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Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 2000/ 30 Shevat, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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When neo-Nazis have short memories -- WHAT A CURIOUS PEOPLE we've become. In the midst of an explosion of learning and knowledge, some of us nevertheless try to rewrite history with a boldness the old Russian Communists no doubt envy.

If history embarrasses, wipe it out. If there aren't any facts to support an argument, make 'em up. If certain facts make someone, or a group of people, uncomfortable, change 'em.

Blowing the whistle on such shoddy enterprise can be costly. Deborah Lipstadt, a history scholar at Emory University in Atlanta, is learning that in a London courtroom. She and her British publisher, Penguin Books, are defending themselves against the charge that she libeled David Irving, 62, the author of "Hitler's War'' and other books on Nazi Germany and World War II, when she accused him of being a Holocaust-denier. A casual reader of Mr. Irving's ideas might easily agree that that's what he is.

Mr. Irving writes that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, that "only'' 100,000 Jews died at Auschwitz, (most of them from natural causes like typhus), that Hitler was let down by his subordinates and suggests that on the whole Hitler wasn't such a bad chap. If Hitler had known what was going on, Mr. Irving writes, he would have shaped up a "totally ramshackle operation.''

Miss Lipstadt cataloged some of Mr. Irving's assertions in a book of her own, "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.'' She describes him as "a falsifier of history,'' of being a "Hitler partisan.''

American newspapers are paying little attention, which is unfortunate because it's a chilling reminder of continuing anti- Semitism. (The best coverage I've found is in Slate, the on-line magazine, in which Judith Shulevitz debates those who lend prestige to David Irving.)

The stakes are high because libel law in England is much tougher than libel law in the United States. Deborah Lipstadt must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that what she said was true. Most legal observers in London think she will prevail, but it's no foregone conclusion. David Irving says he doesn't deny the Holocaust so much as "redefine'' it.

He has a lot of data in his head, enabling him to confuse others with half-lies and half-truths. He argues that Hitler did not know anything about a plot to kill the Jews until 1943, that no document identifies him as ordering the Final Solution, or linking him to the extermination goals. Had Hitler known, the Nazis would have shown greater competency, but he had lost control over those who carried out the murder of Jews.

"If the killing had been systematic, it would have been done with more efficient means,'' he told the court. "It was a totally ramshackle operation, a total lack of system.'' (In "Hitler's War,'' he wrote that the diary of Anne Frank was a forgery, and his German publisher later apologized to the Frank family for printing it and paid compensation for their mistake.)

Neo-Nazi movements are increasingly visible in certain nations of the European Union. Fourteen leaders of the Union threatened to isolate Austria if the Freedom Party of Joerg Haider succeeds in becoming part of the coalition government. Mr. Haider has praised the Waffen SS and policies of the Third Reich and made the ritual apologies. Not since Kurt Waldheim, president of Austria for six years (1986-1992) was revealed to have been compliant with Nazi villainy in mass deportations of Jews has Austria seemed so threatening to democracy and decency. Jews in Brussels protested at the Austrian Embassy by wearing yellow stars of David.

Over the weekend, hundreds of neo-Nazis in Berlin, commemorating the 67th anniversary of the Nazi assumption of power, marched through the Brandenberg Gate for the first time since World War II, protesting the erection of a monument to the Holocaust dead. An equal number of Berliners protested the protesters.

Only this week the world learned of another Nazi atrocity, this one in Russia, 55 years ago. Nazi SS guards massacred thousands of Jews, including women and children, who had survived a brutal 25-mile death march. Auschwitz had been liberated only four days before.

Deborah Lipstadt does not worry that the Holocaust will be forgotten as long as survivors are alive to tell their story. "To me this is not a clear and present danger,'' she says. "To me this is a clear and future danger.''


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©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate