When I went to see Judge Charles Gray in his chambers, the day before his first hearing in the David Irving libel trial that ended this week, he confessed anxiety. "There is some risk," he explained, "of one's being asked to become a historian. Judges aren't historians."
For their own reasons, both sides agreed that (whatever else the trial was about), history, in Leopold von Ranke's phrase, "what actually happened," had no place in the courtroom. But facts have a kind of gravitational pull of their own, and by the end, everyone involved - Gray, Irving, Deborah Lipstadt, her lawyers, the experts who testified and those of us who merely listened - spent a great deal of time hearing about what happened to the Jews of Europe and about how the knowledge of what happened has been preserved.
Unlike myth, history is not tidy, and the events that became known as the Holocaust are as complex as any genuine - as opposed to literary - calamity. There is the added confusion created by the efforts of the perpetrators to cover-up their crimes. But there was also a final bar to understanding perhaps unique to the Holocaust - that we believe we already know all about it. Of all the "lessons" of the Holocaust, Pastor Martin Niemöller's account of his own complicity in the escalating brutality of life in Nazi Germany is probably the best known. His litany of indifference, "First they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew..." is one of the things everybody knows about the Holocaust, along with the bars of soap made from the fat of murdered Jews, and the gas chambers at Dachau and Belsen. But what everybody knows about the Holocaust isn't always true.
Although the grisly tale of the soap figured in some of the earliest accounts of Nazi-occupied Europe, it is now rejected by historians as a fabrication - similar to the atrocity stories of Allied propaganda during the first world war. Dachau did have a gas chamber, but it was never used. This week the BBC referred to the "death camp" at Belsen, but there were no gas chambers at Belsen.
Nor did the Nazis come first for the Jews; as Peter Novick explains in his brilliant and provocative new book, The Holocaust in American Life, "First they came for the Communists" - a circumstance acknowledged by Niemöller, who continued, "but I was not a Communist - so I said nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat - so I did nothing. Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist. And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew - so I did little. Then when they came for me, there was no one left who could stand up for me." The Holocaust Museum in Washington DC is just one of those who, in Novick's phrase "prudently omits" Communists from Niemöller's homily.
But prudence and political calculation have influenced our knowledge of the Holocaust from the beginning. Even the word itself - from the Greek holos, for whole, and kaustos, for burnt - is contested. In some circles, the Hebrew word Shoah, meaning destruction, is preferred. The Princeton historian Arno Mayer coined the term "Judeocide" to describe the subject of his study Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? For a long time after the war, the fate of European Jewry was hardly mentioned, partly because, as the cartoonist Art Spiegelman's father says in Maus, his survivor's tale in cartoon format, "No one wants anyway to hear such stories," and partly because in camps liberated by British and American troops including Dachau, Belsen and Buchenwald, only a minority of the prisoners were Jews. In Ed Murrow's famous 1945 broadcast from Buchenwald the words Jew and Jewish are never spoken.
In her first book, Beyond Belief, Lipstadt wrote that even when confronted by the evidence, many correspondents were reluctant to admit to themselves and their readers the reality of genocide. She attributes some reluctance to anti-Semitism. Novick, who teaches history at the University of Chicago, suggests a different reason for postwar reticence: with the realignment of the cold war, talk of the Holocaust was inimical to US interests. In 50s America few besides Communists shouted "Remember the six million!"
For most Americans, including Jews, the Holocaust was "the wrong atrocity" - mention of it was at best an embarrassment, at worst a cause for suspicion. Today the Holocaust is ubiquitous. Films such as Schindler's List, television programmes, novels, memoirs all add to what we know - or think we know - about what Raul Hilberg called "the destruction of the European Jews". His book with that title was published in 1961. The first reviews were mostly hostile: it was years before Hilberg won prizes. Merely consider the reception of Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments (1995) to see how much has changed: it won the National Jewish Book Award for autobiography. Even after evidence mounted that Wilkomirski was really Bruno Dössekker, a Swiss musician whose account of a childhood in the camps is fictional, Fragments attracted readers, such is the appetite for Holocaust literature.
