The Holocaust on TrialI

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Pontius Pilate’s question ‘What is truth?’ has rarely echoed with more urgency
than after the Holocaust. The Third Reich’s extermination of  ‘Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and other ‘degenerates’ has become the supreme twentieth century crime: the ultimate expression of man’s inhumanity to man. And yet there are those who seek to deny not only its unique horror but that it even took place.

Forty million people died during the Second World War. As D.D.Guttenplan
remarks, ‘To attempt to construct a hierarchy of such suffering is obscene.’ Nevertheless, there is a distinction to be made in regard to those who were killed in the death camps, which, in the view of the survivor who showed me around Thereisenstadt, relates to the particular combination of German efficiency and German racialism.  In Guttenplan’s view, it relates to ‘the attempt to eliminate an entire population group’.

The problem for historians is that the chain of responsibility was deliberately
Obscured. Himmler, in a speech to SS officers in Poland referred to the extermination of the Jews as ‘a glorious page in our history, one that has never been written and can never be written.’  Even Hans Franck, the Nazi governor of Poland, was turned back when he tried to visit Auschwitz, As military defeat became inevitable, those responsible worked desperately to hide the truth from the world.

The truth was further muddied by the British and American governments’
reluctance to acknowledge it. During the war, they refused to make public the existence of the camps for their own political reasons. After the war, they viewed reports of the Auschwitz atrocities as Soviet propaganda. This was, in part, because, in the camps liberated by the British and Americans, Jews were in a minority, but also because of the rapid escalation of the Cold War.

Even now, there are those who claim to regard the gas chambers as fabrications.
After all, the argument goes, if so many once accepted facts – such as Jewish corpses
being melted down for soap and the Danish King’s threat to wear a yellow star – have
been exposed as myths, why not the gas chambers? This strikes right to the heart of the Nazi evil, for, as Guttenplan writes, ‘the gas chamber is both the emblem of Nazi
inhumanity and the ultimate obstacle to any rehabilitation of the Nazi period.’

The most prominent of these ‘revisionists’ is David Irving, a writer lauded for his
Books, The Destruction of Dresden and Hitler’s War. Irving has never denied the
Holocaust, describing it as ‘one of the greatest and still most unexplained tragedies of the century’. What he has denied is that Hitler authorised the Final Solution and that there was an extermination programme at Auschwitz. He claims that ‘more women died on the back seat of Senator Edward Kennedy’s car than in the gas chambers of Auschwitz’.

In her 1994 study, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and
Memory, the American academic, Deborah Lipstadt, accused Irving both of bending
historical evidence until ‘it conforms with his ideological leanings’ and of being ‘one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial.’   Faced with a loss of
professional credibility (and publishing contracts), Irving sued Lipstadt and her
publishers. Penguin. The latter, to its credit, stood fully behind Lipstadt, despite being
guilty of its own rewriting of history when it included support for Rushdie’s Satanic
Verses in its record of resisting pressure.

Guttenplan’s meticulous account of the subsequent trial takes us through the
sometimes arcane legal processes and always intricate historical arguments with
exemplary clarity. He succinctly describes the key players on the defence team and the Judge, Charles Gray, ‘a leaner, more lugubrious version of Nigel Hawthorne’. At the core of his report is his portrait of Irving, increasingly incriminating himself as he refers to Hitler as ‘Adolf’ and the Judge as ‘Mein Fuhrer’. His lies about his association with right-wing parties on both sides of the Atlantic and, most seriously for his professional standing, his deliberate fabrication of the historical record are exposed.

When Irving left the court with both his character and his reputation in tatters,
Pilate’s question might appear to have been answered. But, with the proliferation of new media in which the dissemination of lies goes unchecked (1 myself have recently logged onto an Internet site dedicated to ‘Julius Stretcher, hero and martyr’), it is clear that it will continue to resound for years to come.