Irving, David, Libel Trial of

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Irving, David, Libel Trial of

On January 11, 2000, a libel trial opened in the British High Court. The plaintiff was David Irving, a British author of more than twenty books on World War II and Nazi Germany and its leadership. The defendants were the American academic Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books. In Denying the Holocaust (1993), Lipstadt provides a comprehensive overview of the multifaceted phenomenon of Holocaust denial, the attempt to deny that the Nazis planned and carried out the systematic murder of six million Jews and others. She identifies Irving as "one of the most dangerous spokesman for Holocaust denial" (1993, p. 181). She further charges that "familiar with historical evidence, he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda" (1993, p. 181). In 1996 Lipstadt was one of many who successfully lobbied against the publication of Irving's biography of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda. The publisher, St. Martin's Press, ended up pulping all printed copies of the book. Irving was enraged and decided to take revenge by bringing suit against Lipstadt, claiming not only that her description of Irving had been libelous, but also that she was pursuing a "sustained, malicious, vigorous, well-funded and reckless world-wide campaign of personal defamation" (van Pelt, 2002, p. 64).

Irving's involvement with Holocaust deniers came in the wake of the publication of Hitler's War (1977), in which he argues that although the Holocaust, as generally understood, occurred, Hitler had neither real or direct responsibility for what happened nor knowledge about it. This thesis attracted the attention of hard-core deniers such as Robert Faurisson in France and Ernst Zündel, a German residing in Canada. Both recognized that the denial of the Holocaust, or revisionism as they called it, suffered from the fact that no historian had ever endorsed its position. They saw an opportunity to bring the well-known Irving to their cause. In 1988 they succeeded.

That same year Zündel went on trial in Toronto for publishing material that, among other issues, denied the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz to murder human beings. In defense of this charge, Zündel recruited on the advice of Faurisson, a consultant on the design of execution facilities in the United States, Fred Leuchter. He was subsequently dispatched to Auschwitz, where he took some samples from various parts of the architectural remains of Auschwitz and analyzed them for the presence of residual cyanide. Leuchter then authored a report in which he stated that there had never been any gas chambers at Auschwitz.

The judge in the Zündel trial declared the report inadmissible, citing Leuchter's lack of relevant expertise, but Irving, who had been asked to testify on Zündel's behalf, endorsed Leuchter's conclusions in court. In fact, he was so enthusiastic about the report that he became its publisher in the United Kingdom, describing it in his foreword as unchallengeable.

Irving became a Holocaust denier, conducting as he called it a "one-man intifada" (van Pelt, 2002, p. 64) against the official history of the Holocaust. The essence of his campaign was that the Holocaust, symbolized by Auschwitz, is a lie deployed by Jews to blackmail the German people into paying vast sums in reparations to supposed victims of the Holocaust. In a revised edition of Hitler's War (1991), all traces of the Holocaust disappeared. Whereas in the 1977 edition Irving had characterized Auschwitz as a monstrous killing machine, according to the 1991 edition it was a mere slave labor camp. Irving commented that readers would "not find one line on the Holocaust. Why dignify something with even one footnote that has not happened?" (van Pelt, 2002, p. 54). In a lecture given that same year he stated, "I don't see any reason to be tasteful about Auschwitz. It's baloney. It's a legend. . . . I say quite tastelessly in fact that more people died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car in Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz" (van Pelt, 2002, p. 1f). The once respected author became a rabble-rousing speaker at gatherings of the extreme right. Accused and convicted in both German and French courts, Irving turned into a pariah of the historical community.

