The setting is light and modern – all blondwood tables, laptops and flipcharts. Yet here, everyday from 10.30 till 4, the talk is dark and ancient: of 3,000 years of suffering and of the greatest crime in human history. For Britain’s high court is witnessing a trial like no other. In court 73, from now until mid-April at the earliest, truth itself is on trial.
Officially, the defendant is the American academic Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books. The plaintiff is David Irving, pre-eminent historian of the Third Reich or respectable face of international extremism, depending who you ask. He is fighting a one-man libel action against Lipstadt, over her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust, in which she branded Irving “one of the most dangerous” of the men who call themselves “revisionists.”
“Familiar with historical evidence,” she wrote, “he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda.” He says that is not only a slur on his reputation; it is also untrue.
The result is a daily performance of extraordinary theatre. Moved to one of the high court’s largest rooms to accommodate the press and public, Lipstadt sits surrounded by a team of 11, among them solicitor Anthony Julius – who won fame as the divorce lawyer to Princess Diana – and barrister Richard Rampton.
Their opponent sits alone. David Irving, florid in pinstripe suit and bouffant hair, has a PC for company but no-one else. He is acting for himself, a struggle, he likes to believe, of the English David against the Goliath of world Jewry. He has nothing – no tenured professor’s job to feed his young family, he protests, no pension – while Lipstadt enjoys the financial support of several affluent Jews. To the plaintiff this is further evidence of that hoary anti-semitic notion, a world Jewish conspiracy – in general and to silence him in particular. To those rooting for the defence, it is proof of the moral gravity of this trial: the Jewish people is uniting to defend the truth of its experience. They could not save their fellow Jews 60 years ago: now they will at least save their memory.
Irving insists he is not a denier of the Holocaust outright. He admits that some Jews were treated badly by the Nazis and that quite a few died. Beyond that, he says, he is not a Holocaust historian and the subject “bores” him. His real specialism is Adolf Hitler. Nevertheless, he reckons he knows enough to deny three key, defining aspects of the Holocaust: first, that Jews were killed in gas chambers at Auschwitz, second, that Hitler directly ordered their slaughter and third that there was any systematic plan to destroy European Jewry. The defence will have to prove Irving wrong. Not to a jury – both sides agreed to dispense with that – but to the satisfaction of Charles Gray, former libel lawyer and now high court judge.
You would think that would be a simple enough task. We’ve all seen the archive footage of the camps, the shocking images of human skeletons bulldozed into pits. Surely that evidence settles the matter? Not quite. For Irving looks at those bodies and sees the victims of typhus, an epidemic that thrived in what he admits were the “ghastly” conditions of the concentration camps. He claims these victims were not gassed, but died of “natural causes.”
What of the countless volumes of testimony provided by the survivors of the Holocaust, the Primo Levis, Elie Weisels and Hugo Gryns who, along with thousands of others, described the same, deathly process? They all witnessed the train rides that ended in “selection,” with those deemed unfit to work herded away for “delousing,” into showers that proved to be gas chambers. What of them? No, Irving would say, the Jews have made it all up. Either these accounts are “a matter for psychiatric evaluation” – the witnesses were out of their minds – or the more sinister fruit of a worldwide Jewish plot to guilt-trip the human race.
So the defence offers the evidence of the Nazi themselves. On Wednesday, Rampton raised Hans Almeyer, the second highest-ranking Nazi officer at Auschwitz. In his interrogation by British intelligence Almeyer, too, corroborated the witnesses’ account of the extermination process.
But that is not good enough for Irving either. “British Army officers … had ways of making people talk,” the plaintiff said, happily reversing the cliché. If a Nazi confesses to the Holocaust then, according to Irving, his words were obviously beaten out of him. They are worthless.
That leaves two types of evidence, physical and documentary. Physical evidence is hard, since the Nazis took great pains to destroy the death camps – completely in the case of Treblinka, Chelmno and So bibor – or at least to detonate the gas chambers, as they did at Auschwitz. The ones there are intact, but their ceilings have collapsed, allowing Irving to deny their purpose. Since we cannot see them, cannot examine the ceiling holes through which the gas seeped, we cannot prove they were what thousands of witnesses said they were.
