Sunday, February 20, 2005
Review of History on Trial in San Francisco Chronicle
Challenging the lies of a Holocaust denier
- Reviewed by Yonatan Lupu
Sunday, February 20, 2005
History on Trial
My Day in Court With David Irving
By Deborah E. Lipstadt
ECCO/HARPERCOLLINS; 346 PAGES; $25.95
Proving history can be more difficult than it might seem. Most of us naturally believe that the events we've heard about all our lives -- discoveries, wars, empires rising and falling -- actually took place. But what would we do if someone were trying to convince a court of law that a distorted, nefarious version of history was the truth? That, in simple terms, is the situation Deborah Lipstadt faced five years ago.
In her 1994 book about the international Holocaust denial movement, Lipstadt devoted about 200 words to David Irving, a prominent historian who she argued was a Holocaust denier. Irving had recently eliminated references to the Holocaust in his publications and made inflammatory statements like claiming that "more women died on the back of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz." In response, Irving sued Lipstadt for libel in Britain, arguing that her writing had hurt his reputation as a historian. In "History on Trial: My Day in Court With David Irving," she recounts every step of the trial process, from gathering the evidence to the final verdict.
Making the case particularly challenging for Lipstadt, British law places the burden of proof on the defendant, meaning she had to prove that her claims about Irving were true. In a U.S. court, Irving would been required to prove Lipstadt's claims were false.
At first, Lipstadt seems reluctant to have the case turn into something larger than a discussion of whether or not Irving is a Holocaust denier. "Our objective," she writes, "was not to prove the Holocaust had happened. No court was needed to prove that. Our job was to prove the truth of my words, namely that Irving had lied about the Holocaust and had done so out of anti-Semitic motives." In fact, she worries that the trial is "destined to morph from an examination of Irving's abuse of historical records into a debate on whether or not the Holocaust took place."
Lipstadt's lawyers see the case differently; they present the court with historical evidence showing that the Holocaust took place and that Nazi Germany's leaders were directing it. As a historian, Lipstadt naturally becomes frustrated by having to give proof of well-settled historical facts to the court. Yet, as the trial goes on, she begins to see the value of her lawyers' strategy: "If [Irving] rejected documents that unequivocally proved him wrong, he would prove me correct, namely that he discounted evidence that disputed his preexisting conclusions. If he accepted these documents, he would have to admit he was wrong about the Holocaust. ... The historical evidence would box Irving in between his lies and the truth."
Step by step, Lipstadt's lawyers pick apart Irving's version of history, showing the judge -- and the reader -- that Irving's conclusions could not come from anywhere but a predisposition to disbelieve in the Holocaust. Presented with evidence that does not fit his story, Irving tries to rationalize it and, when one explanation fails, makes Maxwell Smart-like attempts to find alternate explanations. When pressed about why he has conveniently ignored evidence that does not support his conclusions, Irving often barks that he is a "Hitler historian" rather than a Holocaust scholar.
The more Irving tries to explain his arguments -- with selective quotations, mistranslations and, perhaps most appallingly, understatements like calling the Holocaust a series of "Mi Lai-type massacres" -- the more he gets tangled in his faulty logic. As Lipstadt's lawyer, Richard Rampton, says after a court session, "Irving's real problem is that for the first time he is being forced to explain his contradictions and he can't."
"History on Trial" is not the first book about the Lipstadt-Irving case. The accounts by Richard J. Evans ("Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial") and Robert Jan van Pelt ("The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence From the Irving Trial"), historians who testified on Lipstadt's behalf, provide greater detail into the historical evidence presented at the trial. Finally, "The Holocaust on Trial" by D.D. Guttenplan, who covered the case for the New York Times, gives a journalistic perspective on the case.
But Lipstadt's story is more personal, compelling and intriguing. She presents her mixed emotions as the trail progresses -- aghast at Irving's testimony and the public forum the trial gives him, but gratified to see him exposed and condemned. And she recounts her encounters with Holocaust survivors who encourage her to keep fighting, coming to the trial hearings day after day. These anecdotes don't just make the book more engaging; they help cement the notion that this was no ordinary libel case, but possibly the most important Holocaust-related trial since Adolph Eichmann was tried in Israel in 1961.
Yonatan Lupu is an attorney and writer in Washington, D.C.