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May 27, 2001 Sunday
Defending the Truth
By Blake Eskin
Blake Eskin's book "A LIfe in Pieces: The Making and Unmaking of Binjamin Wilkomirski" will be published next year
ON APRIL 11, 2000, High Court Judge Charles Gray ruled that Emory professor Deborah Lipstadt had not libeled English writer and publisher David Irving when she labeled Irving "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial" in her book "Denying the Holocaust." The British judge's decision followed a lengthy, tedious and costly trial that could never have happened in the United States, where "Denying the Holocaust" first appeared in 1993 and where libel plaintiffs shoulder the burden of proof.
In the United Kingdom, however, the defense must show that its comments are justified, which put Lipstadt and Penguin Books, her publisher and co-defendant, in the peculiar position of having to demonstrate far more thoroughly than she had in "Denying the Holocaust" that Irving knowingly and repeatedly distorted the historical record well beyond the parameters of reason to advance his sinister agenda. Complicating their task of showing that Irving was not a radical historian but a surrealist propagandist were the positive reviews he had received over the years from academics such as Sir John Keegan and Gordon Craig, who distanced themselves from Irving's notions about the Holocaust but praised his depth of knowledge of Germany in World War II.
The David Irving trial (though he was its instigator, he was often mistaken for the accused and thus became, like John Scopes or Puff Daddy, its titular figure) was prodigiously documented. The case itself revolved around several thick reports produced by expert witnesses, scholars called by the defense to present what is known about the Holocaust and to debunk Irving's retrospective inversions. The international press packed the courtroom; the trial made headlines daily in England and less often in America. (There is also Irving's daily online journal, but it was about as faithful to the substance and tone of the proceedings as his counterhistorical writings are to the events of the Nazi era.)
A year after the ruling, the first two books to look back at the Irving trial have arrived. "Lying About Hitler" is an insider's account by expert witness Richard Evans (right), the Cambridge historian charged with autopsying Irving's oeuvre and identifying his lies and methodological flaws. D.D. Guttenplan, a contributing editor of The Nation and former Newsday reporter, weighs in from the press gallery with "The Holocaust on Trial." According to Guttenplan, books by Lipstadt, her solicitor Anthony Julius and at least one other expert witness are on their way.
Guttenplan, who wrote a first-rate preview of the trial for The Atlantic, sets the scene by observing that the London courthouse is "literally as well as figuratively, at the juncture of journalism and the theater district." He views the trial as a kind of performance, with Irving as its producer and star.
By suing Lipstadt, Irving tried to make her his costar -- a strategy he had tried before when he crashed one of her public lectures -- but the defense never put Lipstadt on the stand, leaving the focus on Irving and history. (That isn't to say Lipstadt escapes Guttenplan's judgment; he has qualms about her expressed opposition to intermarriage and her focus on Jewish advocacy. He would prefer her to be an American version of Pierre Vidal-Naquet, the left-wing French Jewish historian who on principle defended the free-speech rights of French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson.)
Identifying the audience of this spectacle is more difficult. The trial was dominated by complex discussions of the meaning of German documents, which led all parties to agree to forgo a jury. Justice Gray, who had already pored over thousands of pages of expert reports before the trial opened, announced that his decision would "not depend to a very great extent on the oral evidence." So Irving, who represented himself in court, found other crowds to play to: the small band of fanatics who share his irrational beliefs, the survivors and others he baited with complaints about how Lipstadt's words marked him like a "verbal yellow star," and the disinterested masses whom he hoped to persuade that his "revisionism" represents a plausible alternative to history. And, of course, the many reporters who would be his conduit to these various groups.
The discussion of the hermeneutics of arcane Third Reich paperwork was punctuated by Irving's chaotic misdirections (he responded to direct critiques of his method with ad hominem attacks on his critics), baffling concessions (as when he justifies one invention about Göring as "author's license"), and bizarre eruptions (at one point he called Justice Gray "mein Führer"). These theatrics garnered disproportionate attention amid the hard-to-follow documentary drudgery, making many journalists susceptible to what Evans calls "the fog of uncertainty that Irving tried to spread over the evidence for the Holocaust" and causing them to speculate that he might actually win.
