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The Atlantic Monthly

February, 2000

The Holocaust on Trial

[continued, part ii]



LipstadtThe Defendant

DEBORAH Lipstadt has a bad back. Her condition, she knows, hasn't been helped by the amount of time she's had to spend sleeping on airplanes between her home in Atlanta, where she is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, and her lawyer's office in London. But as we sit talking in the coffee shop attached to her London hotel, she also gives the impression of being metaphysically wrenched out of her orbit.

"I'd much rather be hanging out in the fall foliage in Georgia, hiking the Appalachian trail," she says. The author of two books, and a veteran of hundreds of interviews and dozens of television appearances, Lipstadt is perfectly at ease with the press, slipping on and off the record with the agility of a politician. A large woman with reddish-brown hair, strong features, and a gravelly New Yorker's voice (think Bette Midler rather than Bess Myerson), she describes herself as "always fighting." She says, "I'm a great dinner-party guest if you want a lively dinner party. If you want peace and quiet, don't invite me."

But Irving v. Lipstadt is no dinner party, and Lipstadt is not in London to see the sights. "Hello! I'm the defendant here," she says. "If I hadn't fought this, he would have won by default. He could have said -- it would have been said -- the High Court in London recognizes his definition of the Holocaust. Now, some people would say, 'Oh, that's ludicrous. Who would believe that anyway?' But it's naive to think you can just say, 'I'm going to ignore this.'"

Deborah Lipstadt was not brought up to be naive -- or to walk away from a fight. Her father came to the United States from Germany in the 1920s. "Because of the economic situation -- nothing to do with anti-Semitism," she offers before being asked. Her mother was born in Canada. Lipstadt herself was born in Manhattan, in 1947, but the family moved to Queens soon afterward. "I went to Jewish day schools there," she says, "and got an intensive Jewish education, both at home and in school."

The Lipstadts considered themselves "modern Orthodox" -- partly to distinguish themselves from the black-hatted, caftan-wearing Hasidim, and partly to signify that although they observed Jewish dietary laws and regulated their lives by the Hebrew rather than the secular calendar, they did not set their faces against modern life. "We were very much of this world," Lipstadt says. "Theater, opera, books, journals, museums."

Lipstadt grew up in a mixed neighborhood, but her interactions with non-Jews were limited. "When you're an observant family, you go to day schools, you keep kosher -- just technically you march to the beat of a different drummer," she says. Class may also have been a factor. The comfortable, parochial, culturally voracious, slightly smug yet socially conscious world of German Jews is difficult to convey to outsiders, though the fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer provides a wry introduction.

After her family moved back to Manhattan, in the mid-1960s, Lipstadt says, Singer lived next door. But she is just as proud of the fact that the civil-rights worker Andy Goodman's family also lived on her street. When Goodman's body was found in Mississippi, along with those of his murdered comrades, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, Lipstadt's father, who had a small headstone business, was commissioned to make his monument. "In the summer of the freedom rides," Lipstadt says, "I was too young to go down to the South, but I knew that if I had been older, I would have. I remember going with my mother -- this was 1964 or 1965 -- up to Harlem on a Sunday to participate in a march. It was my mother's idea."

At City College, Lipstadt says ruefully, she was part of "the last generation where you could get a really good education." She majored in political science and history, spending her junior year in Israel. "I took a couple of courses on the Holocaust, met more survivors than I'd met before," she says. "Though I'd met survivors growing up, I didn't know they were survivors. My parents had lots of German Jewish friends, but I didn't know them as survivors, I just knew them as the Peisers or the Ullmans."

Just as the academic year was ending, the Six-Day War broke out. Lipstadt decided to remain in Israel another year: "If I'd been there in June of '67, to go home in July '67 made no sense." When she returned to America, she enrolled in the graduate program in Judaic studies at Brandeis. Her priorities were shifting.

"I remember showing up at the synagogue my parents went to on the Upper West Side," she says, "wearing my SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] button, and somebody yelling at me, 'They're leftists, anti-Semites, and terrible people!' I went berserk!"

Like many other Jews of her generation, Lipstadt felt herself pushed from civil rights to Jewish causes by the bitter 1968 struggle between the mostly black parents of Ocean Hill and Brownsville in Brooklyn and the largely Jewish teachers' union over community control of the schools. Neither side had a monopoly on racism -- and there were Jews on both sides of the picket lines once the union went out on strike rather than cede power to the parents. But what Lipstadt saw was "overt anti-Semitism coming from people whose struggle you had always thought ... cut to the core of America."

