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Holocaust denial more than trivial pursuit

NEW YORK, May 20 (JTA) — When I first learned that David Irving was considering suing me for libel, I laughed. In my book I had devoted about 300 words to Irving, describing him as “the most dangerous Holocaust denier,” a Hitler partisan and someone who knew the truth but who bent it until it fit his anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi ideology. I considered him “dangerous” because, unlike other deniers, Irving was the author of numerous books about World War II and the Third Reich, some of which were well-known and well-regarded. Consequently, his pronouncements about Holocaust denial garnered far more attention than those by other deniers. I made it clear that I thought him to be an anti-Semite who kept company with right-wing extremists. These words were admittedly harsh, but I had no doubt that they were accurate. Who, I then wondered, would take this garbage seriously? As it turned out, I was wrong on all accounts. I was wrong about Holocaust denial. There were people who took it seriously. And I was wrong about this threat. Irving pursued this case very seriously. In fact, I was at a decided disadvantage. Defamatory words are presumed under English law to be untrue until proven true. British law placed the onus on me, the defendant, to prove the truth of what I had written, rather than on Irving, the plaintiff, to prove the falsehood. Had I not fought, he would have won by default. I would have been guilty of libel and, ipso facto, Irving’s definition of the Holocaust would have been determined to be legitimate. Irving may have assumed, when he first sent that letter, that I would not pursue this matter. I was an American. I was far away. I was a woman. (And Irving is a misogynist.) An experienced litigant, he apparently anticipated that I would find this fight an overwhelming burden and would “settle” by apologizing, paying him and agreeing to withdraw my book from circulation. In 1991, in Ontario, Canada, two years prior to the publication of my book, Irving described what happens to defendants when they discover how complex and debilitating a libel action is. They begin with a great resolve to fight, but soon, he quipped, they “crack up and cop out.” I was wrong when I opened the letter from Penguin informing me that Irving was considering a suit. I was entirely wrong to assume that it was going to be just a nuisance. But David Irving was far more wrong than I if he thought that I, as the defendant, would “crack up and cop out.” I did neither. Deniers have developed fairly sophisticated tactics. They depict themselves as driven by a “deep dedication to the cause of truth in history,” a mission to correct mistakes in history and a desire to expose historical totems that were manipulated by secret vested interests. The conferences of the Institute for Historical Review, the California-based denial group, resemble academic confabs. The IHR’s modus operandi was so subtle that some people found it difficult to discern the organization’s real mission. Their Journal of Historical Review had a scholarly veneer. Students at leading academic institutions who encountered it in their university libraries sometimes thought it a genuine scholarly journal. Deniers, Irving among them, have decided racist sympathies. The IHR told its supporters that the Holocaust myth lowered the “self-image of white people.” And, of course, white supremacists have latched on to denial in an enthusiastic fashion. But these people are recognized as the radical fringe. More disturbing than Holocaust denial has been the fuzzy reaction in certain circles to deniers. In the 1980s and 1990s student newspapers on various American campuses accepted ads denying the Holocaust. Some papers justified their decision to accept the ads on the First Amendment, apparently unaware that it stipulated that government can not restrict press freedom and does not oblige a newspaper to accept an ad. Some papers published the ads despite their paper’s policy not to run ads that were racist, sexist or hostile to a minority, ethnic or religious group. The editors of these papers did not consider these ads anti-Semitic. “They just deny the Holocaust,” one editor told me. I was most disturbed by papers that justified their publication of the ads on the basis of the press’ responsibility to “tell all sides of the issue.” “What ‘issue’?” I kept asking them. The University of Michigan Daily believed it must be a “forum for ideas.” The Cornell Daily Sun declared it wrong to “unjustly censor advertisers’ viewpoints.” The University of Washington Daily argued that it had to be a “forum for diverse opinions.” Few of these papers seemed to grasp that Holocaust denial was not a “viewpoint,” but propaganda that had been repeatedly discredited. I found the same confusion about the parameters of historical debate in the media. I watched with dismay as hosts of radio and television talk shows treated denial as an intriguing idea. I regularly received and declined invitations from these shows to participate in debates with deniers. While many things about the Holocaust are open to debate, the existence of the event itself is not. One producer, anxious to get me to change my mind, said: “Shouldn’t our listeners hear the other side?” These journalists — who had no sympathy for the deniers — failed to grasp that denial was not just false but designed to propagate hatred. Despite his exoneration of Hitler and his overt anti-Semitism, Irving succeeded in straddling the world of the extremist ideologue and that of the iconoclastic historian. Though increasing numbers of historians believed his ideology compromised his work, there were those who remained impressed by his work. They include eminent figures such as A.J.P. Taylor, Hugh Trevor-Roper and John Keegan, as well as Paul Addison, John Charmley and Rainer Zitelmann. Irving, Zitelmann argued, “must not be ignored. He has weaknesses, [but he is] one of the best knowers of sources . . . [and has] contributed much to research.” I was troubled that some of Irving’s claims about Hitler did not raise a red flag for these critics and make them question, at the very least, Irving’s interpretation of his much praised sources. The highly respected Gordon Craig, professor emeritus at Stanford University, and author of the “Oxford History of Modern Germany,” among many other books, has written: “Such people as David Irving have an indispensable part in the historical enterprise and we dare not disregard their views.” Craig disparaged Irving’s claim that Auschwitz was “a labor camp with an unfortunately high death rate” as “obtuse and quickly discredited.” But his praise of Irving’s iconoclastic views of history surprised me. Giving someone with such an “obtuse” notion of Auschwitz an “indispensable part” in the historical conversation would give these “quickly discredited” views added credibility. During the months of preparation for the trial I began to hear from the neinsagers, the doubters, in both the scholarly and Jewish communities. When various academics asked why I was doing this, I bristled. I patiently explained that I was the defendant, fighting to clear my name, and to prevent Irving’s version of history from being legitimized by the Royal High Court of Justice. When one of the leading American scholars of the Holocaust declared, “Your biggest mistake was simply not ignoring his charge,” I was reminded that I had not only a legal battle to wage but had to educate those who, I assumed, would have understood what I was facing.Deborah E. Lipstadt is the director of Jewish studies at Emory University and the author of “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.” She won a historic libel trial in London in 2000 against David Irving, who sued her for calling him a Holocaust denier.The column above is excerpted from a speech given at a recent international conference in New York, “Old Demons, New Debates: Anti-Semitism in the West.” The conference, which brought together international scholars and journalists, was sponsored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research at the Center for Jewish History. The pieces were provided courtesy of the Center for Jewish History. The other pieces are by Hillel Halkin, David I. Kertzer and Leon Wieseltier.