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Books on the Lipstadt Trial

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[Part I: When Holocaust denier David Irving demanded a libel trial in England, the nature of history itself was at stake.]


Part II



In the matter of Irving vs. Lipstadt, neither Keegan nor Watt addresses whose research has been proven and whose has been completely discredited. What seems to irk them is that someone who previously hadn't been on their radar ("few other historians had ever heard of her") had the deuced cheek to challenge someone who had. That the interloper was both a woman and a Jew must surely have been good for a few added harumphs at their drones' club of "reputable" historians.

bookAs qualified as they are, Keegan's and Watt's endorsements must have been psychologically crucial to David Irving who, despite his flat in aristocratic Mayfair and his taste for tailored suits, comes from a middle-class background. When it suits him, Irving likes to boast of being a historian working outside the safety net of academia. He paints a picture of himself as an independent scholar, working free of the preconceptions (read: facts) that have hindered others.

But it's also clear that Irving wants to be accorded the respect and perks given to "establishment" historians (why else court the approval of Keegan or Watt? Even having to subpoena them gave him a chance to address them as equals). It's hard not to link Irving's desire to be accepted by the old boys' network with his inadvertent revelation, at trial, of the appeal fascism holds for him. "Like most fellow countrymen of my background and vintage," Irving said,

"I regret the passing of the Old England. I sometimes think, my Lord, that if the soldiers and sailors who stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944 could see what England would be like at the end of this century, they would not have got 50 yards up the beach. I think they would have given up in disgust."

Irving's own disgust with England at the end of the 20th century can be pretty much summed up by the "light verse" he taught to his young daughter to recite whenever they passed mixed-race children on the street:

I am a Baby Aryan
Not Jewish or Sectarian
I have no plans to marry an
Ape or Rastafarian.

Reading through Evans' account of the press coverage of the trial, you sense among many of the commentators something of that longing for a society where certain people belong and others clearly do not. There is a barely disguised anti-Semitism. Perhaps referring to the fact that a fraction of SpielbergLipstadt's legal bills were paid by Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation and other contributors, Jonathan Freedland of the Independent wrote, "It's telling that it was U.S. Jewry which wanted to do battle with Irving in a London court." -- untrue, since it was Irving who sued Lipstadt -- "British Jews were wary of handing him a free platform. But the Americans prevailed, as they nearly always do when it comes to the Shoah." (Irving did offer to settle the case with Penguin -- but not Deborah Lipstadt -- in exchange for 500 pounds, an open letter denying Lipstadt's "allegations" and a promise not to republish "Denying the Holocaust." But it wasn't American Jewry that made Penguin turn down what, from a business point of view, would have been a far less costly alternative. It was the truly odious choice of affirming David Irving's lies.)

One German journalist blamed the trial on "the determination above all of Jewish-American groups to wrestle down the deniers of the Holocaust." The British historian John Fox used the trial as an excuse to lambaste "Jewish racism" and fell into the language of conspiracy theory when he referred to "the political and cultural purposes which lay behind the American and Israeli Jewish 'management' of the Holocaust over the last 40 years." And then there was the post-verdict editorializing about how the Holocaust had now somehow become exempt from historical analysis (as if historical analysis had been what Irving was engaged in). Could the subtext of these remarks be any clearer? "Those people just can't let the Holocaust go." The comments find an echo in D.D. Guttenplan's contention that the most shocking thing about British anti-Semitism is how unabashed it is. During the initial revelations about Swiss banks and Nazi gold, the British mother-in-law of a friend of mine (a British Jew), said -- in my friend's presence -- "Oh, why can't they just get over it?"

I wish that I hadn't found at least some of those assumptions echoed in Guttenplan's criticisms of Deborah Lipstadt. Like any reporter, he wants to provide background on the players in his story. In Lipstadt's past he finds a lifelong commitment to Judaism -- a "modern Orthodox" upbringing, spending her junior year of college in Jerusalem and being present for 1967's Six Day War, a decisive turn toward Jewish causes springing from her involvement in civil rights issues and ultimately, graduate degrees in Jewish studies. All of which explains why she would be led to write "Denying the Holocaust." But in the context of a trial that, it must be stressed again, she neither instigated nor testified in, criticizing Lipstadt's background in Jewish studies can't help but echo the anti-Semitic resentment leveled at her by others.

In one ugly passage, Guttenplan writes, "It was hard not to feel queasy listening to Rampton quiz Irving about his attitude to 'intermarriage between the races' -- on behalf of a defendant who has written, 'We know what we fight against: anti-Semitism and assimilation, intermarriage and Israel-bashing'." He goes on to note that Lipstadt "uttered not one word of public protest when her American publisher issued Charles Murray's neo-eugenicist tract 'The Bell Curve'." I've never heard anyone of any race or religion make an argument against intermarriage that didn't strike me as narrow-minded. But does Guttenplan (who's Jewish) think that Lipstadt's allegiance to Jewish identity is the equivalent of Irving's pathetic excuses for Hitler's allegiance to Aryan identity? Or that failing to speak out against Charles Murray's fantasies of black inferiority really constitutes approval?

As a piece of reportage, "The Holocaust on Trial" is concise and compelling, exactly what's needed to make sense of an involved and highly technical trial. As a piece of thinking, it's a disaster -- contradictory and shallow and sometimes lacking in basic common sense. Guttenplan is muddled on nearly every "larger" issue he tackles, and his criticisms sound troublingly similar to some of the woollier thinking to come out of the trial.

