Posted Saturday, February 5, 2000

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The National Post,

Toronto, February 5, 2000




David Irving v. the dead

by [London journalist] Geoffrey Wheatcroft


[Photo, not posted here: Men staring out from behind barbed wire]

A historian who denies the presence of gas chambers at Auschwitz is suing a writer who describes him as a Holocaust denier. It only gets weirder from there


LipstadtLONDON - As if the greatest and most horrible act of murder in history weren't bad enough, the National Socialists' "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" has become the subject of agonizing and odious controversy. It seems we can't leave the dead in peace.

One of the nastiest such feuds is being fought out at present in the High Court here. David Irving is habitually, and justifiably, if meiotically, described as a controversial historian, the author of a series of books reinterpreting the Second World War, from The Destruction of Dresden to Hitler's War.

He has brought a libel action against Deborah Lipstadt, an American historian, and her publishers, Penguin Books. She is the author of Denying the Holocaust, in which, Irving claims, he was depicted as someone who had denied the reality of the extermination of the Jews.

It looks like a strange case for Irving to bring. He has publicly denied Hitler ever ordered the extermination, and has added insult by offering to pay anyone who can produce evidence he did. He has claimed that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, and that to say there were is -- in his deliberately and peculiarly offensive choice of phrase -- "a blood libel on the German people." He concedes that many Jews died during the war of 1939-45, but that these deaths were largely caused by disease or overwork.

Not that he is always easy to pin down. Like Joerg Haider, Irving has a knack of making outrageous statements and then sliding away from them with slippery equivocations. But his words are on the record, and it is not disputed either that Irving has associated himself over the years with fascist groups.

As the case has progressed (if that's the word), it has become weirder and weirder. Quite apart from his long-established and truly strange view of the death camps, placing him at odds with almost all serious historians, Irving has been digging himself into an ever deeper hole in the courtroom. Last week he called an obscure American academic to the stand, who said, "I do not consider you to be an anti-Semite."

On the next day, counsel for the defence quoted sundry examples of Irving's wit and wisdom. He had sung a "ditty" to his small daughter:

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

When this was read out, Irving denied it was racist or anti-Semitic. It's just his idiosyncratic kind of humour.

Without trying to anticipate the outcome, one has to say that Irving has said things in court that evidently justify "the words complained of," as lawyers say. Because the case is expected to last months, a jury couldn't be expected to last the course, and it is being heard by a judge alone. Even given the notorious perversity of the English judiciary, it is hard to see Ms. Lipstadt losing.

All this might indeed be almost funny, in a macabre way, if it weren't so grim. As journalists know all too well, "Holocaust denial" is a reality. It is the speciality of crackpots who for years have written letters in green ink or sent out smudgy pamphlets called Did Six Million Really Die? and have now added a new terror to life through Internet Web sites.

It seemed at one time that Irving did not quite belong in that galere. He has been defended by genuinely eminent scholars, on the ground that, however eccentric or repellent his opinions, he is an astonishingly industrious scholar who has greatly added to our knowledge of the Third Reich, and never mind that he writes about it with ill-disguised admiration.

Hence Hugh Trevor-Roper recognized Irving's "consistent bias," but showered praise on his "indefatigable scholarly industry," and John Keegan said that Hitler's War was "indispensable for anyone seeking to understand the war." Another of Irving's defenders is Christopher Hitchens, a witty journalist and engaging rascal, for whom some of us have a soft spot and who certainly got President Clinton bang to rights, as we Londoners say, who has insisted that Irving is not only a Fascist historian but "a great historian of fascism."

But these defences may be wearing thin, and not just because of Irving's bizarre behaviour in court. It could yet turn out that this quaint chronicler of mass-murder has got away with murder intellectually speaking. Professor Richard J. Evans of Cambridge has devoted much time and energy, which he might well feel he had better uses for, examining the same archives as Irving, and concluding that his use of them had been slapdash or even mischievous. Trevor-Roper hasn't seen the same archives, or Keegan, and Hitchens couldn't have read them in German even if he had wanted to.

As his defenders drop away, there is little sympathy left for Irving, though perhaps a touch of pity. He had a grim childhood -- his mother was abandoned by her husband, and Irving met his father just twice -- and his eldest daughter killed herself last year. Behind the cockiness and bluster and eagerness to give offence is a gravely maimed personality.

There are broader points at issue beyond one man and his reputation. Like any other historical episode, the Shoah -- the Hebrew word for catastrophe, which some of us prefer to "Holocaust," the Greek word for "burnt offering" -- is a legitimate subject for historical inquiry. Only Nazis and nutters deny the Shoah, but there is another serious, though sadly envenomed, debate between historians who believe Hitler was all along determined to exterminate the Jews and those who think it was a form of improvisation.

