London, April 14, 2000
David Cesarani considers the making and the impact of the verdict against David Irving
No more the mere maverick
After a trial costing millions of pounds, involving tens of thousands of documents, and 32 days in the High Court, Justice Charles Gray concluded on Tuesday that David Irving had indulged in an ideologically motivated distortion of history when he asserted in many publications and speeches that the Holocaust -- the systematic persecution and slaughter of European Jews by shooting and poison gas with the knowledge and approval of Adolf Hitler -- never happened.
The outcome vindicated the American academic, Deborah Lipstadt, whose 1993 book, "Denying the Holocaust," provoked Irving to sue her and her publisher, Penguin Books. Until then, Irving was widely seen as just a maverick, right-wing historian, but Lipstadt placed him in the ranks of the political untouchables who seek to rehabilitate Hitler by erasing the stain of the "Final Solution" from his reputation.
For Irving, the trial was a last-ditch attempt to remove the stigma of Holocaust-denier which had increasingly persuaded publishers and booksellers to give him a wide berth. He depicted himself as the victim of "an international endeavour" -- a Jewish conspiracy -- devoted to his financial ruination. To succeed, he had to prove his version of history was credible and reached by sound methods.
American Jews rallied to Lipstadt's side. They funded a powerful band of researchers, led by Professor Richard Evans of Cambridge University, and a legal team marshalled by Anthony Julius, Lipstadt and Penguin were represented by Richard Rampton, QC. But she had to abandon her teaching at Emory University in Atlanta, and move to London for three months. Because she declined to take the witness stand, she had to sit silently in Court 73 day after day while Irving threw mud at her.
The defence had to prove that Irving distorted and falsified history for ideological reasons and did not deserve to be called an historian.
To do this, they had to show that, at the time of writing the books in which he touched on the Holocaust, there was so much evidence that it occurred, and that Hitler knew of it, that no reasonable person could be in any doubt. Moreover, they had to demonstrate that the narrative he presented relied on taking part of this evidence and twisting it to mean something else.
Consequently, the trial revolved around the interpretation of historical sources. However, facts in history are not like evidence in a burglary case. A fingerprint is unambiguous, but does the German word "Vernichtung" mean "physical extermination" or "destruction," as in destroying someone's argument?
Does a note in Himmler's appointment book, on December 12, 1941, that the Jews were to be "exterminated" as partisans, mean that they were to be shot because they were resisting or on the pretext that they were?
Above all, were there gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau designed to kill Jews by the thousand? Contrary to the eyewitness evidence, which he derided, Irving maintained that the underground halls with gas-tight doors were air-raid shelters -- even though they were built long before the area came within range of Allied bombers, and lay half-a-mile from the nearest SS barracks.
The defence summoned expert witnesses to illustrate the documentary evidence for the genocide, expose Irving's fraudulent methodology, and show his close links with the far-right in Germany. They showed videos in which Irving made loathsome jokes about the "Association of Spurious Survivors of the Holocaust and other Liars -- ASSHOLS." His diary, which he was obliged to hand over, revealed a passage in which he recalled teaching his baby daughter a racist rhyme.
IRVING, who conducted his own defence, ran it like a military operation and had a response to every charge. He displayed immense physical and mental stamina. But his attempts to disparage the experts drew him into nit-picking argument, contesting even the number of dots used to signify cuts in a text. At one point, the exasperated judge told him: "Mr Irving, I will simply say to you that you are not serving your own cause well by taking up time quite pointlessly on these sort of questions."
He reduced Rampton to groans, and objections, by backsliding from positions he had already conceded. At times, his argument was puerile. When he was accused of associating with neo-Nazis, on the grounds that he spoke from their platforms, he retorted by asking whether, if he gave a lecture at Cambridge, that fact would signify concurrence with the views of all the fellows.
In the end, the expert evidence gradually ground him down. The historians showed that it was absurd to suggest that Hitler had been unaware or innocent of the November 1938, pogrom, or the killings on the Eastern Front in 1941-2.
Mr Justice Gray said he found the documentary evidence for the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau "fragmentary," but a surviving document which referred to a "gassing cellar" caused immense difficulty for Irving. His explanation that it denoted a mortuary in which corpses had been fumigated with Zyklon-B appeared ludicrous.
Ultimately, the evidence of Irving's racism and his attitude towards the Jews may have been decisive. Even in court, he defended his attacks on "Jewry" by maintaining -- much as Oswald Mosley had done -- that a campaign against him by Jewish organisations had forced him to become their adversary.
Irving repeatedly asserted that Jews brought anti-Semitism on themselves, not least by seeking redress for their suffering during the Holocaust.
"If I were a Jew," he told the court, "the question that would interest me is not who pulled the trigger but why does it keep on happening again and again, and why does nobody investigate this phenomenon of where does anti-Semitism come from?"
This helped to explain his perversion of history. A man so hostile towards Jews, unable to comprehend that they might be innocent victims, could not possibly read documents with objectivity.
Whether the hate or Holocaust-denial came first, we may never know.
David Cesarani is professor of modem Jewish history at Southampton University and the director of the Wiener Library.
London, April 14, 2000