Evil takes the stand

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

Topics: Books,

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, 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 ever 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 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.”

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.

As 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 Lipstadt’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.” In a book review in the Independent published around the time of the trial, the British historian John Fox lambasted “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 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.

This article has been changed

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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