At one point Guttenplan dismisses Penguin barrister Richard Rampton's view of British racism as being "devoid of any sense of history." But it's Guttenplan whose sense of history is as shaky as his inability to make distinctions. He claims that "in 1950s America, few besides Communists shouted 'Remember the six million!'" But two pages later he says that one of the things that changed American attitudes toward the Holocaust was Anne Frank's diary -- published in 1952. Did "few besides Communists" read the book, go to the Broadway show, see the movie?

Guttenplan describes Irving's longing for "Old England" as not "particularly unusual for a man of his age and background" and insists that it was therefore disingenuous of the defense to use it as "a sign of his monstrous character." Even if you accept that some (especially upper-class) Britons thought that a Fascist Europe might be a good thing, how many English of Irving's generation -- especially those whose fathers and brothers and uncles may have fought in World War II -- share Irving's adulation of Hitler? How many of the English soldiers who liberated Belsen are ready to agree with him that the mass extermination there was a hoax, or would adopt Irving's description of camp survivors as "The Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust, and Other Liars" or "A.S.S.H.O.L.E.S."?

Even if Guttenplan is, on some level, unwilling to acknowledge the danger Irving represents, the book he has written unwittingly does the job for him. Richard Evans opens "Lying About Hitler" by writing, "This book is about how we can tell the difference between truth and lies in history," implying, obviously, that such a thing is possible. Guttenplan isn't so sure. After outlining the absurdity of the trial -- "Lipstadt's burden lay in having to prove things most of us take for granted: Adolf Hitler's murderous intentions, the horrifying efficiency of the death camps, the fatal consequences for the Jews" -- Guttenplan writes, "But the very act of taking so much for granted conceals precisely those questions which Irving's strategy was designed to provoke: How do we know these things really happened? What is the evidence? Who are the witnesses? How do we know they are telling the truth?"

I don't believe for a second that D.D. Guttenplan sympathizes in any way with David Irving or that he doubts the Holocaust actually happened. But his "epistemological" concerns play into Irving's hands nonetheless. To entertain the question "How do we know these things really happened?" as something even worth considering in the context of the Holocaust is to hand David Irving at least a minor victory. It's no surprise that Richard Evans, whose book is an argument for the primacy of fact, irritates Guttenplan. He quotes Evans as saying, "A historical fact is something that happened in history and can be verified as such through the traces history has left behind." This worries Guttenplan, who asks, "Who decides what 'happened' in the first place? What are the procedures for verifying these facts and who sets them? How do we select our facts?"

Like many of the writers Evans (right) quotes in his section on the press reaction to the verdict, Guttenplan is unable to draw a distinction between fact and interpretation. Commentators fretted that Irving's defeat was a defeat for free speech. They wrote as if Deborah Lipstadt had tried to suppress his views instead of what actually happened: Irving had attempted to suppress a book that was critical of him. One claimed that the issue was "the right of historians to examine and interpret ... events ... without being tied to a foregone conclusion." But that was never at issue because, as Evans points out, Irving has never examined and interpreted facts for the simple reason that he is not a historian. He twists or suppresses evidence to fit a foregone conclusion -- the opposite of what any reputable historian does. In a column that could have been written by Guttenplan, a writer for the London Times claimed that "people like Irving do us a service" by forcing us to "examine the foundations of our orthodoxies." But of course it's only a service if you're foolish enough to doubt what Irving called into question to begin with.

Guttenplan's questioning of who decides facts -- not interpretations, but facts -- may spring from a desire to level the playing field by reminding us of the truism that history is written by the victors. Here, however, it is playing right into the hands of the brutes. Deborah Lipstadt has long refused to debate David Irving or any Holocaust denier, contending that to treat them as if they were "the other side" would be to grant validity to their delusions. When Guttenplan asks in relation to Auschwitz, "How do we know anything beyond what we ourselves have experienced?" he's indulging in the sort of mental masturbation that you should be finished with by the end of your freshman year in college. Of course, we can never "know" the texture of the experience of the death camps, but we can know the fact of it. And what, as Evans asks toward the end of his book, finally becomes of facts if we decide that they can only be known by direct experience? In practical terms it means that within 30 to 50 years, the Holocaust will cease to have any historical meaning because there will be no survivors left who actually experienced it.

Of course, history is more than a recitation of facts. That reductionism is what Guttenplan so rightly finds offensive in the work of statisticphiles like John Keegan -- the elimination of the human element. But when Guttenplan bemoans the elimination of the human element in the Irving-Lipstadt trial he misses not only the brilliance of the defense strategy but the moral fineness of it. Early on the defense decided that no Holocaust survivors would be called to testify. They felt it would be obscene to expose these people to the ridicule of David Irving. "Witnesses, memories, testimony -- all that was left outside the courtroom," Guttenplan writes, "and that seems to me cause for regret."

On the contrary, it seems to me a means of paying honor to the weight of history, the defense's way of making sure that the enormity of the events in question were not reduced to the absurdity imposed by British libel law. Both Evans and Guttenplan confess to recognizing that absurdity even as they concentrated on the narrow focus of the trial, of sometimes forgetting just what the disputed documents and figures were about. But that narrow focus was a way of defeating David Irving on his own turf, of turning the very things he claimed to rely on -- facts and documentation -- against him. And it was an implicit demonstration of what his version of history so ruthlessly ignores. It was a way of saying that here was something beneath the consideration of humanity.


[Back to Part I]

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 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.

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