By ELLI WOHLGELERNTER
(October 12) - A court case in London set to begin in January pits a top US historian against a British denier, which could result in the Holocaust itself going on trial.
The fight against Holocaust deniers is nearly as old as the Shoah itself, but come the first month of the 21st century the biggest battle ever will begin, one whose outcome will echo long after the survivors and perpetrators are no longer around.
The showdown will be in a London courtroom, in a libel suit brought by renowned denier David Irving against publishing house Penguin Books Ltd. and historian Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault On Truth and Memory.
In the book, the first full-length study of the history of those who attempt to deny the Holocaust, Lipstadt cites Irving among many other Holocaust deniers. After the book was published in Britain in 1994, Irving took Lipstadt and her publisher to court, claiming - according to Irving's Web site - that Lipstadt defamed his reputation by saying he 'is an historian who has inexplicably misled academic historians... into quoting historically invalid points contained in his writings and who applauds the internment of Jews in Nazi concentration camps.'
Irving also claims that Lipstadt further tarnished his reputation by calling him 'an Adolf Hitler partisan who wears blinkers and skews documents and misrepresents data in order to reach historically untenable conclusions, specifically those that exonerate Hitler.'
For Irving, considered a brilliant media manipulator, the book's publication in England was the moment he was waiting for: Irving knew that his best chance for a successful lawsuit was in Britain, where the laws of libel - unlike in the United States - protect the defamed and the burden of proof is on the writer to show the veracity of his/her statements.
The trial - expected to be the most highly publicized Holocaust trial since Adolf Eichmann - is scheduled to begin January 11 and could last three months.
Some historians, like Yehuda Bauer of Yad Vashem, see the trial as a wonderful chance to debunk the deniers.
The Holocaust, he said, 'is not on trial, it's a question of describing the truth. This is not a danger, this is an opportunity. I think these trials are very important because they bring to the fore a problem of historical truth... It's a tremendous opportunity for legitimate historians to prove what they are saying.' The best venue for clarifying such issues is in the defense of a libel charge, he added.
Others see in the trial an inherent danger, fearing it will in effect put the entire Nazi operation on trial. Should that happen, then the slightest legal infraction could lead to a judgment that would reward Irving with a technical victory, one he would be sure to exploit to further his agenda.
'That's always the danger,' said Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Israel office. 'The court is going to deal with facts regarding events that obviously took place, and there is a theoretical possibility that the verdict could in some way diminish those crimes, or question those crimes.
'It seems unlikely, but every time you go to court there is always the danger of losing a case. Any victory for Irving, any defeat for Deborah Lipstadt on any major point, will be a loss for truth and historical accuracy.'
Lipstadt, whose British lawyers do not wish her to talk about the trial, makes clear in her book that she does not believe that the Holocaust belongs in the courtroom.
'Let me point out here that I am the defendant, I didn't go seek this out. If I hadn't contested this, then he would have won by default, and his definition of the Holocaust would have become a standard definition recognized by the High Court in London. So there was no option but to fight it - someone comes after you, you have to do it.'
EVEN the language used by the deniers is faulty, says Lipstadt. She prefers 'denier,' a term which as a result of her work has replaced the denier's use of 'revisionist,' a legitimate historical discipline. As Lipstadt points out in her book, the deniers don't revise, they deny.
The history of Holocaust denial began in Nazi Germany itself, according to Yad Vashem's chief historian, Yisrael Gutman. It was part of the very language used to obscure the Nazis' acts of murder: Aussiedlung (evacuation); Endlssung (the Final Solution); Sonderbehandlung (special treatment); Umsiedlung (relocation); Abschiebung (deportation); Aktion (operation).
Postwar attacks on the veracity of the Shoah began in 1948 with the publication in France of Le Passage de la Ligne (Crossing the Line), by Paul Rassinier, who had been sent to Buchenwald as a member of the Resistance. Rassinier argued that there was no extermination policy towards Jews, only an emigration policy, and that it was the Jews who declared economic war on Germany in 1933.
In 1965, Austin App, a former professor at La Salle College in Philadelphia and the University of Scranton, published The Six Million Swindle, arguing that no more than 1.5 million Jews had been killed and that the Nazis had not planned to kill all the Jews.
In 1973, Thies Christopherson of Germany, a Wehrmacht officer, published in France Die Auschwitz Leuge (The Auschwitz Lie). He argued that documents showed that no more than 200,000 Jews were killed during the war, and that Hitler had never ordered the killing of Jews, only that they should leave Germany.
And in 1974 in Great Britain, Richard Verral, a.k.a Richard Harwood, published Did 6 Million Really Die? The Truth At Last.
According to Ephraim Kaye of Yad Vashem, in his 1997 pamphlet Desecrators of Memory: Confronting Holocaust Denial, 'until the late 1970s it was hard to speak of denial as a phenomenon with firm research conclusions. The denial publications that had appeared up to that time were of rather poor quality and terse and crude in their approach.'
