The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial

The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial

by Robert Jan Van Pelt

Irving had based his alleged denial of the Holocaust in part on a 1988 report by an American execution specialist, Fred Leuchter, which claimed that there was no evidence for homicidal gas chambers in Auschwitz.

In connection with their defense, Penguin and Lipstadt engaged architectural historian Robert Jan van Pelt to prepare for the court an expert report presenting the evidence for our knowledge that Auschwitz had been an extermination camp where up to one million Jews were killed, mainly in gas chambers.Employing painstaking historical scholarship, van Pelt submitted an exhaustive forensic report, which he successfully defended in cross-examination in court.

In his verdict in favor of the defendants, Mr. Justice Charles Grey concluded that "no objective, fair-minded historian would have serious cause to doubt that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz and that they were operated on a substantial scale to kill hundreds of thousands of Jews."The Case for Auschwitz analyzes why Auschwitz has become central to Holocaust denial and how it became a focus in the Irving-Lipstadt trial.

  • Language: English
  • Category: History
  • Rating: 4.47
  • Pages: 592
  • Publish Date: February 1st 2002 by Indiana University Press
  • Isbn10: 0253340160
  • Isbn13: 9780253340160

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Holocaust deniers call themselves Revisionists; van Pelt calls them negationists, and after a while I came to see why he did so, and to agree with him. We're having this argument because (1) there are people who want to believe that the Holocaust didn't happen; (2) and are willing to follow faith-based reasoning rather than use critical thinking; (3) and don't understand how historiography works and what historians do, in the same way that Creationism relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of the theory of evolution--both the evolution part and the theory part; (4)--as my parallel structure falls apart--a preference for conspiracy theories over the inconvenient, painful, and chaotic reality (conspiracy theories have the advantage that you can cast yourself as the victim, which is always preferable); (5) the distrust of and contempt for experts which characterizes a large segment of Western society; (6) certain unscrupulous persons who are willing to exploit this situation for their own benefit and gratification; and (7) like many other right-wing groups, they are prepared to loss-lead indefinitely. That is, they will keep shouting no matter how many times they are rebutted, no matter how many different ways they are proven to be wrong, because they know that the people they want to reach are the people who will believe, "No smoke without a fire." The mere fact of the shouting will be enough. And they always have the anti-elitist conspiracy theory rhetoric of victimhood to fall back on: The Man doesn't want you to know the truth. The outcome of the libel trial brought by Irving against Lipstadt was the legal judgment that he was, in fact, knowingly misrepresenting documents and evidence in order to claim that Auschwitz was not an extermination camp. After I finished The Case for Auschwitz, I went back and reread the chapter on David Irving in Ron Rosenbaum's excellent Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (1998), which is a book less about Hitler himself than about the historiography of Hitler. I know these people have done me a lot of damage, a lot of harm, because I get associated then with those stupid actions." Fascinating: association with cracked anti-Semites experienced by Irving as the minor discomfort of ill-fitting footwear. Fascinating as well his candor (if that's what it was) about the manipulation he claims to be practicing upon the cracked anti-Semite allies he plans to discard like an ill-fitting shoe. I could not even find a Bullock-like synthesis of calculation and sincerity to make this argument seem coherent, especially (or because) he was confiding it to one of the "traditional enemy." ("Traditional enemy" is Irving's name for Jews in his Action Report newsletters, which seem to cater to his "temporary" cracked anti-Semite allies and Holocaust deniers.) (Rosenbaum 233-34) So regardless of how one interprets Irving's confession to Rosenbaum (a sincere statement of conflict or a cynical attempt to manipulate the "traditional enemy"), it's clear that he knows what he's doing, that he is choosing to ally himself with the Holocaust deniers, not out of conviction (both Rosenbaum and van Pelt show that Irving edges into Holocaust denial by logic chopping and willful obtuseness, not by outright statements of belief; he's trying to quibble the thing to death, which is not what you do when you actually believe something is untrue), but because he can get more attention. Also notice the circular logic of victimhood: Irving is speaking to "cracked anti-Semites" because he's been "denied a platform worldwide," but insofar as he's been "denied a platform worldwide" (and I have to say, I'm not quite sure what he means by that), it's not because his ideas are unpopular (the Man doesn't want you to know the truth) but because they're unsupportable special pleading in defense of Hitler. A good portion of The Case for Auschwitz is taken up in tracing the convergent careers of negationism and Irving. (I was mortified to learn that one of the roots of negationism is firmly sunk in New Criticism, as the idea that you treat the text as an object in itself, taken in reductio ad absurdam, is a principal method of negationist argument.) Another chunk deals with the evidence van Pelt assembled in his expert opinion, and the rest describes the trial itself, with a focus on van Pelt's testimony and Irving's cross-examination. I was fascinated by the way Irving--who, remember, was the plaintiff--kept trying to mobilize the rhetoric of victimhood, describing himself as enduring "a public flogging" (van Pelt 452) for example, and I admit I cheered for the way Justice Gray kept shooting him down. In fact, one of the problems I had in reading was the fact of my own partisanship; I felt like I should try to be objective, open-minded, and fair to both sides, but the negationist standpoint is so reprehensible to me in its own right, and supported by such utterly shoddy argumentation, that I couldn't help thinking of them as the enemy--and was further disturbed by this echo of Irving labelling Jews the "traditional enemy," and also his habit of reappropriating anti-Semitic images like blood libel and well-poisoning, casting himself and his followers in the position of the oppressed party, i.e., the Jews. It was not helpful to count the numbers of lift journeys, but rather the time it took to burn each batch. in van Pelt, 471) We become grateful that the Holocaust was logistically possible--that is what negationism does; Dalrymple describes it as a place "where great truths can be tainted and wounded by small discrepancies, where millions of dead people can be turned into a chimera. And where doubt can be planted like seed in the wind, to grow and fester as the screams of history grow fainter with the years" (qtd in van Pelt, 471) If you engage with it at all, you quickly find yourself arguing lethal absurdities, like the idea that Auschwitz's gas chambers cannot have been gas chambers because they did not follow the rubrics of American gas chambers of the '30s, or the idea that the gas chambers were used to delouse corpses, or that crematoria a mile and a half from the SS barracks in Birkenau were intended as an air-raid shelter. And even if you win, as Lipstadt and Penguin won, van Pelt's occasional quotes from Irving's Action Reports make clear that negationists will twist and misrepresent until they can claim that they won--or that your victory is just another symptom of the conspiracy against them.

