A strike against those who deny the Holocaust

Edmund Fawcett, the former literary editor for the Economist, is a contributor to several publications, including the (London) Times Literary Supplement.

Toward the end of his libel suit against fellow historian Deborah E. Lipstadt, David Irving made a telling and hilarious slip. His case for defamation, heard in London, was that by calling him a Holocaust denier and falsifier of facts she had traduced his reputation as a scholar of Nazi Germany and World War II. He had chosen to represent himself and was closing out an emotional summation. Bowing slightly to the judge, Irving addressed him, not in the normal way as “my lord,” but as “mein fuhrer.” The packed courtroom froze for an instant then burst into riotous laughter. An intricate battle of grim documentary citations had morphed into “The Producers.” Clownishly, Irving seemed to be admitting that he had lost.

Britain’s libel laws are notoriously favorable to plaintiffs. In practice, defendants must show “justification,” which means proving that the rude things they have said are true. The 1993 book Irving cited in his original complaint, Lipstadt’s “Denying the Holocaust,” made two principal claims about him. The first -- that Irving denied the Holocaust and vindicated Hitler -- was the lesser problem for her. In copious published writings and in speeches to neo-fascist audiences around the globe, he had belittled the extent of Nazi persecution and -- somewhat contradictorily -- denied Hitler’s personal responsibility for genocide. Lipstadt’s second charge was that the British author twisted the record knowingly and wrote not as a disinterested historian but as an ideologically motivated anti-Semite. Just by sniffing Irving’s language on his website or riffling a few pages of his work most people could agree without more ado. Proving it in court to a scrupulous judge -- this was a bench trial, with no jury -- was another matter.

Lipstadt’s highly readable book chronicles the two-month trial virtually day by day, making lively and pointed use of the court transcript. The Emory University professor writes with a campaigner’s passion, but also with humor about herself, as, for example, when she wrestles with her prejudice that clever Englishmen are emotionally dead fish.


Her book opens in 1995, when Irving served his complaint, and ends in April 2000 when the judge gave his ruling. Despite its grave subject, “History on Trial” reads like a well-paced courtroom procedural. Even readers who know or guess the outcome can enjoy the book as the righteous struggling against the wicked.

Lipstadt gathered a powerful defense team: Anthony Julius, a London lawyer and author of a study on anti-Semitism in T.S. Eliot’s poetry, supervised strategy. Richard Rampton, a gun-for-hire who had recently won damages for McDonald’s in a libel suit against London Greenpeace, argued for her in court. To Lipstadt and Julius, it was important that Irving not only lose, but be seen to lose badly. The case was a cause for them from the start. She believes it also became one for Rampton, particularly after he visited Auschwitz to prepare for trial.

Lipstadt’s British publisher and co-defendant, Penguin Books, stood behind her when she refused Irving’s early offer to settle in return for the withdrawal of her book and an apology. Penguin had braved censorship laws with “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and death threats over “The Satanic Verses.” It was not going to back down before Irving -- and, like most prominent British publishing concerns, it had libel insurance.

The defense’s central problem, as Lipstadt puts it, was that they had no smoking gun. There was and could be no killer evidence that he was propagandist first and historian second. Indeed, a shelf’s worth of widely praised military histories by him suggested the opposite. Furthermore, Irving could always play the underdog. A onetime steelworker, poor and self-taught, he had turned himself into a researcher who mined archives across Europe. He had regrettable views, to be sure. Hadn’t many scholars? Reputable historians have said as much of him in print.

The defense first asked Cambridge historian Richard Evans to assess Irving’s oeuvre. Evans’ 700-page report, which was put into evidence and became the core of his own book on the trial, “Lying About History,” proved devastating. Evans found a pattern of transcription errors, twisted or elliptical quotations and slipperiness with dates. The errors tended to buttress the argument that Irving had prejudices. Rampton skillfully exploited this gold mine. With dry patience he exposed Irving’s distortions, keeping careful count of the plaintiff’s ever lamer excuses -- “I was tired,” “I was stressed,” “I forgot.”

Judge Charles Gray’s 335-page ruling was a comprehensive defeat and disgrace for Irving. Gray found that in writing of Hitler and the Holocaust, far from offering objective history, Irving had repeatedly “perverted” the record and falsified the facts to bring them into line with an anti-Semitic and racist agenda. There could, in addition, be no serious doubt that gas chambers existed at Auschwitz or that these operated on a “substantial scale to kill hundreds of thousands of Jews,” both facts that Irving had repeatedly and often contemptuously denied. Holocaust denial is not a crime in Britain, as it is in some European countries. But Gray’s ruling, twice confirmed on appeal, removed a layer of legal protection from Irving and others who make similar assertions: People could now publicly call them liars and scoundrels without fear of the libel courts.

Perhaps wisely, Lipstadt ends there. Her book is compelling enough as the self-contained story of a gripping and important trial. It is not an essay on the political uses and abuses of the Holocaust, on the obligations of historians to objective truth or on the appropriate limits, if any, to the freedom of speech, though no reader can put it down without wondering about all those things.

In closing, she notes the persistence of Holocaust denial in many forms and in many countries -- a reminder of how much it matters that there be victories like hers. *