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Historians at War
By Alexander Chancellor
Alexander Chancellor is a columnist for the Guardian. He is filing from London. Posted Thursday, April 13, 2000
The London court ruling against David Irving in his libel suit against American historian Deborah Lipstadt was described in Ha'aretz of Israel Thursday as "a milestone in the struggle against the denial of the Holocaust."
Irving, the British author of several books about Germany and World War II, sued Lipstadt and her British publisher, Penguin Books, in London for remarks about him in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. She accused him of being one of the most dangerous "Holocaust deniers," a "Hitler partisan" who falsified, misrepresented, and distorted history. Judge Charles Gray, sitting without a jury, went further. Rejecting Irving's libel claim, he branded him a racist, an anti-Semite, and an associate of neo-Nazi extremists who falsified history in order to disprove the existence of the gas chambers and to exonerate Hitler from involvement in the mass murder of Jews.
Ha'aretz said in an editorial that laws and court opinions are not just an expression of social norms, they also determine to a great extent what the norms and accepted truths of society will be. It said, "The things that a learned British judge says 50 years after an event are likely to remain as strong support for arguments against Holocaust denial during the next 50 years." The judgment led the front pages of all the serious British papers Wednesday, with the judge's condemnation of Irving as "racist" appearing in every headline. All the papers emphasized that his reputation as a historian has been utterly destroyed and that he faces bankruptcy since he doesn't have $4 million to pay Lipstadt's and Penguin's legal costs, which were awarded against him.
The Daily Telegraph of London, however, published a sort of defense of Irving by the distinguished military historian John Keegan, who asked: "How can anyone so good at history be so bad?" Keegan's answer was that there are two Irvings,
"There is Irving the researcher and most of Irving the writer, who sticks to the facts and makes eloquent sense of them. Then there is Irving the thinker, who lets insecurities, imagined slights and youthful resentments bubble up from within him to cloud his mind. It is as if he becomes possessed by the desire to shock and confound the respectable ranks of academe, to write the unprintable and to speak the unutterable. Like many who seek to shock, he may not really believe what he says and probably feels astounded when taken seriously."
Keegan, the author of acclaimed books about World Wars I and II, was summoned by Irving (who conducted his own case) to give evidence in court because of complimentary reviews he had written about Irving's work as a military historian. He did so under duress, but his conclusion in his Daily Telegraph article was far more favorable to Irving than the judge's opinion. He has "many of the qualities of the most creative historians," Keegan wrote.
"He is certainly never dull. Prof. Lipstadt, by contrast, seems as dull as only the self-righteously politically correct can be. Few other historians had ever heard of her before this case. Most will not want to hear from her again. Mr Irving, if he will only learn from this case, still has much that is interesting to tell us."
In continental Europe, the Irving judgment was mostly confined to inside pages, except in Italy, where it was fronted in several newspapers. La Repubblica of Rome Wednesday carried an interview with Eric Hobsbawm, a famous British historian of the left. He said the trial had been useless in the sense that it had not been a debate between historians but rather a confrontation between two crusades. "Its outcome will not change the ideas of the neo-Nazis or those of the followers of Lipstadt," he said. "But it was useful in that it brought to light new documents, often unknown to the majority of historians." Hobsbawm, the Emeritus Professor of Economic and Social History at London University, noted that fellow historian Richard Evans, who examined every document produced by Irving on behalf of Lipstadt, was going to write a book about the trial. "After this trial we will have a new book, with new documents, new evidence, and new interpretations," he said. "This is our profession, not that of continuing the wars of religion of the 20th century."