January 16, 2000
The controversial British historian David Irving - once the darling of the South African Right - is involved in a battle for the hearts and minds of future generations over the interpretation of the Holocaust
ANDRÉ PRETORIUS listened to the evidence
THERE is something moving about a man in a witness box trying to defend his life's work against the ranged forces of a well-groomed legal team. If that life's work is the apparently harmless act of historiography, the onslaught appears all the more callous. But then historiography, the art of researching, interpreting and writing history, is not harmless.
The question of who should be trusted as curators of history is at the heart of a high-profile legal battle that started in the High Court in London on Tuesday and which is set to last three months. The British historian David Irving is suing an American academic, Professor Deborah Lipstadt, and her publisher, Penguin, for libel.
Lipstadt allegedly defamed Irving in her book, Denying the Holocaust - The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, when she labelled him a "Holocaust denier". Her defence to the claim is justification: according to her, Irving's books and speeches make him "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial".
Irving is a well-known historian of the Third Reich and its personalities, although not, as he kept emphasising throughout the first week of the trial, of the Holocaust. His books include The Destruction of Dresden, Hitler's War and Goebbels - Mastermind of the Third Reich.
Irving, 61 , has been an eminently controversial figure for more than 30 years. He has been barred from Canada, Germany and Australia and has been fined in France and Germany for questioning the Holocaust, which is an offence in those countries.
He moves in extreme rightwing circles, but on the witness stand he described himself as a "laissez-faire liberal", although admitting his discomfort with uncontrolled coloured immigration. He also said he regretted the passing of the "old England" and ventured that if the British soldiers and sailors who won the war could see Britain now they would not have advanced 50 yards (about 38m) up the Normandy beaches.
Yet he claims that Lipstadt was the willing executioner for a Jewish conspiracy to discredit him as a historian and that her book and actions have cost him his livelihood. Since its publication he has been unable to find a US publisher for his biography of Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. Because Lipstadt asserts that Irving's works "misstate, misquote, falsify statistics and falsely attribute conclusions to reliable sources", the historical truth of his statements will need to be assessed. A host of star witnesses will analyse the integrity of Irving's methods and research.
It is a fascinating and surreal exercise: in a courtroom stacked high with documents, people in gowns and wigs argue over the true meaning and significance of signals sent between German generals and Nazi leaders more than 50 years ago.
Irving, whose forensic mind and capacity for detailed research are said to be admired by fellow historians, represents himself. Lipstadt and Penguin are represented by Richard Rampton QC. The parties agreed to Mr Justice Charles Gray's suggestion to dispense with a jury, because of the complexity of the case.
Rampton is a bookish-looking man with the manner of a schoolmaster, but his first cross-examination of Irving was incisive. The importance of the case was evident as soon as that cross-examination started on Wednesday. Rampton began by grilling Irving on remarks he had made to a press conference in the '90s . He had said that the biggest lie of all in the history of World War Two was that the Nazis systematically murdered millions of people in gas chambers at Auschwitz. Irving retorted that he still denies that millions of Jews were systematically killed. Gassing, he claimed, was used only experimentally.
If he suggested the gas chamber theory was physically impossible, it did not follow that he denied the mass-killing of Jews. Irving said he has never disputed the fact that somewhere between one and four million Jews were probably killed in various ways by the Nazis.
Semantics were the swords of his verbal duel with Rampton: what does "Holocaust" mean? For Irving, it is a vague, imprecise and unscientific term and should be avoided like the plague, which is why he deleted all use of the word when he reworked Hitler's War in 1991.
In as far as he could define it, Irving said he preferred to call it "the tragedy that befell the Jewish people in the war". But he thought it could also include the plight of Gypsies, homosexuals and the citizens of Dresden, Coventry and Hiroshima.
On the number of victims, he said the exact numbers were in a sense irrelevant: whether it was one or six million, it was a criminally large number.
The question of whether the killing was systematic centres on how far knowledge of the Final Solution extended up the Nazi hierarchy. Irving's books contend that Hitler had been unaware of the extermination policy until late in the war, because people like Reinhard Heydrich kept him in the dark. He points out that there is no documentary evidence linking Hitler to the policy.
Rampton and Irving disputed the interpretation of a message sent by SS chief Heinrich Himmler from Hitler's bunker, the Wolf's Lair in East Prussia, on December 1 1941. It instructed an SS man in Riga not to execute a trainload of 1 000 Berlin Jews.
Irving reads it as proof that Hitler disapproved of the extermination, but Rampton contended that the special instruction relating to one transport proved that liquidation was par for the course. Irving, the barrister said, read it differently to exonerate Hitler. In short, he distorted history by seizing on a small scrap of information to advance his agenda in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The arguments may cover minutiae, but the implications of the trial are far-reaching. Whoever emerges victorious after 12 gruelling weeks in Court 37, the result will be seized upon by extremists on either side of the argument. If Irving were to win, the subtler nuances of the judgment in an immensely complex case may be lost in a welter of simplistic headlines. If Lipstadt wins, it will make life difficult even for those historians who attempt an honest and unbiased reassessment of one of humanity's most despicable crimes.
The argument for an honest reevaluation is put by people of far less controversial pedigree than Irving. Last week, journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote in London's Evening Standard that "the meticulous separation of fact and record, not just from propaganda but also from sentimental exploitation, will be a clarifying and reaffirming thing".
"Fifty years on", Irving had said in his opening statement, "it has become a criminal offence to question whether Nuremberg got it right. History is to be as defined by the four victorious powers in the Nuremberg trials of 1945-6."
It is difficult to refute the case for a reappraisal of the Third Reich's history in light of all the information revealed since 1945. Any such reappraisal, if honestly done, will always conclude that the Nazis committed one of the worst atrocities in human history. It is the how and the why that should be open to investigation. Yet historians attempting this task should approach it with the utmost care and sensitivity. In his opening statement, Irving also lamented that "it is no longer possible to write pure history, untrammelled and uninfluenced by politics, once one ventures into this unpleasant field".
That should come as no surprise to any chronicler of the Third Reich: the magnitude of the crime justifies the extra caution. But quite irrespective of the present libel action, what seems to be demanded by world opinion is not extra caution, but complete conformity with a version of history. In countries like Germany and France, this demand is enshrined to the extent of abrogating free speech. In both countries it is a criminal offence to question certain aspects of the Holocaust. Irving called these laws "questionable" and a "total infringement of the normal human rights".
Advocates of free speech may point out that the apotheosis of tolerance is tolerating even intolerance. On the other hand, it may be argued that the repugnance of what happened between 1933 and 1945 justifies such extreme measures.
However, Irving's case is not about free speech -- after all, he is suing, rather than being sued. It is about who could be considered suitable custodians of historical memory. Historians give us our picture of the past, and that picture may be exploited in the interest of any number of agendas.
Irving says Lipstadt destroyed his reputation as a historian. She says she was justified in doing so because his personal agenda made him an unsuitable trustee of the memory of this terrible episode. In the words of Rampton, Irving "is not historian at all, but a falsifier of history, to put it bluntly, he is a liar".
Harsh words, a titanic struggle. The world may have entered a new century but the heritage of the last remains painfully present. The history of the destruction of European Jewry is one of the most difficult components of that heritage. More than mere personal reputations are at stake in Court 73 - the prize is nothing less than curatorship of that dark past.
Pretorius is a South African law student in London
January 16, 2000