A contributing editor for the Nation assesses the unsuccessful libel action brought by historian David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt (and Penguin, her publisher) for characterizing him as a Holocaust-denier in her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust.
Guttenplan did his homework. Not only did he sit through the three-month trial (January 11 through April 11, 2000), he also read the thousands of pages of trial exhibits, the historical works written by the principals and witnesses, and myriads of other publications relating to the Holocaust. Even better: He interviewed the trial judge, as well as both Irving and Lipstadt. The result is the most informed, disinterested account of this significant proceeding as we are likely to get. Irving filed suit in July 1996 in England. This was a smart move, for English libel laws required Lipstadt to prove that what she had said was true; in the US, Irving would have had to demonstrate that her charges were not only false but intentionally so. Guttenplan raises interesting questions about historical methods and evidence. What is history? How reliable are witnesses? And documents? (The author regrets that the only witnesses were historians, but he knows why: the sometimes inaccurate memories of Holocaust survivors would have aided the able Irving, who served as his own counsel.) Guttenplan adopts a fairly traditional, chronological approach—he digresses principally to offer snapshot biographies of Irving and Lipstadt, to dismantle the “science” of the pathetic Fred Leuchter (subject of Errol Morris’s film Mr. Death) and to take potshots at Daniel Goldhagen (whose Hitler’s Willing Executioners fares poorly in these pages). Guttenplan is not easy on anyone. He has little respect for Lipstadt’s scholarship and moral courage; he characterizes Irving as fundamentally racist, dishonest and dangerous; sometimes he finds witnesses ineffective, attorneys boring, the judge too indulgent. He suggests that Jews hurt their own cause when they insist on the uniqueness of the Holocaust. But the author’s sharpness has the great virtue of being able to cut through cant and balderdash.
Vigorous—even abrasive—reporting illuminates yet another dismal page of history’s darkest book. (4 b&w illustrations)