Despite her upbringing, Lipstadt describes herself as "not Orthodox." The exclusion of even the mention of women from so much of Orthodox ritual disturbs her. "I want them to at least acknowledge that you're only talking about the men. Because if the rabbi stands up and says, 'We need as many people as possible to come tomorrow morning,' I'll come." But her discomfort with organized religion -- "I'm equally unhappy in any synagogue I go to," she says, half joking -- does not extend to estrangement from organized Judaism. "So much of my personal life is tied up with being Jewish. Being a Jew and being Jewish, culturally, religiously, intellectually -- it's what I know best."

"A Paper Eichmann"

WHEN David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt come face to face in a London courtroom, it will not be their first meeting. That took place in November of 1994, in Atlanta, when Irving turned up at a talk Lipstadt was giving on the danger of legitimizing Holocaust deniers as "the other side" in some historical debate -- a theme of Denying the Holocaust, which had been published the previous year. Irving described the encounter in his diary, which he later posted on his Web site.

I then politely put up my hand. Invited to speak, I boomed in my very English, very loud voice to her: "Professor Lipstadt, I am right in believing you are not a historian, you are a professor of religion?" She answered that she was a professor of religion but (something special else) in history too. I then waded in with verbal fists flying: "I am the David Irving to whom you have made such disparaging reference in your speech.... " Brandishing a wad of $20 bills, Irving repeated his standing offer. Lipstadt attempted to take other questions, but, in Irving's account, "several times I wagged the bundle of $20 bills aloft, as she was speaking, and hissed: 'One thousand dollars ... !'" Irving's diary goes on to recount his success in giving away free copies of his books to the students in attendance, who duly lined up afterward for his autograph: "Sweet victory. Then students came to me with copies of the printed invitation to autograph: I did so -- they were blank, which meant that either they had not asked Lipstadt for her autograph, or she would have to sign after me. Total Victory! Revenge!"

Three observations immediately suggest themselves: 1) by November of 1994 Irving was clearly aware that Lipstadt had repeatedly and publicly attacked his work; 2) Denying the Holocaust had come out in Britain in 1994, yet 3) far from seeming aggrieved or on the point of seeking redress in a court of law, Irving showed every sign of enjoying playing the "scamp" in his jousts with Lipstadt, and clearly felt that in this contest the advantage was his.

David Irving didn't file suit for libel until September of 1996. The previous spring St. Martin's Press had canceled the publication of his Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich. Given Irving's history, available to anyone with a modem or a library card, a certain amount of controversy was to be expected, perhaps even courted. So when Publishers Weekly pronounced Irving's book "repellent," and Jewish organizations expressed outrage, and Deborah Lipstadt was quoted as saying that St. Martin's Press would hardly sign up the Louisiana white supremacist David Duke for a book on race relations, St. Martin's stood firm. For about two weeks.

Sometime between the March 22 Daily News report headlined "NAZI BIG'S BIO AUTHOR SPARKS UPROAR" and Frank Rich's April 3 New York Times column calling Irving "Hitler's Spin Artist," Irving's publishers lost their nerve and announced that they were shocked -- shocked! -- to discover that the book they were on the brink of shipping to stores had suddenly become unpublishable.

The principal effect of this decision, as Christopher Hitchens properly pointed out in a caustic résumé of the scandal in the June, 1996, Vanity Fair, was to transform a man with "depraved ideas" about the Holocaust into a poster boy for free speech. One ancillary effect was to lend the Goebbels book the cachet of suppressed literature. Another was to give rise to Gordon Craig's lofty declaration, in the course of a four-page review of the biography in The New York Review of Books, that "silencing Mr. Irving would be a high price to pay for freedom from the annoyance that he causes us." Craig continued, "The fact is that he knows more about National Socialism than most professional scholars in his field, and students of the years 1933-1945 owe more than they are always willing to admit" to his research. "Such people as David Irving ... have an indispensable part in the historical enterprise, and we dare not disregard their views."

"We dare not." If Craig is right, then we are all -- all of us with a stake in "the historical enterprise" -- injured parties, deprived of Irving's unique contribution. But what if he's wrong? What if Irving's work is meretricious, sloppy, anti-Semitic, and dishonest? The question has a familiar ring.

