London, April 21, 2000
The downfall of David Irving
Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism have had their day in court
by DAN JACOBSON
How wretched to be an anti-Semite! That was perhaps the most unexpected thought that occurred to me during my intermittent attendance in Court 73, the Royal Courts of Justice, where the unsuccessful libel action brought by David Irving against Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt was being heard.
True, David Irving was the only person there who was directly accused (by the defence counsel) of anti-Semitism: a charge which he denied and which Mr Justice Gray emphatically upheld in giving judgment. About Irving's groupies, who came and went silently, one can only speculate. Most of them were male, thickset and suede-headed; there was also a woman in a beige trouser suit and high heels, with a carefully made-up face and an elaborate coif of dyed blond hair, who attended more persistently than most and sat as worshipfully close to him as she could get. Of the meagre supply of witnesses -- three in all, I think -- who had volunteered to give evidence on his behalf, only one appeared in court, a thin-necked, dwindle-chinned, tousle-haired associate professor (Kevin Macdonald) from Long Beach California, with eyes cast self-consciously downwards as he mounted the stand: an "evolutionary psychologist", with a small, dull mind possessed by a large, dud idea. Once upon a time, people of a certain sort talked of the Jewish-Bolshevik-capitalist plot to rule the world; in later years, the Soviet propaganda machine railed at "Zionist American" conspiracies against the progressive forces represented by the Communist bloc. Now this witness, who as an evolutionary psychologist cannot possibly be suspected of harbouring anti-Semitic sentiments, is ready to put forward his views (so far as the judge would let him; which wasn't far at all) about how Judaism should be conceptualised as a group evolutionary strategy leading to resource and reproductive competition with host Gentile societies and hence to division and hatred within the society. With Jewish self-interest, deception and self-deception within the areas of Jewish historiography thrown in.
Now imagine being a person whose head buzzes with such notions. Imagine writing the books in which he develops these ideas. Imagine coming all the way, wearing spectacles and white shirt and grey suit, and clambering eagerly and nervously into the witness box to given evidence on behalf of David Irving. And then imagine his disappointment, after standing there for ten or fifteen minutes, answering questions spoon-fed to him by Irving, at finding himself contemptuously dismissed by Richard Rampton QC, the counsel for the defence (right), who did not even bother to look up from his desk as he told the judge that he had no questions to put to that witness. So back to California he presumably went, without being given the chance to display his profundities before a packed courtroom.
WELL, the reader may say, he's small fry, an easy target. What about a central figure in the case, the plaintiff, David Irving? Surely he can't be dismissed so easily? And indeed he is a more formidable figure than his Californian sidekick: more formidable even physically -- built like a rugby player, with a big head, a sallow complexion, a heavy forehead, oversized features, strong grey hair, thick eyebrows over large, half-open eyes of an indeterminate colour (or so they seemed, from where I was sitting), and a wide, thin mouth, which moved into a tight smile when he had just won a debating point and an underdog expression of scorn when he had been worsted.
His dark suit and waistcoat looked a size too small for what they enclosed; his lumbering yet distracted stride matched his figure. He conducted his case in court unaided, as "a litigant in person". No one who watched him do so could doubt that he was an extraordinarily hard worker, a man of great mental, physical and nervous energy, gifted with a retentive memory and a capacity to think on his feet and express himself fluently even when caught out in self-contradiction, half-truth, or downright untruth. His command of spoken German, it should be said, is good enough to enable him to rant through a loud-hailer to a crowd of Sieg Heiling skinheads in the marketplace of some forlorn German market town. (The court was shown him doing so, on video, during one morning session.)
Give the stolidity of his appearance, the combativeness of his manner and the extent to which he is plainly driven by his obsessions (chiefly the innocence of Adolf Hitler and the guilt of Jews, in telling lies about the Holocaust and in persecuting him for attempting to expose those lies), what was most surprising about him, however, was the chameleonic element in his character. Or characters. That he loved being the star of the show he himself had set in motion in Court 73, and revelled in the newspaper and television coverage it was bringing him from all quarters of the globe, was plain. There he was, the solitary citizen, the Lone Ranger, the man unprotected by the phalanxes of lawyers and hired experts, the carrier of his own box-files (in plastic bags from Selfridge's Food Hall), the untrained historian and untrained lawyer, proclaiming the truth in the teeth of the international conspiracy trying to silence him. (His website bears the heading "David Irving Welcomes You to the World of Real History"). He was also, by turns, the gentlemanly scholar of the old school, inviting a hostile academic witness (Prof. Christopher Browning) to share with him a "joint journey of discovery and explanation"; a kindly, curious adult who, during one of the intermissions, asked a group of French Jewish Scouts and Guides in smart brown uniforms if they were able to follow the proceedings; a blunt man of the people denouncing academic historians (Prof. Richard Evans) for filling their books with "sludge", while at the same time claiming for himself, when caught out fiddling the evidence, something he glibly referred to as "authorial licence". With that licence in his pocket, he was also ready at all times to expatiate on his relentless scrupulousness as a scholar, on the exactitude of his notes and references, on the painstaking researches he had conducted in archives which he had been the first person to penetrate, on a handwritten document of 600 pages which he had twice read through in its entirety (a claim that was itself made twice in a single day), on the high esteem in which his books were held and the number of bookshops worldwide which stock them (1,463, or something of that sort), on the "lawyers from all over the world" who were sending him documents, on the hundreds of e-mails and faxes he was continually receiving from supporters here there and everywhere.
All of which sometimes made him sound less like a scholar than a Star Trek fanatic or dedicated train-spotter, the world's greatest self-appointed and self-trained expert on his chosen subject. (Which just happened to be the murder of millions of guiltless people at the behest of his hero, Adolf Hitler.) Seeing him move so readily from one role to another, it was not difficult to imagine him cutting a figure among some of his more unsavoury cronies by giving vent to the brutal and vulgar remarks about Jews in general and the Holocaust survivors in particular which he is known to have made. Not that such outbursts discouraged the same man, in making his final submission to the judge, from referring to the Holocaust as "a vast inhuman tragedy" and "one of the greatest crimes known to mankind".
All in all, much of what went on in the courtroom made me feel as if I were sitting in a kind of grim version of Wonderland. Like the court in which Alice found herself, but in far more sinister fashion, it was a region of illogicality and topsy-turvydom. ("Why are so few people wearing wigs?" asked an American woman sitting next to me in the public gallery, obviously disappointed that the spectacle was not as quaint as literature and the movies had led her to expect.) The English law of libel famously favours the plaintiff not the defendant. In this regard, it is quite unlike English criminal law. The plaintiff in a libel case (the prosecution, as it were) does not have to prove that the remarks alleged to be defamatory are untruthful, for the law generously makes the presumption on his behalf.
Unless there is a dispute about the actual meanings of the words at issue -- which hardly applied here -- it is for the defence to justify itself by proving the alleged libels to be "substantially" true. Hence the victories in the libel courts that a thief like Robert Maxwell and a would-be suborner of perjury like Jeffrey Archer achieved not so long ago; more recently, another famous perjurer, Jonathan Aitken, failed only by a hair's breadth to emulate them.
IN Denying the Holocaust: The growing assault on truth and memory, published by Penguin Books, Lipstadt (right) had asserted that Irving was a Holocaust denier and an associate of neo-Nazis, and that his so-called "revisionist" account of what happened to the Jews of Europe between 1942 and 1944 was a deliberate, ideologically driven falsification and obfuscation of the record. The truth of these remarks was what the defence had to prove -- "substantially". On the other side, as plaintiff and claimant for "aggravated damages", Irving argued that the accusations by Lipstadt (who did not give evidence during the trial) had been made at the urging of powerful Jewish individuals and institutions which were seeking to destroy Irving's reputation as a historian, to deny him access to reputable publishing houses and universities, to prevent him from earning his living and generally to abrogate his right to free speech. The judge more than once advised him that his references to the forces which he claimed to be behind Lipstadt and her book "did not have a bearing on the alleged libels", but he went back to them again and again.
