Deserved demise of `moderate fascist'

April 16, 2000|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- David Irving, a "moderate fascist" (his description) who has said his visit to Hitler's Bavarian mountaintop retreat was a "spiritual experience" and that no Jews were gassed at Auschwitz, probably did not help his case when, in rhetorical high gear near the end of the London trial he instigated, he slipped and referred to the judge not as "your lordship" but as "mein Fuhrer." However that may be, Mr. Irving, the faux historian, has now learned, as Oscar Wilde and Alger Hiss did, the price of improvidently claiming to have been defamed.

Last week, Deborah Lipstadt, a historian at Emory University, was acquitted of the libel charge Mr. Irving brought against her. The judge held that Mr. Irving is "anti-Semitic and racist" and "an active Holocaust denier" who has "persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence." This was more astringent language than Ms. Lipstadt used against Mr. Irving in the book that provoked his libel charge.

Mr. Irving, whose current ideological purposes prevent him from writing real history, fancies himself a "revisionist," a term of scholarship that he and kindred spirits have hijacked for their anti-Semitic purposes. Ms. Lipstadt is author of the 1993 book "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory," in which she called Mr. Irving "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial." He is dangerous because he is indefatigable, skillful and cunning in mining archival material to give his tendentious arguments a patina of scholarship.

In 1989, the House of Commons expressed itself as "appalled" that Mr. Irving, a "longtime Hitler apologist," had denied the reality of the gas chambers. But perhaps he sued Ms. Lipstadt because he thought she and her British publisher, Penguin, would flinch from a fight.

Holocaust denial and revisionism is a tangle of assertions, many of them made simultaneously and never mind the mind-bending contradictions. The assertions include:

The Holocaust (the killing of both sexes and all ages of an entire human group as quickly as possible using the full employment of the resources of a modern industrial state) never happened; many people died in camps but only as a result of wartime stresses (excessive labor, inadequate hygiene, misguided security measures); the gas chambers were only for showers or fumigation; the gas Zyklon B was too weak to produce mass deaths, or so strong it would have killed persons emptying the chambers; the Holocaust happened but not on the scale propagandized by Jewish interests for political and financial gain (German "confirmations" were made to curry favor with their captors); it happened but it was not Hitler's fault (overzealous subordinates acted without his knowledge); it happened but it was the Jews' fault (for frustrating Hitler's attempts to achieve Germany's reasonable aims diplomatically).

When writing "Explaining Hitler," Ron Rosenbaum interviewed Mr. Irving (who had a bust of Goebbels on his desk), who said that what is called the Holocaust was "rather like killing someone by negligence. Hitler was negligent in not realizing that this would be the outcome of his speeches." Mr. Rosenbaum's acid formulation: "extermination as unintended consequence."

The subject of the trial was not whether the Holocaust occurred but whether Ms. Lipstadt correctly characterized Mr. Irving's intellectual mendacity. Ms. Lipstadt had to defend herself under Britain's difficult libel laws. Under American law, the burden would have been on Mr. Irving, a public figure, to prove that Ms. Lipstadt showed a reckless disregard for the truth, arising from malicious intent. In Britain, the burden was on her to demonstrate that her charges were true. Speaking by telephone from London after the trial, Ms. Lipstadt said she now rejoices that the rigorous demands this put upon her required an ambitious discovery process that enabled her to unearth and to enter into the public record much new damaging information about Mr. Irving.

What worries Ms. Lipstadt most is not the historical amnesia of millions of barely educated people. And what worries her most is not the epistemological indeterminacy of ignorant sophisticates in academia who preach that there are no facts, only "interpretations" based on individuals' "perspectives," so everything is a matter of mere opinion and all opinions, including Mr. Irving's, are created equal.

Rather, what worries her most is hatred, and the political agenda of the haters. Holocaust deniers usually espouse a generalized racism but particularly aim to vilify Jews and delegitimize Israel. As survivors of the Holocaust and others with first-hand knowledge of it die, Holocaust deniers will redouble their efforts. But their task has been made more difficult by what Ms. Lipstadt has achieved -- an emphatic denunciation of those who torture history in order to rehabilitate torturers and open careers for future torturers.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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