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The Internet magazine Salon -- named for the French adjective sâle -- runs on May 24, 2001 this "article" by Charles Taylor
Evil takes the stand
When Holocaust denier David Irving demanded a libel trial in England, the nature of history itself was at stake.
AS many Monty Python sketches have pointed out, the dignity of British courtrooms is handicapped from the start by the silly, pompous powdered wigs the judges and barristers wear. But even the Monty Python boys never dreamed up a situation as ludicrous as the one that took place in a British courtroom last year when David Irving sued the American writer Deborah Lipstadt for libeling him. Irving is a British author whose romances of the Third Reich have managed to get him acclaimed as a serious historian from the likes of John Keegan ("an extraordinary ability to describe and analyse Hitler's conduct of military operations") and Christopher Hitchens ("Not just a Fascist historian, but a great historian of Fascism"). In her book "Denying the Holocaust" Lipstadt had written that Irving was "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial," a man who twisted evidence "until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political propaganda." When the book appeared in Britain, Irving sued both Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books.
Now comes the weird part. Under British libel law, all a plaintiff has to do to claim libel is to demonstrate that the words spoken or written about him are defamatory. As D.D. Guttenplan points out in "The Holocaust on Trial," one of two new books about the case, there is no need, as there is in the United States, for the claimant to show that the words were used "in reckless disregard" of the truth. Instead, it becomes the defense's burden to prove that the disputed words are true. What that meant in this case was that because David Irving contended that the gas chambers were a hoax, British law required that in order for Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher to prove that Irving was a Holocaust denier, they first had to prove that the Holocaust actually took place.
It's an inane premise for any thinking person, let alone a court, to entertain. Admirably, the defense turned this to its advantage. Lipstadt's lawyer, Anthony Julius (who had represented Princess Diana during her divorce), hired Richard J. Evans (right), a professor of modern history at Cambridge whose area of expertise is 20th century Germany. Having to prove that Lipstadt was telling the truth when she said that Irving twisted evidence to conform to his ideological views gave Evans free license to examine Irving's entire body of work. He recounts what he found in the riveting "Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial."
A classic example of historical research as detective story, Evans' book must be one of the most thorough and devastating exposés every written about any writer. The tingle of intellectual discovery runs through Evans' methodical demolition of Irving's work. He writes as if he were suspended between his excitement at catching Irving in each lie and his astonishment that the lies are so pervasive, unrelenting and bald.
The line on David Irving has long been that after establishing himself as a brilliant and tireless researcher in books like "The Destruction of Dresden" and "Hitler's War," he went off the rails, becoming more and more sympathetic to Hitler personally and to Nazism in general. As a result, he has become marginalized in the publishing community. His books are now self-published (a setup that he claims is more profitable). London's Sunday Times chose to withdraw the fee it had agreed to pay Irving to edit Goebbels' diaries for publication when news of the deal was protested by a number of groups. The pitch of the furor cost Irving both his American and British publishers. The American publisher, St. Martin's Press, finally agreed to bring out Irving's Goebbels biography in 1995 and then withdrew it just before it was to be shipped to bookstores.
The self-portrait of Hitler that hangs in Irving's study, or the swastika-embossed swizzle sticks used at his book launch parties, can be dismissed as provocations. His contention that Hitler was the best friend Jews had in the Third Reich, that typhus and other diseases were the cause of most concentration camp deaths, that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, cannot.
Working over the better part of two years with the aid of two graduate students, Evans did what almost no other reviewers or historians had done (historian Hugh Trevor-Roper and journalists Gitta Sereny and Lewis Chester --- Irving had also sued Sereny -- are exceptions), tracing the information footnoted in Irving's books back to its sources. He found a consistent pattern of misquotation, selective editing, reliance on documents later found to be forged (and in one case known by Irving to be forged), suppressed information that ran counter to his case and fiddled figures -- all of it minimizing not just Nazi complicity in the terrorizing and killing of Jews but the killing itself.
