Holocaust denier's day in court has chilling implication
By Michael Ollove
Sun Book Editor
March 6, 2005
History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving
By Deborah E. Lipstadt. Ecco, 346 pages. $25.95.
I have not been inclined to take Holocaust deniers seriously. I've tended to consign them to the category of crackpots, anti-Semites and extremists - revolting, certainly, but, I thought, so fringe as to be barely tethered to this Earth. Better, I told myself, to focus my worrying on those who seemed to represent a more imminent threat.
Nowadays, I'm not so sure. Reality seems to be losing its luster. Not long before the November election, 40 percent of Americans still believed Saddam Hussein had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. Even more surprising, creationists have elbowed their way back into public life. Reborn as techno-hip "Intelligent Designers," they are needling public schools into granting equivalency between notions of evidence and belief. Is the Age of Reason something to be nostalgic about?
The current subversion of fact by ideology makes History on Trial, historian Deborah Lipstadt's account of her legal torment during the late 1990's at the hands of the notorious Holocaust denier David Irving, especially resonant. Whether the Holocaust occurred would not strike most civilized people as worthy of reasonable conversation, let alone something that would occupy a British court at the dawn of the 21st century.
The case was prompted by the 1993 publication of Lipstadt's first book, a scholarly study of Holocaust denial. In it, Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University, asserted that Irving's pronouncements about the Holocaust (he said it didn't happen) and Hitler (if it did happen Der Fuhrer knew nothing about it), were built on willful distortions, crass manipulations of evidence, and anti-Semitism. Nothing unusual there for a Holocaust denier. But, Lipstadt observed in that book, because Irving had also written some well-regarded histories of World War II, he was accorded a measure of credibility, which, in her view, made Irving the most dangerous Holocaust denier of all.
Irving took umbrage (although it is not clear why, given his long outspokenness on the subject), and he sued Lipstadt for defamation in his native Great Britain. History on Trial is Lipstadt's chronicle of her long ordeal to defend herself against this bizarre, preening, repugnant character.
At first blush, Irving's suit struck many, including Lipstadt, as preposterous. By then, Irving was already a notorious figure who once spouted to an audience that "more women died in the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz," who dismissed the Holocaust as a Hollywood legend, who taunted survivors with an obscene acronym and accused them of cashing in.
Yet, not only did Irving's case progress, but in a reflexive even-handedness, some media reports sized it up as battle between differing views of history. Certain scholars (among them, the esteemed military historian Sir John Keegan) even criticized Lipstadt, complaining she was trying to prevent Irving from merely expressing a contrary, if outlandish version of history (ignoring that it was Irving who had dragged Lipstadt into court, not vice versa).
But the case was not about historic interpretation at all; it ultimately concerned standards of historic research - and the cynical abuses thereof. Irving was no historian; he was a charlatan, a deceiver, a liar who used the veneer of scholarship to propagate his anti-Semitic ideology.
The bulk of History is given over to Lipstadt's rendering of the three-month trial in 2000. Not surprisingly, she is a sympathetic, mostly appealing heroine, even if she demonstrates the self-righteousness that lawsuits inevitably accentuate in their participants.
Despite Lipstadt's understandable apprehension about what was at risk (even though many sympathizers stepped forward to fill a defense fund on her behalf), the showdown is hardly the tension-filled drama that the first third of her book promises. It's not just that Irving, who insisted on representing himself, is a clownish presence in the courtroom, emerging neither as a heavyweight of legal argument or a compelling inquisitor. In truth, once the trial begins, Lipstadt's legal team and its impressive historian witnesses slice through his claims like thoroughbreds through the fog.
The perverse fascination in History lies in seeing the tricks of the contortionist revealed, the lengths to which a pernicious man will go to subvert truth. Using faulty translations and dubious testimony (including those from the Nazi perpetrators), minimizing evidence contrary to his purposes and misstating facts and dates (even after learning of their fallacy), Irving stooped to any means to refute the existence of the Holocaust and to distance poor, misunderstood Adolph Hitler from it.
How much succor scoundrels like Irving have given to ever-strengthening neo-Nazi movements (with whom he freely associated, both here and in Europe) and to extremists in the Muslim world, can only be imagined and feared. The outcome of the trial was a matter of surpassing concern (not least of all to Holocaust survivors, understandably anxious about that coming day when they will no longer be here to bear witness). But no matter what the result, History offers less cause for optimism than its plucky author may have intended. The case preoccupied and diverted Lipstadt for nearly six years at a cost of well over $1 million, all to establish what might have been considered evident in the first place. One can't help fretting about what happens when lesser truths come under assault.
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