“The coward only threatens when he feels secure” – Goethe
I recently caught up with an excellent 2016 film Denial. It tells the story of the 2000 court case Hitler apologist and Holocaust denier David Irving brought against Jewish Amerian historian Deborah Lipstadt and her book publisher Penguin for defamation. Scenes from the movie were filmed in Auschwitz in winter and it brought back strong memories of my own cold visit there in late 2008.
Irving lost the case for reasons I’ll get to but there’s a scene near the end where Lipstadt (played with passion by Rachel Weisz) gives a press conference which is even more appropriate in today’s world of rampant conspiracy theories. “Freedom of speech means you can say what you want. What you can’t do is lie and expect not to held accountable for it,” Lipstadt said. “Not all opinions are equal and some things happen just like we say they do. Slavery happened, the Black Death happened, the Earth is round, the icecaps are melting, Elvis is not alive.”
When populist leaders like Donald Trump freely dispense with facts (the fake news he is so fond of is usually something he says or tweets), it means all these incontrovertible “things that happened” are under fire. We are only waiting for some claim that Elvis has re-entered the building.
The Holocaust too is something that today’s Anti-Semites (also retweeted by Trump) still claim did not happen. The difference is the Irving case left a written testimony to history. Though Justice Charles Gray in his judgment said proof of the Holocaust was a task for historians not judges, the case remains some of the strongest written testimony that can be flung at any denialist.
In the 1990s British author David Irving (a spellbinding performance by Timothy Spall) was chief among denialists. Irving claimed to be a genuine historian and there is much original research in his early works from documents not previously visited by historians, such as the Himmler papers in Washington and the Goebbels diaries in Moscow. He assiduously tracked down people such as Hitler’s adjutants or their widows to gain first or second-hand testimony of Hitler’s regime.
There is clearly a strong interest in German texts but the problem was the conclusions he drew. While Irving claimed to be a Hitler historian not a Holocaust historian he painted Hitler as a Jewish sympathiser and in later works broadly dismissed the Holocaust as untrue.
Deborah Lipstadt is a Holocaust historian concerned at the way denial of the Shoah was spreading. Her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory took broad aim at Holocaust deniers in general and Irving in particular. There were barbed references to Irving’s work which she said “misstate, misquote, falsify statistics and falsely attribute conclusions to reliable sources.”
She attacked several passages in Irving’s Hitler’s War (1991 – Second Edition) and noted than in 1989 the British parliament denounced him as a “Nazi propagandist and long time Hitler apologist”. Lipstadt said Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil revived Irving’s reputation in 1992 hiring him to translate the Goebbels diaries, discovered in a Russian archive. Neil later denounced Irving’s view as “reprehensible” but defended engaging him as a “transcribing technician”. Peter Pulzer, a professor of politics at Oxford and an expert on the Third Reich argued that when you hired someone to edit a set of documents others had not seen, “you took on the whole man”. Lipstadt concluded the paper displayed no journalist ethics in the interest of a journalistic scoop and threw away its task as a gatekeeper of the truth.
If these words were scathing of the Sunday Times they were extremely defamatory to Irving. But rather than take the case in Lipstadt’s native US where he would have had to prove defamatory intent, he went forum shopping and took the case to the London High Court. Under English law defamatory words are presumed to be untrue. The defendants needed to prove the substantial truth of the defamatory imputations, the so-called “sting” of the charges.
Irving conducted his own defence while Lipstadt had Diana-divorce solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott in the movie) and McLibel barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). The defence decided not to call Lipstadt to give evidence nor any survivors from Holocaust. The intent was to starve Irving of the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and put all the focus on his work.
They relied instead on five expert witnesses whose evidence ran into thousands of pages. They were Richard Evans, Cambridge Professor of Modern History who spoke about Irving’s historiography, his exculpation of Hitler and his denial of the Holocaust, Professor Robert Jan van Pelt, an authority on Auschwitz, Christopher Browning, a Tacoma Washington Professor of History who gave evidence about the implementation of the Final Solution, Peter Longerich of the University of London who gave evidence of Hitler’s role in Jewish persecution and Hajo Funke, Berlin Professor of Political Science who spoke of Irving’s association with German neo-Nazi groups.
