Mr. Freedman gets my views on the Holocaust wrong.
By Joshua Freedman on Friday 9 February 2007 Features
She won’t thank me for saying this, but Deborah Lipstadt holds a certain similarity to her nemesis, David Irving. As far as Professor Lipstadt tells me, Irving, the man who sued her for libel after she branded him a Holocaust denier, was so stuck in his ways that he was unable to even consider the possibility of being wrong. When he took Lipstadt to court a decade ago, Irving chose to represent himself rather than employ a lawyer, on the basis that no one could do it better than he could. He acted in court, she tells me, like “a man full of hubris, convinced he was right even when he made things up”, and was arrogant enough to convince himself and others that his argument was correct even with a wall of historical truth ramming up against him.
Lipstadt does, in many ways, appear equally assertive with her views. She has her opinion and will argue it without doubting herself – or, alternatively, will refuse to answer if she wishes. (In a talk later that evening at the Oxford Chabad Society, which was hosting her, she treated questions with the scant respect they deserved if she felt it appropriate.) The old phrase goes ‘two Jews, three opinions’, and she certainly has her fair share. But, sadly for Irving (and his argument), the comparison between the two is fatally flawed. The crucial difference is that when you listen to Lipstadt, you always feel her words have a backbone of historical proof behind them.
Lipstadt’s story starts in 1993, when her book Denying the Holocaust hit the shelves. In it was scarcely more than a page and a half on Irving’s interpretation of history, which she alleged to be a false revision of the truth. She labelled Irving a Holocaust denier and claimed that he had twisted documents to ‘prove’ falsities. (For instance, as it would later emerge in court, he twisted Hitler’s words to claim he had called for the Kristallnacht rampage to cease, when in fact he had only ordered an end to the arson attacks because it was spreading to non-Jewish buildings.)
Irving stoutly refuted allegations that he was a Holocaust denier and, in 1996, filed a libel suit against Lipstadt and Penguin, her publishers. Because under British law the ‘burden of proof’ in a libel case is on the defendant, it was up to Lipstadt – and her legal team headed by Anthony Julius, who initially worked for her pro bono – to prove that Irving was indeed a liar. Four years later, Irving’s case was thrown out of court after Lipstadt’s claims were proven to be substantially true.
The fact finding mission was essentially a battle to seek out Irving’s sneaky tricks – tricks so easily identified that Irving, it seemed, never stood a chance. “Anyone with the least bit of seichel [common sense] would have said, ‘I’m going to lose,’” Lipstadt tells me in her sharp American Jewish accent (with the odd bit of Yiddish thrown in, of course – she asks me if I need a translation. I say no, but I’ll translate for you). Irving’s best bet, she says, would have been to stand up in court on the first day and give in. “He would have been seen as the victim,” she stresses. “He would have looked like the poor nebuch [pitiable person] who wants to defend himself but he can’t.”
In fact, you wonder why Irving went through with the ordeal in the first place. He was left with legal costs of £150,000 to pay, was declared bankrupt and was consequently forced to give up his Mayfair family home. But Lipstadt, based just on her confrontation with Irving in court, knows exactly why he did it.
“The impression he made on me was a man full of hubris, convinced he was right even when he made things up,” she says. “He would make something up, but then he would convince himself that that was the truth.” Lipstadt, who can rattle off about her trial with contagious enthusiasm, describes Irving as “a man who seemed to me desperate for publicity”, and who “could have had legal representation, and had he had legal representation might have had a lawyer who would have said to him, ‘Don’t go through with this, you’re going to lose in a big way.’” But the man’s stubbornness let him down, she says. “He said in the courtroom – it’s on the transcripts – that ‘I know this better than anyone. No one can compare to me and my knowledge of this material.’”
Again, when I ask her about the Holocaust in today’s context, I feel she responds with strong opinions – but with reasoned ones at the same time. I try to show off my knowledge of Wikipedia and ask her about one critic of hers who claimed she had ignored the plight of the Native Americans by referring to the Holocaust as a disaster incomparable to any other genocide in history. I get a fierce, instant response back. “That’s Ward Churchill who’s made that claim. Ward Churchill is a big liar, he’s been shown to be a liar.” She pauses to think and then adds, “People say a lot of things about me that aren’t true.”
But it is understandable, and not uncommon, that today people will criticise the likes of Lipstadt for placing the Holocaust above other suffering in the world. With masses in need and dying in Darfur and the Middle East and a splattering of genocides behind us in the last decade, hers is a view that seems hard to hold on to.
She doesn’t fail. “The Holocaust was unprecedented,” she says. “I’m not justifying what happened to the Native Americans. It was awful. It was outrageous. However, it’s different from the Holocaust. It’s different from the Holocaust in that the killing of the Native Americans was done for a purpose – to get the land. Does that make it right? No, of course not. Does that justify it? No, of course not. The difference with the Holocaust is that there was no justifiable reason – these were people who could have helped the Germans win the war, so it’s a different kind of thing.”
So where does she place other modern-day crises that are just as irrational? “I think that if you want to look at parallels to the Holocaust, each one is unique. The closest is the Armenian genocide which precedes the Holocaust, and post the Holocaust the Rwandan genocide, and now Darfur.” But as soon as I mention Israel she reacts. I ask what she thinks of connections between the Nazi era and events in the occupied territories.
Her response to the idea is forceful. “It’s obscene,” she pipes back. “You can totally disagree with Israel’s policy. You can even disagree with Israel’s right to exist. But when you start comparing Israelis to Nazis – the Israelis are not…” She struggles with finishing her sentence so switches to an example. “The Nazis were baby-killers. They shot babies for the sake of shooting babies. Israeli soldiers have on occasion killed babies. But they don’t go out [saying], ‘Let’s go kill some babies.’ The Nazis went out to find 90-year-old people and kill them. They’d take boats to the island of Rhodes in July 1944 after the landing at Normandy. They’re taking boats out there to bring a community that’s over 1000 years old and take them to be killed. There was a meshuggene [crazy] – in the worst sense of the word – devotion to killing that you’d find in few other examples like that.”
There she is, arguing from her heart about an issue she feels strongly about without ever seeming arrogant, despite her experience and academic status. Her knowledge and enthusiasm come out, but so does her modesty – something that’s highlighted when I ask her if the same hatred of Jews exists in Britain today. As an American, she doesn’t feel qualified to answer. “I know what I know and I know what I don’t know,” she says. Perhaps she’s not so similar to Irving after all.