Again, American Daniel Goldhagen caused a stir of his own with his book Hitler's Willing Executioners. To say it was written from a different perspective to Irving's would be an understatement. Personally (and to simplify), I find one of Goldhagen's arguments correct, the other absurd. It is clearly the case that far more Germans participated in, and knew about, the great massacre than it was politically convenient to recognize after the event.

But Goldhagen's thesis that the German people were uniquely permeated with "exterminationist" anti-Semitism from well before Hitler makes no sense. All the evidence is that, a hundred years ago, anti-Semitism was far more rampant in other European nations such as Poland and Russia, or even the France of the Dreyfus case. Why was it Germany and not they which perpetrated the murder?

The sad truth is that it is almost impossible to discuss these matters sine ira et studio. And we might all agree the worst possible place to discuss them at all is in a court of law. Indeed, there is one other aspect to the Irving case that enrages some of us almost as much as the controversy itself, and throws a most ironical light on the whole question of Holocaust denial. It is Irving, the supposed denier, who is suing Lipstadt, the enemy of denial, for accusing him of denying. And he is doing so under the dreadful English libel laws. Whatever the rights and wrongs, it really is monstrous that Ms. Lipstadt should have years of her life taken up with this case, should have to give up months to preparing her defence, and should be obliged to sit in court for many weeks on end, simply because she wasn't prepared to grovel to Irving.

She does this in the knowledge, moreover, that even if the judge finds for her and her publishers, they will be faced with huge costs. That happens regularly in defamation cases. You can win and still lose: When "costs" are awarded to the successful party, that by no means necessarily covers all legal expenses incurred.

While Irving is conducting his own case, the defendants have a full legal team, solicitors, Queen's Counsel and junior, all costing many thousands a day. Taking part in a case like this is catching a cab from Toronto to Vancouver and watching the meter tick over. Since Irving cannot possibly pay even part of the defence costs, he will presumably go bankrupt if he loses, and the defendants can whistle for their money.

And this case shows once again how heavily weighted in the defendant's [sic] favour the libel law is. He doesn't have to prove "actual damage" or financial loss, only to assert that his feelings are hurt, as aren't ours all from time to time. The burden of proof is effectively on the defendant. She has no public interest defence, and the plaintiff is not obliged to show (as in American law) that she acted recklessly and with malice.

If this sounds like a newspaperman's grudge, I would point out that the most successful exponents of the English libel laws in the past 20 years have been the late Robert Maxwell, Jeffrey Archer ("Lord Archer," Lord help us) and the Bank of Commerce and Credit International, all of whom who used the law to silence their critics. Should David Irving's name be added to that roll of dishonour? At any rate the present case is a civil action, brought by Irving, but in some countries he himself might by now have been prosecuted in the criminal courts. Some countries now have Holocaust denial laws under which to say what Irving has said is a criminal offence.

This is a most retrograde step. Three years ago, the idea of such a law was floated in England, and greeted with enthusiasm, I'm sorry but not surprised to say, by Tony Blair, who can't see a bandwagon without jumping on it. At the time, the proposal was criticized eloquently by Robert Harris in the Sunday Times, humbly by myself in the Sunday Telegraph, and most bravely in the Jewish Chronicle by the late Chaim Bermant. As he said, such a law would be unthinkable in the U.S. because of its constitution, and ought to be unthinkable in England "because of our traditions." The answer to lies is to tell the truth, not to lock up the liars.

It is indeed possible to detest Holocaust deniers while also having grave misgivings about what has been called the Holocaust industry, or "Shoah business," about which Hal Niedzviecki wrote in the National Post last Saturday (Turning the Horror of History into Fun). And such misgivings aren't confined to those who are indifferent to the sufferings of the Jews.

That great man Isaiah Berlin was an acutely conscious Jew, who identified passionately with his people and their fate. And in the words of his biographer Michael Ignatieff, "he actively despised the Holocaust industry and kept his distance from rhetorical invocations of his people's horrible fate. Silence seemed more truthful." While knowing what I think about David Irving, I also know what Isaiah Berlin meant.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's last book, The Controversy of Zion: Jewish Nationalism, the Jewish State and the Unresolved Jewish Dilemma, won an American National Jewish Book Award.


Our opinion
  THIS article, if published in Britain about a court action that it still sub judice, would have brought its author directly from his home to a prison cell for contempt of court; by publishing it in Canada the cowardly British (Sunday Telegraph) journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft clearly expects to dodge that fate.

If you write to a newspaper don't forget: 1. keep it short; 2. add your mail address and a daytime telephone number. They will not print it otherwise.

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