The Case for Auschwitz: Evi­dence from the Irv­ing Trial

Robert Jan van Pelt
  • Review
By – July 14, 2016

Robert Jan van Pelt, pro­fes­sor of archi­tec­ture at Uni­ver­si­ty of Water­loo in Cana­da, is one of the fore­most author­i­ties on Auschwitz. His his­to­ry of Auschwitz, co-writ­ten with Deb­o­rah Dwork, remains essen­tial read­ing on the noto­ri­ous death camp. He has appeared on PBS to give a detailed account of the ways in which the Auschwitz gas cham­ber was designed to mur­der Jews — expos­ing the mur­der­ous intent of the Nazi bureau­crats who designed them. Giv­en his exper­tise, it is not sur­pris­ing that van Pelt was called on to refute the claims of Holo­caust deniers — David Irv­ing, Fred A. Leuchter, and oth­ers — who con­tin­ue to deny the exis­tence of gas cham­bers in exter­mi­na­tion camps. The Case for Auschwitz recounts the evi­dence and process of the trial. 

In dis­cor­dance with his­tor­i­cal evi­dence, Irv­ing and oth­er deniers argue that the Nazis did not have a sys­tem­at­ic pro­gram to exter­mi­nate the Jews, but rather that the Jews who died suc­cumbed to the ordi­nary vio­lence of war. Irv­ing jus­ti­fied his asser­tion by ref­er­enc­ing Leuchter and his pseu­do­sci­en­tif­ic report, which con­tend­ed that there were no homi­ci­dal gas cham­bers in Auschwitz. These issues reemerged and were record­ed at the libel tri­al Irv­ing brought before the British High Court in Jan­u­ary of 2000. Irv­ing sued Amer­i­can his­to­ri­an Deb­o­rah Lip­stadt who, in her book Deny­ing the Holo­caust: The Grow­ing Assault on Truth and Mem­o­ry, had labeled Irv­ing as a Holo­caust denier who had fal­si­fied many legit­i­mate doc­u­ments. The court ruled in favor of Lip­stadt, deal­ing a crush­ing blow to Holo­caust deniers.

For his tes­ti­mo­ny, van Pelt pre­pared and defend­ed a 700-page report that addressed the core issue of the pro­ceed­ings: his­tor­i­cal evi­dence that proved the exis­tence of the gas cham­bers at Auschwitz. In writ­ing The Case for Auschwitz, van Pelt states that it was my task … to help the defense … con­vince the judge that no seri­ous his­to­ri­an who had con­sid­ered the evi­dence would have seri­ous cause to doubt that there were gas cham­bers at Auschwitz.”

The bulk of The Case for Auschwitz presents the evi­dence van Pelt sub­mit­ted to the court.

Although at times poten­tial­ly dif­fi­cult for the lay read­er, this book is worth read­ing for its expla­na­tion of how and why Auschwitz became cen­tral in the Irv­ing-Lip­stadt tri­al, as well as why the gas cham­bers have become so impor­tant for Holo­caust denial. It is a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the Holo­caust canon.

Relat­ed Content:

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

Discussion Questions