on the beach at Southsea," he says, "and watching the invasion fleet sail in June, 1944. My mother said that most of them probably wouldn't be coming home." Sent as a day boy to "a minor public school," Irving was "beaten repeatedly." He says, "The final beating came when I'd hung a twelve-foot hammer-and-sickle flag over the main entrance to the school. They had to call the fire brigade to come and bring it down .... I was a scamp."

A year earlier Irving had won the school prize for art appreciation. The award was a book of his choice -- to be presented by the deputy prime minister. "I filled in the form saying the prize I wanted to receive was Mein Kampf. I arranged for the local press to be there en masse to take a photograph of the deputy prime minister giving me a copy of Mein Kampf. I went up on stage and picked up this prize -- and it was a German-Russian technical dictionary! I've never read Mein Kampf from that day to this."

Irving's desire to shock also got him into trouble at Imperial College, where he'd been given a one-year scholarship. The student magazine "ran a headline in 1956 that I'd said that seventeen percent of London university students were extreme left-wing or Communists," he says. "The figure of seventeen percent was straight off the top of my head. I just picked a prime number." Irving lost his scholarship after failing his math examination -- a failure for which he blames his professor, "a known Communist."

Thyssen steelworker IrvingTo finance his second year of studies, Irving took a job on a concrete gang. He also became fascinated with Oswald Mosley, the former head of the British Union of Fascists, who was running for Parliament. An attempt to join the Royal Air Force was turned down on medical grounds. If Mosley was an odd inspiration for the son of a Second World War veteran, Irving's response to his rejection by the RAF was odder still. He wrote a letter to Krupp, the former Nazi armaments manufacturer, asking for a job in its steel mill. Seized by the Allies after the war, the firm was unable to oblige. But its rival Thyssen, whose owners had fallen out with Hitler after helping him to power, offered Irving a year's work. His fellow steelworkers added a rough-hewn fluency to Irving's high school German; one of them, a native of Dresden, gave him the subject of his first book.

The man had lived through the Allied fire-bombing of the city in February of 1945; his harrowing account of the raid came as a revelation to Irving, who set to work interviewing survivors and combing through German and Allied archival material. Published in 1963, The Destruction of Dresden was an immediate best seller. The book's gruesome photographs of Germans burning their dead, which Irving secured from one of his new contacts, ensured maximum press attention for his claim that the bombing raid had killed 135,000 people -- a figure that was more than twice the official estimates.

"I imported Dresden into the vocabulary of horror," Irving says proudly. "People now say 'Dresden' in the same breath as they say 'Auschwitz' and 'Hiroshima.' That's my small contribution to the vernacular."

In later years Irving's estimates of the Dresden death toll would fall as low as 35,000 and rise as high as 250,000. And in later years he would sometimes make direct comparisons between Dresden and Auschwitz. "About a hundred thousand people died in Auschwitz," he told an interviewer in 1991. "So even if we're generous and say one quarter of them, twenty-five thousand, were killed by hanging or shooting -- twenty-five thousand is a crime, that's true .... But we killed that many people burning them alive in one night, not in three years, in a city like Pforzheim. We killed five times that number in Dresden in one night."

KeitelAt the time, however, The Destruction of Dresden was important to Irving for other reasons. The book's financial success allowed him to abandon efforts to complete his degree. He immediately began work on two more books: a history of the German rocket program and a biography of Adolf Hitler. "I'd translated the memoirs of [Field Marshal] Wilhelm Keitel, who was hanged at Nuremberg," Irving says. "Keitel's son introduced me to Otto Günsche -- the man who burned Hitler's body. He was Hitler's SS adjutant. And Günsche decided he would talk to me, because I was the Englishman who had written about Dresden. That gave me an edge."

Günsche became Irving's passport into "the inner circle of all Hitler devotees, the servants and the adjutants and the colonels and the secondaries, who would meet around the graveside when one of their number died," he says. "And the word was passed: 'He's okay.' And after a while they started producing their diaries and private papers." The result was Hitler's War, published in 1977.

