The libel suit historian David Irving waged against professor Deborah Lipstadt turned on the question of whether it was correct to call him a "Holocaust denier." The Holocaust occurred, Irving says; it just wasn't what everybody says it was. For example, it didn't include gas chambers, especially not at Auschwitz, and it involved no custom-built death camps. The majority of the Jews of Europe were not murdered by the Nazis, Irving insists, though their exact whereabouts are unknown. It's true that many were killed, often by shooting, and that was no good thing. But it was unsystematic, incidental, caused by maverick SS commanders in the East without the consent of Adolf Hitler--as if the German war machine, poised to battle the Allied nations, had tripped and fallen on the Jews. It was, in fact, an "unexplained tragedy," Irving is very happy to say, as so many of the deaths of innocents in war are unexplained and tragic.
This was the story he was eager to tell again, this time in the Royal Courts of Justice, off the Strand, in London, where barristers' robes flap behind them as they rush through the courtyards and brick walls hold up ornate stone ribs. Irving was both plaintiff and star witness. He was suing the American academic Lipstadt for 16 pages of her book Denying the Holocaust. She had called him a denier and a bad historian. Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, pleaded "justification": Both labels were accurate. But under the libel laws of England, the burden of proof fell on the defense, which left a great deal of room for Irving to put the Holocaust on trial for the benefit of deniers worldwide. Lipstadt, who chose not to testify, sat quiet as a sphinx. The lawyer Anthony Julius prepared her case--a figure famous, to the tabloids, as counsel for Princess Diana's divorce--and the prominent barrister Richard Rampton, queen's counsel, presented it in court. With his folded arms, pudgy and ruddy face, and gold spectacles, he had the look of a lawyer from Dickens. Both parties agreed to forgo a jury and leave the verdict to a noted libel judge. But the focus of attention was always Irving, as he shuttled between witness box and counsel table. He had chosen to represent himself. Irving possesses more than one personality, as perhaps everyone does, but it was an unusual feature of this court proceeding that all of them were on display. It was the pugilist that landed him there, the attention seeker, the arrogant "dissident." It was the historian that was losing his argument.
On the day of the trial's opening, Irving wanted to read out a document. It was the transcript of a little monologue delivered in wartime by Nazi Colonel Walter Bruns, who had fallen into the hands of the British, landed in one of their more comfortable prison camps, and unburdened himself to a fellow prisoner in a room whose every fixture and appliance his hosts had secretly fitted out with microphones. Bruns had been commander in Riga, the capital of Latvia, on the date in 1941 when he was vexed to learn that his Jews, too, whom he had set to making underwear for the war effort, were going to be liquidated.
As soon as I heard those Jews were to be shot on Friday, I went to a 21-year old boy and said that they had made themselves very useful in the area under my command ... I told that fellow Altemeyer ... 'Listen to me, they represent valuable manpower!' 'Do you call Jews valuable human beings, sir?' I said: 'Listen to me properly, I said valuable manpower. I didn't mention their value as human beings.' He said: 'Well, they're to be shot in accordance with the Führer's orders!' I said: 'Führer's orders?' 'Yes,' whereupon he showed me his orders. . . .
At any rate, on Sunday morning I heard that they had already started on it. The Ghetto was cleared... . [S]ix men with tommy-guns were posted at each pit; the pits were 24 meters in length and three meters in breadth--they had to lie down like sardines in a tin, with their heads in the center. Above there were six men with tommy-guns who gave them the coup de grâce. When I arrived those pits were so full that the living had to lie down on top of the dead; then they were shot and, in order to save room, they had to lie down neatly in layers.
Irving went on tirelessly. Jewelry and suitcases were collected, the women and children queued for death. Then Bruns described a related matter, the clumsiness of a mass killing of Jews in the Ukraine, where there was a "pestilential smell," and ground too hard for burial, so that the officers hesitated to tell the führer how it had gone. Irving had reached his key point. Why, he asked, had they hesitated to tell the führer? He read Bruns's further statement: "Altemeyer triumphantly showed me: 'Here is an order just issued, prohibiting mass shootings on that scale from taking place in future.'" Never mind the earlier "führer's orders," which Irving suggested was a figure of speech. Here was evidence of Berlin's (and therefore Hitler's) displeasure, and orders prohibiting the killing of Jews.
