Labels And Libels: David Irving and 'Holocaust Denial'

Published: 2000-03-01

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Joseph Sobran is a nationally-syndicated columnist, lecturer, author, and editor of the monthly newsletter Sobran's. This essay is reprinted from the March 2000 issue of Sobran's ([...address defunct, since the author is deceased; ed.])

An important libel suit is under way in London. David Irving, the controversial British historian of World War II, is suing an American scholar, Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University, for calling him "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial." Since she wrote this in a 1993 book Denying The Holocaust, Irving says, his career has suffered badly, and he charges that this was exactly what she intended. He compares being accused of Holocaust denial to being called a wifebeater or a pedophile – a defamation that results in social and professional ostracism, not to mention death threats.

The label became actionable when Mrs. Lipstadt's book was published in England, where libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant. Such invidious descriptions of public figures may be flung freely in the United States, and she apparently didn't stop to consider the difference between the two countries' legal standards when the British edition of her book went to press.

Supported by various Jewish organizations, Mrs. Lipstadt has gathered an expensive team of lawyers and scholars, including Anthony Julius, who served as attorney for the late Princess Diana in her divorce. Irving, who lacks similar support, is representing himself in court. Under British rules of discovery, he has gained access to Mrs. Lipstadt's correspondence with these organizations and he intends to expose the methods by which he says Jewish groups conspire to destroy heretics like him. Under assorted laws against "hate speech," he has already been harassed, banned, and threatened with arrest in several countries where "Holocaust denial" is a crime; Germany is seeking to extradite him for criminal prosecution during the lawsuit!

Joseph Sobran, 2007

Joseph Sobran

The Holocaust debate is a strange one, since the Jewish side insists that there is no "other side" (since there is nothing to debate about) while trying not only to ruin those on the nonexistent other side, but to put them in jail – over a difference about historical fact. Forty years ago the British historians A. J. P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper had a famous and bitter debate over Hitler's responsibility for World War II; but it never occurred to either man to try to get the other fired from his academic position, let alone thrown into prison!

Irving says he has never denied that during World War II the Germans persecuted Jews and killed many of them. But he has disputed many details of the standard account, including the number of the dead and the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz. Whether these modifications add up to "Holocaust denial" is one point at issue; another is whether he is "dangerous." Dangerous to whom? More dangerous than laws limiting the freedom of speech? More dangerous than Mrs. Lipstadt's words about Irving himself?

In any case there is no doubt that powerful forces, especially Jewish ones, have been out to get Irving for many years. But until now, the combative and fearless historian, never one to back down, has been able to do little to defend himself.

The verdict in the trial will probably neither affirm nor refute the occurrence of the Holocaust. The question before the court is whether Mrs. Lipstadt deliberately damaged Irving's career with false statements. Living as she does in a country where libel is pretty much legal, thanks to the US Supreme Court's peculiar reading of the First Amendment, it must come as a shock to her to find herself forced, for once, to back up her charges.

Jewish groups are afraid that a verdict in Irving's favor will amount to an official ruling that the Holocaust never happened. But it need not mean that at all. It could mean no more than that Mrs. Lipstadt committed libel by imputing Holocaust denial – and a "dangerous" version of it at that – to Irving.

Irving, a nonacademic freelance historian, has written many books on World War II, the most famous of which is Hitler's War, in which he argued that Hitler never ordered the destruction of the Jews. The book caused an uproar beyond academe. He has also unearthed important documents and interviewed many of Hitler's close associates; even many professional historians who don't share Irving's German sympathies and his scorn for Winston Churchill agree that his work is indispensable. Most recently the publication of his biography of Joseph Goebbels by St. Martin's Press was canceled under pressure from Jewish groups.

I haven't read Irving's work and would be unable to assess it, but I have met the man himself. A couple of years ago we had lunch in Virginia and I found him a stimulating and captivating conversationalist. He described himself as "a Holocaust skeptic, not a Holocaust denier," amazed at the proliferation of Holocaust memorials in this country. We agreed that the subject has become a topic of alarming thought control, both of us having experienced forms of it, including personal smears by Jewish fanatics.