So there he was, defending his right to speak freely, as his conscience and (he claimed) his historical researches dictated. But how was he hoping to achieve this end? By using the peculiarities of English libel law to punish Lipstadt for writing and Penguin Books for publishing what she thought of his work! And how, when challenged, did he try to rebut the charge that he was a Holocaust denier, an admirer of Adolf Hitler and an associate of neo-Nazis? By insisting throughout that the historical evidence, when critically examined, showed some of the central events of the Holocaust -- above all, the use by the Nazis of gas chambers to do away with countless numbers of Jewish men, women and children -- to be nothing but a myth, a fabrication, even a "blood libel" on the German people. He also claimed that the record cleared Hitler of the charge of having had a hand in whatever crimes against the Jews of Europe were committed by the German forces and their allies during the Second World War. Finally, Irving asserted that his associations with extreme right-wingers, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and others of that ilk were both harmless and relatively infrequent.
To lodge a successful plea of justification, therefore, the defence had no choice but to deploy a team of historians to go through his books in search of those instances of axe-grinding, special pleading, suppression of evidence, invention of evidence and so forth which, when all put together, would prove that he had "prostituted his gifts as a historian" in the service of his ideological fixations. (The words are Rampton's.) It was also obliged to give an account of Irving's public appearances in recent years which would illustrate the kinds of meetings he has attended, the audiences he has chosen to address and the language he has used on such occasions. In other words, the defence committed itself to arguing -- within the rules of evidence and in the charged atmosphere of a court of law -- over the raw stuff of the historical record. Parts of it went back as far as the 1920s; parts referred to the unified Germany of today. Almost anything, it seemed at times, could be pressed into service by either side: speeches at mass meetings and exchanges of secret memoranda; the presence, absence and provenance of documents; chains of command within the Nazi Party and the Nazi war machine; dates of mass shootings behind the German lines; architectural plans for the installations of the gas chambers and the crematoria at Auschwitz: the action of Zyklon-B gas on concrete, on lice and on people; the meanings of particular words in German and how they could be best translated into English; the splintering and coalescing of neo-Nazi movements in post-war Germany; and a whole cataract of other items.
Not surprisingly the clashes between the two sides were often difficult to follow, especially from the public gallery. With plaintiff and defence counsel cross-examining the expert witnesses on their written reports, one after another, issues and events came up, disappeared, and recurred in what appeared to be random, fragmentary fashion; some dead ends and divagations were thoroughly explored, despite the judge's efforts to keep things moving; there were constant interruptions, while individual documents were searched for in voluminous files, identified, then consulted and sometimes translated anew. Well-fed, warm, sitting in a large chamber furnished much like a seminar room in a new university (high up among the gaunt Gothic reaches of the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand), public and court officials alike listened to arguments which ostensibly dealt with episodes of human depravity and suffering of an unimaginable kind and on an unimaginable scale. Yet the effect, to put it bluntly, was often both boring and macabre: a combination which in itself had a peculiarly repellent and macabre quality of its own.