When Richard Rampton had his turn to address the Bruns document, he made different sense of what had occurred. He reminded the court that another sentence had immediately followed the one Irving had stressed. Altemeyer actually said, "Here is an order just issued, prohibiting mass shootings on that scale from taking place in future. They are to be carried out more discreetly."
"They are to be carried out more discreetly," Rampton urged, putting it to Irving during cross-examination.
"That I attach less credibility to."
Judge Charles Gray in his horsehair wig leaned over the edge of the bench. "Mr. Irving, can I put it to you straight, as it were? Because this is the suggestion--"
"--That what you have said as being of particular significance, namely the renewed orders that such mass murders were to stop forthwith, totally perverts the sense of Bruns's conversation in captivity because Bruns makes clear that Altemeyer said that the killings were to continue?"
If so, then Irving demanded a different kind of credit. He had hoped the Bruns document would point to the innocence of Hitler. Perhaps it failed. But since he had read the ugly facts into the record--wrongly interpreted or not--didn't it mean he was still a real historian? If the procedures of scholarship themselves were intact, how could he be faulted? How, David Irving thunderously wanted to know, just because he happened to deny every aspect of this so-called Holocaust, could he be held to account as that miserable exile, a Holocaust denier?
An open society, even at the best of times, depends on its past. So much of the body of stable opinion will be under threat at any given moment that society turns to history as to a court of appeal. That's why Holocaust denial is so intolerable to liberal cultures, and a test of how liberal principles respond to assault. Denial looks different from other forms of racial hatred. It doesn't resemble an opinion, as ordinary racism does, to be best countered with more free speech. It raids the store of facts. It mimics real historical revision, which changes the view of the past without harming the evidence. And it succeeds because it selectively misuses the most familiar mechanisms of proof, manipulating liberalism's natural skepticism and properly footnoting all its deceptions. It looks like sabotage.
David Irving, saboteur, is 62 years old, broad shouldered, a little heavy in his movements, like a boy who has made himself king of the hill and expects to be pushed off. He wore a pin-striped blue three-piece suit to court each day, which stretched taut across his back as he swayed at his podium. Thirty books of popular history bear his name, and at least seven libel actions presently bear his signature.
He didn't always deny, but he was always a belligerent. He comes from a "service" family, by which he means that his brothers and his father spent most of their lives in the military, and the unmilitary son sometimes seems to consider his writerly exploits as a substitute. For this reason he may be forgiven his rhetorical effulgences: the characterizations of scholarly debate as "bloodshed" and the celebrations of "the biggest caliber shell that has yet hit the Battleship Auschwitz." His father, John Irving, was in the Royal Navy at the Battle of Jutland in the First World War and in the Arctic convoys in the Second; though he survived, he chose not to come home to his wife and family. He led expeditions to the Antarctic. David grew up, in Essex, without a father, in "very reduced circumstances," and developed particular interests. He read Hitler's Table Talk cover to cover at age 14. He asked for Mein Kampf as a school prize. He financed his own higher education with construction work but left college without a degree. Then he decided to work at a steel mill in the German Ruhr. He wrote to Krupp ("the only name I knew"), but their steelworks had ended with the Allied dismantling orders, so he settled for another firm. He found his life's work in Germany, talking to those who remembered the war, and returned to England to take a job as a watchman in the hut of an elegant address in Kensington, where he slept on the table and wrote his first book detailing the shabbiness of his native country in its bombing of Dresden. He was always less a scholar than an explorer. In 1969 a treasure map came into his hands, and he scurried through an East German forest in search of a glass jar containing the lost Goebbels diaries. ("We never found that particular truffle.") He gained a reputation both for his success in hunting up hitherto undiscovered Nazi documents and for his method--tea with widows.
