BOOKS: Erasing one who would rewrite history
Phil Kloer - Staff
Sunday, February 13, 2005
History on Trial: My Day in Court With David Irving.
By Deborah E. Lipstadt. Ecco Press. $25.95. 346 pages.
The verdict: The only one it could have been.
In a 1991 speech, British historian David Irving told his audience that "more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz."
It's a tough decision whether to be more outraged at the utter disregard for established fact or the cavalier tastelessness of that statement. That Irving had been considered a serious World War II historian is even worse. Thanks to the work of Deborah Lipstadt, professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, Irving is now known mainly as a liar, an anti-Semite and a man who made a very foolish move when he took on Lipstadt.
In 1993, Lipstadt published her first book, "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory," a serious exploration of the topsy-turvy world of people --- some of them well-known and respected, others just pathetic --- who either deny the reality of the Holocaust or play games to twist or diminish it. One of the authors she called out as a dangerous Holocaust denier was Irving, who had written several histories of World War II but whose methods and judgment were increasingly being questioned by his peers.
Irving sued Lipstadt for libel in Britain, where the libel laws differ significantly from ours, essentially forcing Lipstadt to prove her case against Irving. With a team of British lawyers and the attention and support of many people who care about the Holocaust, from Steven Spielberg to survivors, she suffered through a 10-week trial in 2000, which she has now turned into a book, "History on Trial."
Among Irving's claims: Hitler had no role in the Final Solution; gas chambers were not used at Auschwitz; and the murder of Jews was more the random work of overzealous soldiers than of an overall Nazi plan.
On first meeting with her solicitor in London's Brick Court, Lipstadt said, "I feel as if I am entering the Dickensian to discuss the Kafkaesque."
On the advice of her attorney, Lipstadt did not speak to the press during the trial, and did not testify. Her attorney said that having her testify would only divert attention away from what should be the trial's true focus: how Irving had falsified the historical record to build his case, and had done so because he was a committed anti-Semite.
"I feared that people would think I was frightened of facing him," she writes. Her frustration is almost palpable at times, and "History on Trial," important and rationally put forth as it is, sometimes feels like a person unburdening herself of something she has kept bottled up too long.
"History on Trial" can get bogged down in tiny disputes over translations of German documents, but this is a case where the devil is truly in the details; deniers sometimes build their cases on many minor misstatements of fact, and it's Lipstadt's duty --- it has practically become her calling --- to painstakingly refute those errors.
But "History on Trial" is by no means dull. At one point, near the trial's beginning, Lipstadt offers a telling anecdote:
"A small elderly woman had pushed her way through the crush. She had a heavily wrinkled face and very sad eyes. . . . Ignoring the reporters, she thrust her arm in front of me, rolled her sleeve up to her elbow and emphatically pointed at the number tattooed on her forearm. 'You are fighting for us. You are our witness.' "
Deborah Lipstadt is writing for us. And for the ages.
Phil Kloer is a staff writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.