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Friday, March 16, 2012

The Holocaust Defense

The Holocaust Defense

Ernest Sommers
About twenty years ago, a city supervisor in the city of San Francisco went berserk and murdered the mayor of the city, along with another supervisor, who just happened to be the only openly gay man on the city council. At his defense, the killer tried to justify his actions by claiming diminished mental capacity, arguing that in the weeks leading up to the murders he had become extremely depressed, and was living on a diet of junk food. This argument, known as the "Twinkie Defense" worked in court. The former supervisor was sentenced to a relatively brief prison term, and was released within two years. I have been reminded of this case because the defense strategy in the Irving-Lipstadt trial strikes me as being somewhat similar. The case rests on the claim, by David Irving, that Deborah Lipstadt libeled him in her book, "Denying the Holocaust" but her defense has not been to address most of these libels, or even to explain her position: indeed, Ms. Lipstadt never took the stand in her own defense.
Instead, Lipstadt's counsel used the trial as an opportunity to parade a number of historians before the court and the press who attested to the standard Holocaust narrative in all of its grisly detail, while the press picked up on the theme and loudly trumpeted that the trial was in fact a virtual referendum on the Holocaust. In short, confronted with a long list of unsupportable and in fact never supported false claims about David Irving, the Lipstadt legal team and the press argued what we might call the Holocaust Defense.

Not So Expert Experts

Invoking the Holocaust for the sake of changing the subject is not new. One can think back to the 1970's, where criticism of Israeli policies in the Middle East was routinely scotched by reference to the "six million." But we cannot think of too many cases where the Holocaust was in effect used to obscure the issues in a court case. The experts the defense called did not do much to clarify the situation. The first expert witness, Robert Jan Van Pelt, was advertised as the world's greatest authority on Auschwitz concentration camp, and produced a massive 750 page report for the trial. But his remarks on cross-examination did not indicate any special insight, rather ignorance and dilletantism.
For example, it was revealed shortly after taking the stand that Professor Van Pelt, although a titular professor of architecture at a Canadian university, had no training in architecture at all, which simply meant that his ability to read architectural drawings was no better than anyone else's. It further came out that he had no knowledge of the first bombing raids at Auschwitz, which began in May, 1943, no knowledge of the building requirements of crematoria, morgues or air raid shelters, and no knowledge of the vast cache of documents at the United States Holocaust Museum concerning the construction of air raid shelters and gas shelters at the Auschwitz camp from 1942 forward.
In order to support his central thesis, that one million Jews has been gassed and burned at Auschwitz, Van Pelt was forced to rely on the testimony of witnesses, most of whom were quoted from protocols prepared by Soviet and Polish communists. These the same sources who at the same time were insisting that the Germans had slain the thousands of Polish officers at Katyn Forest (of course, we now know that this was a Soviet communist atrocity.)
Clearly then the source of most of his information was questionable to say the least, and Van Pelt could be fairly criticized for his credulity. In the end, Van Pelt was forced to claim that the massacres at Auschwitz were not certain, but "morally certain," which can only mean that he lacked proof they were certain and wished to substitute ethical force to carry his point. From a rational point of view, such an argument carries no weight, and is rather contemptible as well, since it implies the moral failing of those who remain unconvinced.
Pelt was followed by Christopher Browning, an American authority whose specialty is the shooting massacres carried out by the Einsatzgruppen and the Criminal Police in Poland and occupied Russia. Browning was by far the most successful expert, not least because his report was professionally done, and did not contain gratuitous chacterizations of David Irving as was the case elsewhere. But he also found himself out of his depth, because he was charged with discussing the massacres at the so-called "Reinhard" camps, the evidence for these, as well as the question of whether the project of deportation of Jews from Poland was better called "Operation Reinhard" or "Operation Reinhardt." (The standard interpretation holds that the camps were called "Reinhard" after Reinhard Heydrich, a former top SS leader assassinated in 1942, and were therefore strictly murder camps; revisionists hold that "Operation Reinhardt" referred to the overall process of looting Jewish assets, named after Fritz Reinhardt, the Nazi finance minister.)
On both of these points he was forced to distance himself from his expert report almost as soon as he entered the witness box. First, he conceded that the documentary trail pointing to "Operation Reinhardt" goes back to 1942, which is the revisionist position, and second, he was forced to admit that one of his key documents, the mad confessions of the SS officer Kurt Gerstein, had been seriously pruned and uncritically accepted in his report. He also was bound to admit that there was no contemporary evidence to support the gassing claim at these three Reinhardt camps - Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec - at all: which is what revisionists have been saying for 30 years.
The third and most prominent of the historians appearing in Lipstadt's behalf was Richard Evans, of Cambridge University, who wrote another massive report of seven hundred pages or more, involving quite personal and scathing attacks on David Irving. But Professor Evans' performance, involving six days of sparring with David Irving, who appeared as a litigant in person, shed more heat than light.
The first thing that becomes evident upon reading the transcripts is that Professor Evans' understanding of the Holocaust is remarkably shallow. He knows next to nothing of many of the major issues, and was absolutely at sea on such issues as German disinfection and air raid protection policies, the operation of the concentration camps, and other topics. In order to salvage his credibility, Evans was led to offer wordy and imprecise answers to questions, even from the presiding judge, and to make vague and empty gestures in the direction of the other expert opinions - ostensibly written under his direction - as well as Lipstadt's book, none of which he seemed to have at his command.
The final historical expert, a young and eager to please German named Peter Longerich, demonstrated not only a lack of comprehension of the operation of the so-called extermination camps, but also a lack of familiarity with the documents contained in his own books. He also prominently featured in his testimony another characteristic of Holocaust narratives today, which is to dismiss as "camouflage" the diverse assortment of documents that unambiguously point to the non-existence of the "Final Solution" as a government policy.

