Published by Simon Wiesenthal Center, Los Angeles, Issue: 50
Impressions of the Irving Trial
Michael Kustow gives his impressions of the David Irving libel trial against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books, which raises important questions of the nature of historical evidence and its understanding
AT STAKE in David Irving's libel action against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books was not only Irving's contention that his reputation and livelihood had been harmed, but also a bitter argument about the nature of historical evidence and its interpretation.
Irving has questioned the reality of the Holocaust at a meaningful moment in history. The survivors are dying out; soon there will be no living memory, however impaired, of the atrocity. Three decades of postmodernism have made inroads into the common ground of history, licensing scepticism about our understanding of the past. Finally, a digital information system reaches around the world, enacting in its very process the idea that everything is virtual and simulated. Irving, victim of what he calls "an international endeavour" (he is too canny to call it "a world-wide Jewish conspiracy" though 90 per cent of his cited opponents are Jewish organisations), embraces the Internet, running a vast website. A protagonist absent from the courtroom during the trial, it sported a shameless headline which spoke of "Deborah Lipstadt and her Israeli paymasters".
Evans has written a 740-page report for the defence, attacking Irving's prolific output. Irving starts by quibbling about Evans's translation of one of those abstract German euphemisms used to cloak mass killing. He brandishes a 1936 German-English dictionary to make the point that today's German and English are different from yesterday's. When Irving vaunts his own achievements in obtaining neglected archival treasures of Nazi behaviour, Evans replies, "It's not what you dig up, Mr Irving, it's what you do with it. The sources have a right of veto over what one can and cannot say."
Every now and then a black beast surges up from Irving's depths. When he tries to skewer Evans on a loose piece of phrasing, Evans says it was written under time pressure, the way book reviews are. "You review books for the Jewish Chronicle, don't you?" replies Irving, triumphant. The same beast lurches out in Irving's private diaries. In an aside, he writes, "God is using Aids as a Final Solution to wipe out all the blacks in Africa." Irving protests that these are tiny extracts from millions of words of diaries that he was forced to disclose.
Irving asks Evans for his definition of antisemitism. Evans says that it's hatred of the Jewish people, leading to a concerted effort to exterminate them. And out of nowhere, Irving tells Evans that the Hungarian government that was overthrown in 1956 had a disproportionate number of Jews in it, and asking him whether drawing attention to this fact would be an antisemitic statement. Then he flourishes a bunch of antisemitic quotes he has selected from the private papers of Lord Halifax, Churchill and Anthony Eden. When the judge, Mr Justice Gray, objects this has nothing to with the case, Irving says he simply wanted to measure the degree of antisemitism of which he is accused; "a league table by which I could be judged, my lord."
On the second day of cross-examination, Irving launches an attack on the integrity of Evans's quotations from his work. A skirmish builds up around an ellipsis. By inserting three dots in a quoted passage to indicate that something has been omitted, claims Irving, Evans distorts it. "You have left out four sentences, two hundred and seventy eight words, five commas and four full-stops," he intones. Unflappable Mr Justice Gray reminds Irving to get to the point. "You're not helping me", he murmurs, as if he were Nanny with an awful lot to get done, and Irving an attention-seeking child. Irving is momentarily halted in his tracks. "It's hard for me, your lordship, when I don't get anything back from you. Your face is so impassive." Irving's father died when he was twelve.
He pumps out questions, and barely listens to the replies. He speeds onto the supposed conspiracy "to abrogate my right to write and publish". He talks about the smashing of bookshop windows to pressure them to remove his books, of publishers manipulated by hidden hands to reject his books, of universities withdrawing invitations, of Professor Lipstadt refusing to debate with him. "Would you call that refusal a position of weakness or of strength?"
"Of principle, Mr Irving. I would not debate with people I don't consider historians."
The final expert witness for the defence is a German social scientist, Dr Hajo Funke, who has researched the neo-Nazi movement in Germany and beyond, and gives evidence of Irving's associations with them. The defence's trump exhibits are videos made by a German cameraman of far-right meetings over the past twenty years in Alsace, Passau, Munich, Halle. Before they start, Irving is on his feet, protesting that the extracts have been tendentiously edited, that anything with a commentary or background music is unacceptable.
But cumulatively, they are unarguable. They conjure up many associations: a veterans' reunion, a beer-hall rant, a skinhead rock festival. Doctor Funke identifies the participants one by one. They punch the air on a platform, in front of a banner reading Wahrheit macht frei -- truth (not work, as the Auschwitz entrance gate mockingly displays) will make you free. Here is yesterday's Irving at the microphone, talking about mobile gas-chambers in a race of excitement. Today's Irving leaps to his feet in protest.
After further attempts by Irving to have the videos dismissed as evidence, defence counsel Richard Rampton puts it to him that, by "mocking" eyewitness accounts during his public speeches, he was "appealing to, feeding, encouraging the most cynical, radical antisemitism" in his audiences. Irving replies that he was "mocking the liars" who spread false stories about the Final Solution. "Then why the applause?" asks Rampton."Because I am a good speaker," says Irving, brazenly.
Rampton puts in the boot, reading out a speech Irving does not contest he gave in Canada in 1991: "I say, quite tastelessly in fact, that more people died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz." Rampton goes on, like a scientist displaying a specimen: "Oh, you think that's tasteless, how about this? "There are so many Auschwitz survivors going around, in fact the number increases as the years go past, which is biologically very odd, to say the least. Because I'm going to form an association of Auschwitz survivors, survivors of the Holocaust and other liars -- or the asshols."
Our comrade from England struts his stuff abroad, plays to the gallery and betrays his profession by reducing history to a rabble-rousing schoolboy joke. He produces his copy of Mein Kampf ("The sort of thing one picks up. I've never read it"), takes it out of its black slip-case and waves it around, as if it were just an antique knick-knack. He is benefiting from an intellectual climate in which a true critical spirit gets lost in linguistic games and politicised grudge. And, win or lose, his website -- truly an instrument of our age -- will continue disseminating outlaw assertions to the paranoid, credulous and resentful around the world.
Irving pays cursory homage to victims. What really obsesses him are leaders and elites, like the Nazi leadership. He comes across as a playground bully sucking up to the stronger boys. In the full flood of his closing speech, he even manages to address the judge as Mein Führer. As he barrels on through the courtroom laughter to his conclusion, it is clear that this is not a joke, but a lapse.
Website fact: The stamina of the defence team in the Lipstadt libel action was aided by a six million dollar slushfund provided by Steven Spielberg, Edgar J Bronfman, and the American Jewish Committee, which enabled them to pay 21 lawyers and "experts". A million pound lollipop was figuratively brandished from the defence lawyers' table throughout the trial, and all those who behaved got a lick at it; their experts like the "scholars" Prof. Evans, Prof. Longerich and others were paid up to £125,000 each (on top of the academic salaries they continued to draw) to testify as they did. Nobody was paying for Mr Irving. His defence witnesses testified without payment, from conviction. [Help!]