In the late 1970s French intellectuals were convulsed over l'affaire Faurisson, which began when Robert Faurisson, a professor of literature at the University of Lyons, published an article in Le Monde proclaiming the "good news" that the gas chambers did not exist. "The alleged Hitlerian gas chambers," Faurisson said, "and the so-called genocide of the Jews form a single historical lie whose principal beneficiaries are the State of Israel and international Zionism and whose principal victims are the German people, but not its leaders, and the Palestinian people in its entirety."

Faurisson's public supporters were found mostly on the far left of French politics -- which is what gave the affair its frisson. When the linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky lent his name to campaigners defending Faurisson's freedom of expression, the controversy became a trans-Atlantic one. There is, Christopher Hitchens once argued, "no obligation, in defending or asserting the right to speak, to pass any comment on the truth or merit of what may be, or is being, said." Indeed, the suggestion of something rank about a speaker's views, as Hitchens gently reminded Chomsky, merely gives those who would defend his right to speak "all the more reason not to speculate" about those views. Hitchens wrote those words fifteen years ago -- about five years after he'd done me the first in a long string of kindnesses, still unbroken. So I take no pleasure in pointing out that his first mistake in l'affaire Irving was to ignore his own sound advice, by describing Irving as "a great historian of Fascism."

His second mistake -- and here he had lots of company -- was to assume that what Irving really wanted was a debate with his critics. Because if that were Irving's objective, all he would have had to do was bide his time. "Someone," Hitchens asserted confidently, "will no doubt pick up where St. Martin's left off."

What Irving did instead was to sue Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, for libel in England (where Lipstadt's costs will amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds even if she wins). At which point it became rather more difficult to defend the proposition that what was at stake was Irving's freedom of speech.

It is one thing to argue that the cowardly reversal of St. Martin's did more harm -- to the cause of free debate and to public understanding of the Holocaust -- than if St. Martin's had simply published and let Irving be damned. It is another to maintain that any commercial publisher is under any obligation to publish Irving or anybody else.

The essential distinction -- between the power of the state and the decisions of the market -- can be pressed too far. And when Lipstadt argues, as she does in Denying the Holocaust, that "the main shortcoming of legal restraints is that they transform the deniers into martyrs," she seems to be setting aside the state's power to silence offending views on tactical grounds alone, rather than as a matter of principle. Faurisson's chief antagonist, the French classicist Pierre Vidal-Naquet, took a different view: "To live with Faurisson? Any other attitude would imply that we were imposing historical truth as legal truth, which is a dangerous attitude available to other fields of application."

A writer whose history of engagement extends from opposing his government's use of torture in Algeria to support for the rights of Palestinians, Vidal-Naquet was in many ways Chomsky's French counterpart. However, perhaps because both his parents had been deported by the Nazis (his mother died at Auschwitz), Vidal-Naquet felt it was just as important to expose Faurisson's distortions as it was to support his right to distort. His skepticism about the role of the state finds no echo in Lipstadt -- unlike his argument against "debating" the Holocaust.

Vidal-Naquet wrote, Confronting an actual Eichmann, one had to resort to armed struggle and, if need be, to ruse. Confronting a paper Eichmann, one should respond with paper.... In so doing, we are not placing ourselves on the same ground as our enemy. We do not "debate" him; we demonstrate the mechanisms of his lies and falsifications, which may be methodologically useful for the younger generations. We need only set this passage from Assassins of Memory, Vidal-Naquet's elegant, restrained, yet devastating response to Faurisson, beside a similar passage from Denying the Holocaust to see the extent of Lipstadt's indebtedness. Not ignoring the deniers does not mean engaging them in discussion or debate. In fact, it means not doing that. We cannot debate them for two reasons, one strategic and the other tactical. As we have repeatedly seen, the deniers long to be considered the "other" side. Engaging them in discussion makes them exactly that. Second, they are contemptuous of the very tools that shape any honest debate: truth and reason. Debating them would be like trying to nail a glob of jelly to the wall. "Like trying to nail a glob of jelly ..." Though she relies on his arguments, Deborah Lipstadt is no Vidal-Naquet. She lacks his intellectual breadth, his clarity of thought and expression, and, most regrettably, his stature as a Jew who has never confined his political engagement to Jewish causes. Nevertheless, her book is an honest attempt to sound a warning about a phenomenon that Vidal-Naquet would be the first to agree deserves our attention. Robert Faurisson, after all, was a nonentity, an obscure professor in a provincial university. David Irving is a celebrity -- William Casey, the former director of the CIA, once wrote him a fan letter. Irving is also much, much cleverer than Faurisson.

