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The Jerusalem Report

February 28, 2000


The Holocaust on Trial

Eric Silver / London

On the one hand, legions of world leaders flock to a conference in Sweden dedicated to ensuring that the crimes of the Holocaust never recur. On the other, Austria brings Joerg Haider's far-right Freedom Party into government. At a time when the Holocaust is again taking center stage in Europe, a libel action currently being heard in a London courtroom takes on potentially dramatic proportions. For the verdict in the battle of minds at the Royal Courts of Justice could prove a landmark in shaping public perception of what the Nazis did to the Jews.


THE DIALOGUE IS RESTRAINED, technical and detailed. Two men in business suits are talking design standards, building codes, blue-prints and computer imaging. They focus on a service elevator, its dimensions, its carrying capacity, the horsepower of its motor, the maximum speed it could rise fully laden from the lower to the upper floor of a two-story building.

The older, bigger man demands answers. He has a thesis to prove. The younger, slimmer man replies patiently, confident of his professional expertise. There is a hint of exasperation, but he is careful to keep it in check. The two men don't like each other, but they maintain a veneer of courtesy.

It is important for both of them to do so -- because the brightly-lit room with its spare, functional, teak tables and chairs, its wall stacks of files, is not an engineer's office, but Court No. 73 in London's Royal Courts of Justice, a gray, sprawling, neo-Gothic structure where The Strand sidles into Fleet Street.

The big man is David Irving, a maverick, self-taught British historian, who is suing Deborah Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, for branding him a Holocaust denier in her 1994 book, "Denying the Holocaust: the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory." Lipstadt described Irving as a "Hitler partisan," who has manipulated history by denying that the Holocaust occurred. Irving, who claims his reputation has been destroyed, is seeking damages that would be awarded by the judge if his libel action is successful.

The younger man is Robert van Pelt, a Dutch architect [sic] and cultural historian, now teaching at Waterloo University in Canada, who wrote a massive, comprehensive study of Auschwitz and advised the Polish authorities on the reconstruction [sic] of that most notorious of Nazi death camps. He is appearing as an expert witness for the defense. What they are discussing is a crematorium, and how many corpses the elevator could deliver per hour from the mortuary below, bearing in mind that it was open-sided and they might fall off and clog the mechanism if there were too many at one go.

Irving, a 61-year-old author of books on Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, is trying to establish that 450,000 Hungarian Jews could not have been killed and burned in three weeks in the summer of 1944: the logistics of genocide. It is central to his claim that millions of Jews were not gassed in Auschwitz and other camps under the Third Reich. Less delicately, in a 1991 speech in Calgary, Canada, Irving asserted: "More women died in the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz."

Irving has never repudiated that statement, which was quoted by defense counsel Richard Rampton on the opening day of the High Court hearing. On the contrary, he reiterates it with glee during an hour-long, late-January interview with "The Jerusalem Report" in his Mayfair apartment. If Irving is not denying the Holocaust, he is unrepentantly downsizing it.

"I don't dispute that the Nazis machine-gunned over one million Jews in big killing actions on the Eastern Front," he explains in the interview, "but I don't buy the other end of the legend -- the notion that they had purpose-built factories of death in which millions more were killed, up to a total of six million."


WHAT IS ON TRIAL IN COURT No. 73, it seems, is the Holocaust itself. How many died? Was their slaughter part of a systematic Final Solution of the Jewish Problem? Did Hitler order their annihilation? Irving claims that no researcher has yet turned up a single piece of written evidence that he did. Rival historians do not dispute that contention, but they reject Irving's suggestion to the judge that Hitler is therefore "innocent until proven guilty."

In our interview, Irving says: "No one has come forward with evidence that would even halfway satisfy a British court as to his culpability. He could be convicted under the present race hatred acts and get an 18-month jail sentence, suspended. That's all you'd get on the evidence at present."

Jewish leaders in Britain, the United States and Israel are reluctant to speculate in public on what victory for Irving would mean. The case, they note, is still sub judice. They don't want to let Irving accuse them of ganging up on him or of fostering trial by media. "While the trial is on," says Greville Janner, the Labor peer and normally loquacious chairman of Britain's Holocaust Educational Trust, "it would be better for me to shut up."

Yet they are clearly worried -- not because of any lack of evidence of what happened in the Holocaust, but because of the narrow nature of this case, and its focus on Lipstadt's choice of language and Irving's writings and reputation. Were he to prevail, the fear is that he and people like him would try to brandish the verdict as "proof," confirmed by a British court of law, that the Holocaust did not unfold as it did.