The turning point was in 1977 with the publication of The Hoax of the 20th Century by Arthur Butz, a professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University. He claimed that no German documents from Auschwitz mentioned gas chambers and that Zyklon B was used, but only as a disinfectant and an insecticide. He said that Jews were persecuted, but not exterminated, and that the Anne Frank diary was a forgery.
It was this book, with its 450 footnotes and Butz's academic status, that 'elevated Holocaust denial several notches,' wrote Kaye.
Two years later, an organized propaganda movement was formed, the Institute for Historical Review (IHR).
The IHR, which Bauer has called 'a pseudo-scientific institute of neo-Nazi intellectuals,' publishes a Journal of Historical Review and convenes an annual International Revisionist Conference where Holocaust deniers from around the world, including Mark Weber, Bradley Smith and Fred Leuchter from the US, Ernst Zundel from Canada, Robert Faurisson from France, Carlo Mattogno from Italy, Ahmed Rami from Sweden, and Irving from England often make appearances.
And there is also denial in the Arab world: In the pre-Oslo period Yasser Arafat's second-in-command, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), wrote in his book, The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and the Zionist Movement, that the Nazis may have killed less than one million Jews and that 'the Zionist movement was a partner in the slaughter of the Jews.'
PA Communications Minister Imad Falouji and PA general-secretary Ahmed Abdel-Rahman were among the leaders of a January 19, 1998 rally in Gaza in support of Roger Garaudy, who was on trial in Paris for denying the Holocaust. Abdel-Rahman said that films and books about the Holocaust 'have told what happened to the Jews in an unbelievable and exaggerated manner, so why not give Garaudy the right to state his point over the issue?'
Nabil Amar, head of the Palestinian Broadcasting Authority under whose auspices PA Television ran a cultural affairs program on which the moderator said: 'It is well- known that every year the Jews exaggerate what the Nazis did to them. They claim there were six million killed, but precise scientific research demonstrates that there were no more than 400,000.' (August 25, 1997)
IT WAS this whole cottage industry of denial that moved Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, to write Denying the Holocaust.
'I wrote the book because I was intrigued that there seemed to be serious people, students, who knew very little about the Holocaust, who didn't recognize from the outset that these guys were turning fiction into fact,' Lipstadt said.
'I also wanted to show the modus operandi of the deniers, sort of unpack what they do and how they do it. Do I think that the Holocaust deniers have had a tremendous impact on the history of the Holocaust? Not for a minute. Look at the Swiss banks case, the number of people coming to the [US] Holocaust Museum, the number of books published on the Holocaust, the number of movies.
'I don't believe Holocaust denial is a clear and present danger; it's a clear and future danger. When there won't be anybody around to say 'this is my story, this is what happened to me,' it will become easier to deny.'
Lipstadt, who maintains an absolute policy of never accepting an invitation to debate deniers and thereby give them legitimacy - 'Would you ask someone who works for NASA to debate someone who believes that the earth is flat?' - cited four reasons why Holocaust denial is accepted.
'No. 1, there's something about the story of the Holocaust which is unbelievable, which in and of itself is 'beyond belief,' ' a reference to her 1986 work by that title on the American press and how it reported - and underreported - the Holocaust for 12 years, in part because they couldn't believe what they were hearing.
'Putting scientific knowledge to gas chambers? 'There's something wrong here. Six million Jews, and millions more - it just doesn't make sense.' It beggars the imagination, on every level.'
Second, she said, is that the country responsible for the Holocaust doesn't fit the profile.
'Germany? Tell me this about a Third World country where they are cutting off arms with machetes or something. But Germany? Bauhaus? Goethe? Beethoven? The place where you went for education, for culture? Please.'
Third is that even survivors still find it hard to fathom that such a thing could have happened.
'For example, when I have Holocaust survivors in my class talking to my students, they'll sometimes say at the end: 'I can't believe that on April whatever 1945 I was 70 pounds, covered with lice and could hardly stand up without some big soldiers holding me up, and here I stand before you today a successful lawyer, the grandmother of eight. I see grandchildren who are doctors and lawyers who have babies - I can't believe that was me.'
'Are they saying it wasn't true? No, it's just that the gap between then and now is so tremendous.'
Fourth, Lipstadt said, there's a part of us that would like to wake up tomorrow and be told that it really didn't happen.
'Wouldn't you rather be raising your children in a world where you didn't have to teach them about this, that people do this kind of thing? Come to it not as a Jew, not with someone with a vested interested in the common memory. Come to it as someone who is raising your children in this kind of world, and you want to say, 'this would be better if it didn't happen, I'm glad you're telling me it didn't happen, I was always uncomfortable with it,' that kind of thing.' But what of the deniers themselves? What motivates them? Almost all historians say that for core deniers it is just one more manifestation of antisemitism, while other deniers are irrational but have convinced themselves that it really is a lie.
'I don't know whether [Irving] believes in what he says,' said Bauer. 'As far as he's concerned, I think he's convinced himself, and this of course makes him more dangerous. He's convinced himself that what he's saying is the truth and therefore he has also the power to convince others.'
