London trial to pit Jewish historian against denier

The fight against Holocaust deniers is nearly as old as the Shoah itself, but come the first month of the 21st century the biggest battle ever will begin — one whose outcome will echo long after the survivors and perpetrators are no longer around.

The showdown will be in a London courtroom, in a libel suit brought by renowned denier David Irving against publishing house Penguin Books Ltd. and historian Deborah Lipstadt over her book "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault On Truth and Memory."

Lipstadt is the Dorot professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta.

In her book, the first full-length study of the history of those who attempt to deny the Holocaust, Lipstadt cites Irving among many other Holocaust deniers.

After the book was published in Britain in 1994, Irving took Lipstadt and her publisher to court. According to Irving's Web site, he claimed that Lipstadt defamed his reputation by saying he "is an historian who has inexplicably misled academic historians…into quoting historically invalid points contained in his writings and who applauds the internment of Jews in Nazi concentration camps."

Irving also claims that Lipstadt further tarnished his reputation by calling him "an Adolf Hitler partisan who wears blinkers and skews documents and misrepresents data in order to reach historically untenable conclusions, specifically those that exonerate Hitler."

For Irving, considered a brilliant media manipulator, the book's publication in England was the moment he was waiting for: Irving knew that his best chance for a successful lawsuit was in Britain, where the laws of libel — unlike in the United States — protect the defamed and the burden of proof is on the writer to show the veracity of statements.

The trial — expected to be the most highly publicized Holocaust trial since Adolf Eichmann's in 1961 — is scheduled to begin Jan. 11 and could last three months.

Some historians, like Yehuda Bauer of Yad Vashem, see the trial as a wonderful chance to debunk the deniers.

The Holocaust, he said, "is not on trial…This is not a danger; this is an opportunity. I think these trials are very important because they bring to the fore a problem of historical truth…It's a tremendous opportunity for legitimate historians to prove what they are saying." The best venue for clarifying such issues is in the defense of a libel charge, he added.

Others see in the trial an inherent hazard, fearing it will in effect put the entire Nazi operation on trial. Should that happen, then the slightest legal infraction could lead to a judgment that would reward Irving with a technical victory, one he would be sure to exploit to further his agenda.

"That's always the danger," said Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Israel office. "The court is going to deal with facts regarding events that obviously took place, and there is a theoretical possibility that the verdict could in some way diminish those crimes, or question those crimes.

"It seems unlikely, but every time you go to court there is always the danger of losing a case. Any victory for Irving, any defeat for Deborah Lipstadt on any major point, will be a loss for truth and historical accuracy."

Lipstadt, whose British lawyers do not wish her to talk about the trial, makes clear that she does not believe that the Holocaust belongs in the courtroom.

"Let me point out here that I am the defendant, I didn't go seek this out," she said. "If I hadn't contested this [Holocaust denial], then he would have won by default, and his definition of the Holocaust would have become a standard definition recognized by the High Court in London. So there was no option but to fight it — someone comes after you, you have to do it."

The history of Holocaust denial began in Nazi Germany itself, according to Yad Vashem's chief historian, Yisrael Gutman. It was part of the very language used to obscure the Nazis' acts of murder: Aussiedlung, evacuation. Endlösung, the Final Solution. Sonderbehandlung, special treatment. Umsiedlung, relocation. Abschiebung, deportation. Aktion, operation.

Postwar attacks on the veracity of the Shoah began in 1948 with the publication in France of "Le Passage de la Ligne" (Crossing the Line), by Paul Rassinier, who argued that there was no extermination policy toward Jews, only an emigration policy, and that it was the Jews who declared economic war on Germany in 1933.

Other deniers followed with such books as "The Six Million Swindle," "Die Auschwitz Leuge" (The Auschwitz Lie), and "Did 6 Million Really Die? The Truth At Last."

But "until the late 1970s it was hard to speak of denial as a phenomenon with firm research conclusions," Ephraim Kaye of Yad Vashem wrote in "Desecrators of Memory: Confronting Holocaust Denial," a pamphlet published two years ago.

"The denial publications that had appeared up to that time," Kaye added, "were of rather poor quality and terse and crude in their approach."

The turning point came in 1977 with the publication of "The Hoax of the 20th Century" by Arthur Butz, a professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University.

Butz claimed that no German documents from Auschwitz mentioned gas chambers and that Zyklon B was used, but only as a disinfectant and an insecticide. He said that Jews were persecuted but not exterminated, and that the Anne Frank diary was a forgery.

It was this book, with its 450 footnotes and Butz's academic status, that "elevated Holocaust denial several notches," Kaye wrote.

