Impressions of the Irving Trial

Michael Kustow gives his impressions of the David Irving libel trial against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books, which raises important questions of the nature of historical evidence and its understanding.

At stake in David Irving's libel action against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books was not only Irving's contention that his reputation and livelihood had been harmed, but also a bitter argument about the nature of historical evidence and its interpretation.

Irving has questioned the reality of the Holocaust at a meaningful moment in history. The survivors are dying out; soon there will be no living memory, however impaired, of the atrocity. Three decades of postmodernism have made inroads into the common ground of history, licensing scepticism about our understanding of the past. Finally, a digital information system reaches around the world, enacting in its very process the idea that everything is virtual and simulated. Irving, victim of what he calls "an international endeavour" (he is too canny to call it "a world-wide Jewish conspiracy" though 90 per cent of his cited opponents are Jewish organisations), embraces the Internet, running a vast website. A protagonist absent from the courtroom during the trial, it sported a shameless headline which spoke of "Deborah Lipstadt and her Israeli paymasters".

Irving has bull-like shoulders beneath his blue pin-stripe, a scowling black-beetle-browed face, thick silvering hair and big hands. He is heavy enough to seem threatening, and yet there is something flimsy about him. It feels as if he wants to be adopted by the grown-ups, to be admitted to their sphere. One morning he addresses the judge, "Our task today…" and then corrects it to "My task." This, in the fourth week of the trial, is his day to cross-examine the defence's chief expert witness, Richard Evans, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge.

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