Given Irving's abilities as a researcher and the fact that he spoke German, there could be no doubt that these weren't mistakes but deliberate falsifications of the historical record to, in Evans' words, "give the impression that it supported [Irving's] view that Hitler did not know about the extermination of the Jews, or, if he did, opposed it." The report that Evans turned in to the court, and that he would testify to at trial, went far beyond calling Irving a Holocaust denier. He concluded that Irving could not be believed on any assertion without an independent examination of the evidence he cited for corroboration. "Irving's deceptions were there from very early on in his career," Evans writes, "and had remained an integral part of his working methods across the decades."
Irving, who acted as his own lawyer, requested that the trial be decided by a judge and not a jury. (Both sides agreed that the material involved was too massive and too complicated for a jury to process.) Guttenplan writes that the presiding judge, Charles Gray, was annoyed when Evans held up the trial by insisting on seeing a copy of any source, text or document Irving referred to.
"Having been through your work," Evans told Irving from the witness box, "I cannot really accept your version of any document, including passages in my own report, without actually having it in front of me." Gradually, Judge Gray came to see the necessity of Evans' seeming pedantry. Evans recounts one instance in which Irving claims to quote from Evans' report, "Irving casts doubt on almost all testimony at the Nuremberg War [Crimes Tribunal]." What Evans had actually written was "Irving casts doubt on almost all testimony at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials or during the prior interrogations if it does not fit his arguments, alleging it was obtained by torture and threats."
That's just a minor example of the pattern of distortions that Evans demonstrated. But neither this proof nor Gray's sweeping verdict (calling Irving "a right-wing pro-Nazi polemicist ... [disposed] where he deems it necessary, to manipulate the historical record in order to make it conform with his political beliefs") kept historians like John Keegan (left, receiving knighthood) or Donald Cameron Watt -- both of them subpoenaed by Irving after refusing to testify for him voluntarily -- from continuing to insist that when Irving sticks to the facts he is a formidable historian. How, you long to ask them, can anyone who disputes the fact of the Nazis' systematic extermination of Jews can have any credibility as a historian? How can such a person have any concept of what a fact is?
Evans is at his best providing the answers to these questions. His analysis of the press coverage both during and after the trial cuts through the farrago of misconceptions that surrounded the case. Evans writes as a historian for whom scholarly rigor is sacrosanct, and in his assessments of John Keegan and Donald Cameron Watt there is a thinly disguised wonder at how foolish smart men can be.
Embarrassment is perhaps the most obvious -- and most charitable -- explanation for why, even after the verdict, Keegan and Watt continued to insist that Irving deserved to be regarded as a reputable historian. A more likely reason is that Watt and Keegan -- the latter mercilessly summed up by Guttenplan as a historian of the "maps and chaps" school -- looked at David Irving in his bespoke suit and saw someone they could understand far better than they could Deborah Lipstadt. How else do you account for the tone of schoolboy crush in Keegan's mid-trial dispatch for the Daily Telegraph?: "[Irving] is a large, strong, handsome man, excellently dressed, with the appearance of a leading QC"? And how else do you account for the revulsion toward Lipstadt in these lines from a commentary Keegan wrote following the verdict?: "Prof. Lipstadt, by contrast, seems as dull as only the self-righteously politically correct can be. Few other historians had ever heard of her before this case. Most will not want to hear from her again."
Keegan's view of history is apparently so constricted that all it takes to be deemed self-righteously politically correct is to insist that the Holocaust happened. (And how he determined anything at all about Lipstadt is not clear since he had not read her book and she did not testify at the trial.) Watt is just as bizarre when he writes that the only historians who reject Irving as a colleague are "those who identify with the victims of the Holocaust."
David Irving has responded to these fresh libels:
WHAT makes you so sure I have a Hitler portrait hanging in my study? (I don't); that was just one of the lies that Mr Justice Gray agreed was libellous in the Lipstadt book. What a pity you never bothered to read the transcripts (they are in full on the Internet). As for the other points -- well, you appear not to know that June 20, 2001 sees the start of our appeal in the London courts, and after that a lot of journalists, not just you, may well be quaking in their evil smelling boots.