Hitler's WarWriting in Time magazine, Lance Morrow found Irving's portrait of "the Führer as a somewhat harried business executive, too preoccupied to know exactly what was happening in his branch offices at Auschwitz and Treblinka," difficult to credit. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper's review in the London Sunday Times referred to Irving's "consistent bias" but went on to say, "No praise can be too high for Irving's indefatigable scholarly industry.... I have enjoyed reading his long work from beginning to end." The military historian John Keegan called Hitler's War Irving's "greatest achievement ... indispensable to anyone seeking to understand the war in the round." Fueled by such notices, the book reached No. 8 on British best-seller lists.

The only appreciable dent in Irving's public credibility came when the writer Gitta Sereny and the reporter Lewis Chester checked Irving's documents and re-interviewed his sources, including Otto Günsche, on assignment for the Sunday Times. Less than the sum of its parts, their article contained some damaging details -- among them Günsche's admission that "one must assume that [Hitler] did know" about the extermination of the Jews -- but ultimately posed little obstacle to Irving's continued prominence.

One reason for this was the author's focus on the narrow question of Hitler's personal culpability -- doubtless a response to Irving's much-publicized standing offer of $1,000 to anyone who could provide documentary evidence of Hitler's guilt. And because Sereny is a fellow writer on Nazi themes, Irving could -- and does -- simply dismiss her as a jealous competitor. Finally, and perhaps most important, although his account of Hitler's role was hard to swallow (not even Keegan and Trevor-Roper took his behind-Hitler's-back thesis seriously), in 1977 David Irving's views on the Holocaust were fairly unexceptionable. Under "Jews: extermination of," the index to Hitler's War lists seventeen entries. There are references to "the extermination camp at Chelmno" and "the extermination center at Treblinka." And Irving's argument that "the burden of guilt for the bloody and mindless massacre of the Jews rests on a large number of Germans, many of them alive today, and not just on one 'mad dictator,' whose order had to be obeyed without question," while debatable, is not very far from the thesis of Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996), another book whose dismissal by knowledgeable specialists has done little to hinder its success with the public.



Leaflet: Torpedo Running

ANY damage to Irving's reputation was more than recouped by his involvement in the 1983 debacle over the "Hitler diaries," when Newsweek, the London Sunday Times, and the German magazine Der Stern, which had rushed to publish the diaries in a fanfare of publicity, were forced to admit they'd been conned -- or, in the case of Newsweek, which sidestepped the question of the diaries' authenticity, at least deeply embarrassed. Chief among the victims was Hugh Trevor-Roper, ennobled as Lord Dacre, who had authenticated the volumes for the Times. Irving crashed Der Stern's April, 1983, Hamburg press conference [picture above]; his comments casting doubt on the diaries' provenance were repeated on the Today show. It was his finest hour, recalled with glee by his defenders -- most recently Christopher Hitchens, in Vanity Fair, who cited the incident in support of his view that "David Irving is not just a Fascist historian. He is also a great historian of Fascism."

A gratifying example of the amateur besting the academic, this account, which turns up in most profiles of Irving, omits a few details. For one thing, it was Irving who first approached the Times in 1982 with an offer to go to Germany and inspect the diaries for the paper. And although he did denounce the diaries at Der Stern's press conference, so did Trevor-Roper. A week later Irving changed his mind -- a dizzying sequence that shed little light on the fake diaries but generated a great deal of publicity for his The Secret Diaries of Hitler's Doctor, an anodyne collection of notes by the Führer's physician, Theodor Morell, which just happened to be published that week.

Whatever his merits as a historian, as a self-publicist Irving has few peers. Journalists across the political spectrum testify to his unfailing helpfulness, his willingness to make archives, clipping files, and documents available without preconditions. On two occasions I have been left alone in Irving's study for more than an hour. If Irving has anything to hide, it is hidden in plain sight.

Part ii: continued


Boston, February, 2000


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