All that remains are the documents. Here Irving, acknowledged as a near-obsessive student of Nazi paperwork, takes over. This week he took great delight in cross-examining Robert Jan van Pelt, a Dutch architectural historian who is an authority on the gas chambers. Van Pelt’s testimony was crucial to the defence, because he has studied architects’ drawings – recently made available – which leave little doubt as to the chambers’ function.
Irving grilled van Pelt on one document in particular, questioning its authenticity. He rattled off questions: about a serial number out of sequence, an incorrect rank for the signing officer, the initials of the typist (which Irving said exist on no other document), even the precise location of the margin. All these discrepancies, bragged Irving, suggested a forgery.
This is where Irving is happiest, rolling around in swastika-embossed paper. He knows these documents so well, he knows their mannerisms. On this terrain, Irving can be frighteningly convincing.
It is left to the defence to prove that, despite Irving’s intimacy with the Nazi paper mountain, he has deliberately ignored the bits that don’t fit his thesis. So they present rebutting documents, an endless supply of them. But Irving either rubbishes these as forgeries or insists he has never seen them. That way he can’t be accused of suppressing or distorting them, as Lipstadt wrote. This results in the bizarre spectacle, repeated this week, of Irving claiming never to have read books he owns, even books he has discussed and criticised in public. If occasionally he is forced to admit he has read an authentic document which contradicts his “revisionism” entirely, he simply pleads an innocent, historian’s mistake.
The Lipstadt team must prove otherwise: that Irving is a man with an agenda, a motive. To that end, Rampton spent much of this week confronting the plaintiff with his own words, building up a portrait of what he called a “perverted racist.”
There was the headline-grabbing ditty Irving sang to his nine-month old daughter: “I am a baby Aryan/not Jewish or sectarian/I have no plans to marry an/Ape or Rastafarian.” There was his wish that Trevor McDonald be confined to reading news of drugs busts and muggings, his reflections on God using Aids as “a Final Solution” to wipe out “the blacks and homosexuals.” The court listens to all this, the Jewish students and pensioners in the public gallery staring straight ahead, the occasional Irvingite letting out a laugh at one of their hero’s racist excuses for a joke.
In diary entries, video tapes and speech transcripts the evidence has been overwhelming: Irving is a man who regards black people as a different “species” and describes Jews as “the traditional enemies of the truth,” a people whose elderly would tattoo their own arms in order to make a few bucks in compensation.
Irving tries to slip out of all this, too. An anti-semitic comment is not really that, he says: it’s just what he imagines an anti-semite might say. At one point, he explained away a long rant against the Jews as his attempt to put “himself in the skin” of a Jew-hater. Not him, you understand.
The overall effect is maddeningly frustrating. “I’m hacked off,” sighed Rampton, tugging off his barrister’s wig at the end of a long afternoon’s questioning. Wrestling with an opponent who will not recognise the prejudice in a phrase like “hideous Jewish face” had finally pushed Rampton, who cultivates a manner of curmudgeonly irascibility, into a foul mood.
The trouble with Irving is that he refuses to accept the basic rules of evidence. Show him a videotape of a Florida rally by the far right National Alliance, and he’ll deny he’s ever heard of the organisation – even though the court can see their banner hanging in the very room where Irving was speaking. Irving carries on regardless – denying, denying, denying.
This is how he approaches the entire topic. He dismisses the evidence of the witnesses’ own eyes: whether Jew or Nazi, they made it all up. He sets a standard of proof for his enemies which no human event could ever fully satisfy. And this is a challenge not only to Deborah Lipstadt.
As Martin Gilbert, Churchill biographer and Holocaust historian, who has sat in on the trial throughout, puts it: “It’s not every day that history itself gets its day in court.” He’s right. It is history itself which is on trial here, the whole business of drawing conclusions from evidence. If Irving is able to dismiss the testimony of tens of thousands of witnesses, where does that leave history? If we can’t know this, how can we know that Napoleon fought at Waterloo or that Henry VIII had six wives? How can we know anything?
This is a challenge to the law. For if witness evidence is always unreliable, where does that leave the courts or justice? But it is also a challenge to us. If we start to doubt corroborated facts, how can we prevent ourselves being swallowed up in doubt, unable to trust anything we see? It might all be a conspiracy, a legend, a hoax. This is the bizarre, never-never world inhabited by David Irving. Now the court has to decide: is this our world too?