ALL of this, in my view, suited the plaintiff down to the ground. Yes, he "conceded" (the judge's word) that no sooner had the German armies invaded Russia in 1941 than special units of the SS, the Einsatzgruppen, set about slaughtering by rifle and machine-gun fire entire Jewish communities in the Baltic countries, Poland, White Russia and the Ukraine -- across the breadth of the entire, ancient Pale of Settlement. Given the ample, explicit documentary evidence of these killings from German sources, it would have been foolhardy, even by Irving's standards, to try to deny that more than a million Jews of all ages and both sexes were murdered within the first year or so of the German invasion in That concession made, however, he seemed to find it difficult to hear mention of any particular Aktion undertaken by the Einsatzgruppen without rushing zealously, tirelessly, like a man in the grip of a deep-seated neural tic, to . . in well, not exactly deny whatever episode had just been mentioned, but to diminish it, to palliate it, to gloss over it, to find extenuating circumstances for it (if such can be imagined). Either the particular killings did not take place in the manner stated, or took place on a smaller scale than the Nazis themselves claimed, or were "reprisals" of some kind, or were supposedly contradicted by or conflated with reports of other killings nearby. Anyway, he wanted to know, how could the relatively small numbers of troops in the Einsatzgruppen possibly have killed so many people over such a short period? (The answer: easily, because they were helped by the so-called German Order Police, regular army units and local militias). And so on and on and on, though the examples I have given cannot convey the pertinacity with which he wearied both the bench and the defence by going back on what the judge more than once reminded him was "common ground" between the parties.
Another instance of the same sort of thing (on Irving's part, that is). Here is Professor Longerich of Royal Holloway, University of London, explaining why he used the term "extermination through labour" to describe how the slave labourers in Auschwitz were treated. The administration's own figures, he tells the court, showed them to have been dying at the rate of 10 per cent per month. Whereupon, with an air of crafty pride, Irving produces a letter in which one SS officer writes to another that this "exchange" of prisoners (his term for their death rate) is having a deleterious effect on the industrial output of the camp; he suggests therefore that the inmates' rations be increased and conditions in the "camp hospital" be improved. Does that not, Irving demands, show a concern for the prisoners welfare? Is it not in itself evidence that it is wrong to speak of the prisoners being deliberately worked to death? No, Professor Longerich answers unhesitatingly: no reference whatever is made in the letter to the welfare of the prisoners; the writer's sole concern is with the fact that industrial output from that section of the camp is falling in Furthermore, the German word for "hospital" does not appear in the letter just quoted; the word used is "sick-barrack", which has quite a different effect. So Irving attempts to regain the ground just lost, and to persuade the court of the kindly intentions of the two killers, by declaring that in a subsequent letter one of them announced triumphantly that the "exchange" of prisoners had fallen to a mere 8.5 per cent per month.
The longer these exchanges went on, the more strongly I came to feel that Irving's attempts to undermine and trivialize the significance of particular episodes during the campaign of the Einsatzgruppen had a "strategic" as well as a compulsive aspect. Consciously or unconsciously, his aim was to distract attention from what the actions of the Einsatzgruppen revealed about the overall direction of Nazi policy towards the Jews. (Much the same was true of his remarks about how the slave labourers were treated -- though it should in be noted that not all prisoners in that category were Jews.) That there were hesitations, confusions, conflicts among the people carrying out the policy goes without saying. Some did not understand, especially at first, exactly what they were supposed to do; some wanted the Jews to be killed as swiftly and universally as possible; some wanted to profit out of their labour before they were killed; some, a few, were aghast at what they witnessed. But within weeks (literally) of the opening of the war on the Eastern Front, the Nazis had made plain how they regarded the Jews and what they intended doing with them. That intention never changed; only the methods used in pursuing it became more "sophisticated", as the war dragged on and the dragnet widened to take in Jews from central and western Europe as well as those in the east.
ACCORDING to Irving, Hitler "was the best friend the Jews ever had in the Third Reich". One doesn't have to be a historian of the period, or an expert in the design of gas chambers and crematoria, as Irving claimed to be, to feel that a man who can say that can say absolutely anything. (The remark about Hitler was quoted by Richard Rampton in his final address to the court; I do not know its context, but the plaintiff did not deny having made it.) Only under pressure, earlier in the trial, had he admitted that Hitler had been a violent anti-Semite from the very beginning of his political career; the spectacle of this admission being dragged out of him was rather like watching a man choke before bringing himself to acknowledge that the sun rises in the east. Even then, though, he wanted the court to know that beneath it all, in some unspecifiable way, Hitler's intentions towards the Jews had remained benign; indeed, that from the time of the Kristallnacht onwards one of his concerns had been to protect the Jews from the excesses of his subordinates. Irving may have groupies of his own, but at times he himself sounded like a groupie at heart; a worshipper (Rampton's word, again) of that other masterful, misunderstood, unfairly reviled European, a man of wonderful ideas and great achievements betrayed by subordinates who, behind his innocent back, did some very bad things. (Though relatively few of them were as bad as they were later made out to be.)