Through his libel action, Irving hoped to regain his standing and provide Holocaust denial respectability as a revisionist view of the past. British law made this seem possible, as the burden of proof was on the defendants, and not him. The defense, led by Anthony Julius and Richard Rampton, focused on exposing Irving as a falsifier of the truth who had used invention, misquotation, suppression, distortion, manipulation, and mistranslation to achieve his objective. Irving's historiography, and not the existence of the Holocaust, was central. The defendants therefore engaged four historians (Richard Evans, Christopher Browning, Peter Longerich, and Robert Jan van Pelt) to issue reports on the case's central issues. Evans considered Irving's historiography in general, and Browning the evidence of mass killings by the Nazi mobile killing groups (Einsatzgruppen), which Irving claimed had not operated under Berlin's direct control. Longerich examined the decision-making process, showing that Hitler in fact played a central role, and van Pelt the evidence at Auschwitz, and the scientific and historical absurdity of the arguments advanced by Faurisson, Leuchter, and others.

The defense also engaged a political scientist, Hajo Funke, who traced Irving's connections with neofascist and neo-Nazi groups, white supremacist organizations, and Holocaust deniers. By revealing his deep involvement with the extreme right and his profound anti-Semitism, the defense hoped to show Irving's motivation in resorting to lies, distortions, misrepresentations, and deceptions in pursuit of his exoneration of Hitler and his denial of the Holocaust.

Irving decided not to engage a barrister, and represented himself in person. This undoubtedly increased the excitement of the proceedings. Deliberately choosing to cast himself in the role of the lone David against the seemingly mighty "Golipstadt," represented by a phalanx of lawyers and experts, Irving only engaged one expert witness—an evolutionary psychologist named Kevin MacDonald who has theorized that Jews are to be blamed for anti-Semitism. As Lipstadt's lawyers considered MacDonald's theories as irrelevant to the case, they decided not to cross-examine him, correctly assuming that the judge would ignore whatever MacDonald would have to say during his evidence-in-chief.

The libel trial lasted some thirty-three days, and involved many heated exchanges between Irving and Rampton, and Irving's long cross-examinations of the defense's expert witnesses. Many visitors attended the trial; it was also widely covered by the British and international press. The impact of such media attention were the mistaken impressions that the Holocaust was on trial—a clear distortion of the fact that Lipstadt and Penguin were the defendants—or that Irving himself was on trial—a reflection of the effective defense strategy that had transformed the de jure plaintiff Irving into the de facto defendant.

On April 12, 2000, Justice Charles Gray ruled for the defendants in pronouncing Irving a falsifier of history, a right-wing pro-Nazi polemicist, an anti-Semite, and a racist. He also ordered Irving to pay the defendants' legal costs, which exceeded 2 million pounds. Many who had feared that a victory for Irving would give Holocaust denial certain legitimacy were relieved. Israel's Prime Minister Barak declared the outcome of the trial to be a "victory of the free world against the dark forces seeking to obliterate the memory of the lowest point humanity ever reached." In its lead article, The Independent noted that "the cogency of the testimony presented by the defense" had vindicated "the great liberal principle, enunciated by John Stuart Mill, of the marketplace of ideas in which false coin is tested and replaced by true." The Guardian agreed: "Other jurisdictions make denying the Holocaust a crime. After this case, we can rely on empiricism and the sheer weight of evidence" (van Pelt, 2002, p. xf).

SEE ALSO Auschwitz; Denial


Evans, R. J. (2001). Lying about Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial. New York: Basic Books.

Gray, Charles (2000). The Irving Judgment: David Irving v. Penguin Books and Professor Deborah Lipstadt. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books.

Guttenplan, D. D. (2001). The Holocaust on Trial. New York: W. W. Norton.

Irving, David (1977). Hitler's War. New York: Viking.

Leuchter, F. A. (1989). Auschwitz: The End of the Line. The Leuchter Report: The First Forensic Examination of Auschwitz. London: Focal Point.

Lipstadt, Deborah (1993). Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. New York: Free Press.

Longerich, Peter (2001). The Unwritten Order: Hitler's Role in the Final Solution. Stroud, U.K.: Tempus.

van Pelt, Robert Jan (2002). The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Robert Jan van Pelt

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Irving, David, Libel Trial of

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