FOR THE deniers to be right, argues Lipstadt, then everyone else has to be wrong - survivors, bystanders, liberators and most of all the Nazis, including those who testified at postwar trials and those who wrote about it and talked about it afterwards.
'They say the documents are made up - do you know how hard it is to forge these documents? Let's say you're in one of the Einsatzgruppen. You're sending back reports, 'we need more blankets, we need more ammunition, we need more guns,' whatever it might be. And you're also typing up reports on the number of people killed, and how you killed - it's all being done on the same typewriter.
'You can't suddenly have so many people sitting in Washington on an IBM Selectric [saying] 'let's feed it in.' Everything has a consecutive number, file numbers. And you have a document in six different places - what, you fed it into six different places? The whole thing is so fantastic, so beyond belief.
'Some people obviously have deluded themselves into thinking that what the deniers are saying is true, but those deniers at the heart of the fight know they are twisting the truth. All of them to one degree or another have to be antisemites - some like notoriety, some are lovers of the Third Reich Germany, some are Adolf Hitler wannabes, some are neo-Nazis, so it's a variety of different kinds of things.'
On the who's who list of deniers, the most notorious are Leuchter, who once claimed to be an 'engineer' and wrote The Leuchter Report which claimed that Zyklon B could not have been used in gas chambers; and Smith, who in 1987 established the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust which places 35-paragraph advertisements in college newspapers across the US claiming that the main cause of death in the concentration camps was typhus and that gas chambers were 'lifesaving' fumigation devices used to delouse clothing.
But perhaps the most dangerous of all is Irving, a British military historian who has published 22 books since 1965, though many eminent reviewers of his works, specifically his 900-page Hitler's War (1977), have dismissed his methods and conclusions.
'He is the most dangerous because he has the veneer of an historian,' said Bauer. 'There is some doubt about [his standing as historian], there are people who will argue that his [other] historical writings are, from a purely professional point of view, suspect.
'But there's no doubt that he's an extremely intelligent man, and he has read a huge number of documents, and this conscious denial of the truth is something that he has in common with many other deniers.'
THIS will not be the first time Holocaust denial has been on trial. In 1980, the IHR offered $50,000 to anyone who could prove that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. Mel Mermelstein, a survivor, took on the challenge, submitted the proof, and when they failed to pay, took them to court and won.
In Canada, Ernst Zundel and James Keegstra were brought to trial for Holocaust denial in the mid-1980s. Zundel was convicted twice, but the Canadian Supreme Court overturned his conviction. Keegstra was fined.
In France, Faurisson was fined and given a suspended prison sentence in 1983 for making Holocaust denial and anti-Zionist remarks on radio. He was further charged in 1990 and was fined $50,000, of which $20,000 was suspended.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the ultra-right French National Front, was fined $180,000 in 1997 for referring to the gas chambers as 'a minute detail of Second World War history.'
But this trial will dwarf all the others, because of its location, its adversaries, and what it portends for the future.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said that 'in a perverted way, I'm glad it's Deborah, because she is a recognized, established, credible scholar of the Shoah, and there is no one better equipped to have written that book about Holocaust denial. Her credibility and her standing is what distresses David Irving.'
Zuroff said that what marks this trial is that 'the stakes are much higher because of Irving, because of who he is, and the charges.
'This is not a perpetrator saying it didn't happen, nor a survivor saying it did happen - these are people who are historians, the people who deal with the events rather than the people who lived through the events. This is the beginning of the future. It would not be surprising if such cases don't happen again and again.'
Zuroff said these kinds of denial trials are, in a certain sense, like those involving The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
'There were trials regarding the veracity of the Protocols, and it was proven again and again that it was a forgery. But it keeps on coming up. The Holocaust is 10 times more important than the Protocols. The future will most likely hold trials like this, but the more unequivocal the verdict is in this case, the less such trials there will be in the near future.'
At the trial, Lipstadt's lawyer, Anthony Julius, will call four main expert witnesses to the stand: Richard Evans on German history, Christopher Browning on the Nazi plan to kill Jews, Peter Longerich on Hitler, and Robert Jan Van Pelt, who wrote the definitive work on the history of Auschwitz, the town and camp.
Julius, of the London law firm of Mishcon de Reya, is known as the divorce lawyer of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, but has also written a book on the antisemitism of T.S. Eliot.
All of the above are heavy hitters, but a courtroom can still be dangerous place.
Foxman, himself a lawyer, said that bringing the Holocaust to trial 'is always a very, very uncomfortable and problematic issue, because those of us who are lawyers and who have experience with the law know that frequently 'the law is an ass,' and that decisions can come down on procedural matters which may be spun as a win or a loss which has nothing to do with the essence of the case.
'For Irving, this is a platform, this is a vehicle to clothe himself in legitimacy, to gain publicity in the context of a court which gives [deniers] standing and stature. We have always been reluctant to challenge these antisemites and pseudo propagandists, but when they bring the charge you have no choice, and have to do everything that is possible to defend it. This unfortunately, or fortunately, is the case.'
©Jerusalem Post 1999