Website picture: Beneath the roof slab of Crematorium II -- stated by Van Pelt to be the "factory of death" in which 500,000 were gassed at Birkenau (Auschwitz II): but there are no holes in the roof slab today, as he himself admits.
I was not in court when most of the evidence relating to the death camps was presented; but in here, too, Irving appeared to have been ready to talk for ever about the machinery and layout of the Auschwitz crematoria ("no expense spared" and "state of the art" were two delicately descriptive phrases he was to use about them), or the thickness of the roofs of the gas chambers, or the size of the apertures in those roofs for Zyklon-B to be introduced to the chamber below, or the absence, according to him, of such apertures. Or the design of their doors. Or their lifts. Or of how useful the gas chambers were for delousing prisoners' clothes. Or for delousing prisoners' corpses. Or for serving as air-raid shelters. Or the amounts of coke required to incinerate the dead. Or the contradictions, exaggerations and misrememberings which appear in eyewitness reports -- by victims and killers alike -- of what took place in Auschwitz, and how such flaws render all their reports worth less to a truly scrupulous historian like himself.
Deep, scholarly stuff, as you can see. What he made no attempt to offer, however -- as plaintiff he did not have to -- was any explanation of what Auschwitz and its dire installations were for, if not to continue the systematic killings that the Einsatzgruppen had begun. Or why the Nazis, according to him, should suddenly have desisted from the programme they had set about with such ferocity. He has referred in public to Auschwitz as "a brutal slave-labour camp [where] many people died": which of course it was, in part. (Everything else said of it according to Irving, is just "boloney".) But if a "labour camp" was all that Auschwitz was, why did the Germans take the trouble to drag to it from the most distant corners of Europe hundreds of thousands of the old, the ill, the children, the mothers with infants? What was supposed to happen to those seventy-year-old "labourers" and to the two-year-old "labourers" and to the pregnant women who managed to survive the unspeakable journeys to such destinations? What relationship are we left to imagine between the setting-up of such a camp complete with its "state-of-the-art" gas chambers and crematoria, and the vast scale of the slaughters by less "advanced" means that had already taken place elsewhere in the occupied territories -- and were indeed still taking place. And what purpose was served by the contemporaneous establishment of such camps as Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka which were equipped with "facilities" parallel to those in Auschwitz and which had no great industrial plants and slave-labour camps attached to them?
TO ASK such questions (and there are innumerable others like them that might be asked) is in effect to ask for a narrative; and that was something Irving was determined to avoid. No wonder he chose to put up such a performance when the action of the Einsatzgruppen were under discussion. Risking the anger of the bench mattered a good deal less to him than trying to disrupt the story which was being unfolded, and which not even the curious format of the trial could prevent from being unfolded. The same denial of consequence, of events having necessary connections, of one thing leading to another, showed itself in Irving's attempts to exonerate Hitler of guilt for the crimes committed by his army and his SS battalions. No one has ever come on a piece of paper signed by Hitler in which he orders the extermination of the Jews. So, Irving has been arguing for years, the absence of this piece of paper must be acknowledged as irrefragable, unsurmountable proof that Hitler never wished such a thing to happen; and that if an attempt was made at any time and by any person to wipe out the Jewish people, then it was against his wishes, and he remained ignorant of what was happening until it was too late to dc anything about it.