In 1979, an organized propaganda movement was formed, the Institute for Historical Review.

The IHR, which Bauer has called "a pseudo-scientific institute of neo-Nazi intellectuals," publishes the Journal of Historical Review and convenes an annual International Revisionist Conference where Holocaust deniers from around the world convene, including Irving.

There is also denial in the Arab world. Before the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, Yasser Arafat's second-in-command, Mahmoud Abbas — also known as Abu Mazen — wrote a book called "The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and the Zionist Movement." He wrote that the Nazis may have killed less than 1 million Jews and that "the Zionist movement was a partner in the slaughter of the Jews."

Imad Falouji, the Palestinian Authority's communications minister, and Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, its general-secretary, were among the leaders of a Jan. 19, 1998 rally in Gaza in support of Roger Garaudy, who was on trial in Paris for denying the Holocaust.

Abdel-Rahman said that films and books about the Holocaust "have told what happened to the Jews in an unbelievable and exaggerated manner, so why not give Garaudy the right to state his point over the issue?"

Nabil Amar is head of the Palestinian Broadcasting Authority, under whose auspices Palestinian Authority Television ran an August 1997 cultural affairs program on which the moderator said: "It is well known that every year the Jews exaggerate what the Nazis did to them. They claim there were 6 million killed, but precise scientific research demonstrates that there were no more than 400,000."

It was this whole cottage industry of denial that moved Lipstadt to write "Denying the Holocaust."

"I wrote the book because I was intrigued that there seemed to be serious people, students, who knew very little about the Holocaust, who didn't recognize from the outset that these guys were turning fiction into fact," Lipstadt said.

"I also wanted to show the modus operandi of the deniers, sort of unpack what they do and how they do it. Do I think that the Holocaust deniers have had a tremendous impact on the history of the Holocaust? Not for a minute. Look at the Swiss banks case, the number of people coming to the [U.S.] Holocaust Museum, the number of books published on the Holocaust, the number of movies.

"I don't believe Holocaust denial is a clear and present danger; it's a clear and future danger. When there won't be anybody around to say, 'This is my story. This is what happened to me,' it will become easier to deny."

Lipstadt maintains an absolute policy of never accepting an invitation to debate deniers and thereby give them legitimacy. "Would you ask someone who works for NASA to debate someone who believes that the earth is flat?" she said.

What of the deniers themselves? What motivates them? Almost all historians say that for hard-core deniers it is just one more manifestation of anti-Semitism; other deniers are irrational and have simply convinced themselves that the Holocaust really is a lie.

"I don't know whether [Irving] believes in what he says," Bauer said. "As far as he's concerned, I think he's convinced himself. And this of course makes him more dangerous. He's convinced himself that what he's saying is the truth and therefore he has also the power to convince others."

On the who's who list of deniers, the most notorious are Fred Leuchter and Bradley Smith. Both are U.S. residents

Leuchter, who once claimed to be an engineer, wrote "The Leuchter Report," claiming that Zyklon B could not have been used in gas chambers. Smith, in 1987, established the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust, which places 35-paragraph advertisements in college newspapers across the United States, claiming that the main cause of death in the concentration camps was typhus and that gas chambers were "life-saving" fumigation devices used to delouse clothing.

But Irving is perhaps the most dangerous of all, according to historians. He is a British military historian who has published 22 books since 1965, though many eminent reviewers of his works — specifically his 900-page "Hitler's War" published in 1977 — have dismissed his methods and conclusions.

"He is the most dangerous because he has the veneer of an historian," Bauer said. "There is some doubt about [his standing as historian], there are people who will argue that his [other] historical writings are, from a purely professional point of view, suspect.

"But there's no doubt that he's an extremely intelligent man, and he has read a huge number of documents, and this conscious denial of the truth is something that he has in common with many other deniers."

This will not be the first time Holocaust denial has been on trial. In 1980, the IHR offered $50,000 to anyone who could prove that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. Mel Mermelstein, a survivor, took on the challenge and submitted the proof. When the IHR failed to pay, he took the organization to court and won.

In Canada, Ernst Zundel and James Keegstra were brought to trial for Holocaust denial in the mid-1980s. Keegstra was fined. Zundel was convicted twice, but the Canadian Supreme Court overturned his conviction.

In France, Robert Faurisson was fined and given a suspended prison sentence in 1983 for making Holocaust denial and anti-Zionist remarks on radio. He was further charged in 1990 and was fined $50,000, of which $20,000 was suspended.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the ultra-right French National Front, was fined $180,000 in 1997 for referring to the gas chambers as "a minute detail of Second World War history."

Still, the upcoming trial will dwarf all the others, because of its location, its adversaries and what it portends for the future.