April 18, 2000
Peculiar Yet Brave
by George Szamuely
There is one issue that remains to be settled in the David Irving vs. Deborah Lipstadt libel case. What exactly is a "Holocaust denier"? Mr. Justice Gray ruled last week that David Irving is a "Holocaust denier." This despite the fact that, according to the learned judge, Irving accepts "that from about June 1941 when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union many thousands of Jews and others in the East were shot and killed by Nazi soldiers"; "that from the end of 1941 onwards, thousands of Jews were killed by gassing."
Irving, moreover, accepts "that in a period of about five weeks in 1942, 97,000 were killed at Chelmno by the use of gas vans," and does not dispute that "hundreds of thousands of Jews were intentionally killed, by some means or another, at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka." In a recent interview, Irving said that four million Jews may have died in the Holocaust.
So what makes one a "Holocaust denier"? According to Prof. Richard Evans, who testified on behalf of Lipstadt, Holocaust deniers argue that Jews were not killed in gas chambers or at least not on any significant scale; that the Nazis made no systematic attempt to exterminate European Jewry; that the number of Jews murdered was far less than usually assumed; that the Holocaust is a myth invented during the war by Allied propagandists and sustained after the war by Jews in order to obtain financial support for the newly created state of Israel. In other words, any departure from conventional historical judgments renders one vulnerable to the "Holocaust denial" charge.
If Irving is indeed a "Holocaust denier," then he is a very peculiar one. Mr. Justice Gray acknowledged that Irving readily makes his research available to other historians. He footnotes meticulously, and thereby opens himself to easy refutation. It was Irving, moreover, who brought the lawsuit, knowing that he would be forced to debate publicly some of the leading scholars in the field of Holocaust studies. According to Lipstadt's defense team, Irving "in denying that the Holocaust happened, has misstated evidence; misquoted sources; falsified statistics; misconstrued information and bent historical evidence so that it conforms to his neo-fascist political agenda and ideological beliefs." Yet it seems unlikely that a man with a "political agenda" who knowingly "misquotes" and "falsifies" would seek out a confrontation with experts who would easily make him look a fool.
Irving has a knack for raising interesting issues. Though he lost the case, he held his own against scholars of international repute. Twenty years ago, if memory serves, he issued a challenge to all historians to find one document that shows Hitler issuing an order for the implementation of the Final Solution. No one has yet discovered such a document. According to conventional wisdom among historians, no such paper exists because Hitler wanted the Holocaust kept secret. That is why even in personal conversations he never referred directly to the genocide, always preferring to use euphemisms. That may well be so. But it is still a mystery why he would do that. If Germany wins the war, who cares what happened to the Jews? If Germany loses the war, Hitler was under no illusion as to his fate.
Irving has highlighted more than anyone else how much knowledge of the Holocaust is dependent on the testimony of survivors, and hardly at all on documentation. It means that one of the most horrifying events of this century is also the most baffling. Even Mr. Justice Gray declared that "[Irving] is right to point out that the contemporaneous documents, such as drawings, plans, correspondence with contractors and the like, yield little clear evidence of the existence of gas chambers designed to kill humans. Such isolated references to the use of gas as are to be found amongst these documents can be explained by the need to fumigate clothes so as to reduce the incidence of diseases such as typhus. The quantities of Zyklon-B delivered to the camp may arguably be explained by the need to fumigate clothes and other objects."
Yet according to Lipstadt -- and Mr. Justice Gray -- Irving is a "Holocaust denier." He denies that there was a "deliberate planned extermination of Europe's Jewish population by the Nazis, and [has] denied that gas chambers were used by the Nazis as a means of carrying out that extermination." But does it really matter if the mass murder of the Jews was "deliberate" and "planned" or "spontaneous"? Would it have been "better" if the genocide had been carried out on an ad-hoc basis? Was the mass murder of the Poles "spontaneous" or "planned"? How about the Russians? Or the Gypsies?
This was why much of the debate between Irving and the defense during the trial was so tedious. There was Irving arguing that there were no documents in the Nazi archives that made reference to the commissioning, construction or operation of the gas chambers for extermination purposes. Then he would go on about the remains of the roof of morgue 1 at crematorium 2 at Auschwitz to show that there were no chimneys there through which the Zyklon-B pellets could be dropped into the morgue below. Therefore, they could not have been used as gas chambers. The defense countered that the Holocaust was carried out in great secrecy. And, as for the roof, it was in such bad shape that one could not tell whether there were chimneys there or not.
It is time we stopped drawing up a hierarchy of victims. The Second World War was a terrible affair all round. Mass murder was suddenly the norm. Today many Americans know nothing else about the war other than the Holocaust. To see the horrors perpetrated against the Jews as part of a much larger barbarity that suddenly took hold of much of the world is not to "deny" the Holocaust. David Irving is peculiar, perverse and almost certainly wrongheaded. Yet he challenges contemporary pieties. There aren't too many people who do that.
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New York Press, April 18, 2000