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Reviewed by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page BW04
HISTORY ON TRIAL
My Day in Court with David Irving
By Deborah E. Lipstadt. Ecco. 346 pp. $25.95
In 1993, Deborah E. Lipstadt's groundbreaking Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory dissected a fringe, relatively isolated phenomenon of hard-core deniers. By the time she walked into a British court in 2000 to defend herself against a libel suit filed by one of those deniers, David Irving, Holocaust denial had been so transformed as to have become a critical part of the mushrooming global anti-Semitic movement.
Today Holocaust denial -- roughly analogous to maintaining that slavery never existed in the United States -- consists of a growing and sophisticated network of anti-Semites who either deny that there was a Holocaust or deny certain fundamental aspects of the Holocaust (such as the basic facts of Poles' or the Catholic Church's participation in crimes). Meanwhile, fellow travelers join in by radically minimizing aspects of the Holocaust or attacking Holocaust scholars or survivors as hucksters. The effect -- and the usually explicit agenda of these traducers -- is to spread suspicion and lies about Jews (in newspapers, books, speeches and all over the Internet), especially those revolving around conspiracy theories about shadowy webs of Jewish power.
This 21st-century context for the libel suit emerging from her 20th-century book (which was featured on the cover of Book World on its release) made Lipstadt's trial more than a difficult personal odyssey and more than an admirably executed exercise in exposing the fraudulence of one of a long list of scholar-masqueraders. The trial was an event, covered around the world, of substantial social and political importance. The truth of the Holocaust was in no sense on trial. Still, had Irving prevailed on the narrow legal issue -- showing that Lipstadt libeled him by calling him a denier -- anti-Semites and gullible reporters would have falsely played the verdict as casting doubt on the existence of the Holocaust itself.
Lipstadt's memoir tacks closely to the events themselves. A disciplined writer, she does not wander into long detours on the many philosophical or sociological paths along her way. Rather, she delivers a well-paced, expertly detailed and fascinating account of the trial process, including the long months of preparation and the courtroom proceedings themselves. Among other things, she provides an education in the very different character of Britain's libel laws (where the defendant must affirmatively prove the veracity of her statements), legal procedures (one kind of lawyer, a solicitor, prepares the case; another, a barrister, tries it) and rules and customs at trial. This alone will interest those by now so familiar with the American legal system.
The core of the book is the preparation for the discrediting of Irving's writings (which cannot properly be called either scholarship or history) and, ultimately, the destruction of his international reputation. Irving had until then been a popular peddler of apologetics for Hitler and German wartime crimes. Even before becoming a full-fledged denier, Irving denied -- against all evidence -- that Hitler even knew of the mass murder of Jews. Shockingly, Irving had been taken seriously by a part of the politicized historical profession that has a weakness for such exculpatory writings. Lipstadt's solicitor, the estimable Anthony Julius (who was also the late Princess Diana's divorce lawyer), was not among them. As he explained to Lipstadt early on, "We will argue that Irving subordinated the truth for ideological purposes and that his comments about the Holocaust were designed to spread antisemitism and engender sympathy for the Third Reich."
So they did. Aided by a team of expert witnesses, Lipstadt's barrister demolished both Irving's general claim that he was not a denier and his individual fabrications (including that Auschwitz had no functioning gas chambers used to exterminate Jews, and that the Germans' systematic mass shootings of Jews in the east were merely arbitrary, unauthorized "Mi Lai-type massacres"). Although this was a great team effort and a major legal victory, their task was inherently easy; Irving was the historians' equivalent of a flat-earther, and he had also previously been on record denying that the Holocaust happened. ("I don't see any reason to be tasteful about Auschwitz," Irving declared in 1991 before a group of rightists and neo-Nazis. "It's baloney. It's a legend. . . . more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz.")
Lipstadt's resounding legal victory in a trial that lasted nearly three months was made still easier by Irving himself, a train wreck in the courtroom. To get the flavor of his behavior, consider another part of his 1991 speech to the neo-Nazis (his arithmetic, of course, is as inaccurate as his taste is vulgar): "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 am going to form an Association of Auschwitz survivors, survivors of the Holocaust and other liars. . . . A-S-S-H-O-L-S." Irving, we see, is an inspiration for those today who attack wholesale the truthfulness of survivors. If he were not so unlikable, so shameless in his lies, it would be hard not to squirm when reading of his courtroom buffoonery and string of embarrassing setbacks.
Lipstadt's steadfastness, which can be seen throughout this book, stood her and historical truth well. A lesser person might have wilted under the enormous financial and media pressure. Against her nature, Lipstadt followed Julius's instruction to remain silent throughout, never speaking either in court or to the media that were not entirely fair to her. Only after the verdict did the world finally hear her voice, and only with this book do we hear it fully for the first time. •
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" and "A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair," is completing a book on genocide in our time.