Why Loss in Holocaust Libel Suit Is Important

Apart from derailing a pseudo-scholar, Irving judgment clears the way for serious Holocaust researchers to pursue some important debates.

  • If you're a right-wing historian whose work is dedicated to showing that Adolf Hitler has been misunderstood — and you make no secret of the fact that you enjoy the company of neo-Nazis — it may seem a little counterintuitive to sue for libel when you're accused of being a "Hitler partisan" and "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial." And so it proved on Tuesday when a British judge dismissed a claim of defamation by historian David Irving against Penguin Books and U.S. academic Deborah Lipstadt over her 1994 book that slammed him as a Holocaust denier. Irving had sought to establish serious scholarly credentials for his claims that Hitler had been unaware of the Nazis' "Final Solution" until late in the war, and for his attempts to refute the notion that Jews had been systematically exterminated in the concentration camps, but the judge was unimpressed.

    "Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence," Justice Gray ruled. "For the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favorable light." The judge also found Irving to be "an active Holocaust denier, anti-Semitic, racist [who] associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism." Irving says he will appeal the decision.

    The verdict not only vindicates Lipstadt's charges against Irving, but also clears the decks for more scholarly discussion about the Holocaust in contemporary social and political discourse. Scholars such as Dr. Peter Novick, for example, have provoked serious debate by suggesting, in a detailed history of the place of the Holocaust in American public life, that memory of the Holocaust has been tailored to suit such agendas as support for Israel against its Mideastern foes. "There's been a movement over the past decade to begin looking very seriously at the ways in which the Holocaust has been 'marketed' and used in support of contemporary political goals," says TIME religion correspondent David Van Biema. "As difficult as that notion may be for some people to engage, it's an important and reasonable topic for discussion. A ruling that excludes Irving from the realm of legitimate historical scholarship creates more space for serious discussion among academics who accept the basic truths of the Holocaust, but who're asking important questions about the ways in which its legacy may be used or misused."