Monday, July 11, 2005

The truth on trial

Prof. Lipstadt was recently interviewed by David Marr, of the Sidney Morning Herald:

The truth on trial

Sydney Morning Herald
Saturday 09th of July 2005

David Irving is on the road in Florida and Alabama, flogging his books to the faithful. He calls his tour "Hurricane David" but there's barely a breeze behind the disgraced historian as he swings through the southern United States this week. The venues of his talks in Montgomery, Orlando and West Palm Beach are secret to all but his followers. Entry: 10 bucks at the door and satisfactory ID.

This is a man who has fallen a long, long way. Gone are the Rolls and the flat in Mayfair. The praise of great historians has dried up. Universities that matter no longer invite him to lecture. Newspapers all but ignore him. For 30 years, his books on Nazi Germany and World War II were published by the leading houses of the world. Now he self-publishes. The belligerence that made him a feared adversary in the courts is now confined to his brawling website, where he pursues his grudges against Australia, Jews, Israel and his nemesis, Deborah Lipstadt.

Over scrambled eggs in a Sydney cafe last week, she puzzles over his latest web attack. "Nature Alert: Slab-throated Dip coming to Australia. Lipstadt will continue her lucrative and well-financed global Smearfest against British historian David Irving." And so on. The abuse defeats us both: what on Earth is a "slab-throated dip"?

Nothing much about Irving surprises this fiery woman after so many years spent grappling with him. On a long list of his faults she includes: "Hatred. A visceral hatred for Jews and other minorities and an adoration of the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler. He's also a bully." Lipstadt reckons he's one of those people who love to be hated. "Otherwise, he wouldn't say the things he says."

She has in mind remarks such as this, delivered to a gathering in Calgary in 1991: "More women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz. Oh, you think that's tasteless. How about this ... I am going to form an Association of Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust and Other Liars. A.S.S.H.O.L.S."

Irving made Lipstadt famous by suing her and losing. For some time, he had combined a career as an iconoclastic historian - demanding the right to tell uncomfortable truths - with a penchant for suing his detractors. Most folded. Lipstadt and the publisher Penguin Books did not. "I hope this doesn't sound self-serving," she says, buttering her last piece of toast. "But David Irving underestimated me."

At the time, 1995, she was a youngish, rather obscure professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta with a great deal to learn about the quirky way libel is handled in the British legal world. She could not be sued in the US for what she said about Irving in her book Denying the Holocaust. But in Britain, the onus was on her and Penguin to justify the remarks she made about Irving in those pages: that he was a Holocaust denier, an anti-Semite, a racist and a falsifier of history. "My impression is that he sued me because he's been waiting to get me," Lipstadt says. "He saw me as a representative of the Jewish community, I don't know why. I'm a Jew. I'm an active Jew. I live a Jewish life. But he thought that by going after me he could go after the Jewish world."

Penguin was insured. Lipstadt's backers in America raised $US1.75 million ($2.3 million) for the fight. Together they assembled a team of forensic scholars to re-research Irving's books. By the time the trial opened in London, they had honed their counter-attack to 19 examples of lies and fakery - from Irving's wild guesstimates of the death toll in Dresden to his slippery claims that Hitler was a friend of the Jews. In April 2000, a London court delivered a crushing victory to Lipstadt that would leave Irving's reputation as a scholar in ruins.

This battle is the subject of a riveting new book by Lipstadt: History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving. No one who loves history can fail to be fascinated by the unpeeling of Irving's lies by Lipstadt's team of academic sleuths. They shred the man's scholarship and conclude: "This is not how a historian works."

It's a courtroom drama that reached its comic depths on the last day of the trial, when Irving addressed the judge as "Mein Fuhrer". Lipstadt writes: "There was a moment of intense silence as the entire courtroom - Judge Gray included - seemed frozen. Then everyone erupted in laughter ... Irving, who seemed not to have grasped what had happened, marched on."

Lipstadt's interest in the phenomenon of denial goes beyond the Holocaust. She is pleased that Edgar Ray Killen has finally been convicted for the Mississippi Burning murders. "They did it but it took 40 years." And while she is in Sydney she will join Professor Ronald Suny of the University of Chicago to discuss the first great race slaughter of the 20th century. "That Turkey turns itself into a pretzel to deny the Armenian genocide is a mark of shame," Lipstadt says. "And it does Turkey no good because they know it happened."

On her fourth visit to Australia, Lipstadt is well aware we have a denial industry of our own - denying Aboriginal massacres and denying the stolen generations. As she talks about the general principles and purposes of denial, she moves back and forth between denials of the Holocaust, Aboriginal slaughter and even the moon landing, which some believe was filmed on a sound stage in Nevada. Lipstadt sees even these strange souls illustrating an important truth: "Scratch a lie like that and you'll find some political motive." What's theirs? "You can't trust the government."