The film concentrated on Evans and Van Pelt. Van Pelt showed the defence team around Auschwitz, the remains of Crematorium II and the delousing chambers. While the Germans dynamited the crematorium before the Russians captured Auschwitz in January 1945, its general layout was known from the drawings of Jewish inmate David Olere in the final days.
In the delousing chambers, where new arrivals were sprayed with Zyklon B to prevent typhus, they discussed the Leuchter Report. In 1988 German holocaust denier Ernst Zundel paid American Ernest Leuchter (a penitentiaries consultant who gave advice about execution procedures including execution by gas) to smuggle back to the US pieces of brick from the crematoria and gas chambers without permission. Leuchter’s investigation claimed there was not enough cyanide in the delousing walls to kill people. Irving’s second edition of Hitler’s War in 1991 relied heavily on this information and he even wrote the forward to Leuchter’s pseudo-scientific report. Van Pelt argued that was because they were only trying to kill lice in the delousing chambers not people, and there was 20 times that amount of cyanide used in the gas chambers.
Another key point was chimneys in morgue 1 of crematorium 2, which Van Pelt said was the most lethal place in Auschwitz with 500,000 deaths. Irving argued the remains of the roof of that morgue show no sign of the chimneys which, according to the defendants’ case penetrated through the roof to enable Zyklon-B pellets to be tipped into the morgue below.
Irving said that if anyone detected holes in the roof, he would abandon his libel action. He argued the Defendants’ entire case on Krema 2, “the untruth that it was used as a factory of death, with SS guards tipping canisters of cyanide-soaked pellets into the building through those four (non-existent) holes- had caved in, as surely as has that roof”. Or as he put it in his media-friendly soundbite “no holes, no holocaust“. However his theory was easily demolished by engineering analysis, computer analysis of images, and aerial photo analysis which clearly showed the holes in the roof.
There was also the evidence of Sonderkommando Henry Tauber to the Polish Central Commission in 1946. Tauber gave a detailed account of the operation describing dragging gassed corpses from the gas chamber and loading them five at a time onto trucks which ran on rails to the furnaces to be off-loaded. He described the three two-muffle furnaces and said each muffle would take five corpses. The incineration took up to one and a half hours with thin people burning slower than fat people. Van Pelt said Tauber’s testimony was corroborated by the German blueprints of the buildings. Tauber estimated the number of people gassed during his time at Auschwitz (February 1943 to October 1944) was two million people and he extrapolated the total number gassed there at four million.
Evans’ key evidence was over a written phrase “Keine liquidierung”. In late 1941 76,000 Jews still lived in Berlin. Their final removal eastward began after the invasion of the Soviet Union which was accompanied by the mass murder of Soviet Jews by Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi killing squads. On November 30, 1941 head of the SS Heinrich Himmler rang Einsatzgruppen boss Reinhard Heydrich with instructions. The relevant part of Himmler’s note of that conversation reads: “Judentransport aus Berlin. Keine liquidierung”. It translates as “Jew-transport from Berlin. No liquidation. ” Irving put huge weight on this instruction despite the fact a trainload of Jews who arrived in Riga that day were immediately massacred.
Irving said it proved Hitler was protective towards the Jews. He suggested Hitler had rapped Himmler’s knuckles prior to the Heydrich call for wanting to get rid of the Jews in the General Government. He also suggested “Keine liquidierung” had a wider significance than just one trainload of Jews from Berlin. However Evans told the court there was no evidence that Himmler spoke to Hitler that morning. Evans also forced Irving to admit “Judentransporte” in Himmler’s spidery handwriting was not plural and his inference it meant multiple transports was a “silly misreading”. Irving’s book had also omitted “aus Berlin” to bolster the misleading impression the instruction related to Jews from everywhere.
After eight weeks of trial Justice Gray concluded the falsification of the historical record was deliberate and Irving was motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence. “The Defendants have proved the substantial truth of the imputations, most of which relate to Irving’s conduct as an historian,” Gray said. Proved substantially true were “the charges that Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence, he had portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally towards responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-semitic and racist and that he associates with right wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.” The defence of justification had succeeded, Gray concluded.