Sunday, May 29, 2005

The woman who defended history - article in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Columnist Dennis Roddy discusses Irving vs Lipstadt in today's edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Here are some excerpts:

The woman who defended history

Sunday, May 29, 2005
By Dennis Roddy

British libel court is war unto the knife. Loser pays all. David Irving set out to demolish Deborah Lipstadt. One year after the trial, Irving's wife and daughter wept on a curbside as liquidators seized their house, its contents, Irving's library. By the time Irving got home, he discovered that the suit he was wearing was the only one he now owned.

"They took everything. They took my entire research archive of 35 years," Irving said. "I find it increasingly difficult to be good-humored about it."

The great irony here is that Irving was the plaintiff. He was out to destroy Lipstadt, an American historian, for criticizing his increasingly implausible suggestions about the Holocaust.

For decades, Irving frightened off his worst critics with a belligerent certainty that made him a hero to the Holocaust denial crowd, even as he protested he was not part of it. [...]


When he denied that Auschwitz had gas chambers for killing Jews, Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish history, numbered him among Holocaust deniers in her 1993 book on the subject. When it was published in Britain, where libel law essentially holds a defendant guilty until proven otherwise, Irving went after her with a flair that attracted the attention of a world that quickly dubbed it "The Holocaust on Trial."

Lipstadt didn't simply win her case. She basically brought down the one historian who lent any measure of legitimacy to Holocaust denial. She comes to Pittsburgh on June 8 as keynote speaker for the American Jewish Committee's annual meeting. Holocaust survivors are constantly thanking her for saving their history, and this flummoxes her.

"I tell them, 'Wait a minute, your history would have been fine. It's not so fragile that this one guy can destroy it,' " she said.

That's hard to say. The tyranny of the clock is taking away the eyewitnesses to the Holocaust. A shocking number of people are prepared to suggest that it is possible 6 million Jews were not murdered. When C-Span, the cable public affairs network, made plans to carry a Lipstadt speech they decided to balance it with an appearance by Irving, as if there is "another side" to the near annihilation of Europe's Jews. History, in this case, needs to be saved.


When Irving sued her, Lipstadt was infuriated. Here was a man who had spoken at the Institute for Historical Review, a blatantly anti-Semitic assortment of pseudo-scholars in California. Irving's speeches in the Cleveland area were booked by Erich Gliebe, currently head of the neo-Nazi National Alliance. Irving testified on behalf of Ernst Zundel, the Canadian co-author of "The Hitler We Loved and Why." This guy was suing her for defamation.

Lipstadt thinks she knows why.

"First of all, I'm a woman, and the guy is a misogynist. Second of all, I'm an American. I was far away. Maybe he thought I wouldn't take it seriously. And third of all and most importantly, I am a Jew. I am strongly identified with the Jewish community and this was his way of going after the 'traditional enemies of truth,' as he kept calling them. This guy is a bully. This guy is really a bully. He's used to getting away with it."

Irving does, indeed, have a rough streak going through him. When I wrote a column about the trial five years ago, he posted it on his Web site with an instant link for readers to send me their thoughts. The kindest read, "You are a communist jew pimp."

The 10-week trial, in which Irving acted as his own lawyer, ripped away the veneer of scholarship he had applied in careful coats starting with his first book, a devastating, though now numerically suspect, account of the allied bombing of Dresden [...]


By trial's end Irving had been cornered as a racist, an anti-Semite, a sloppy historian, a keeper of company with the jackboot-and-suspenders crowd. He lost everything: his court action, his reputation, his home, the very couch in his living room.

"He never paid me a penny," Lipstadt says today. Irving kept things tied up fairly skillfully. He was declared insolvent and, after three years, he's now untouchable, though starting over at this late date is likely to be difficult.

Both Lipstadt and Irving say they'd have gone through this mess all over again. She'd have written more harshly about him knowing now what he kept hidden in his diaries and the distortions she says have been found in virtually every one of his books. He'd had brought this action as well, he says. Why he says this, I can't tell for certain, although Lipstadt has a pretty solid theory.

"Part of it is the contrarian thing, because that is how he gets attention. If he just did ordinary scholarship he wouldn't get attention," she said. "The one thing about him is he craves attention."

So David Irving makes his own history. Some of it he writes, taking known events and giving them a backspin guaranteed to produce the craziest bounce. Some of it he generates by bringing on a libel action that destroys him so he can rise like a phoenix from the ashes of his own making. He'll be at it as long as he lives. [...]


Why else, [Irving asked regarding 9/11's Flight 93], would the seismographs that picked up the crash be four minutes off from the plane's black box. That's a four-minute gap -- time enough for someone to have shot down the plane.

I suggested that sometimes, just sometimes, clocks are set differently. The one on my kitchen wall has been in serious disagreement with the one on my microwave oven for the past 10 years. That strikes Irving as improbable.

Like Billy Pilgrim, the hero in "Slaughterhouse Five," the novel Vonnegut wrote using Irving's account of Dresden, David Irving has come unstuck in time. He's more than four minutes off. He picked a fight with a woman who neglected to be frightened.

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