How did this change come about? Novick mentions a gradual easing of the cold war, outbreaks of neo-Nazism in Germany and the US, the 1952 publication of Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl, adapted to stage and screen. But the single greatest catalyst was the trial of war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Much of the initial response was negative. But as the trial wore on, the mass of detail overcame scepticism. The trial was televised, and for the first time the American public was confronted with the Holocaust distinct from the general carnage of war.
Now, nearly 40 years after, Eichmann's name again echoed in a court. For over nine weeks in Courtroom 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice the Holocaust has been on trial as Charles Gray presided over David Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd and Deborah Lipstadt. Towards the end of the trial, which, thanks to British libel laws, forced Lipstadt to prove the truth of the claim in her book Denying the Holocaust that Irving knowingly distorted or suppressed evidence regarding the Nazi massacre of European Jewry, it was announced that the Israeli authorities had agreed to release Eichmann's diaries. But the problem of Lipstadt and her lawyers couldn't be solved by new evidence. The problem was how to interpret what was already there.
To Irving, author of numerous books on the Third Reich, the Holocaust is "an ill-fitting legend". He didn't deny many Jews died; he denied that any of them were killed in gas chambers, that Hitler directly ordered the annihilation of Jewry, and that the killings were in any significant way different from the war's other atrocities.
In Hilberg's insight, the destruction of European Jewry was a bureaucratic process, the result of "a series of administrative measures". In their pursuit of the Endlösung - the Final Solution to the Jewish question - the Nazis left the detritus of any large organisation: memoranda, requisition forms, purchase orders and blueprints. A million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz and all had to be taken there by train in the middle of a war in which the railways were the lifelines of the German army. The Zyklon B gas to kill them had to be paid for. And the ovens that disposed of the bodies had to be specially built, by Topf and Sons, a firm that patented the design. For each Stück - piece, as the Nazis referred to a Jew - processed, items had to be accounted for: money, dental gold, hair. Hilberg mapped this bureaucracy in three volumes, but the essential facts are in a series of tables. Deaths by cause shows that more than 800,000 Jews died from "ghetto-isation and general privation," more than 1.3m by "open-air shootings," and up to 3m were murdered in camps - as many as 2.7m in specialised extermination centres such as Sobibór, Treblinka, and Belzec; 150,000 died in other camps, including concentration camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald.
In deaths by country, Hilberg's list ranges from the 3m Jews of Poland to the fewer than 1,000 from Luxembourg, and in deaths by year charts the genocide's rise and fall. But the total is the same: 5.1m Jews. Other historians dispute Hilberg's arithmetic, arguing for 6m. Scholars remain divided on when and why the Nazis shifted from encouraging Jewish emigration (which saved half of Germany's Jews) to extermination (which murdered 90% of Greece's Jews). They argue about the role of the camps in the German economy.
Irving used these disagreements to get into the debate. But his arguments were of a different order. He filed for libel in September 1996; that spring, his US publishers, St Martin's Press, had cancelled the publication of his Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich. Given his history, controversy was to be expected, even courted. Publishers Weekly pronounced the book "repellent"; Jewish organisations expressed outrage; Deborah Lipstadt was quoted as saying that St Martin's would hardly sign up a white supremacist for a book on race relations.
St Martin's at first stood firm, but between a March Daily News report about the uproar and Frank Rich's April New York Times column calling Irving "Hitler's Spin Artist," it lost nerve and cancelled publication. The principal effect of this, as Christopher Hitchens pointed out in Vanity Fair, was to transform a man with "depraved ideas" about the Holocaust into a poster boy for free speech. This lent the book the cachet of suppressed literature. and gave rise to Gordon Craig's declaration, in a review in the New York Review of Books, that "silencing Mr Irving would be a high price to pay for freedom from the annoyance that he causes us". Craig continued: "He knows more about National Socialism than most professional scholars in his field, and students of the years 1933-1945 owe more than they are always willing to admit" to his research. "Such people have an indispensable part in the historical enterprise, and we dare not disregard their views." On Tuesday, Mr Justice Gray found otherwise.