And these lies make life easier for us. "If someone said to you, 'You know, we've found out the Aborigines really weren't murdered and that they very happily gave up their land,' you'd say, 'Oh my God, I live in a better place, I live in a better society. I don't have this society that has this terrible shame and legacy."' And what's wrong with living under this delusion? "When you grapple with the past you rise above it."

The work of deniers is oddly easy. They don't have to prove much. All they have to do is cast doubt. But this requires they have public reputations as scholars. Lipstadt saw Irving as "the most dangerous of deniers" because he had built a reputation as a serious, if rather quirky, historian. "He was fresh. He had a vibrant way of writing." But Lipstadt believes the problems with Irving were always underestimated.

Right from the beginning, there were historians contesting his facts. When his first book, The Destruction of Dresden, appeared in 1963, they queried Irving's controversial death count: up from about 40,000 to 135,000. Each book that followed over the next 30 years provoked similar academic brawls over the facts. But somehow none of this really dented Irving's standing as a scholar.

Lipstadt says the public looks at historians slugging it out in this way as "two little boys having a pissing match". So were we lazy all those years not checking Irving's footnotes for ourselves? "No. There is an unspoken element of trust that if a historian sits down and writes this and a serious publisher publishes it, then I can, by and large, believe that it's the truth."

How high on the list of sins does Lipstadt place the sheer invention of sources: "The highest. For all historians. It doesn't matter what you're writing about, if you're writing the history of cooking or the history of fashion or the history of the Iraq war - if you invent a source, I can trust nothing you say."

Of course, all sides in these familiar historical brawls claim to be the genuine article, fearlessly devoted to accuracy. On his website, Irving boasts he is spearheading "the international campaign for real history". For Lipstadt, what distinguishes real historians is the way they deal with evidence that contradicts their own conclusions. Real historians acknowledge this difficult material and give their reasons for dismissing it. Fakes like Irving, simply ignore it.

The to-and-fro of contending historians might have continued for eternity, unresolved. But Irving sued.

Early in History on Trial, Lipstadt writes: "I did not believe that courtrooms were the proper place for historical inquiry." The American was amazed by the rituals of English law. She was appalled to be ordered by her legal team to shut up - no evidence in court and no interviews with the press - until the whole thing was over. But she discovered an English courtroom could be "a pretty damn good place" to settle great questions of history.

There was no jury. The judge spoke German. There was lots of time. The plaintiff could no longer bluster his way through. "In court we said: 'Mr Irving, show us the document.' He was compelled to show us the document and when you look at the document it showed he was completely lying about what happened there, or he's making it up, or he's reversed the dates, or he's put someone at a meeting who wasn't there, or he quotes half a speech. What we show is that you can't trust anything the man says unless you go and document it and prove it. And that's what's led in part to his downfall - that and his bizarre comments and bizarre behaviour."

Bankrupt and yet to pay a ££2 million ($4.7 million) bill for court costs, Irving has only one public asset these days: his claim to be a martyr for free speech. It is a claim Australia has done much to bolster by banning him from these shores six times since 1992. That this is the result of intense lobbying by the Jewish community is no secret. And Irving's travel plans have now been frustrated by the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments. But each time this happens the Australian press gives - as it must - a thumbnail account of Irving's Holocaust-denying views. It's great publicity.

Lipstadt does not believe in making Holocaust denial a crime. In History on Trial, she writes: "Those laws would render denial 'forbidden fruit', making it more - not less - alluring." She acknowledges that preventing Irving from entering this country draws attention to his views. But when asked if she therefore disapproves of Australia's ban, she ducks the question. "I don't think any good would come from having him come here."

So should he be banned from America? "There's no grounds on which he can be banned from the United States. No. I think it's pathetic. He comes to the United States now, he travels around the country, he talks to his most ardent followers - he talks to them in diners."

But wouldn't he be reduced to the same fleapits in Australia by this time? "That could well be the case. But I don't know whether there's a sense that he might give succour, give strengthening, reinforcement to people who do bad things."

Lipstadt's absolute bottom line is that she won't debate Irving - or any Holocaust denier. "First of all it suggests there are two sides to this story. Second of all, as we show in the trial, they are liars. For them to make the argument that this didn't happen, they've got to be lying about the facts. I can debate someone where we have diametrically opposed positions - abortion, death penalty, things that are very emotional and important ... But I can't debate someone who is simply making things up. That's what the deniers are all about."

History on Trial by Deborah Lipstadt is published by HarperCollins ($45). Professor Lipstadt's website is David Irving's website is The judgement can be read at

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