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The Strange Case of David Irving

THE HOLOCAUST ON TRIAL By D.D. Guttenplan; W.W. Norton: 328 pp., $24.95

LYING ABOUT HITLER History, Holocaust and the David Irving Trial By Richard J. Evans; Basic/Perseus: 336 pp., $27

May 20, 2001|CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS | Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation and the author most recently of "The Trial of Henry Kissinger."

The toxicity of the argument is increased by four other factors. First, there are those who maintain that the German people have been blamed enough and that endless suggestions of collective guilt--accompanied by incessant demands for compensation--are an insult and possibly a provocation. Second, there are those who resent the exploitation of the Holocaust, or Shoah, by extreme Israeli nationalists. Third, there is a collective awareness that neither the international community nor organized Jewry did much to help the victims when it could have made a difference. Finally, in many countries, including Germany and France, it is actually a crime to dispute the established version of events, which means that the "revisionist" movement now has its free-speech martyrs. While in the United States, protected as it is by the 1st Amendment, the Holocaust has become a secular religion, with state support in the form of a national museum. Accusations of ill will or bad faith are often made against anyone with reservations about the elevation of this project into something combining a cult, an entertainment resource and an industry, each claiming to represent the unvoiced dead. Indeed, I myself feel constrained to state here that my mother's family is of German and Polish Jewish provenance and that on my wife's side we have not just an Auschwitz "survivor" in our lineage but a man--David Szmulewski--who was one of the leaders of the communist resistance in the camps as well as one of those who smuggled evidence out of it and later testified against the war criminals in court. I look forward to a time when I won't feel any need to mention this.

I was raised in two other traditions as well, however. The first was to believe, with the late Karl Popper, that a case has not been refuted until it has been stated at its strongest. The second was to take it for granted that historians have prejudices. To manifest the first point, then, let us summarize the best case that the revisionists can make. Would it surprise you to know that:

1) there were no gas chambers or extermination camps on German soil, in other words, at Belsen or Dachau or Buchenwald;

2) there were no Jews made into soap;

3) the "confession" of Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, was extracted by force and contains his claim to have killed more Jews than was "humanly" possible?

These are, however, the now-undisputed findings of all historians and experts on the subject. And if they are sound, then it means that much "eyewitness" testimony is wrong. It necessarily changes our attitude toward the everyday complicity of average Germans. It also means that much of the evidence presented and accepted at Nuremburg was spurious. Of course, we knew some of this already--the Nazis were charged by Soviet and Allied judges with the massacres at Katyn in Poland, which had obviously been ordered by Stalin and are now admitted to have been. And every now and then, a bogus Holocaust merchant makes an appearance. The most recent was the fantasist "Binjamin Wilkomirski," whose book, "Fragments," was a whole-cloth fabrication by someone who had spent the entire war in Switzerland. This did not prevent him from receiving several awards and the warm endorsement of Goldhagen. Earlier, a high Israeli court found the evidence of witnesses useless, ruling that John Demjanjuk had not been at Treblinka in the mythical shape of "Ivan the Terrible."

The confrontation between Irving and the consensus was therefore long overdue. He forced the confrontation himself, by putting his own work on trial in attempting to sue the work of another. But it was high time to have this out in public, in the relatively objective context of an English courtroom. And so to my second observation, about bias and historians.

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