The argument is familiar. In the late 70s, French intellectuals were convulsed over l'affaire Faurisson. Robert Faurisson, professor of literature at the University of Lyons, wrote in Le Monde the "good news" that the gas chambers had not existed. "The alleged Hitlerian gas chambers," he said, "and the so-called genocide of the Jews form a single historical lie whose principal beneficiaries are the State of Israel and international Zionism."
Hitchens described Irving as "not just a Fascist historian, but a great historian of Fascism". He also assumed that what Irving really wanted was a debate with his critics. If that had been Irving's objective, all he had to do was bide his time. "Someone," Hitchens asserted, "will no doubt pick up where St Martin's left off." Instead, Irving blamed Lipstadt for his troubles in the US and sued her and her publisher, Penguin Books, for libel in England. At which point it became more difficult to defend the proposition that what was at stake was Irving's freedom of speech.
Faurisson's chief antagonist, French classicist Pierre Vidal-Naquet, argued : "To live with Faurisson? Any other attitude would imply that we were imposing historical truth as legal truth, which is a dangerous attitude." Vidal-Naquet opposed his government's use of torture in Algeria and supports the rights of Palestinians. Perhaps because both his parents were deported by the Nazis (his mother died in Auschwitz), he felt it just as important to expose Faurisson's distortions as to support his right to distort. His scepticism about the role of the state has no echo in Lipstadt, unlike his argument against debating the Holocaust.
He wrote: "Confronting an actual Eichmann, one had to resort to armed struggle and, if need be, to ruse. Confronting a paper Eichmann, one should respond with paper... In so doing, we are not placing ourselves on the same ground as our enemy. We do not debate him; we demonstrate the mechanisms of his lies and falsifications, which may be methodologically useful for the younger generations." We need only set this passage from Assassins of Memory, his restrained, yet devastating, response to Faurisson, beside a similar passage from Denying the Holocaust to see the extent of Lipstadt's indebtedness. "Not ignoring the deniers does not mean engaging them in debate; it means not doing that. We cannot debate them for two reasons, one strategic and the other tactical... The deniers long to be considered the "other" side. Engaging them in discussion makes them exactly that. . They are contemptuous of the very tools that shape any honest debate: truth and reason. Debating with them would be like trying to nail a glob of jelly to the wall." Though she relies on his arguments, Lipstadt is no Vidal-Naquet. She lacks his intellectual breadth, clarity of thought and expression, and, sadly, his stature as a Jew who has never confined his political engagement to Jewish causes.
In Israel, as you might expect in a country where in the 40s the slang for Holocaust survivor translated as soap, the battle over representing the Nazi genocide has always been bare-knuckled and open. The arguments go back to the war, when supporters of mainstream Zionism sought to discredit the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (agitating noisily for rescue) as a vehicle of the right-wing Zionist terrorist group Irgun. As indeed it was. David Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders were not thought lessly "writing off" European Jewry, Peter Novick says, but just making a "chilling... appraisal of what was and was not possible".
Though it is impolite to mention it, there are still live questions about the Holocaust. The dispute between intentionalists, who say that genocide was always part of Hitler's plan, and functionalists, who argue the Final Solution evolved in response to changing conditions and fortunes of war, is far from settled. Another open, though stifled, question is about the number of survivors. Irving's claim that Jews inflated the number of victims to extort money from Germany merely demonstrates his ignorance. The payments to Israel were for resettling refugees, and it would have been in Israel's interest to exaggerate the number of survivors, not the number of victims [See the numerous statements of Nahum Goldmann, responsible for the negociations with Germany, to the contrary: the payments were made to helkp Jews robb Palestinians of their land, it is true, not to bury the Nazi victims. But he payment were calculated upon the number of victims !. AAARGH ]. But that doesn't mean there weren't individuals who, to qualify for payment, claimed to have spent the war hiding in Poland when they had been living, in relative safety if not comfort, deep in the Soviet Union.