Dresden: mass cremation of air raid victims, February 1945
Guttenplan is usually adept at slicing through that fog, but not as good as Evans. As an expert witness, Evans prepared a 700-plus- page catalog of Irving's "blatant manipulation of the historical record" all the way back to "The Destruction of Dresden," the 1963 book that first earned Irving his reputation as a popular historian. Irving based his estimate of up to 250,000 people killed by the allies at Dresden on a piece of paper that Evans calls "a carbon copy of a typed-up transcript of another typed-up transcript of a handwritten transcript of an extract from an unknown document, unauthenticated by any distinguishing marks." As it turns out, an extra zero had been appended to the number on Irving's paper. But even after admitting his proof was forged, Irving clung to the figure, using it both to equate Dresden with his diminished figure for the Jewish death toll at Auschwitz and to suggest that Jews unaccounted for were killed in Dresden by the Allies.
During the trial, Evans cataloged Irving's willful abuse of source materials throughout his career and the growth of his anti-Jewish, anti-Allies, pro-Hitler bias as the years passed -- sometimes in thick and numbing detail. Guttenplan faults Evans for having come off as "a pedant's pedant" with a forest-trees problem during the six days he spent under cross-examination by Irving. The Evans-Irving confrontation may not have been much in the way of entertainment -- before answering any question, Evans insisted that Irving dig out the relevant documents -- but whether or not Irving v. Penguin and Lipstadt had as much drama as an episode of "Rumpole of the Bailey" seems very much beside the point.
Evans, who knows his way around the archives at least as well as Irving does, admits that he may have seemed annoying while in the witness box. But in "Lying About Hitler," which combines the core of his expert written testimony with observations about the courtroom proceedings, he proves a clear and companionable narrator and a sharp and restrained reporter. In his thorough survey of newspaper dispatches about the trial, for example, Evans provides the kind of context and analysis one would expect from a noncombatant.
In fact, in some ways Evans displays more perspective than Guttenplan, who in a kitchen-sink last chapter digresses to decry the way Jewish organizations wield Holocaust guilt and to rise to the defense of the shrill Norman Finkelstein and what Guttenplan generously terms Finkelstein's "deliberately provocative tone and occasional exaggerations." Finkelstein's only connection to the trial is that his conspiracy-minded tirade against the "Holocaust industry" was published around the same time. After showing readers disdain for one provocateur, it makes little sense for Guttenplan to ask them to sympathize with someone else who puts ideology before fact when writing about the Holocaust.
Guttenplan also regrets the lack of testimony by Holocaust survivors in the Irving trial; without it, he says, there is no way to know the truth. But, much as any trial having to do with the Holocaust evokes the memory of the 1961 proceeding against Adolf Eichmann, calling eyewitnesses here was a strategy that, as Evans puts it, "was not necessary because the trial was not about proving whether the Holocaust happened or not." David Irving wanted to orchestrate a spectacle along that theme, however, and though he has been financially hobbled by defeat, he will no doubt still assert that a great debate continues.
Related files on this website
David Irving responds:
FOR those who attended the trial, and are baffled by the increasing distance between what actually happened there and these second and third-hand rehashes in books and the press, we have provided online the full transcripts as a free download. As a key to when Prof Richard "Acres of Sludge" Evans was presenting his interminable, evasive and ignorant statements under cross-examination, see my diary of the trial (also a free download). Evans (right) is still smarting under the fact that his own British publisher refused to publish his book as it was feared to be libellous -- i.e. defamatory and untrue. If his new publishers do not cut out the lies, they will find themselves "financially hobbled" by a new libel action. Note, too, that none of these journalists mentions that the perverse Gray Judgment is to be appealed from June 20 in the Court of appeal.