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Aug 2006 Journal

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Portrait of a trial

THE HOLOCAUST ON TRIAL, D D Guttenplan, Granta, 2001.                           

The controversial title of this recent book is certainly justified. Many who followed last year’s libel trial may remember feeling gripped by an underlying anxiety: had David Irving prevailed in his suit against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin books, the historical legacy of the Holocaust would be under threat. A prediction Naomi Gryn and I shared after the trial’s final session was that Irving would be awarded the proverbial halfpenny. Such a pyrrhic victory would have proved disastrous for the defence.

It is greatly to Guttenplan’s credit that he has succeeded in providing a blow by blow account of the trial whilst preserving a sense of suspense, even though the outcome is known.  His book benefits, too, from being extremely readable thanks to his seamless interweaving of a variety of elements into the body of the narrative. Aspects of Holocaust history, statistics, seemingly hair-splitting arguments, anecdotes – all manner of information is purveyed, leaving the reader eager to continue, not knowing what surprise might be coming next.

A striking feature of the trial was the defence’s use of a team of experts on the Holocaust and historiography, rather than survivors. Guttenplan regrets this absence of “human voices to put flesh on the facts”, even though he understands why such a choice was made. His assessment of the court performance of the experts adds a touch of liveliness and humanity to the account, as do his fair and illuminating pen portraits of the protagonists, Irving and Lipstadt, and members of the defence’s legal team.

What makes the book of particular interest to readers familiar with the subject is Guttenplan’s challenge to various Jewish responses to the legacy of the Holocaust. He is not convinced by Lipstadt’s argument, in her Denying the Holocaust, that denial is a phenomenon deriving from postmodernism rather than an “assault on the history of one particular group.” He takes issue, too, with the hostility directed at prominent refugees from Nazi Europe like Raul Hilberg, Hannah Arendt and Arno Mayer, whose observations and testimonies might not fit the standard blueprint. In contrast, he regards the extreme oversimplification of the contemporary historian, Daniel Goldhagen, who censures the entire German people as murderous antisemites, as particularly dangerous. No less so are universally accepted half-truths that turn out to be myths, including the belief that people were gassed to death in Belsen and Dachau, that the King of Denmark wore a yellow star and that Pastor Niemöller opened his memorable testimony to the indifference of bystanders with “First they came for the Jews …” rather than “First they came for the Communists …” All this provides ample fodder for the Holocaust denier’s cannon.
Emma Klein

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