Washington DC, Thursday, April 17, 2000
The slippery slope of anti-semitism
Now it's official. Auschwitz was not built by the Poles as a "tourist attraction" after World War II, after all. Jews were gassed there, and Hitler knew about the Final Solution before 1943.
The grisly history of the Holocaust is familiar to most of us, but not to everybody. David Irving, the British "historian," argues that the Holocaust is overrated as tragedy and he embellishes it with perversity, such as the notion that Auschwitz was a sort of Disney World of death for ghoulish tourists. He thought enough of his crackpot ideas to defend them in court. A judge found them indefensible.
The judge found that Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish history at Emory University in Atlanta, had not libeled him when she called him a Holocaust denier. The judge went even further; Mr. Irving, he said, was "an anti-Semite and racist" who deliberately misrepresented and misinterpreted the historical record.
Mr. Irving sued Miss Lipstadt and her British publisher, Penguin UK. He sued in England where libel is much easier to prove than in the United States, where a plaintiff must not only prove falsity, but malicious intent.
Miss Lipstadt accused him of willfully exploiting his academic expertise by bending and twisting historical evidence to conform to his neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic sympathies.
Mr. Irving argued that branding him a "Holocaust denier" is the equivalent of calling him a "wife-beater" or a "pedophile" and that he was merely redefining the record. The accusation, he argued, ruined his scholarly reputation, causing publishers to reject his manuscripts. His books once produced an income of nearly $100,000 a year.
Both author and publisher decided to stand and fight in a costly and brain-draining trial rather than making the suit go away by apologizing and donating $400 to David Irving's favorite charity.
"Normally I don't debate with these Holocaust deniers on principle because I don't think they should be treated as 'the other side,'" she told the London Telegraph. "But if I had not fought, he would have won by default and people would have thought his version of the Holocaust to be a legitimate definition."
That's true. We still have eyewitnesses and Holocaust survivors to testify to the hideous truth of the extermination camps, and how much easier to distort the record after the actual participants are gone.
Polls show that 38 percent of high school students and 28 percent of American adults can't identify the Holocaust. Librarians often place books by Holocaust deniers next to authentic histories. In Pittsburgh a high school class president, supported by his father, accused a history teacher of being one-sided when she didn't include David Irving's Holocaust revisionism in her history seminar. A Polish professor of history at the state-run University of Opole taught that death camps were built only to kill lice on prisoners. (He was fired.)
Mr. Irving claims to have raised a half-million dollars in contributions as small as $2 and as large as $80,000. He'll need all that and considerably more now that he is required to pay the legal fees for the defense, estimated to be about $3 million.
Mr. Irving was once respected for his military scholarship, for digging out raw archival material for original interpretations about the Third Reich. But skepticism long ago sank to taunt and insult. He describes "The Diary of Anne Frank" as a romantic novel; he asks an Auschwitz survivor how much money she makes from displaying her tattoo; he calls Jewish witnesses of the Holocaust "liars." His Internet site asks for help in compiling a list of "obviously absurd eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust," noting that the contributor who offers the best example will be awarded "the prestigious Elie Wiesel Prize."
He was kicked out of Germany, where denying the Holocaust is a crime and free speech is not quite understood. He has been barred from Canada and Australia, too. His bigotry contaminates everything he touches, even a nursery verse he composed for his daughter Jessica, which the defense lawyers found in his diary:
When a reporter asked him if he regretted writing the poem, he replied that he regretted only using the word "Rastafarian." He wished that he had written "vegetarian."
April 17, 2000