The plaintiff is British, a historian of World War II who has asserted that Jewish claims of genocide by the Nazis are exaggerated, that the Auschwitz gas chambers were built after the war by the Polish government as a tourist attraction, that Adolf Hitler did not become aware of the full extent of the Final Solution until 1943.
The defendant is American, a scholar and leading authority on Holocaust denial.
At stake in the international trial, now entering its sixth week in London’s Royal Courts of Justice, may be the historical veracity, at least in some people’s minds, of the Shoah.
But David Irving vs. Penguin Books Ltd. and Deborah Lipstadt — probably the most extensive judicial examination of the Holocaust period since the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel nearly 40 years ago — has not captured the interest of the Jewish community, even of Holocaust survivors, in England, Israel or abroad.
A few British Jews come to court daily to watch the libel case brought by Irving, the historian who claims his career was ruined by Lipstadt, says Douglas Davis, a journalist who covers the trial for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. But, he says, “There’s been no other sign of interest.”
“Only the serious newspapers” in Israel are providing thorough reports on the trial, and most readers don’t seem to care, says Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “In Israel people are not that scared of Holocaust denial, they’re not that conscious of Holocaust denial.”
Among Holocaust survivors in this country, as well, “there’s not so much interest,” says Benjamin Meed, founder of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. “The average survivor knows what happened” during the war, and thinks, “How can you deny what happened?”
Irving, 61, the author of 30 books and an acknowledged expert on Germany during the war, says Lipstadt is part of a “global Jewish conspiracy” determined to blacken his professional reputation. Lipstadt, 52, holds the Dorot Chair in Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
Irving is representing himself and is seeking an unspecified amount of damages.
Under British law, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Lipstadt, who in her 1993 book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory” (Penguin Books) called Irving a “Hitler partisan,” must show that Irving deliberately distorted events in his writings. A judge, with no jury, will rule on the case.
A verdict in favor of Irving — unlikely, according to many prominent members of the American Jewish community — would provide ammunition for the Holocaust denial movement, sometimes called Holocaust revisionism, which calls Jewish losses in the war widely exaggerated.
The case marks “the second stage of Holocaust trials,” Zuroff says. “If, in the past, we have been dealing with the perpetrators of the Holocaust, we are now dealing with the challenges to the historical record.”
As novelist Cynthia Ozick notes, the trial comes during “a period of denial of the atrocity.” An official Syrian newspaper recently accused Israel of “invent[ing] stories regarding the Nazi Holocaust” to improve its bargaining position in Middle East peace negotiations. And the British government announced last month that it is deferring plans to outlaw Holocaust denial in order to ensure that free speech is not “unduly restricted.”
Is “The Holocaust on Trial?” asks a cover story about Irving vs. Lipstadt in the February issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
No, say authorities on the Holocaust. But the trial, which is expected to last three months, provides an opportunity to discredit the deniers.
“This is not the first trial involving a denier,” says Raul Hilberg, a retired history professor at the University of Vermont whose 1961 book, “The Destruction of European Jews,” was among the first scholarly examinations of the subject in the U.S. “The trial won’t change anything. There’s no winning here. It doesn’t add a visible iota to the general perception of what happened.”
Richard Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge University, said at the trial that Irving has no right to call himself a historian. He cited “distortions and manipulations” he found in Irving’s works.
Under cross-examination, Irving retracted an earlier statement that the Nazis had used sealed gas trucks “on a very limited scale to experiment.” He also acknowledged that at least 97,000 Jews were killed in that way, according to Nazi records.
“In the intellectual world he has been thoroughly discredited,” says Michael Berenbaum, founding project director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. He calls the trial “an opportunity to learn more about the Shoah … to answer Irving with great scholarship.”
“If Irving wins, does that mean the Holocaust did not take place?” asks Berenbaum. “Of course not. The Shoah is not on trial. It just means that in one legal preceding [Irving] prevailed.”
With an Irving loss, he says, “essentially denial has been shown to be shown as absolutely false by a different test — the test of judicial accuracy.
“Irving is different” than most leaders of the denial movement, who have questionable academic credentials, Berenbaum says. “He really knows [his subject]. Irving has studied the documents. One must assume that the mistakes he makes are deliberate rather than based on ignorance.”
Irving, who calls himself a “laissez-faire liberal” but not an anti-Semite, formerly gave frequent speeches before neo-Nazi and neo-fascist groups in Germany and Austria, countries from which he is now barred. He is also banned from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
He has been quoted as doubting accounts of Auschwitz (“baloney … a legend”) and the Anne Frank dairy (“a forgery”). He has accused one Auschwitz survivor of fabricating the tattooed number on his arm.
During the trial, Irving labeled anti-Semitism “a recurring malaise in society,” and stated, “There must be some reason why anti-Semitic groups break out like some kind of epidemic.”
Yehuda Bauer, director of the Holocaust Research Institute at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, calls the Irving trial “very important.”
“It may become one of the classics in Holocaust awareness,” he says. “It presents for the first time a direct confrontation with a denial of facts regarding the Holocaust in front of the court. There was never a trial of this kind.”
Past trials in the United States and overseas, particularly of accused war criminals, have focused on limited aspects of the Holocaust experience.
“It’s really astounding,” Ozick says, that the Irving trial has not captured Jewish interest.
“I think it is as important for this period as the Eichmann trial was for its period. It will show that there is indeed a historical record,” she says. “At stake is the truth — the truth that is being lost and undermined and forgotten.”
For Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist and professor of human rights at Fordham University, a trial that examines the veracity of the Holocaust risks bruising the sensitivities of Holocaust survivors, as well as historical truth.
“Particularly while survivors are alive, these types of [proceedings] are an outrage,” Rosenbaum says. “We are all harmed when we have to re-evaluate the essential tenets of what the Holocaust is about. It makes a huge difference” to the survivors.
“You can’t tell a rape victim, ‘You weren’t raped.’ It’s grotesque for survivors to hear this.”