London, Thursday April 20, 2000
Overwhelmed by evidence
David Irving was the Holocaust deniers' best shot. However discredited he has long been among professional historians, he puts on a good show of his Nazi learning. He may even have deserved the praise as a military specialist bestowed on him by Mr Justice Gray last week as the sucker punch before his devastating depiction of Irving as a racist, anti-semite and - this was the nub of the case - a deliberate falsifier of the evidence. The Holocaust has been paraded through the law courts before, as if the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis were like some recidivist, forever to be called back before the bench.
Long court cases, involving much of the Irving "evidence", have unfolded in Canada, France and Britain. But Irving is the best of this bunch, the "face" for those purulent haters behind the websites and the seamy pamphlets. The deniers will not give up. Irving demonstrated his intellectual disreputability by claiming to have learnt nothing, despite that stupendous parade of evidence. Neither accumulating scholarship nor judicial decisions will weaken an idea as fixed as this one. But never again will the deniers' claims to standing have even the sliver of credibility that attached to Irving before he took action against Professor Deborah Lipstadt.
The High Court has established no claim to epistemological superiority: it was the convincing evidence presented in court that made the judge's conclusion right. Besides, the English law of defamation remains an ass. The defendants in Irving's action had to scramble to prove the truth of large historical contentions. The judge in this case won admirers, but the absence of a jury still raises hard questions about Britons' alleged incapacity to assess evidence and ascertain truth. Would ordinary people empanelled in a jury really have found it impossible to see through Irving?
The most compelling lesson of this marathon legal affair is that truth is no shining city on a hill. It has to be worked at; the credibility of those who claim to express it is critical. Even a casual reader of the case reports could quickly see how painstaking genuine historical scholarship is; it builds detail upon detail, avoiding casual inference and thin deduction. Eventually, a plausible narrative is pieced together, but even then it has to withstand the slings and arrows of competitive scholars. And the Holocaust is now hot history.
Due, in part, to the persistence of the deniers, academic effort has been redoubled. Among the many Irving assertions to be demolished was the suggestion that thought police prevent open challenge to received historical wisdom. It is precisely because of the historians' efforts from the early 50s that there is now no room for doubt, despite the false trails left by a Nazi bureaucracy as assiduous about destroying the signs of its crimes as realising the Final Solution. Other jurisdictions make denying the Holocaust a crime. After this case, empiricism and the weight of evidence can be relied on.
Comment: The Guardian Newspapers Ltd are of course a defendant in the next libel action being brought by Mr Irving, and have every reason to vilify him while they still can.
April 20, 2000