Attack the lies, but let the liar speak

February 17, 2006

Deborah Lipstadt was sued by David Irving for libel. She won, but she fears charging him with denying Nazi crimes only raises his profile

The last time David Irving was in court, I was the defendant in a libel suit that he had brought against me for calling him a Holocaust denier, a racist and an anti-Semite. It was a case he lost on all accounts.

Next week, Irving will be back in court, this time on trial in Austria for violating a 1947 law against minimisation of Nazi-era crimes. The case revolves around speeches he gave in the country in 1987 in which he denied the Holocaust. He has been held in custody since last November, when he was arrested after returning to Austria to address a group of right-wing students. But despite the fact that Irving cost me tremendous time, energy and money defending myself, I hope the Austrian authorities release him.

In the libel trial, Irving was the cause of his own misfortune. While building my defence, we traced his sources and found that virtually every one of his claims about the Holocaust contained a fabrication, a distortion or a lie. This became dramatically clear in court. When asked by Richard Rampton, my barrister, how he could say that Hermann Goering "goggled" at a certain exchange when there was absolutely no evidence that Goering was even at this meeting, Irving declared: "author's licence". On another occasion Irving, whose knowledge of German is impeccable, attributed to the pressure of preparing for the trial at 2am the previous day, a mistranslation that rendered the ominous field ovens - the incineration grids on which the Germans burnt their victims' bodies - into utterly benign field kitchens. We pointed out that we had downloaded the same document with the same mistranslation from Irving's website two years earlier. He replied that he had made the same mistake twice.

Such things happened daily as Irving's claims to be a fastidious historian evaporated. When the judge declared him to be a "liar", a "falsifier of history," an "anti-Semite" and a "racist" whose conclusions were "unjustified," a "travesty" and "unreal", it was all over for him - certainly in serious historical circles.

Irving, his Austrian lawyer says, plans to plead guilty next week. But even this sounds a bit contrived. According to his lawyer, Irving has seen the light and now acknowledges the existence of gas chambers. His epiphany apparently came after he found fresh information in the Moscow archives in the 1990s. If this is the case, why was he still arguing that the gas chambers were fiction when he faced me in court in 2000?

But I would still like him to be released. As a result, some people have complimented me for my compassion and forgiveness. That is a lot of rot. I have no compassion for a man who has caused pain to Holocaust survivors and their families, and who seems to delight in spreading racism and anti-Semitism. If Irving were to admit his falsehoods and ask them - not me - for forgiveness, I might feel differently towards him. But he has shown no such inclination.

Rather than on grounds of compassion, I support Irving's release for ideological and strategic reasons. Laws against Holocaust denial contravene the notion of free speech. Although I am not a free-speech absolutist, I have never been comfortable with censorship. The recent debate about the publication of the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad has given added meaning to that stance. If one outlaws Holocaust denial, one can outlaw such cartoons. If one outlaws such cartoons, one can outlaw what Shiites say about Sunnis, Orthodox Jews about Reform Jews, and Baptists about Catholics. Simply put: there is no end to the matter.

I recognise that Germany and Austria have a unique history that gives Holocaust denial a particular resonance. As uncomfortable as I am with such laws, I understand the impulse behind them in these countries. But I believe that they are not efficacious. Jailing Irving will render him a free-speech martyr and rescue him from his current state of oblivion. Let him return to the UK and be met by the thunderous sound of one hand clapping.

After all, this is a man about whom Judge Gray wrote: "His falsification of the historical record was deliberate... (and) 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." Let him spend his time with those neo-Nazis and deniers still anxious to listen to him. They deserve each other.

Deborah Lipstadt is Dorot professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University and author of History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving , published by HarperCollins World, £14.99.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments