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AN EXPERT WITNESS REPORT ON THE HOLOCAUST, AND ITS DENIERS:A Review of The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial


Friday, Mar. 08, 2002

Robert Jan van Pelt, The Case For Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial (Indiana Univ. Press 2002)

It is commonly thought that Gordon Wood's The Creation of the American Republic is the finest doctoral dissertation to have emerged from the American academy in book form. The Case for Auschwitz should, and likely will, garner the concededly more obscure title of the finest expert witness report ever to reach publication.

This book will not be a bestseller, which may be too bad but is really beside the point. Professor Robert Jan van Pelt writes not for the individual reader, but for history.

A marketing guru would have subtitled the book "Case Closed," for its point is to drive a stake of monumental rigor through those - surprising in their resiliency, resources and numbers - who would deny the horrors of Auschwitz and therewith deny the Holocaust.

As the Scopes monkey trial was to evolution, so was the David Irving libel trial to Auschwitz - or, more precisely, to what van Pelt aptly terms the "negationist" view. This view denies that hundreds of thousands of human beings were put to death by gas in that place by the Nazis. This negational syllogism then carries them to their ultimate goal: If Auschwitz wasn't really a death camp, aren't the rest of these Holocaust stories just fables also?

Irving, a Briton and once a respected independent scholar of the Third Reich, first came to public attention through his role in debunking the so-called Hitler diaries, which were famously purchased and publicized by the German publication Der Stern. Perhaps too charmed by the media attention that this episode brought him, Irving thenceforth underwent a transformation of as still uncertain origins, even going so far as to revise his previous works so as to hew to the negationist line.

After succeeding in proving the "Hitler diaries" inauthentic, Irving developed a fascination with a larger project and a larger stage. He sought to debunk the Holocaust through an effort to demonstrate that Auschwitz was "just another" concentration camp, and not a death camp at all. In his own crass and grotesque phrase, he set out to "Sink the Auschwitz."

Irving's Libel Suit Against Penguin Books, and Van Pelt's Role at Trial

Irving's adoption of a negationist view - and his views on Auschwitz in particular - came before a court of law when Irving brought suit in London over the publication of a book by the Penguin press. That book placed Irving squarely in the camp of the negationists and, in essence, accused him of historical malpractice. It suggested he had recklessly embraced half-baked theories, and turned a blind eye to the documentary and testimonial record.

Every good trial needs its expert witnesses, and Professor van Pelt was Penguin's expert on the history of Auschwitz. As a result, The Case for Auschwitz is really three books.

The first two portions - drawn directly from the expert report van Pelt submitted in the Irving case - are an intellectual history, if the phrase can be so abused, of negationism, and a meticulous review of the evidentiary record that establishes the existence and use of gas chambers at Auschwitz to murder human beings. Through hundreds of pages of close historical analysis, van Pelt accomplishes what is always difficult: proving the obvious, that Aushwitz was a death camp.

The third portion is essentially a diary of van Pelt's experiences at trial. He is a faithful reporter. Trial lawyers will especially enjoy his warts-and-all rendition - in which Mr. Historian goes to court, makes missteps, battles back, and ultimately prevails.

The book's epilogue offers a fascinating coda, which discusses the post-trial emergence of important new physical evidence from Auschwitz itself. This evidence obliterates the supposed architectural ambiguity upon which Irving principally hung his hat in contending he was reasonable to question whether Auschwitz was a death camp.

What made the Irving case, like the Scopes case before it, an epochal event, is that the trial reached not only the ultimate issues of the Holocaust, but yet more fundamental issues that confront both historians and lawyers every day.

The trial raised questions about proof itself: When is a fact established? When is doubt reasonable? What is proof? What is the quantum of evidence or at least ambiguity that renders an argument reasonable - rather than reckless, and, in this case, hateful? Or, to take a contemporary and comparatively mundane example, when does it become out of bounds to take the position that nicotine is not addictive?

Not only is van Pelt a dogged historian, he possesses a sufficiently supple intellect and gifted pen so as to be able to trace through such first-order abstractions in thoroughly engaging prose.

A Painful Subject That Is Nevertheless Important to Think About

Several years ago, I was involved in the defense of a defamation action that centered on the clinical definition of pedophilia. Accordingly, my time in airplanes was spent with heavy tomes on the subject. Trust me, notwithstanding the disarming dish of warmed cashews by my side, reading a book on pedophilia produces sideways glances and is a thoroughly effective means of fending off in-flight conversationalists. Toting around a book with the self-consciously ironic title of The Case for Auschwitz produced much the same effect.

People don't want to think about the Holocaust. Even more so, people don't want to think about those who deny its place in our history. But for the very reason that negationists exist, and for literally millions of other reasons, we must at least occasionally pause to think rigorously about the Holocaust. The Case for Auschwitz is a monumental and important book that will make you think.

Matthew Herrington practices law in Washington, D.C.

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