I myself have been accused of Holocaust denial by a Jewish academic in California; but the truth is that I have never denied it, for the simple reason that I don't know enough to have a firm opinion on the matter. I lack the qualifications to be a Holocaust denier. I don't read German; I don't know anything about gas chambers and Zyklon B; I wouldn't know how to weigh the evidence. None of which suffices to protect me from being libeled.

But I certainly do distrust those who want to punish others for the impertinence of disagreeing; the Lipstadts don't act as if they believe in the Holocaust themselves. If you have a real conviction about a factual matter, why would you want to punish a man for differing with you? If you think his view is absurdly wrong, you're serenely content to confute him; locking him up would add absolutely nothing to your case and could only raise suspicions about its inherent strength. Neither side in the heated Shakespeare authorship debate, for example, seeks the incarceration of the other side.

And of course Irving and I aren't the only targets: everyone is a potential target. Canada, France, Germany, Israel, and several other countries have criminalized Holocaust heresy. The Israeli writer Amos Elon marvels that opinions about historical events can still be made illegal. It's hard to believe that this sort of thing can happen in the modem world, but it does happen. A few years ago the Israelis even tried to block publication in the United States of a book critical of the Mossad; and in fact a Jewish judge in New York did order its suppression. His order was immediately reversed; but for a few hours, a book was actually banned in this country for offending organized Jewish interests.

Such restrictions on opinion are insults to the freedom of a whole society. They violate not only David Irving's right to speak, but everyone else's right to hear him and assess his arguments for themselves. Even those who think Irving is seriously wrong, and even dishonest, should enjoy the exercise of grappling with his criticisms; that is how historical study constantly progresses. In a sense, all serious history is "revisionism," an endless process of refining knowledge.

As for views that are just bizarrely wrong, why bother with them? If a man argues that Napoleon never existed, or that Joe Stalin and Pol Pot were basically decent chaps, society can afford to let him walk the streets.

In a recent article on the Irving-Lipstadt suit in The Atlantic Monthly, D. D. Guttenplan discusses the often bitter differences over the Holocaust among Jewish scholars, noting that many things that "everyone knows" about the Holocaust have been discredited – such as the grisly fables that the Nazis made soap and lampshades out of the remains of murdered Jews. Yet some people have been imprisoned for denying what no scholar now believes. The Israeli scholar Yehuda Bauer has argued that "only" a million Jews, not four million as officially asserted, were murdered at Auschwitz. Irving has forced Lipstadt's expert witnesses to concede that the alleged gas chamber at Auschwitz is not authentic, but a postwar reconstruction.

One complication, of course, is that the standard account of the Holocaust serves political interests. Though Israel didn't exist until Hitler had been destroyed, it has claimed enormous cash reparations from Germany; and it has enjoyed great indulgence from the United States by justifying its violence against its Arab neighbors, and its abuses of its Arab minority, as necessary defensive measures by a people still traumatized by persecution and threatened by annihilation. The very term "Holocaust" became current long after World War II during the late 1960s, in fact, when Israel won the Six-Day War with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. It was then that the Zionist lobby became one of the most powerful forces in American politics and ethnic "Jewishness," as distinct from religious Judaism, became, for the first time, openly militant in American culture, and any criticism of Jews or Israel became "anti-Semitism." It wasn't long before "Holocaust denial" became a capital thought-crime.

Jewish guilt-merchants have also used the Holocaust as a stick to beat other parties with. Christianity, from the Gospel writers to Pius XII, has been blamed for inspiring genocide against the Jews; the Holocaust is often described as the culmination of "2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism." Those who make these charges are deeply resentful when Christians reject them. Last year's Vatican statement exonerating Pius XII provoked further angry attacks by some Jews. The nominal Catholic John Cornwell has found favor among such Jews by smearing Pius as "Hitler's Pope."

