Posted Wednesday, April 5, 2000

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The Diminished Assault on Truth and Memory

By Michael Berenbaum, Contributing Writer


This has been a difficult season for Holocaust deniers.

LipstadtIn January, Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson convened an international summit in Stockholm attended by 22 heads of state with delegations from another 20 countries for discussions with leading Holocaust scholars and educators from five continents to consider Holocaust education for the 21st century.

In February, Germany President Johanas (sic) Rau stood at the rostrum of the Knesset, and speaking in German in the name of the German people, apologized for the Holocaust.

In March, Pope John Paul II visited Israel. From the time he arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv to the moment he departed, it was clear to Roman Catholics and Jews, and to the international media, that this was an extraordinary gesture of reconciliation in the shadow not only of two millennia of Christian anti-Semitism, but in the massive shadow of the Holocaust. Even if Pope John Paul II did not say everything that could be said, his bowed head at Yad Vashem and his note of apology inserted into the Western Wall said more than could be said by words alone. In the third millennium, His Holiness determined that Roman Catholics should act differently, behave differently and believe differently. An eyewitness to the Holocaust, he had come to make amends.

And on April 11, a British judge ruled that Deborah Lipstadt had not libeled David Irving when she called him an "a Nazi apologist and an admirer of Hitler who has resorted to distortion of facts and to manipulation of documents in support of his contention that the Holocaust did not take place."

Justice Gray's decision is measured. The 335-page document is written with typical British understatement but with an eye to history. He refused to debate whether the Holocaust happened: "I do not regard as being any part of my function to make findings of fact as to what did or did not occur during the Nazi regime." That is the task of historians. The task of the court was to evaluate the issues of dispute between the parties.

He goes through eight issues of dispute: David Irving's portrayal of Hitler' s attitude toward the Jewish question; Irving's description of Hitler's attitude toward and his knowledge of and responsibility for the evolving policy of extermination; Irving's contention that there was no gassing of Jews at Auschwitz; Lipstadt's claim that Irving is a Holocaust denier; Lipstadt's statement that Irving is an anti-Semite and a racist; Irving's association with right-wing extremists; Irving's writings on the bombing of Dresden; and Irving's handling of the Goebbels diaries that he found in the Moscow Archives. Each contention of the defense is restated, each argument of the plaintiff is weighed in a painstaking effort to present the issues in dispute.

Judge Gray did not sustain three charges made in Deborah Lipstadt's "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory" -- that Irving had a portrait of Hitler over his desk, that he was scheduled to speak at an anti-Zionist Conference in 1992 to be attended by terrorist organizations, and that he broke his agreement with the Moscow archives by removing plates of Goebbels' diary. But these unproven allegations, he stated, have no material effect on Irving's reputation. Thus, Lipstadt's victory was complete, more complete than anyone could have hoped at the beginning of the trial.

What have we learned from this long ordeal? The defense defeated falsehood with truth.

Instead of responding to Irving by getting down to his level, they commissioned several of the world's most distinguished Holocaust historians to evaluate the evidence. Robert Jan Van-Pelt (for £109,244.24)(picture left) wrote on what we know about Auschwitz. Christopher Browning (for £27,632.12) and Peter Longerich (for £76,195.25) wrote and testified on Hitler's role in the "Final Solution." Browning and Longerich are non-Jews. None had lived through these events. Thus, the older generation of historians who were survivors or who lived through the Holocaust has trained a new generation that can work with documents and sustain the truth of the historical record.

Richard Evans (for £70,181.00), the Cambridge University historian wrote at length -- some 800 pages -- as to how Irving misrepresented history. He examined original documents, he read each of Irving's footnotes, reviewed the mistranslations and the slanting of information. The result was not only a work of distinction that ripped apart all shred of pretense in Irving's façade as a historian, but a work that established how responsible historians must conduct their research, how documents are to be read, translations to be made, and the accuracy and adequacy of documents assessed and judged.

Because of their work, we now know more about the Holocaust, and more information will be available to the public in writing that is as clear as the material is complex. The public will soon be able to read the briefs prepared by these major scholars and know more about Adolf Hitler's decision-making process during the Holocaust, about the evolution of his own anti-Semitism, about gassing at Auschwitz, about the evolution of the killing process, and about many other issues.

In the end, good historians shattered the falsifier.

But beyond that, courage was needed.

Some advised Deborah Lipstadt to settle. Irving was not requesting a significant sum, but an apology and a retraction. Pursuing the trial would consume two years or more of her life. The results were uncertain, and Lipstadt had to win two victories, one in the British court and the other in the court of public opinion. After all, Irving wanted the attention. He wanted the opportunity to air -- and vindicate -- his views. Penguin Books Limited, Lipstadt's publishers in the United Kingdom, might also have been tempted to settle. The potential liability was enormous; the court costs prohibitive.

Fortunately, Lipstadt's courage was rewarded, and her fortitude must be acknowledged with gratitude and respect.

The case, however, was never tried in the court of public opinion.

It wasn't on the talk shows or in the media cycle. Readers of the Los Angeles Times will recall how distorted the first article on the trial was, how ill-equipped even our fine newspaper was to handle the subtlety of the issues. Even in the post-trial reports in the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, Irving is described as a historian -- not a propagandist or a Holocaust denier. Even as responsible a reporter as Marjorie Miller fell into the conventional habit: "Mainstream historians accept the estimate that about a million people were gassed to death at Auschwitz-Birkenau." One wonders who the non-mainstream historians are and what they say.

There is a difference between truth and opinion.

The press naturally assumed that in a dispute between two parties, the truth lies somewhere in between. Both views must be considered, both views are equal. Throughout the trial, every press account presented Irving's perspective and his arguments, as well they must. In the initial reports of the verdict, the same balancing act was taking place. Everyone was entitled to an opinion, Lipstadt, Judge Gray, David Irving. Only when the full import of the verdict was absorbed did media coverage begin to change.

Even in our world of relativism, even in our world where historians look at the same evidence and come to vastly different conclusions, there is truth, there are opinions backed by evidence and there is falsehood. The Holocaust happened. The deniers are wrong. And there is a difference between history and its falsification.

Will this end the phenomenon of Holocaust denial?

Of course not!

But this is a significant defeat. David Irving was the most potent weapon of the Holocaust deniers because he knew the documents. He often knew more original sources than many scholars. The judge found his manipulation of evidence "deliberate" -- and clever, I would add.

Hopefully, there may be one thing that Deborah Lipstadt may have gotten wrong, not in 1993 when she wrote the book, but now, as we enter the 21st century.

She subtitled her book "The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory." Due in large measure to Lipstadt's courage and perseverance, the skills of her lawyers, and the belief of a group of Holocaust scholars that truth could defeat lies, at least for a time, that assault on memory and truth is diminished.

Most importantly, because survivors and scholars, writers and filmmakers have been faithful to history, the Holocaust has assumed its rightful role as a defining event of 20th century history and an indispensable memory for establishing the moral responsibilities of humanity in this new century.

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