Saturday, June 25, 2005

History on Trial reviewed in Australian Jewish News

The June 24 (print) edition of the Australian Jewish News has a review of History on Trial:

Triumph over Holocaust denier Irving
Book Review
Chemi Shalev

Deborah Lipstadt
HarperCollins, $25.95

The comfort of modern Diaspora life, especially in countries such as Australia and the United States, is not conducive to the creation of genuine heroes; these are usually the product of difficult times or dire circumstance.

One exception to this rule, however, is Deborah Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Like her namesake from the Book of Judges, Lipstadt can rightly be considered a latter-day Jewish heroine of truly biblical proportions.

Lipstadt did not seek this greatness; it was thrust upon her by Holocaust denier David Irving, who in 1995 sued her in a London court for libel and defamation.

In her relatively-unheralded 1993 book Denying the Holocaust: The growing assault on truth and memory, Lipstadt had lambasted Irving as a Hitler-loving and history-distorting Holocaust denier.

Rather than being a legitimate and respected historian, as many considered him, Lipstadt described Irving as a Nazi sympathiser and a habitual distorter and contortionist of the facts at his disposal who consistently diminished the Holocaust and glorified its perpetrators.

Lipstadt's new book History on Trial is her gripping account of the five harrowing years that culminated on April 11, 2000, as Justice Charles Gray ruled against Irving, demolished whatever historical credentials he may have had and, by ordering him to pay court costs of close to £2 million ($A4.7 million), drove him to bankruptcy.

Lipstadt's book is based on the personal records that she kept throughout the gruelling ordeal, from the day she received a letter from her publisher, Penguin, about Irving's suit and mistakenly laughed it off as inconsequential, or "really nuts".

Lipstadt was unaware at the time that contrary to American law, British defamation practice places the burden of proof on the defendant, rather than the plaintiff. It was a formidable and, at times, seemingly-insurmountable task.

Her account of the trial itself is as riveting as only judicial high dramas can be, but horrifying as well in its dissection of the otherwise abhorrent.

Following the wise decision made by her counsel, Richard Rampton QC, to tackle Irving on forensic grounds rather than eyewitness testimonies, the court was subjected to many hours of debate on the exact number of Jewish bodies that could be buried in a ditch after being shot by the Einsatzgruppen death squads in Russia, the extermination capacity of the gas vans that operated at Chelmo and the intricate mathematics involved in calculating the number of cadavers that could have been moved from the gas chamber to the crematoria at Auschwitz.

Throughout the book one cannot but identify with Lipstadt's academic and personal revulsion at Irving, a man who under the cloak of a respected historian was allowed to continue publishing books while publicly claiming that "more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.".

The trial only deepened the impression of his malicious and infantile inner world, as revealed, for example, in his private diary entry of the song he would sing to his daughter: "I am a baby Aryan, not Jewish or Sectarian; I have no plans to marry, an Ape or Rastafarian."

And one can only empathise with Lipstadt's dismay at the fact that prominent historians, including the notable World War II expert John Keegan, testified on Irving's behalf, belittling his adulation of Hitler and his astonishing claim that the Nazi leader had little knowledge, if any, of the "unsystematic" killing of Jews while still extolling his "superb" research.

Ultimately, it was Irving who did himself in, by bringing the suit against Lipstadt in the first place, by repeatedly walking into the traps laid for him by the talented Rampton, and by his barely-concealed antisemitism and Hitler adulation, to the point that before his closing argument, in the ultimate Freudian slip, he referred to Justice Gray as "mein fūhrer".

By utterly destroying the credibility of Irving, the most prominent and well respected of Holocaust "revisionists", Lipstadt may not have crushed the Holocaust-denial movement completely, but she certainly dealt it a devastating blow. Her book is a sensational read.

Chemi Shalev is the AJN's associate editor.

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