On the other hand, a number of more temperate Jews have deplored these wild indictments. Unfortunately, the incentive system still favors the shrillest. Cornwell stands to lose nothing by lying about Pius; if he had praised him, his book would have been published (if at all) by some obscure Catholic press.

The Jewish lobby (though "lobby" seems an inadequate term for it) now inspires enormous fear because of its power to ruin politicians, writers, and businesses. It wields such dreaded labels as "anti-Semite" and "bigot" with abandon and – and here is the real point – with impunity. This is the background against which Mrs. Lipstadt made her charges against Irving.

Far from being persecuted, or remotely threatened with persecution, Jews in the modern democracies are very powerful. That is precisely why they are feared, and why their labels terrify. If they were really helpless victims, there would obviously be no reason to fear them; nobody in Hitler's Germany (or Jefferson's America, for that matter) had to fear being called anti-Semitic. Most Jews of course take no active part in the thought-control campaign, and many would oppose it if they considered it seriously; but the major secular Jewish organizations are determined to silence any public discourse that is not to their liking, as witness the fate of people as disparate as Irving, Louis Farrakhan, and Pat Buchanan.

The test is this. What is the penalty for making false or reckless charges of anti-Semitism? The plain fact is that there is no penalty at all. That is why the Irving-Lipstadt suit is so startling. In this country we aren't used to seeing people – especially members of the mighty "victim" groups – held responsible for ruining others' reputations.

If anti-Semitism is a serious matter, you might think it would be in the interest of the Jewish lobby itself to define the term carefully and to discourage its promiscuous use. But neither has happened. Why not?

For the simple reason that the function of the word is not to identify and disarm real hostility to Jews, but to terrorize. For the purpose of creating fear, as Stalin understood, a false charge is as good as a true one – better, in fact, since the power to stigmatize arbitrarily, without well-defined rules and safeguards against abuse, is the perfect way to intimidate the general population.

Even a false charge reinforces the power of the lobby. After all, if people only had to beware of true accusations – strictly defined charges in which the burden of proof was on the accuser, who would put himself at risk by making charges he couldn't support – there would be little to worry about. You don't fear being falsely accused of murder, because you know you can defend yourself against it and see your accuser punished. If the crime is serious, so is the false imputation of it. That's the ordinary rule of life.

But when nobody pays a price for making false accusations, there are going to be a lot of false accusations. Joe McCarthy really didn't get it. When he spoke of "card-carrying Communists," he was too specific for his own good. His charges were too well-defined and therefore subject to falsification. Everyone knows what a "card-carrying Communist" is; when you use that phrase, you'd better be able to make it stick. But nobody really knows what an "anti-Semite" is, so the charge of anti-Semitism can't be falsified, and nobody has to worry about being penalized for using it. It's a thoroughly perverse incentive system, worthy of the Soviet Union.

If Deborah Lipstadt winds up paying damages to David Irving, it will be partly because she, like Joe McCarthy, was imprudently specific. Dangerous may be a little vague, but "Holocaust denier" isn't. It can be proved or disproved.

A ruling in Irving's favor might even tend to confirm the standard account of the Holocaust, if it transpires that he agrees with its central contention in spite of his skepticism about certain of its features. But such a ruling would certainly show that there is still one island on earth where you lie about people at your own peril.

"The press is the hired agent of the monied system, and set up for no other purpose than to tell lies where the interests are involved. One can trust nobody and nothing."
—Henry Adams

"The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth."
—H. L. Mencken

"Those who don't read good books have no advantage over those who can't."
—Mark Twain

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Joseph Sobran
Title: Labels And Libels: David Irving and 'Holocaust Denial'
Sources: The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 19, no. 1 (January/February 2000), pp. 67-69; reprinted from Sobran's, March 2000.
Published: 2000-03-01
First posted on CODOH: March 5, 2013, 6 p.m.
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