Monday, February 7, 2005

San Jose Mercury News on History on Trial

'History on Trial,'Deborah Lipstadt's compelling account of her court battle with David Irving, is a timely book, appearing as it does amid news not only of commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, but also of resurgent anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere," writes the San Jose Mercury News in its review yesterday:

San Jose Mercury News (California)

February 6, 2005 Sunday MO1 EDITION


LENGTH: 1355 words

HEADLINE: Judging the Past

BYLINE: By Charles Matthews; Mercury News

''History on Trial,'' Deborah Lipstadt's compelling account of her court battle with David Irving, is a timely book, appearing as it does amid news not only of commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, but also of resurgent anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere. But the issues it raises -- of how we learn about the past and what use we make of that knowledge, and of the limits of free speech and critical inquiry -- are timeless.

Lipstadt is a professor at Emory University and director of its Institute for Jewish Studies. In the '80s and early '90s she found herself increasingly troubled by the phenomenon of Holocaust denial. There had always been anti-Semitic cranks who expressed their doubts about the testimony of survivors of the Nazi death camps. But denial groups like the Institute for Historical Review were growing more sophisticated, putting what Lipstadt calls a ''scholarly veneer'' on their publications to attract gullible readers and attention from the mainstream media.

''I did not consider Holocaust denial a 'clear and presentdanger,' but rather a future danger,'' Lipstadt writes. ''Surveys revealed that more people in the United States believed Elvis Presley was alive than believed the Holocaust was a myth.'' But in an effort to keep the deniers in check, she wrote a book, ''Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,'' which was published in 1993 to laudatory reviews.

In the book there were, by Lipstadt's estimate, ''a couple of hundred words'' about Irving, a British historian who had written numerous books about World War II and the Third Reich. Despite an obvious pro-Hitler bias, Irving's books had been favorably reviewed by such prominent historians as A.J.P. Taylor, Hugh Trevor-Roper, the late Stanford professor Gordon Craig and military historian John Keegan. Even when they took note of Irving's bias, such reviewers praised the thoroughness of his research.

But Irving was more than a historian. He also frequently made speeches before ultra-rightist groups in Europe and the United States. In a speech in Canada in 1991, Irving claimed that ''more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz.'' And in the German city of Halle, he addressed a neo-Nazi rally; his speech was interrupted by shouts of ''Sieg Heil!''

When Lipstadt's book was published by Penguin UK in Great Britain, Irving sued both author and publisher, charging them with libel. Under British libel law, which differs significantly from U.S. laws, the defendant must prove that the statements in question are true. ''In the United States Irving would have to prove I lied,'' Lipstadt explains. ''In the United Kingdom I had to prove I told the truth.'' She was faced with defending her assertions ''that Irving had lied about the Holocaust and had done so out of antisemitic motives.''

Irving was perhaps banking on the fact that libel law in Great Britain falls so heavily on the side of the plaintiff that British publishers routinely settle cases out of court. But Penguin UK chose not to settle. A prominent solicitor, Anthony Julius, best known as Princess Diana's divorce lawyer, was eager to prepare the case. And an eminent barrister, Richard Rampton, would present it in court. The trial began on Jan. 11, 2000, and lasted for ten weeks.

Irving, who chose to act as his own lawyer, turned out to be vulnerable to Rampton's courtroom experience. Moreover, the facts also proved to be very much on Lipstadt's side. Richard Evans, a professor of history at Cambridge, was hired to examine the sources and methodology Irving used in writing his books. Evans was initially skeptical about the amount of inaccuracy, falsification and bias he could uncover in them. But his testimony would be devastating to Irving's case. Evans told Lipstadt, ''Deborah, you were far tookind to him. The historical wrongdoings we have found are more extreme than anything I ever imagined.''