Faurisson, Leuchter and (rear) Zündel

Faurisson, Leuchter and (rear) Zündel

"Not My Patch"

IRVING describes himself as a "revisionist," a writer of "real history," not a Holocaust denier. Not long ago he read me an account, from one of his lectures, of the brutal massacre of Jewish men, women, and children by the Einsatzgruppen -- the security-police units who followed the German army into Poland. "How can they claim I deny the Holocaust?" Anyway, he said, he's no expert on the Holocaust: "Not my patch." Besides, the subject bores him.

It was as an expert on German documents and the Second World War that Irving flew to Toronto in 1988 to testify in the trial of Ernst Zündel. A German immigrant to Canada, Zündel supplemented his income as a commercial artist by distributing a selection of neo-Nazi and racist literature, including two works of his own: UFOs: Nazi Secret Weapons and The Hitler We Loved and Why. In 1983 Zündel had been charged with willfully publishing "false news" that was "likely to cause injury or mischief to a public interest." Faurisson came from France to testify for the defense; Raul Hilberg testified for the prosecution. Though Zündel was convicted and sentenced to fifteen months in prison, the conviction was overturned on appeal, and in the 1988 retrial the defense team added two reinforcements.

One was David Irving. The other was Fred Leuchter, who was billed as an engineer specializing in the design and operation of execution apparatus. Engaged by Faurisson on Zündel's behalf, Leuchter had flown to Poland with a cameraman, a draftsman, and a translator. The group spent three days at Auschwitz and Birkenau and one at Majdanek, chipping off bits of brick and concrete from a number of buildings. These "forensic samples," as Leuchter described them, were taken to a lab outside of Boston, where the technician was told that the material was from a workmen's-compensation case.

Leuchteer ReportUnder questioning by the Crown Counsel it emerged that Leuchter's engineering training consisted of a few undergraduate science courses. His "report" purporting to demonstrate the nonexistence of gas chambers, on which the defense had spent nearly $50,000, was ruled inadmissible. Leuchter was allowed to give his opinion that it was "impossible" for the structures he had seen in Poland to have been used as gas chambers, that they "wouldn't have been efficient" and were "too dangerous," but the second jury was not convinced either. Zündel was again found guilty, though this conviction was overturned in 1992, when Canada's "false news" law was ruled unconstitutional.

Leuchter did acquire at least one convert. For David Irving, who followed him to the witness stand, Leuchter's account of his Polish field trip apparently struck with the force of a revelation. "My mind has now changed," he told the court, "... because I understand that the whole of the Holocaust mythology is, after all, open to doubt." Back in London, Irving's Focal Point Publications issued the results of Leuchter's amateur chemistry experiment as a sixty-six-page booklet -- with an introduction by David Irving. Irving also removed all mention of gas chambers -- except for a single reference to "lurid rumors" -- from the most recent edition of Hitler's War. "If something didn't happen," he said, "then you don't even dignify it with a footnote."

Leuchter, a pathetic character who seems to be fascinated with the mechanics of killing people, is the star of Mr. Death, the new film by the investigative documentarian Errol Morris, the director of The Thin Blue Line. Morris's camera casts an unflinching eye on his star's many shortcomings. Morris also shows that some of Leuchter's "samples" may have come from structures rebuilt after the war, and he tracks down the lab technician who analyzed these samples. The technician explains that because he wasn't told what the material was for, he simply ground everything up -- diluting many thousands of times any traces of cyanide that might have been on the surface. "I don't think the Leuchter results have any meaning," he told Morris.

Irving appears in the film, and audiences may well find themselves wondering how a man who proclaims himself an expert at detecting forged documents -- and who dismisses the countless eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust by those who survived as "really a matter for psychiatric evaluation" -- could have been so easily gulled.

How significant was Irving's conversion? Holocaust denial has been at the center of trials in Austria, Germany, France, and Canada. Some were criminal proceedings, and some, like the Zündel trial, began when survivors filed civil complaints. But in every one of those trials it has been the deniers who have had to defend themselves. When David Irving walks into Courtroom 37, it will be as the plaintiff, with the scales of British justice tipped in his favor. The defendant in this case is Deborah Lipstadt.

Part iii: continued




Boston, February, 2000


Courtesy links: Professor Evans' witness report • click to download download


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