Defeat for Lipstadt would be extremely damaging to the cause of Holocaust education, Jewish leaders privately acknowledge, though not, they insist, fatal. In the West, at least, they say, Holocaust awareness has passed a point of no return. In Britain, for instance, Tony Blair's government has just established a national Holocaust memorial day, and the Imperial War Museum is creating a Holocaust wing. In Washington, thousands visit the National Holocaust Museum daily. German and Austrian presidents have apologized to the Jews for their nations' sins. The Swedish government has just presided over an international forum on Holocaust education (See Missed Opportunities in Stockholm).

But at the same time, the far right is on the rise in parts of western Europe, including Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark and Norway. Even countries like Sweden are only now starting to come to terms with their roles in the Holocaust. And Austria -- those presidential apologies notwithstanding -- seems never to have confronted its past and has now brought the far-right, in the shape of Joerg Haider's Freedom Party, into its government. In the Arab world, meanwhile, a recent scathing attack on Israel in the Syrian state daily Tishrin, in which the Holocaust was branded a Zionist "myth" and Israel was charged with committing crimes far worse than the Nazis, underlines the potential prop-aganda value for Israel's critics of a verdict in Irving's favor.

"If Irving won the case, it would give a license to all those who are Holocaust deniers," warns David Cesarani, professor of Jewish history at Southampton University and director xof London's Wiener Library, one of the first and most respected of Holocaust archives. "It would give aid and comfort to people like Le Pen in France and Haider in Austria who want to minimize the scale of Nazi atrocities and to rehabilitate Hitler."

"In the Arab world," says Yehuda Bauer, the chief historian at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, "an Irving victory would be received with great acclamation and great satisfaction as a defeat for the Jews. So much anti-Semitic material already appears in the press of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. These are very important countries. We even have peace agreements with some of them. It's quite frightening."


THE TRIAL OPENED ON JANUARY 11 and is expected to continue for two or three months. Irving chose to sue Lipstadt and her British publisher, Penguin Books, in an English court because the burden of proof in a libel action here is on the defendants. They have to demonstrate that what they disseminated was true and fair comment. In the U.S., the plaintiff has the more difficult task of showing that the author of the offending material lied or was reckless.

The case is being heard by Charles Gray, one of Britain's most experienced libel lawyers before his elevation to the high court bench. By agreement between the two sides, he is sitting without a jury. The parties felt the issues would be too complex for a lay panel to handle.

Irving is representing himself -- three law students, who helped him prepare his case on a voluntary basis, have dropped out after being admitted to the Bar -- and he confides that he is starting to feel the strain. After each day in court, he works until 3 a.m. preparing the next day's material, then sleeps barely four hours.

In court, Irving wears a dark blue, pinstriped suit. He is a bulky figure: well over six feet tall, with a craggy head, fleshy hands, boat-sized feet in black lace-up shoes. At home, in the red-brick, late-Victorian apartment block on Duke Street, between Oxford Street and Grosvenor Square, he greets me in casual blue pants, open-necked blue sports shirt and soft, white leather sneakers. He makes us both filter coffee in the kitchen before we go into his study. He welcomes an approach by a Jewish reporter for an Israeli magazine. It shows he does talk to Jews.

In both settings, Irving is truculent, dogmatic and defiant. He is an iconoclast, consciously challenging the consensus on the great crime of the 20th century. His aim is to shock, to set the record straight as he sees it. "I don't mind being disliked," he says. "I don't think it's my job to be liked."

Even his bitterest critics acknowledge his encyclopedic grasp of the minutiae of the Third Reich. He has done his homework. Last summer, the "New York Times" quoted a leading British military historian, John Keegan, as saying Irving "knows more than anyone alive about the German side of the Second World War."

No one has ever accused Irving of wearing his learning lightly. What historians increasingly question, however, is the use he makes of his material, the conclusions he draws, above all his disdain for the testimony of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses that might undermine his thesis.

"Irving consistently uses oral evidence from the circle around Hitler," David Cesarani complains, "Hitler's adjutant, Hitler's batman, Hitler's cleaners. But he refuses to give weight to survivors of the camps and those who were involved in their liberation. A historian who takes a balanced view of history looks at all the sources, and juxtaposes one source against another to get as near as possible to the truth. You don't get nearer by excluding a whole set of evidence."

In court, Irving dismisses the haunted memories of Primo Levi, the Italian author, scientist and Auschwitz survivor, who committed suicide in 1987. Levi, he argues, "wrote for payment for profit-driven publishers." Ergo, he is not to be trusted.

