Holocaust and Genocide Studies 17.2 (2003) 375-378
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The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial, Robert Jan van Pelt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 464 pp., $45.00.
There is something paradoxical about the very existence of Robert Jan van Pelt's masterful account of the evidence "for" Auschwitz, evidence he gathered for Deborah Lipstadt's defense against David Irving's libel suit. Lipstadt had called Irving a Holocaust [End Page 375] denier; he then sued her under Britain's notorious libel laws, which place the burden of proof on the defendant rather than on the plaintiff. 1 Lipstadt, in her well-known 1993 book on Holocaust denial, had noted with pride her refusal to engage with deniers. She argued, justifiably, that such debate would lend undue credence to the deniers' claims by giving them the appearance of contributing to legitimate scholarly debate. 2 All of that changed, of course, when Irving forced the issue by suing Lipstadt and Penguin Books in 1996. Van Pelt shared Lipstadt's concerns, remarking, "I believed that alegal victory on Auschwitz would still mark a defeat of sorts, since the battle of Auschwitz ought not to have been fought to begin with" (p. 400). Indeed, at least some deniers, or "negationists" as van Pelt calls them, have greeted his book on precisely these grounds. 3 The result of the trial, however, was the opposite of what Irving and other negationists had hoped. Based in large part on the expert testimony given by van Pelt and other historians, the court strongly rejected Irving's claims to be a legitimate historian and decisively rebuked "revisionism" as a reasonable historical position.
Combining personal memoir, expert report, and narrative history, van Pelt's book deals with three interrelated topics: Holocaust negationism and Irving's place in its development, the libel trial itself, and, most important, the evidence produced to refute the central claim in Irving's denial, that is, that there never had been gas chambers at Auschwitz used to murder human beings, principally Jews. The deliberately ironic title indicates an argument for truth against the kind of lies that serve to defend the purpose of Auschwitz by denying its reality. The "case for Auschwitz" is the case for confronting the reality of evil, without which historical understanding remains "shallow and ultimately meaningless" (p. 67).
The core of the book consists of three lengthy chapters detailing the evidence for Auschwitz as a mass extermination center. Focusing particularly on the operations of the gas chambers and crematoria, van Pelt provides comprehensive accounts of what he calls, echoing Marc Bloch, "intentional" and "non-intentional" evidence: eyewitness testimony (from both survivors and Nazis) on the one hand, and material or archival evidence on the other. Over the course of several hundred pages, van Pelt collates nearly all of the available data on gassing operations at Auschwitz (though his analysis of witness testimony stops with 1947), creating an extremely "thick description" of how people were exterminated there during the "Final Solution." 4
There is a price to be paid for this embarrassment of riches; the book is at times quite repetitive. It is not clear, however, that given the book's purpose, this really constitutes a criticism. For instance, in the discussion of the fact that the camp's construction office records survived the war, nearly identical passages appear on page 207 and page 295. The book also prints twice, in full, a letter from the camp's chief architect, Karl Bischoff, to his superior in Berlin (pp. 209-10 and p.286). In addition, in its admirable drive for thoroughness, the book often quotes at great length multiple passages describing the same physical features of the camp or procedures such as selections or gassings. The point, of course, is to demonstrate the widespread agreement [End Page 376] among witnesses, including especially those who could not possibly have read any of the postwar investigative reports, nor have been familiar with each other's accounts. While necessary given the book's purpose, such detail can at times...