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Editorial: The Holocaust in court

A revisionist historian sues his critics for libel

Thursday, February 24, 2000

In recent years the Holocaust has embedded itself more deeply into the world's consciousness. Yet atop the mountain of factual material that confirms Nazi Germany's inhumanity to man still stand a few individuals who deny that the Holocaust ever took place or seek to equate it with the horrors that befall civilians in any war.

In London this winter, one of the less disreputable of the disbelievers is having his own version of truth tested. British historian David Irving is in court, suing Penguin Books and professor Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University for libel for accusing him of denying the Holocaust. The conventional and almost universally accepted view was that Germany systematically plotted the destruction of Jews, especially as evidenced by a decision reached at a conference in July 1942.

Mr. Irving says the mass extermination was not official policy and that Hitler knew nothing about it until October 1943. Forget the huge extermination camps; forget the mass destruction of Jews; Mr. Irving doesn't accept it or the use of gas chambers at Auschwitz (they were a post-war tourist invention, he said). Hitler was a weak leader under whom all kinds of bad things happened without his intervention.

To put it charitably, this is a minority view. Hundreds of historians blame the power-mad Hitler as the man who orchestrated the Holocaust. The Nazi leader allowed no dissent from his attempts at world supremacy and his attempts to annihilate all races and groups whom he viewed as anathema.

And yet, Mr. Irving is about the best of those who challenge conventional World War II history. A biography he wrote of Josef Goebbels has drawn praise from respectable historians. Where Mr. Irving finds his audience is among the small cadre of right-wing scholars and neo-Nazi followers. Because Hitler was adept at covering up some of his plans, it creates a loophole through which men like Mr. Irving can crawl.

Win or lose, Mr. Irving has found a forum for himself in a London courthouse. It can only be hoped that, as the mountains of documents and truth pile up, his view of World War II history will look like a molehill by comparison.

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