In our interview he is equally scornful of the testimony of Hans Münch, an SS doctor who conducted genetic research in Auschwitz under Dr. Josef Mengele and was spared after the war because he sheltered his Jewish guinea pigs once he had finished with them. In Austrian and German television interviews in 1984 and 1995, Munch described the "crisis" caused by the sudden arrival in Auschwitz of the 450,000 Hungarian Jews. Supplies of Zyklon B gas pellets had run out. An SS officer became the "hero of the day" when he drove a truck to the factory and forced the workers to load it up, even though he didn't have the necessary requisition orders.

Munch, who now lives in retirement in Bavaria, said explicitly of Mengele's "selections" of Jews arriving at the camp: "Those who were not fit to work were sent for gassing." Challenged with this, Irving replies: "Munch is a problem for the psychiatrists. There's absolutely no paper trail."


IN COURT AND IN HIS MAYFAIR study, with its whirring data base and bulging files, Irving betrays neither compassion for the Jewish victims, nor empathy for a later generation that wants to ensure that genocide on such a scale cannot be repeated. The Jews, he insists, deserve no more sympathy than the millions of other innocent war victims, Hitler's, Churchill's or Roosevelt's.

"This is what I find offensive about the Holocaust," he tells me, "the idea that Jews are entitled to some kind of protection. You're a member of one trades union, which is the innocent Jews' trades union. You say you want special treatment. And I'm a member of a much bigger trades union, the innocent people's trades union, the union of all innocent people." He won't explain why you have to choose between one class of victim and another.

He prefers not to use the word "Holocaust." When I talk of genocide, he spurns the word as "the latest flavor of the month, a fashionable word they use," adding darkly: "And I know why they use it." As for the Holocaust, he says he's "not the least bit interested" in it. "I find it an endlessly boring subject. I know the Jewish community find it intensely fascinating, and they want the whole world to take an interest in it. But I don't. And I know a very large number of people like me around the world who are thoroughly fed up with it."

Although he denies that he is an anti-Semite, Irving does not hesitate to accuse Jews of cashing in on the Holocaust. In court, he tries to discredit Robert van Pelt's Auschwitz history by arguing that his American co-author, Deborah Dwork, is now the incumbent of a $5 million chair in Holocaust studies at Clark University. "It has become big business... There are all kinds of profitable sidelines," Irving insinuates, before Justice Gray pointedly advises him that this particularly line of questioning "does not impress me."

In his 1991 Calgary speech, Irving delighted his far-right audience by announcing that he was establishing an "Association of Spurious Survivors of the Holocaust and Other Liars," ASSHOLS for short. Nine years later, he celebrates this as a "very good" line. When I protest that it wasn't very tasteful, he retorts: "There are a lot of Jews who are not very tasteful, and they use methods which are not very tasteful. Money comes into it. They're doing it all over again. They're creating the perception of the avaricious Jew, them and us."

Irving comes perilously close to blaming the European Jews for bringing the tragedy on themselves. "If I were a Jew," he tells me, "I would want to know not who pulled the trigger, but why. Why is it only the Jews who were being sought out for this kind of treatment, not just by the Nazis, but in other countries too? Again and again, it's the Jews who are picked on by the non-Jewish people. They are made the victims of the most brutal pogroms imaginable. Why is it yet again the Jews?"

When I press him to say whether he thinks the Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves, he loses his cool. "It may have sounded like that to your ears," he snaps back, "because you're paranoid about it, because you don't like the idea that the Jews may have brought it even in part on themselves."

Irving talks too of an "international Jewish conspiracy." Not, this time, a plot to rule the world, but to silence unpopular seekers after truth like David Irving. "I have two bundles of documents," he says, "establishing that there is a global network of organizations that are operating for the last 10 years to destroy my legitimacy as a historian -- by letters to ambassadors, by letters to governments, by letters to publishers."

As a consequence, Irving says, he is now barred from Germany, Italy, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. No mainstream publisher will handle his books. He brought out the last one, on the origins and impact of the Nuremberg war crimes trials, himself. He said in court that the hostile campaign had cost him, his wife and four children -- 100,000 (about $165,000) a year in lost income.

That, he says, is why he has brought a libel action that is costing the defense and the state millions of pounds -- and could bankrupt him, if he loses and is ordered to pay costs. "I know what has been done to me and my family by this international endeavor, and that is what I'm striking back at. It's going to hurt those people who have done it," he vows. "That, I think, is why they're spending this huge sum of money in what I regard as a frantic attempt to stop me."

Mr. Justice Gray, in his wisdom, will decide who is right and who is wrong, in the eyes of the law. It is a verdict that will resonate far beyond the confines of Court No. 73.


Related articles: Confronting Hitler's Defender -- An interview with David Irving


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