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November 16, 2001
"Courtroom Without The John Grisham Drama"
The Holocaust on Trial: History, Justice and the David Irving Libel Case By D. D. Guttenplan Granta, 328pp, Pounds 17.99 ISBN 1 86207 397 X
THE David Irving-Deborah Lipstadt libel trial should not be forgotten. The accuracy of Lipstadt's portrayal of Irving as a Holocaust denier was substantially upheld in the judgment.
The protagonists are already having their say. Richard Evans, the most powerful witness against Irving, has published his account in America. Let us hope his publishers have the courage to let the paperback, due next year, appear in a UK edition. Robert Jan Van Pelt will publish his report on Auschwitz in January 2002. His evidence did much to destroy the "credibility" of the "evidence" on which Irving based his rantings.
Amid all this we have D. D. Guttenplan. Guttenplan attended every day of the trial and wrote some excellent commentary for The Guardian. He is a gifted journalist but there are problems with his book from the title to the final sentence. Whenever he strays from fairly straight reporting, he plunges out of his depth. He fails to analyse the trial properly -- in the sense of not doing it very well and in the sense of making points with which I do not agree.
While I do not read books to agree with them, I do like them to have a proper conclusion. Guttenplan has a banal summing-up that attacks Lipstadt's defence for not including survivors. The author came looking for a John Grisham drama: he wanted more characters. What he found was something more complex and duller.
He judges witnesses on his personal likes and dislikes and thereby entirely misses the impact of key testimony. He underestimates the importance of challenging the deniers. He fails to explore the implications of the trial for the debate on objectivity that has raged within history in the past few decades. He includes a tour of currently fashionable texts, such as Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life (published in the UK as The Holocaust and Collective Memory) and Norman Finkelstein's co-authored A Nation on Trial (though not The Holocaust Industry); but does not tie this into the debate on history that he promises to explore in his introduction. Indeed, the book begins by promising much, but delivers little.
If, as the title suggests, it was the Holocaust that was on trial during this case, then Guttenplan's final point about the inclusion of survivors would have carried some weight. But what was at stake was the ability of Penguin Books and Lipstadt to justify their accusations about Irving's Holocaust denial and his status as a historian.
Irving is a well-known chronicler of military campaigns. He is not a trained historian, and few historians I know have thought of him as one of us for a very long time.
To understand the difference between a historian and someone such as Irving, one needs only to read Evans's In Defence of History. Evans's stance in the witness stand, which so irritated Guttenplan, was the right one. From the first questions Evans put the emphasis on Irving's methodology and his relationship to the truth as it can be discovered through the sifting of evidence. He insisted that Irving produce documentary substantiation for every assertion he made and thereby caught him out over and over again.
The remains of Irving's reputation were on trial and this book woefully underplays the importance of the key witness in demonstrating the validity of Lipstadt's accusations. This would be forgivable if an alternative assessment were on offer, but Guttenplan seems to take against Evans for the same reasons that Irving does: his stubborn insistence on sticking to the facts that can be verified.
Irving lost on all major counts except, though this is not explored in this book, the accusation that he damaged the Goebbels diary. Guttenplan is too eager to give us a lesson in the classics to assess the meaning of the verdict. In what he does say, he echoes Novick's contention that deniers do not matter.
They are a small group of cranks who occasionally get publicity. However, when people such as Irving, themselves marginal but with a direct line to the mainstream because of a respectable back catalogue, embrace denial, the whole bandwagon gets greater exposure. Students might encounter them on the internet and see them as something of the fringe mentality of cyberspace. When this is reinforced by what they encounter in other media, Holocaust denial appears to be substantiated. Hopefully, the verdict will reduce Irving's exposure in mainstream media and alter the results of routine web searches.
There are other wider and encouraging implications of the verdict. Holocaust denial is nourished in the climate created by postmodernists. Such writers are happy to admit that the truth does not matter because it cannot be established. Therefore the gibberish of Holocaust deniers is of a worth equal to the examination of evidence by professional historians. Irving lost the case, and so did all who deny that we can ever know a fact or establish the truth about the past.
The irresponsibility of a profession that denies its capability to do that which it exists to do is simply extraordinary. Leopold von Ranke's search for objectivity, when married to a reflective perception of our own place in time, remains the most challenging basis for writing history. It triumphed, not least in the person of Evans, in court.
I hope we will get a book by a non-participant that explores the issues raised by the Irving trial in an objective and challenging way. This is not it.
Brian Brivati is professor of contemporary history, Kingston University.
Copyright 2001 TSL Education Limited The Times Higher Education Supplement