The Balance Sheet

More than half the court's time in this case - some thirty days-was taken up with the inexpert expert testimony of historians hired at great cost by the defense to generate mountains of paper and in the end hours upon hours of wordy, digressive and pointless testimony which had virtually nothing to do with the claims of the case, especially since Irving conceded at several points major elements of the Holocaust narrative. The rest of the time in court consisted of the defense's miscellaneous accusations - based on a close reading of Irving's diaries and public speeches - that he was a racist, an anti-Semite, an extremist, and so forth. However, this part of the defense was similarly weakened by the fact that there is no evidence that any of this material was available to Lipstadt at the time she wrote her comments about the British historian.
It is not too difficult to conclude then that the defense's conduct of the trial was meant to be dilatory and beside the point from the outset. Indeed, the last defense coup, involving the carefully orchestrated release of the memoirs of Adolf Eichmann, which turned out to be utterly useless for the defense, tends to confirm this view. And, looking back, one can see that, with the cooperation of the media, the defense has succeeded in obscuring the other issues of the trial.
For example, Irving provided a great many documents that indicate that Lisptadt was part of rather extensive group of Jewish agencies who have been bent on destroying Irving's legitimacy as a historian for over twenty years, long before he had any association with Holocaust revisionists. But these documents have been largely unreported in the press. In the same way, the media have been remiss in not noting the many other defamatory remarks that Irving attributes to Lipstadt's book: that he consorts with known terrorists, that he damaged archival evidence, and so on. Instead we have had article after article claiming that the Holocaust itself was on trial.
That the defense has been so successful in using the Holocaust in the mass media to obscure the true issues of this trial is unfortunate. Moreover, such tricks severely damage civil society by the continual dumbing down of public discourse into loud and emotional gestures. It would be tragic if the court in this instance was not able to withstand such an imbalanced and biased media campaign.
The impartial observer can only hope that the judge in this case is able to demonstrate in his decision the same perspicuity that he has demonstrated in the case so far. But the lingering effects of the defense's abuse or "instrumentalization" of the Holocaust in this case, for the purposes of obscuring what Irving calls "the words complained of," could have far reaching repercussions. One dreads the day when all manner of mischief and indeed criminal activity will seek to justify itself by taking refuge in the tawdry vagueness of the Holocaust defense.

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