In 1977 Irving released the one book he was meant to write, Hitler's War, which some have called the finest account of World War II from the Nazi point of view. It introduced his exoneration of Hitler for the development of the Final Solution. This act of deluded rationalizing might have been rebuked by scholars and then quietly entombed in historiography. What time could be relied upon to heal, however, Irving could be relied upon to exacerbate. He met the community of deniers, forged links to their Institute for Historical Review, and moved toward denying the Holocaust as a whole. Others remember birthdays, but Irving remembers April 22, 1988, the day upon which, after he read an amateur report stating that there were no cyanide traces in one of the "gas chambers" at Auschwitz, his denial was born again. He became, in his own description, "hardcore."
The simplicity of his racism today is disarming. During the trial, the defense spent several days proving it from past evidence, diaries, speeches, and interviews. Irving's notion of an appropriate response came the next week. He introduced to the court a clip of photographs of his past secretaries posed in front of his paper-strewn desk. "Will you accept it shows ethnics in an office? Do they look content?" Irving confided later that he was certain he'd won on the pictures. Yet there was the nursery "ditty" he created for his then one-year-old daughter: "I am a baby Aryan/Not Jewish or Sectarian/And I have no plans to marry an/Ape or Rastafarian," which the daily newspapers enjoyed. There were his courtroom defenses of a short-lived Nazi plan to deport the entire Jewish population of Europe to Madagascar: "I think that the Jews are a very sturdy people." David Irving likes to encourage "the Jews" to ask themselves why everyone hates them so much. He says he is anti-Jewish only in the sense that the English people in 1940 could be called anti-German. When you are the victim of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, how could you fail to be their enemy, too?
The courtroom in which this drama was played is number 73. It is small and modern, on an upstairs floor. At the opening of the doors each day, the defense poured in, followed by the imposing figure of David Irving, then the press and a public anxious to watch the fireworks. It would be slower than they thought. The curtains blew inward from the windows. The two sets of tables were like a scale unbalanced. On the defense side, behind Rampton, his assistant, Lipstadt, and Julius, was a line of serious young lawyers, each equipped with a black laptop, who read documents and stopped only to wipe their glasses. On Irving's side were one or two supporters who dozed in the afternoons.
"What do you say went on--perhaps I will ask you this first," Rampton began. "Do you accept that there were [death] camps, and we will take them one by one, Chelmno?"
Irving considered. "Belzec I am not certain of."
"Treblinka I am becoming uncertain about."
"Sobibor I know nothing of."
While Irving was adjusting his denial by the seat of his pants, the courtroom was brimming with papers. There were captured Nazi documents and 700-page reports by expert witnesses. The walls held shelves, the shelves held binders, red and black, and the binders were filled with xeroxed pages. Piles of documents sat before the counsel at the defense table. As each was mentioned, the judge spun a giant wheel arrayed with binders and wearily selected the appropriate chronicle of misery.
In Hitler's War, and once again in the days of plaintiff's testimony, Irving had used a particular telephone message Himmler had sent to Heydrich in 1941 as Jews were being transported from ghettos and cities to their death. Judentransport aus Berlin. Keine Liquidierung, it read. No liquidation. Irving insisted the call had been made after a Himmler conference with Hitler, where the führer secretly ordered that the Jews be saved. "The incontrovertible evidence is that Hitler ordered on November 30th, 1941, that there was to be 'no liquidation' of the Jews," Irving wrote in his introduction. He connected this to the halt order referred to in the statement by Bruns. And Irving cited a communiqué of the next day, from Himmler to the head of all concentration camps: Jews are to stay where they are. The Holocaust had been temporarily stopped, thanks to Adolf Hitler.
The defense corrected Irving's logic and his translations. The original German didn't halt "Jewish transports." It was in the singular, referring in fact to just one Riga-bound transport train of Berlin Jews. The order couldn't have come from Hitler: Himmler didn't meet with the führer until after he had given the halt order. As for the next day's communiqué, it didn't even contain the word "Jews": It instructed administrators to stay where they were.
By the second week, the concessions were in full flow. The shootings in the East, Irving had said, were random. Faced with documents from the Nazi command, he acknowledged them as "systematic." The killings of Jews, Irving had said, were not authorized by Hitler. Faced with Himmler's notes on the führer's spoken wishes --"Jewish Question. To be destroyed as partisans"--Irving acknowledged Hitler's authorization. (He argued Hitler believed those Jews were partisans, and even that they actually were--disregarding the murdered children, of course.) He admitted the mobile gas vans. He conceded gas chambers in the smaller camps. As Rampton faced him with document after document, he would finally concede everything short of a Hitler order for genocide, everything short of the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz. It did not matter. With those two "wedges," he believed he could still undo the Holocaust.