More delicate is the question of survivor testimony. According to Elie Wiesel: "Any survivor has more to say than all the historians combined about what happened." Would Wiesel censure Lipstadt for saying: "Lots of survivors who arrived at Auschwitz will tell you they were examined by [Dr Josef] Mengele. Then you ask them the date of their arrival, and you say, 'Mengele wasn't in Auschwitz at that point'." Would he censure her, or any historian, for daring to ask for evidence, documents, corroborating testimony? That is what historians do. And when they are prevented from doing it, either by Jewish groups who feel that the Holocaust belongs to them or by Zionists seeking to preserve Israel's "moral capital", the result is a blurring between memory and propaganda that serves only the interests of the Nazi perpetrators and their political legatees.
Yet time and again those who insist on the truth in all its complex, unsentimental, paradoxical, and ambiguous detail are shouted down. It isn't only anti-Semites who, in T S Eliot's phrase, find a "large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable". The many obstacles thrown up by the history of our understanding of the Holocaust make Judge Gray's ruling all the more remarkable.
But his reasoned arguments are unlikely to make an impact on either the Holocaust deniers or their opponents. Holocaust deniers, as the latest incarnation of a paranoid tradition, are by nature impervious to fact. For them, Irving's defeat confirms his martyrdom; the scale of his undoing proves the power of the forces against them. For the growing Holocaust industry, victory over Irving is more likely to be a stimulus than a restraint.
In her statement after the trial, Lipstadt described the struggle against denial as unending. Let me be clear: Lipstadt deserved to win. But the encouragement that her victory will give to some groups supporting her - such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews or the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai Brith - in their efforts to police public discussion of the Holocaust and of Israeli policies, is no cause for celebration.
Thanks to the efforts of her lawyers and their experts, we now know a great deal about what is wrong with Irving's scholarship. But the trial did not contribute to our understanding of the Holocaust. There was one aspect of Judge Gray's decision that, left unchallenged, will make greater understanding of the Holocaust even less likely. Time and again, he referred to what an "objective historian" might do. But if judges aren't historians, historians shouldn't be expected to be judges. Irving's problem wasn't detachment but dishonesty. The Holocaust has always had a political as well as historical meaning; in America, that meaning has shifted a great deal from the days when conservatives saw a Communist behind every mention of the 6m.
Perhaps with Irving safely consigned to the dustbin of history, the rest of us can join the debates that, in scholarly circles, have raged for some time. This may mean giving up comfortable certainties about the distinctness of Jewish suffering, the exterminationist nature of German anti-Semitism and the redemptive force of Zionism. But if the effect of the Irving decision is to strengthen the hand of those who wield the Holocaust like a totem, or a truncheon, then truth and history might as well never have had their day in court.
DD Guttenplan is currently writing an account of the trial for Granta Books, to be published next year. A longer version of this was first published in Atlantic Monthly.
The egg has been sponged off David Irving's best suit, splattered by High Court demonstrators last Tuesday. The defence lawyers are seeking an archive nerd who wants 92 lever-arch binders of Holocaust documents, each in seven copies. And yet the great three-month libel trial refuses to go away.
Five days after Mr Justice Gray's judgment against Irving, the smoke is clearing. But the view, depressingly, is much the same as before.
The good news is that Irving lost his action against Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt. The bad news is that he still apparently intends to bring another one - against The Observer. Irving has still not had enough.
One of the reasons is that there were two trials going on, not one. The formal trial ended with one of the most crushing judgments ever dumped over an English plaintiff. The judge accepted almost every single point of the defence case: Irving was - among other things - a liar, a distorter of historical evidence, an anti-Semitic racist and a 'Holocaust-denier'.
But Irving was also suing before 'the court of world opinion'. He kept one eye firmly on the journalists packing the front row (we were daily ticked off or praised, and fed with interesting papers).
