David Irving: the libel trial re-examined
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, January 30, 2001)

In his perversely self-regarding way, David Irving will probably be pleased to hear about the conference at the University of Toronto's Munk Centre last week. A platoon of high-powered academics spent a whole day talking about him. The event was called The Holocaust in the Courtroom: Historical Reflections on the Irving Trial, and the scholars were there to analyze the libel action Irving brought against Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt, based on her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.

When the judgment came down last April, Irving was the loser, on a calamitous scale. The evidence depicting him as a Holocaust denier, anti-Semite and twister of truth was far stronger than anything in Lipstadt's book. Several London newspaper cartoonists worked variations on the same satirical idea: Irving emerging from the court and announcing, "The trial never happened."

The Toronto conference became a prism through which to look at Irving and his motives. Why did he do it? Why did he set himself up to be humiliated? Lipstadt reported that she laughed when she first heard he was suing; after all, the facts she used were widely known. He had no case. No one on the defence team (some 40 individuals were involved, for up to two years) ever imagined they could lose. Like expert practitioners of a martial art, they used Irving's energy and momentum against him. They flipped him over and made him the defendant. He had nowhere to hide.

Possibly even he doesn't understand why he got into this mess. He's erratic and chronically confused, a clever writer who yearns for respectability and yet writes junk that places respectability forever beyond his grasp. One scholar used the word "narcissist," and Irving's behaviour fits the standard definition: He has an exaggerated sense of his importance, combined with fantasies about his potential for success.

In court, acting as his own lawyer, he was sometimes nasty, sometimes genial. Christopher Browning, a University of North Carolina authority on the Holocaust, reported that during his cross-examination Irving sometimes acted as if the two of them were colleagues on "a joint journey of exploration and discovery." Richard Evans of Cambridge University, who chased Irving's work back to his sources and showed him routinely distorting archival material, was cross-examined by Irving for 28 hours. Evans wasn't impressed: "He was a bit like a dim student who didn't listen. If he didn't get the answer he wanted, he just repeated the question." Evans believes that Irving's fellow Holocaust deniers are now angry with him for not calling them as witnesses and letting them share the limelight.

In a malign way, Irving emerges as a kind of artist, a maker of narrative fiction that he calls history. His work functions like a parody of postmodernism: By implication, it says that any historical text is indeterminate, unfixed, vague. To Irving, as to postmodernists, history means what you want it to mean. The making of the case against him was a triumph for orthodox, fact-based history, and an event of historic significance in itself. Evans mentioned that three books on the case have appeared, and about five more will be published this year.

The Holocaust in the Courtroom had a remarkable cast of characters. All the stars of the trial were there, except for the judge -- and Irving. Richard Evans, who wrote perhaps the most damaging report, wore a permanent scowl, as if he had just found a basic flaw in a graduate student's thesis. But he also introduced some humour: He said that at first the courtroom atmosphere seemed a little odd, since "the judge wore a wig and a kind of red dressing gown."

Deborah Lipstadt turned out to be wonderfully down-to-earth, still doggedly trying to get the main point across ("This was not history on trial, as some newspaper headlines said -- this was David Irving on trial"), and still surprised that many of her colleagues wondered, at least in the beginning, why she went to all the trouble to fight Irving. The alternative, of course, was to apologize and withdraw the book, something neither Penguin (to its eternal credit) nor Lipstadt would contemplate.

Richard Rampton, the barrister, explained "how we went about killing off this snake," and came across like Rumpole of the Bailey with 25 IQ points added. He showed during preparation for the trial that he can Hoover up mountains of facts, hold them in his mind, then pluck one from his memory at the precise moment it's needed. He astonished one of the historians by being able to correct him, always politely, on specifics in his own work.

Robert-Jan van Pelt, of the University of Waterloo school of architecture, who wrote 718 pages on the design and functioning of Auschwitz, discovered that to understand the Nazi killing machine, "You have to become like a German bureaucrat, as if you were planning all this." He found it heart-rending to describe the monstrous details in court while survivors sat listening. Like the other scholars, van Pelt was outraged, exasperated, often dismayed and yet energized. "It was two years of my life," he said, "and two years well spent."

Christopher Browning, the historian whose work has defined the terms of Holocaust study, said that on Holocaust denial no one should be complacent: "We have been fortunate in our opponents. There is no such guarantee for the future."

Lipstadt remarked that Holocaust denial remains respectable in some circles, citing John Sack's article in the February issue of Esquire; on examination, that piece turns out to be an appallingly sentimental portrait of the deniers, including Ernst Zundel, as good, conscientious folks who are definitely not anti-Semites.

At the end of the day, the chairman of the conference, Michael Marrus, recently installed in the University of Toronto's Wolfe Chair in Holocaust Studies, asked whether the trial result would have been different if Irving had been represented by counsel. Lipstadt remarked that a good solicitor would never have let such a weak case go to court.

But surely, someone asked, there is a lawyer in England who would take the case as a way of spreading propaganda for the Holocaust deniers?

No, no, said Richard Rampton, QC, of Chancery Lane. No, it couldn't possibly have happened that way. "Irving would not have given place to an advocate. He enjoys the centre of the stage too much."

Narcissism launched Irving's case. Narcissism wrecked it.

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