The third week gave Irving his chance at Auschwitz. Robert Jan Van Pelt, a professor of architecture in Toronto, took the stand as the defense's expert on the camp. The story that Irving would like the world to believe is that Auschwitz was only a work camp with a high mortality rate, and that there couldn't have been gas chambers. If one does the calculations, he says, it just shouldn't have worked.
"Do you appreciate," Irving was orating, "that there are severe logistical problems in handling the disposal of 120,000 bodies a month?"
Think how much coke would be required to burn so many bodies. Irving had done some calculations, based on the amount of coke for one body, and it was too much fuel: The camp couldn't accommodate it.
Professor Van Pelt, who had brought his own prewar family bible to swear upon, cited memoranda that showed how the oven maker had made the burning of the dead much more economical than Irving supposed. There were a few coke invoices extant. Then there were the records of the actual numbers of Jews deported to the camp who promptly disappeared from the intake rolls: You could start your crematory calculations from there.
"To try and do these calculations the other way round, which is what the witness has done, I find this perverse," Irving complained to the judge.
All day, as he interrogated Van Pelt on the eyewitness accounts of SS men introducing lethal Zyklon B pellets through holes in the roof of Crematorium II at Auschwitz, Irving had been promising a trap. Now there was nothing left but to spring it:
"Professor Van Pelt, we are wasting our time really, are we not? ... There were never any holes in that roof. There are no holes in that roof today... . Our experts have stood on that roof and not found them. The holes were never there. What do you have to say to that?"
No one was very amazed. The judge roused himself. "The trap is what you have just asked?"
"Precisely it, my Lord."
If the holes weren't there, Van Pelt explained, it was probably because the roof wasn't there--significant pieces were missing and damaged. The holes might have been obliterated or resurfaced when the Nazis hid evidence, destroyed parts of the camp, and abandoned it in the last year of the war. There was no way to find them and no way to know. But for Irving, this seemed like a victory, even if it didn't to the judge or the gallery. He had reached another of the "undecidables." These tiny gaps in the record, points of mystery with no easy resolution, are the denier's bread and butter. And to anyone in America who's heard, or believed, a conspiracy theory, they will be familiar.
The curious realization about Irving's kind of denial is how tantalizing its different elements can be. Its central myths have the garish allure of the true-mystery books of childhood, which asked what happened to Sir Walter Raleigh's colonists at Roanoke, suggested why the Egyptians couldn't have built the pyramids, and left you daydreaming about the promised discoveries--one mind against the whole of history.
Irving proceeds with the same romance and hubris. The historical record and a thousand witnesses exist--ignore them. Using only your calculator, your wits, and your sense of how things ought to be, conclude that the murder of the Jews shouldn't have been possible. And if it shouldn't have been, then, quasi-logically, it must not have occurred. Minus his feelings about Jews and his identification with Nazis (as when he barked, "I'm like Rommel, I'm coming in from the rear," during one fit of courtroom frustration), Irving's underlying notion is that you should be able to walk into a room, 40 years later, and be the first person to see the secret that resides there. And the truth is, we do believe that you ought to.
The far more congenial surprise of the Irving trial proved to be that the methods of an open society, and of scholarship, confrontation, and evidentiary procedure, when given their day in court, so quickly made rubble of Irving's arguments. It didn't take weeks; it took days. It had not seemed so certain before the trial. In a skeptical culture, skepticism can have the upper hand.
Nothing captured scholarship's success more vividly than when Christopher Browning, the American expert on the Einsatzgruppen killing units and the path to the Jewish genocide, took his place on the stand for cross-examination in the fifth week of proceedings. A tall man, with a middle-American openness and an unpretentious smile, he consciously straightened his shoulders to overcome the curve from his years in the archives. He began studying the Holocaust in the early 1970s, when there were few American voices in the field, and has led a life as a scholar among scholars, much of it at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, achieving fame only recently. Like Irving, he is not Jewish.
The extraordinary thing about Irving's cross-examination of Browning was that the professor turned the exchange, momentarily, into something resembling a scholarly debate--a debate in which Browning simply gave a better account on every point, until even Irving seemed affected.
"My view," Irving began to preface his attempts, "and I would wish you to correct it... ." And Browning did correct it, making clear where scholars disagree and that Irving wasn't even close to them.
"We are really clutching at straws in trying to arrive at figures," Irving ventured. "Is it not right, Professor?" He twitched his fingers behind his back. "We are really floundering around in the dark, are we not?"
"No," Browning said. "In many cases we have the entire roster name by name and we are not floundering."
Only as the testimony was nearing its end, after lunch on the second day, did Irving's belligerence return, without warning--accusing Browning of being "a paid agent" of Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial.
Some weeks later, in a conversation on another subject, Browning returned to the puzzle of Irving's methods. "We were suddenly off in wonderland," he said. "The Holocaust is not on trial, but history is on trial," the professor suggested. "What does it take to be admitted to the bar of history? ... [Irving] has to admit evidence that real hardcore deniers won't. It puts him in a terrible situation, because he's three different people, and one keeps tripping over the other."
On my last evening in wonderland, I took a cab to Irving's flat in Mayfair. There were bunches of grapes on the wallpaper of the downstairs foyer, and boxes and papers in the hall. His books, now self-published--like Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich--sat in piles.
In the study, Irving slumped in a chair behind a double desk. His collar was open two buttons, and he looked as if he had just gotten up from a nap--which indeed he had--and it hadn't done much good. His partner Bente, he told me, was very ill. Their daughter Jessica, now six, came in and out of the study to play. Irving treated her with great tenderness.
He seemed exhausted, slightly sorrowful. I had asked what he imagined his legacy would be. "At present it's going to be a devastated family," he said. "But even if I've devastated this family, my reputation as a historian, as a formidable opponent, will have been restored."
When a young man and a young woman, strangers, neatly dressed, rang the doorbell--they had come for a book, and to meet the great man, or monster--Irving invited them to stay and the atmosphere changed. Now he held court, throwing an arm over the back of a chair.
He talked about his new book, the second volume of a Winston Churchill biography. "There's a very odd thing about Pearl Harbor," he began, starting in the dry tone that forewarned another mystery solved. Evidently, Irving is the only person to have found the clue in the diary manuscripts of Sir Alexander Cadogan, permanent undersecretary of the Foreign Office, that proves the British knew about Pearl Harbor before it occurred. "On the day of Pearl Harbor, the actual entry begins, of this man's diary, something like: 'The day begins with an ominously strong northwest wind,'" Irving explains. "But if you know anything at all about Pearl Harbor, you'd know that the key to the information that the Allies got in advance was what was called the 'Winds' message." He lets this sink in.
Irving is a seeker after signs, a bloodhound for proofs that only he can read. It is the way he interprets history and his own life. He was listening for clues from the judge, he explained. "Today was the first day that I've seen positive signs. A tiny little sign." Asking for a new page, the judge had used a generous phrase: "'rather like these nice pages you've given me here, Mr. Irving.'"
"I don't know if you caught that," Irving said. "That's these little sheaves of papers I get in the morning, the little bundles of documents. I go to great troubles to make them look nice. Beautifully typed, on a nice typeface, called Plantin--not Times, which he's probably thoroughly fed up with. And, and the fact that he--I'm not sure exactly the turn of phrase that he used--but it was a little compliment, which he wouldn't have used if he was going to stiff me at the end of it." His jaw tightened, and he raised his chin. "I may be totally wrong."
But Irving is a man who is prepared to wait. The strangers departed. I was left alone finally in the dark kitchen with Irving while he put on a pair of shoes. The dulled wingtips looked too tight, pinching the flesh of his foot, but he was tugging the laces, stubbornly, still spinning out conjectures from his solitary mind: what the judge thought of him, what the judge thought of the witnesses. There was that part of him that could not believe what was happening--that, regardless of how the judge ruled on the libel case, Irving was losing his argument on the history--even as it occured. It is the corner David Irving has painted himself into, where even his hope is a form of denial.