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'Trial' digs into a Holocaust denier

History on Trial: My Day in Court With David Irving, By Deborah E. Lipstadt, HarperCollins, 346 pp., illustrated, $25.95

The practice of media and academic programs offering microphones to Holocaust deniers for ''balance" prompted Emory University professor Deborah E. Lipstadt to write the 1993 book ''Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory."

Polls had shown the public was not buying the anti-Semitic message, and some scholars thought it better to ignore the deniers. But she decided to chronicle the movement in hopes of shining light on the more sophisticated practitioners, such as British author David Irving, who she thought capable of sowing confusion.

Lipstadt's book devoted a few paragraphs to Irving, who calls Auschwitz ''a legend." Irving says, ''More women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz."

Irving seized on Lipstadt's entries and used them to find his largest audience ever. He sued Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin UK, for libel, contending he was the victim of an international conspiracy to ruin his reputation.

The suit would have quickly died in US courts, where Irving would have had to prove she lied in defaming him. But British libel law required Lipstadt and the publisher to prove her words true. That is how Lipstadt and Penguin wound up making a case for gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz, and for Hitler's authorship of the ''Final Solution" to exterminate European Jewry.

Lipstadt has written a gripping account of the 10-week trial, a taut page-turner reminiscent of Jonathan Harr's ''A Civil Action," and she tightly weaves complex material through a nimble narrative.

She tells the story in strict chronology, which carries the potential for bogging down the tale in pretrial tedium. But it is that preparation phase that drives home how monumental was the trial team's task. It clearly needed money for expert analysis and raised most of the $1.5 million through businessman Leslie Wexner, head of the Limited clothing chain.

The courtroom drama quenches the American reader's thirst for the idiosyncratic details -- the wigs, robes, and Byzantine procedure. Lipstadt even writes about the luncheon conversations of the trial team, down to the vintage wine from the law-firm cellar and the crustless sandwiches.

The epic legal battle was truly a lopsided duel of evidence. Irving, in his rambling turns as inquisitor and witness, tried to argue against Nazi documents that showed Hitler had read progress reports of mobile killing squads targeting Jews, and of meticulous building plans and permits for gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz.

But while the main contest was clear cut, Lipstadt's team had a greater challenge in showing that Irving was not a bumbling scholar prone to sloppy translations and miscalculations but an ideologue intent on obfuscation and distortion. That's how the kitchen sink of evidence came in against Irving, including a ditty he sang to his infant daughter: ''I am a baby Aryan / Not Jewish or Sectarian / I have no plans to marry / An ape or Rastafarian."

Ultimately, the British judge found the evidence ''incontrovertible that Irving qualifies as a Holocaust denier."

''Irving's treatment of the historical evidence is so perverse and egregious that it is difficult to accept that it is inadvertence. . . . He has deliberately skewed the evidence to bring it in line with his political beliefs," the judge found.

But neither Lipstadt's legal triumph nor her well-written book would silence Irving, a college dropout who casts himself as a historian. Irving solicits funds on his publisher's website, where readers can order three of his World War II books, now back in print.

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