In the courtroom, Irving backtracked, retreated, equivocated and often contradicted his own testimony. And then came the memorable moment when Irving ''looked at Judge Gray and, instead of punctuating his remarks with 'my Lord,' as he commonly did, he addressed him as 'mein Fuhrer.' There was a moment of intense stillness as the entire courtroom -- Judge Gray included -- seemed frozen. Then everyone erupted in laughter.'' Lipstadt heard one lawyer say to another, ''This is out of 'Dr. Strangelove.' '' Someone else in the courtroom hummed the theme from ''The Twilight Zone.'' But Irving, she says, ''seemed not to have grasped what had happened.''

The judgment handed down by Judge Charles Gray on April 11 was decisive. Gray wrote that Irving had ''repeatedly crossed the divide between legitimate criticism and prejudiced vilification of the Jewish race and people.'' And that in his historical writings, ''He has deliberately skewed the evidence to bring it in line with his political beliefs.'' Lipstadt, who had been ''worried that Judge Gray might reach a tentative or even-handed judgment,'' was jubilant.

Lipstadt soon learned how ambiguous victory can be. For almost five years she had been uprooted from her home in Atlanta, traveling frequently to London to prepare for the trial. She put her career on hold as the case was being prepared. The enormous financial burden was eased only when funding for her defense was provided by a variety of contributors, including Emory University, Steven Spielberg and several Jewish organizations. So when a reporter asked if she felt pity for Irving, she replied, ''I think you have it backwards. It's my life and work that has been disrupted.''

But Irving continued to have sympathizers among British historians, some of whom apparently forgot that it was Irving who had brought the suit, and that if he had won, it would have restricted free speech and critical comment. Keegan, who had somewhat ambivalently testified at the trial about Irving's skills as a researcher, wrote: ''The news that David Irving has lost his libel case will send a tremor through the community of 20th-century historians. . . . Prof. Lipstadt . . . seems as dull as only the self-righteously politically correct can be. Few other historians had ever heard of her before this case. Most will not want to hear from her again.''

Lipstadt's reaction to such comments is to wonder ''if this was not an expression of England's 'Old Boys' network,'' more in sympathy with someone like Irving ''than with an American who also happened to be both a woman and an openly identifying Jew.''

That's an insightful and probably accurate conclusion. But I wish Lipstadt hadn't been the one to make it, for it emphasizes that ''History on Trial'' is a one-sided book.

Its one-sidedness is both a weakness and a strength. The strength is that its one side is the right side, and that we get an intense, close-up view of Lipstadt's struggles against a wrong-headed, unscrupulous and self-destructive opponent. She deserves our sympathy and he deserves our contempt.

But a writer with access to both Lipstadt and Irving might given us a fuller story, might have helped us enter the mind of the denier and traced the strange roots of Irving's life. It might also have been an even more devastating portrait of Irving and the milieu of Holocaust deniers than the one Lipstadt provides for us.

Still, Lipstadt's side of the story makes for fascinating reading. She doesn't spare herself -- she repeatedly shows us her fears and frustrations and impatience, her moments of anger and self-pity. Drawing on her journals, as well as on transcripts of the trial, she takes us into the moment and produces a courtroom drama as enthralling as any fictional one. Because the case made headlines, most readers will know how her story ends, but even if you know what happened, Lipstadt keeps you engaged with how it happened.

HISTORY ON TRIAL: My Day in Court With David Irving

By Deborah E. Lipstadt

Ecco, 346 pp., $25.95


Jill Bernstein
Director of Publicity, Ecco, Fourth Estate, and Rayo
HarperCollins Publishers
10 East 53 Street
New York, NY  10022
(212) 207-7740
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1 comment:

David H Lippman said...

Interesting review...I do agree with the reviewer on one point...I would like to know how David Irving made his journey to being this ferocious anti-Semite and neo-Nazi, and why he is what he is. His decision to be his own lawyer was certainly a titanic mistake, but there was no other way he could have launched this suit...who else could have represented him? Like Shakespeare's Gloucester, "I am I." He had to represent himself...if he lost, he would be the lone martyr. If he won, he would be the humble man who defeated the system. He was consciously playing to his clackers in the audience and the media. But the reviewer's point about Irving's story is not relevant to this book...this is not Irving's story, it's Professor Lipstadt's.