Irrational debates

January 7, 2000

A libel trial involving Holocaust scholars has thrown up thorny issues, argues Anne Sebba

Few issues have academics so divided that the altercations end up in court. The Holocaust is the exception. Scientists, geographers or doctors generally pursue their arguments in the less costly environment of learned journals; modern Jewish history seems to have more sensitivities and taboos than any other area of study.

A major libel suit opens the new century in London's law courts next week. It is the first Holocaust case where neither plaintiff nor defendant lived through the events over which each is fighting. In the case, which is expected to last at least three months, David Irving, the rightwing revisionist historian, is suing the publisher of Denying the Holocaust: the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, Penguin Books, as well as the book's American author, Deborah Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta.

Irving maintains that the book associates him with "extremist Fascist leaders and practices" and that he emerges from its pages as "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". The Lipstadt defence is based on justification, intending to prove the truth of her assertions.

Critics describe 51-year-old Lipstadt, who has twice won a distinguished teaching award, as a systematic and publicly oriented scholar who, while never expecting to find herself in this situation, acknowledged she had no choice but to defend her position. "Whereas some of us choose to write very obscure books in obscure areas, Deborah has chosen to write in a very public area," said a fellow Emory professor.

At one level it is obvious why the debate about the Holocaust has become so fevered and often unpleasant.

Says Lipstadt: "It's the first time you have an entire state apparatus wiping out an entire people living in many different states. Even when the Turks attacked the Armenians, for example, they didn't also attack Armenians living in England."

But here is the rub. For academics the Holocaust poses tortuous intellectual and moral questions. Some believe there is an orthodoxy about the Holocaust that prevents rational debate by implying that anyone who questions its uniqueness is anti-Semitic. Lipstadt cites appalling acts of genocide both before and after the second world war and yet still believes in the need for serious scholarly debate about the Holocaust. "Some teachers are uncomfortable about the issues it raises, but academics shouldn't ever be the ones to say 'enough, let's move on'. After all, we're still fighting the battles of Rome," she told me.

But what chance is there that legitimate issues about interpretations of the Holocaust will be adequately aired in a court of law?

One of the most serious issues, on which scholars are genuinely divided, is precisely when Hitler decided on the extermination of the Jews. Some argue this was always his intention from the moment he wrote Mein Kampf; others that it was only after the occupation of Poland and the closing of doors elsewhere that he realised that there was nowhere to ship them. Extermination, therefore, was a natural outgrowth of his war policies.

Other areas over which academics argue are the Allies' behaviour and whether the international community did enough to help the Jews either before the war or by bombing the camps during it. Daniel Goldhagen's book on the complicity of ordinary Germans is another contentious issue.

At least one history professor in the UK believes that, however appalling, the behaviour of the Nazis has acquired too great a centrality in secondary school teaching. Many of his undergraduates arrive knowing more about Nazi atrocities than the no less important burden of suffering the second world war placed on their own grandparents, either at home or abroad: an unhealthy imbalance, he believes.

The danger of this costly case is that grave issues that are being aired in the current spate of war crimes trials could be reduced to sound bites and personalities.

Legitimate scholars must be allowed to speak and write the truth as they see it without fear of personal attack. To stifle free-ranging debate is good neither for academics nor for the rest of us. A court - even one without a jury where a learned judge has studied the papers as here - may be the right place to decide on issues of defamation, but it is surely an inappropriate setting to rule on the interpretation of history.

Does study of the Holocaust occupy too much time on university history courses and is a law court the right place to try to settle academic disputes? Email us on

Deadly silence of Britain's Jews, page 17

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