He lost that trial, too. But not nearly so completely. Incredible as it seems, a minority of people clearly think it was Irving who was on trial, being sued for his opinions by Penguin Books. He might as well have been fighting the charge of 'Holocaust denial' waiting for him at Mannheim in Germany, where it is a criminal offence. In consequence, there is now a tendency to see the trial outcome as a form of censorship, a clamp on the limits of historical inquiry.
Professor D.C. Watt, in Tuesday's London Evening Standard, asserted that historians were uneasy about the trial, that Penguin had been 'out for blood' and that 'the truth needs an Irving's challenges to keep it alive'. Watt overlooks the fact that it was Irving who was out for blood; he, after all, sued Penguin and Lipstadt. John Keegan, another historian of war, wrote after the judgment that Irving 'has many of the qualities of the most creative historians ... if he will only learn from this case, [he] still has much to tell us'. Keegan dismissed Lipstadt, whose remarks about Irving were the pretext for the trial, as 'dull as only the self-righteously politically correct can be'. [Full text here. AAARGH]
Both men are scrupulous scholars; neither could possibly be suspected of fascist sympathies. Yet both see Irving as still somehow 'one of us' - wrong but romantic. But Lipstadt is a respectable historian too, more honest in her use of documents than Irving, and the trial vindicated what she said about him. So why is she being slighted as somehow not quite one of us?
On the day after the verdict, the headlines unanimously pronounced Irving dead and buried. Unquiet grave! People like that always bounce back. And Irving's reputation has always been a double one: as a writer of his tory, but also a hunter of un-known, sensational documents. The first part - his reputation as an interpreter of those documents - lies in ruins. The second survives.
This is a shadowy underworld, hidden beneath the clean, bright places where scholars write books. Down in the cellar of Third Reich studies, con men and SS veterans, obsessive journalists and forgers and real historians stumble about in echoes of fantastic rumour. And here Irving is a dark prince.
His special gift is finding papers which others don't even know how to look for. Gitta Sereny, another famous researcher in this field [Social worker in her own right! . AAARGH], acknowledges : 'He's so good at cross-searching. Take the Kommissarbefehl [the order to kill captured Soviet party cadres]. He would go in 12 different directions; he would check through what everyone was doing on the day it was issued, on who Hitler saw or phoned that day and where.'
Has the trial changed anything? Very little. The judgment does not advance historical research into Hitler's murder of the Jews. It merely repeats what was known. Neither is it likely to deter 'Holocaust-deniers'.
But Mr Justice Gray's judgment will be useful as a sort of quality guarantee. As the Pinochet case showed, an English court still has clout and international credibility.
Irving lost his case last Tuesday. Does that mean Lipstadt and her supporters won on the same scale? As a lawyer explained to me, it's not that simple. She won a battle, but not necessarily the war. She is the author of Denying the Holocaust - the book in which she accused Irving of being a racist, a right-wing extremist, an anti-Semite, a twister of evidence and a Holocaust-denier - and the judge endorsed almost every allegation she made. And yet, in the wider sense, her victory may not have done much to help her cause.
Lipstadt sat in court for three months and said nothing. This annoyed Irving, who plainly longed to have her at his mercy in the witness-box, and it did not endear her to the public. It may be that she was simply afraid of what Irving could do to her. More probably, she was sticking to her own precept: never debate with deniers. Never act as if there were two sides to this question. There is only one. The Holocaust did happen. End, Schluss , no argument.
This has proved an unpopular view. The Jewish Chronicle took the Lipstadt line: 'Merely to suggest the fact of the Holocaust... is somehow open to debate is obscene'. So did David Cesarani, Professor of Modern Jewish History at Southampton. He reproached the media for continuing to talk to Irving and ask him for his opinions. Most British commentators found this repugnant. They had no doubt the Holocaust happened. But in the old liberal way, they felt like fighting for a man's right to express views they found loathsome.
They were also worried that the judgment could deter 'genuine' historical argument about the details of the Holocaust. The total of the victims, some of the methods and the genesis of the plan itself are all uncertain. But the judgment stated that such research did not amount to 'denial' (which is no offence in this country), and Lipstadt's writings make the same point.
How about Lipstadt's even more passionate belief that the Jewish Holocaust was unique - that to set it in the context of other great atrocities is blasphemous? Again, Irving's defeat did nothing to support her. But the reporting of the trial seemed to some to imply an exclusiveness about Jewish victimhood. This disturbed both historians (such as Mark Mazower, author of Dark Continent: Europe in the Twentieth Century) and minorities who have themselves been subjected to genocide, like the Armenians. As Mazower said last week, more data have come to light in recent years which multiply the scale of great atrocities in the past. These include the death toll in King Leopold's Congo Free State, which may have reached 10 million, and the famine deaths caused by Mao's Great Leap Forward in China, now thought to number more than 20 million.
The Irving trial again brought out the unique features of the Holocaust. The more Irving blustered about how unplanned the 'Final Solution' was, the more his own documents reminded an appalled court of its deliberate, industrialised character, its intention to eradicate an entire race.
But an English libel court is for justice, not for history. Mr Justice Gray did not say whether the Holocaust should or should not be placed in a wider context of war and genocide. He left that to Irving and Lipstadt, who will go on contesting it for the rest of their lives.
After a lengthy High Court libel action culminating in a massive five-figure award of damages, the judge made a devastating attack on the historian David Irving, whom he described as 'a slippery and fly character'. In spite of everything, Irving announced his intention of lodging an appeal.
That was 30 years ago when Irving was found to have libelled Captain John Broome RN in his book The Destruction of Convoy PQ 17. Anyone like myself who remembers not only that action but other similar episodes - such as that surrounding General Sikorski (when Irving helped to promote the absurd idea that Winston Churchill had ordered the murder of the Polish wartime leader), or the Hitler diaries (revealed by Irving in quick succession to be fake and then genuine) - must find it strange that Irving is still considered to be a man with a reputation to lose.
'Journalists are supposed to be slapdash,' wrote the late A.J.P. Taylor, 'academics to be cautious scholars. I do not think this distinction has any validation.' Even in these degenerate days I doubt very much with a record like his whether any newspaper editor would touch David Irving with a bargepole. For a start, the risk of expensive libel damages would deter them.
Fellow historians, however, are even now, after all that has happened, still prepared to put in a good word for him. Sir John Keegan, the Daily Telegraph 's military historian, seemed to value Irving higher than his victorious opponent in the recent libel action, Professor Deborah Lipstadt. Lipstadt was boring but Irving, he wrote, 'has many of the qualities of the most creative historians'. He 'still has much that is interesting to tell us'. Professor D.C. Watt seemed to think Irving had somehow done us all a good turn by questioning the reality of the Holocaust. 'The truth,' he concluded mysteriously, 'needs an Irving's challenges to keep it alive.'
In the light of such tributes, anyone who naively thinks that David Irving has somehow been finished off by last week's libel verdict should think again. Journalists may damn him but the professors, the so called 'experts', will help to keep the flame burning. We need a liar, it seems, to help to lead us to the truth.
David Irving is continuing to pursue his intention to bring a libel action against The Observer and the writer Gitta Sereny, for words in an article entitled 'Spin Time For Hitler' which appeared on 21 April, 1996.
In his Statement
of Claim, Irving lists 13 points he considers defamatory. The
article, in his view, accuses him, among other things, of inflating
the death toll in the Allied air raid on Dresden tenfold, of obtaining
the microfiche plates of the Goebbels diaries in Moscow by subterfuge,
and of using 'the means of invention, omission or distortion to
express an obsession, thereby demonstrating a lack of the detachment,
rationality and judgment'. Irving also claims aggravated damages
on the grounds that The Observer failed to publish a timely reply
by him to the article and that Sereny had pursued a campaign of
defamation against him for nearly 20 years. The Observer will
apply to have his action struck out on the grounds that these
matters have already been litigated in the libel case against
Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt that concluded last week.
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