What’s at stake in the Holocaust denial trial

LONDON, March 20 (JTA) — Emerging from the Royal Courts of Justice here on the evening of March 15 was like leaving a musty 17th-century ecclesiastical battle for the fresh air of the 21st century.

The proposition presented to the court by Holocaust revisionist David Irving in his libel suit against the American Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt throughout two months of often mind-numbing esoterica might just as easily have been that the world is flat.

Was Auschwitz really a death camp where Jews were systematically slaughtered en masse? Did the Holocaust really happen? Did Hitler order, still less know about, the destruction of European Jewry? No, no, no, thundered Irving.

Given the wealth of historical documentation, physical evidence and eyewitness testimonies, including those of former death camp commandants, the questions might have been redundant to most reasonable people. But not, apparently, to Irving.

To Irving, Auschwitz was an awful slave labor camp where most of the 100,000 Jewish inmates — his figure — died of natural causes. To Irving, the Holocaust was the sum total of all the casualties of World War II. To Irving, Hitler was the best friend the Jews had in the Third Reich.

So who was to blame for the suffering of the Jews? Why, says Irving, the Jews themselves who, by their unspeakable behavior and insatiable greed, have invited the hatred and persecution of their hosts wherever they have lived over the past 3,000 years. By Irving’s logic, the victims become the perpetrators.

Then, again, he has a penchant for turning facts on their head. While it was Irving who instigated the libel trial, he used his closing address to argue that if he lost, the real victims would be free speech and the pursuit of knowledge. The bottom line, he contended, was that his defeat would deny his type of historians the opportunity to question the conventional narrative of the Holocaust.

In fact the opposite is true. If Irving loses, his reputation might suffer — it might equally be enhanced, at least among his followers — but nothing will prevent him from continuing to propagate his crackpot views.

If he wins, however, mainstream historians will have to think long and hard about the consequences of taking on the flat-earth brigade that Irving represents with such felicitous ease.

But the case that Irving brought against Emory University’s imperturbable Lipstadt was not based on her contention that the earth is actually round; rather, that Lipstadt and her British publisher, Penguin Books, had accused him of deliberately ignoring the evidence that the earth is round.

Irving claims that Lipstadt’s assertion that he is a Holocaust denier, a distorter of history, a Hitler partisan and, in the words of defense lawyer Richard Rampton, “a right-wing extremist, a racist and, in particular, a rabid anti-Semite” ruined his reputation and wrecked his career.

Could Irving succeed in his libel action? And what would that mean?

A senior source deep inside the Lipstadt defense team was euphoric immediately after the closing statements last week. There was no doubt, he said, that the judgment — expected in about three weeks — would be in Lipstadt’s favor.

Then, again, Irving was equally confident: “That’s a stupid question,” he replied tersely when I asked him whether he thought he would win.

British libel law is stacked in Irving’s favor. The judge is not being asked to rule on whether the Holocaust happened, whether Hitler knew or approved of the extermination of Jews or whether Auschwitz was indeed the scene of systematic mass killing.

Instead, he must decide whether, as Lipstadt charged in her book, Irving deliberately distorted, misstated, misquoted and falsified historical evidence and manipulated historical documents in order to make them conform to his own ideological agenda. And he must decide whether Irving deliberately ignored evidence in order to exonerate Hitler for the persecution of the Jews.

The burden of proof fell on Lipstadt to show that Irving actually had evidence to support the conventional meaning of the Holocaust; he says he did not because it is a subject he finds “endlessly boring.” So, too, was the burden on Lipstadt to show that Irving had evidence to link Hitler with an order to kill Jews; Irving maintains no such definitive document exists.

It is possible, on strictly technical grounds, that the judge will find in Irving’s favor, and the effect of such a decision could be far-reaching.

To many who are not versed in British libel law, a victory for Irving — however narrow, however technical — will be perceived as a vindication of Holocaust denial and a blurring of the line between legitimate historical inquiry and partial “research” that is designed to aid right-wing extremism and fuel neo-Nazism.

Whatever the outcome, it would be entirely wrong to assume that Irving is a cardboard cut-out fascist or a raving lunatic. His public speeches might be intemperate, but his actions are carefully calculated. He is a prolific author, an articulate spokesman for his cause and he has a presence — physical and intellectual — that commands attention.

In other circumstances, Irving might have been a front-line academic, a political leader or an effective courtoom advocate. Instead, he has found a niche for himself as the jewel in the crown of right-wing extremism, its intellectual guiding star.

Adding to the contradictions that accompany Irving is that he is openly contemptuous of the neo-Nazi skinheads who proliferate at many of the 200-odd meetings he addresses each year, a disdain that possibly has more to do with class than ideological difference.

For two months, the standing-room-only crowd of lawyers, journalists and public who converged on Court 73 were treated to a guided tour of the Alice-in-Wonderland world that Irving inhabits, where nothing is ever quite what it seems to be.

He was at once the sycophantic schoolboy when addressing the judge, the overbearing bully when dealing with defense counsel and the bantering schoolyard chum when mixing it with media. He was always the child, a point underscored by his nostalgia for the days of his youth and his seeming obligatory reference to his father, whether in his curriculum vitae or in court.

Ultimately, Irving presented an image of an overindulged, somewhat precocious Bar Mitzvah boy, thoroughly enjoying the celebrity of the occasion, smug in his own cleverness, scowling when he is denied an extra helping of chopped liver.

Whether railing against the international Jewish conspiracy that he says has hounded him for 30 years, excoriating what he perceives to be the enemies of free speech — most major Jewish organizations, and JTA — or lamenting the stream of countries that have deported him because they found his views too obnoxious, Irving is clearly a child who hates having his party ruined.

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