That is the logic of the "Real History" which Irving offers to the world. The fact that Hitler set up within his Chancellery, well before the war broke out, a unit which used poison gas to murder tens of thousands of physically and mentally disabled Germans of all ages; that the personnel of this unit were transferred to Poland just before the gas chambers went into operation in that country; that Hitler's recorded utterances during that same period abounded in references to the Vernichtung and Ausrottung and Eliminierung of the Jews; that lengthy meetings between himself and Himmler, who was in command of the entire operation, took place with especial frequency before and after Himmler's visits to the relevant areas of Poland at precisely the time when the process was getting under way -- none of that, nor all the other evidence that can be added to it, has any meaning to our scholarly historian; it carries not the slightest weight compared to the weight of that missing piece of paper.
Whatever its psychological roots may be, Irving's devotion to the cause of exculpating Hitler of guilt for his crimes reminds me, politically speaking, of those unreconstructed Marxists -- Trotskyists and others -- who still cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that Lenin's great revolution was an unmitigated disaster for Russia and for Europe as a whole. So they put the blame on Stalin; then they can still hope to begin all over again one day, with the same blueprint in hand, with undimmed hope that this -- time things will work out differently. As with them and Lenin, so with Irving and Hitler. If it was Himmler or Goebbels who made a mess of the Nazi dawn and who caused Hitler's name to be execrated by succeeding generations, Germans not least among them; if he can be partially or wholly exonerated of responsibility for the death camps, which is what everyone immediately associates with him and his regime -- why then, who knows, one day we can all hope to make ourselves something like the Nazis once again (lesser breeds aside, of course); we can march, smash glass, smash opposition, rule the world for a thousand years.
"Anti-Semitism is a free and total choice of oneself", Sartre wrote, "a comprehensive attitude that one adopts not only towards Jews but towards men in general, towards history and society; it is at one and the same tune a passion and a conception of the world . . . . It precedes the facts that are supposed to call it forth; it seeks them out in order to nourish itself on them; it must even interpret them in a special way so that they may become truly offensive." Irving has always denied that he is an anti-Semite; in that case, all that one can say is that he has tailored himself with remarkable closeness to suit Sartre' s diagnosis of the type. No one invited or compelled him to become an apologist for the most murderous anti-Semite of the twentieth century; he chose to do so. Of the passion with which he had made his choice, no one who has seen him in action can doubt. That Holocaust denial is anti-Semitic in its deepest impulses is also not to be doubted; it is yet another, latter-day reinvention of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a brand-new tale about how "the Jews" are conspiring once again to do down all other nations, on this occasion in order to wrest money from them (by way of reparations) and to exercise power over them (by way of moral blackmail).
When Irving goes around spreading such views, individual Jews naturally feel threatened and "official" Jews, Jews who have set themselves up as representatives of others, do their best to combat the spread of his notions by warning people and institutions against him. Thus Irving gets exactly what he has been looking for. Not only are the Jews plotting against the world at large by means of their lies about the Holocaust, they are also -- through such bodies as the American Jewish Committee, and the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and others -- now plotting against him, as an individual. The circle has closed. Much of his five-hour closing speech to the court was devoted to giving his version of their machinations and the losses he has suffered as a result. Having indeed sought out the facts which were supposed to have called forth his sentiments, he now nourishes himself on them.
Dan Jacobson is Professor of English at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
April 21, 2000
Website fact: The stamina of the defence team was aided by a six million dollar fund provided by Stephen Spielberg, Edgar J Bronfman, and the American Jewish Committee, which enabled them to pay 21 lawyers and "experts"; the experts like Evans, Longerich were paid up to £109,000 each to testify as they did (while the defence's star legal team was paid considerably more). Nobody was paying for Mr Irving, who has been fighting this battle for three whole years. Nobody was paying for Mr Irving, who has been fighting this battle for three whole years. Nor did he pay his defence witnesses one cent or sous: they testified from conviction, not for reward. [Help!]