Learning about the systematic murder of people is hard enough, doing so within the context of addressing those who seek to deny historical fact in pursuit of sanitizing the same political beliefs which motivated the holocaust as apart of a concerted effort to revitalize that hate is even more unsettling. In it she outlined a growing movement of holocaust deniers who sought (and still seek) to diminish the horrors of the Holocaust in order to present the actions of the Nazi regime as morally equivalent to that of the allies, all with the end goal of making Nazism as well as Fascism a viable political option in the marketplace of ideas. As an example of poor scholarship which had acquired traction with the public she pointed to David Irving and the success of his book Hitler's War , a work which clearly sought to exonerate Hitler and the Nazis through employing frequent misrepresentations, fallacy ladened logic, and downright lies. This book is the outline and summary of the forensic, testimonial, and historical evidence that around one Million people (mostly Jews) were systematically and horrifically murdered in Auschwitz. This book is important because it summarily puts a nail in the coffin of the holocaust denier position(Pelt calls them negationists but I won't dignify them with the term) by taking apart Irving's claims. Had these people made a sincere effort to read the book which they are criticizing past the first 50 pages they would have realized the following: First, it would have been impossible for anyone to observe the holes where Zyklon-B was introduced into the gas chambers at Crematorium II with the naked eye because the ceiling of the building was destroyed by retreating Germans in an effort to cover up the holocaust. It outlines the beliefs of other holocaust deniers, and leaves one better equipped to spotting neo-nazi dog whistles.

This is a very intense book in the construction of the has chambers at Auschwitz.

Professor Robert Jan van Pelt I have not seen the holes for the columns, no. On that issue I will abandon (and I am sure the Defence will be grateful) the question of the holes in the roof which are central to my case. MR IRVING: I will abandon the discussion on the holes in the roof point, my Lord.