Historiographical lessons from Holocaust denial trial – Part 1

Warsaw ghetto liquidation, WW2In 2000, a libel case was fought in the British court that had direct relevancy to historiography.  This was the lawsuit issued by British holocaust denier David Irving against Penguin Books Publishing and Jewish-American historian Deborah Lipstadt.


David Irving was long regarded as a self-taught historian with specialisation in the history of Nazi leaders.  His notable books included Hitler’s War (1977), in which he portrayed Hitler as a rational statesman who has limited war aims.  Another one of his notable work was Churchill’s War (1984), in which he portrayed Churchill as a drunkard who lost the British Empire.  His note of fame was his book, The Destruction of Dresden(1963), in which he highlighted the destruction of civilians in Dresden by allied bombing during World War Two, and gave his estimates of civilian deaths at between 100,000 and 250,000.  This book became a bestseller, although during the Holocaust denial trial, his estimates were shown to be highly inflated and based on witnesses with limited credibility.  Throughout his student and professional career, he was dogged by controversies surrounding his close links with extreme right wing politics in Britain and Germany, as well as his anti-Semitism.

Irving decided to bring a libel lawsuit against Professor Deborah Lipstadt, an American historian at Emory University, who portrayed David Irving as one of the most dangerous holocaust deniers.  Among Irving’s controversial claims was that most European Jews did not die in gas chambers or crimes against humanity during the Second World War, but from diseases.  He also argued that the number of Jews who died was more like a few thousand rather than six million.  According to Lipstadt, one of the reasons why Irving decided to sue her in an English court rather than an American court was that in English courts, the burden of proof in a libel suit lies with the defendants, while in American courts, the burden of proof in a libel suit lies with the plaintiffs.  I.e., Lipstadt and her co-defendants, Penguin Books Publishing, had to prove that they did not unfairly damage Irving’s professional reputation and that Lipstadt was correct in labelling Irving as a racist and manipulative liar who twisted evidence to fit his slanted interpretations.

To do that, Lipstadt needed to delve into historiography, and she enlisted several notable historians to assist her, including Professor Richard Evans (Cambridge University) and Professor Christopher Browning (University of North Carolina).  Aside from serving as expert witnesses, they also helped Lipstadt in collating evidence and re-examining Iriving’s works.  Of particular importance was Evans’ careful cross-checking of the footnotes in Irving’s works.  Evans’ research and expert testimony would prove crucial in Irving’s downfall in this lawsuit.

Lesson 1: What is history?

Historians who are strong influenced by the Rankian school have seen this lawsuit as a watershed, because it seems to illustrate that you can prove history based on careful and objective examination of evidence.  Lipstadt noted in her book, History on trial (2005), that her case was based entirely on documentary evidence, and that not a single oral testimony from survivors and veterans was used in the trial.  This suggests that within limits, it is possible to construct historical account based on careful and fair analysis of documentary evidence and eyewitness accounts. In other words, the postmodernists have been wrong all along.  Richard Evans was most aware of this when he wrote his book, In Defence of History, in which he argued that postmodernists would have been unable to defend history in the face of onslaught by deniers of holocaust and other genocides, since they do not see a clear distinction between history and fiction.

There was the inevitable letter in the Guardian from a postmodernist who said this is all nonsense because we invent history, or words to that effect. But I think the trial did vindicate the possibility of obtaining accurate historical knowledge approaching the truth about the past, about past events, and did make it very clear where the line can be drawn. (Richard Evans, In Defence of History)

Even E.H. Carr made a similar point when he argued in his book, What Is History? that extreme relativism would lead to a morally dubious situation in which historians are unable to defend history from the deniers of genocide and war crimes.

Some legal scholars have been pointed out that the trial did not really resolve the debate between the Rankians and the postmodernists.  In a civil lawsuit, a judge need to decide between the plaintiffs and the defendants on a balance of probabilities.  Hence the best that a judge can do, in legal theory, is to decide that one side was most probably right.  Also, some legal scholars have also argued that in this case, Justice Gray was mainly concerned with whether Irving’s reputation was unjustly damaged, not with whether the Holocaust really occurred.  That question was beyond the professional mandate of the judge.

However, one might counter with two arguments.  First of all, the burden of proof in this case was with the defendants (Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Publishing), so they had to summon a very detailed case to prove their point.  Secondly, in order to prove their case, they had to prove that the historical evidence for the death of six million Jews in World War two was solid and irrefutable.

Lesson 2: Roles and responsibilities of historian

The second lesson that can be drawn from this case is that historians cannot sit in the ivory tower of academia and focus on their work alone.  They must engage with the public to communicate their research, and defend fair and responsible representations of the past from popular and political abuse of the past.

On this point, postmodernist historians would appear to be unable to fulfill that responsibilities.  In order to label a piece of work as an ‘abuse’ of the past, it implies that some works are fair and reasonably accurate representations of the past.  This would run against the grain of postmodernism, which is ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ and skepticism towards any pretension of academic authority.  (Lyotard)

If one accepts that historians have a moral responsibility to defend the past, and the Irving v Lipstadt trial certainly appears to illustrate that point, then an extreme relativist approach to the past is impossible.

This means that historians need to play a balancing act.  On the one hand, they must focus on the main task of separating facts from myths and fictions, and arriving at an interpretation that is as fair and accurate as possible.  As French historian Claude Mazauric stated,

History, as a means towards knowledge, has no other purpose than to establish the truth of past events by repositioning them in the network in which the historian finds them and to give them at least clarity, if not an explanation. That is why history is, indissolubly, establishment of facts and interpretation of recontextualised movement of which facts, in their singularity, are the materialisation.  (Claude Mazauric, ‘The role of historians is not the validation of social values’, L’Humanite, 15 January 2006)

Mazauric is only partly right, because on the other hand historians must be effective communicators to the public.  They must make effective contribution to the public debate about the past, and at times gave passionate defense of history.


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