The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book Review

In-Depth Report of 'Holocaust Trial' Provides Valuable Overview

  • THE HOLOCAUST ON TRIAL: The Case of Ernst Zündel by Robert Lenski. Decatur, Ala.: The Reporter Press, 1990. Paperback. 544 pages. Photographs. Index. ISBN: 0-9623220-0-8. (Available from the IHR for $ 29.00, plus $ 2.00 postage and handling.)
Reviewed by Mark Weber

Anyone with an interest in twentieth century history or who truly cares about the issue of free speech in a democratic society will appreciate this book. Written as a day by-day account of the 1988 "Holocaust Trial" in Toronto of German-Canadian publisher Ernst Zündel, and illustrated with dozens of well-chosen photographs, this highly readable, balanced and yet comprehensive survey may well be the best single introduction to the Holocaust issue now available.

Zündel's troubles began in November 1983 when Jewish community activist Sabina Citron filed a complaint against him for reprinting and distributing Did Six Million Really Die?, a polemical booklet by British writer Richard Harwood (Verrall) that refutes the generally accepted Holocaust extermination story. Responding to complaints from Canada's Jewish community, it wasn't long before Ontario's provincial government took over the case, and in early 1985 Zündel was brought to court for "knowingly spreading false news."

He was found guilty after a highly emotional seven-week trial that attracted enormous media attention in Canada. After the verdict was set aside by a higher court, Zündel was tried again in 1988 on the same charge, and was again found guilty. The verdict is currently under review by Canada's Supreme Court.

For his part, Zündel could have made things much easier -- or at least simpler -- for himself if he had chosen to defend himself on narrower legal grounds. He might, for example, have simply argued that he was entitled to publish the booklet under Canada's supposedly guaranteed right of free speech. But Zündel determined at the outset, as he put it, to "put the Nuremberg Trial on trial," and decisively discredit the Holocaust extermination story.

The German-born defendant never intended to devote several years and enormous effort to the Holocaust issue. A passionate German nationalist, Zündel has regarded these Holocaust trials as an unintended but unfortunately necessary detour from what he sees as his mission: restoring a sense of purpose, pride and confidence to his beloved German people.

In spite of the guilty verdicts, it is now obvious that government officials and Jewish community leaders badly miscalculated when they decided to go after Zündel because -- as Lenski's book make abundantly clear -- holocaust revisionism has been immeasurably strengthened as a result of these trials. Apparently viewing him as little more than a bigoted simpleton, his adversaries grossly underestimated Zündel's intelligence, skill and perseverance, and did not anticipate his ability to assemble and hold together a team of loyal and talented supporters.

Much of the credit for the effectiveness of Zündel's legal campaign must go to his courageous attorney, Doug Christie. In his tough and often brilliant cross-examination of prosecution witnesses in the 1985 trial, he obliged many of them to make revealing and sometimes incriminating concessions to truth. This highly intelligent, sensitive and idealistic man continued his work in the 1988 trial, ably assisted by Keltie Zubko and attorney Barbara Kulaszka. (Audio cassette recordings of Christie's eloquent banquet address at the 1986 IHR conference are available from the IHR for $9.95.)

Free Speech in Canada

For those who challenge the official view of the semi-sacrosanct Holocaust story, "free speech" is not quite free in Canada. Regardless of one's views about the Holocaust issue, or even of Zündel, any open-minded reader of The Holocaust on Trial will appreciate the significance of this trial for the issue of free speech.

Contrary to what the Canadian government has insisted all along, this was unquestionably a "free speech" case, as even the New York Times acknowledged in a rare American newspaper report on the trial. Alan Borovoy, a leading Canadian civil liberties advocate, declared that the arcane and rarely invoked law under which Zündel was tried should be abolished. It is no exaggeration to say that Zündel trial was one of the most important tests in many years of fundamental legal rights in North America. (As this review goes to press, Canada's Supreme Court is reviewing the Zündel case to decide the constitutionality of the law under which he was tried.)

The author of The Holocaust on Trial is an American writer in his late thirties. Robert Lenski is also the compiler-editor of Toward a New Science of Man, a collection of insightful and thought-provoking quotations on society, race, liberty and human behavior. To write this book, Lenski carefully went through every line of the official transcript of the four-month-long trial. He also took account of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and spoke with a number of the key individuals involved in the case.

Although the author treats Zündel and Holocaust Revisionism sympathetically, this is by no means a one-sided revisionist polemic. In fact, Lenski gives the impression of being a Holocaust agnostic. Mistakes and fumblings by Zündel's witnesses are not ignored, and telling arguments and effective points by prosecution witnesses and the Crown attorney are duly presented.

In the introduction and in the first chapter, Lenski provides essential background information and effectively sets the book's tone. He tells of the defendant's youth in Germany, his emigration to Canada, successful career as an artist, and his "political awakening." Lenski succinctly explains how this Zündel became a focus of national attention during the first "Holocaust Trial" in 1985.

As Lenski relates in Chapter 2, Canada's newspapers and television closely followed the unfolding drama of that first trial. Canadians across the country were able to learn -- albeit in an often sensationalized way -- that there is an alternative view of the orthodox Holocaust extermination story. In striking contrast to this copious coverage, the media almost completely ignored the second trial in 1988. The role of organized Jewry in pressuring publishers and editors to curtail reporting of the second Zündel trial has been nothing less than outrageous, as Canadian journalist Doug Collins and others have emphasized. (See Collins' essay in the Fall 1991 Journal.)

The Testimony

Lenski reviews the 1985 testimony of Raul Hilberg, a prominent Holocaust historian and author of the three-volume standard study, The Destruction of the European Jews. Shaken by defense attorney Doug Christie's rigorous cross-examination questioning during the first trial, the Austrian-born Jewish professor refused to return as a prosecution witness. Consequently, Hilberg's lengthy testimony was laboriously read aloud to the bored members of the jury in the second Zündel trial by prosecution attorney John Pearson.

The prosecution's main witness, American Holocaust historian Christopher Browning, was asked to comment in detail on the Harwood booklet. Lenski faithfully reports on the highlights of Browning's testimony -- for which he was paid $150 (Canadian) per hour -- including his most persuasive arguments and pointed criticisms of the Harwood booklet.

As a "Functionalist" Holocaust historian who knows that hard evidence for the Holocaust is elusive, Browning postulates that the extermination of Europe's Jews began without a budget, central plan or even a direct order. He has speculated that Hitler may have set an enormous extermination program into motion with nothing more than a silent "nod" to subordinates.

In a relentless and sometimes brilliant cross-examination interrogation, defense attorney Doug Christie wrung numerous damaging admissions from Browning. As Lenski relates, for example, the 43-year-old university professor (who is also a member of the advisory board of the vehemently Zionist Simon Wiesenthal Center) claimed not to be aware that the Allies had used torture and threats to force German officials into signing incriminating statements about alleged German atrocities. Nor was Browning aware of the massive persecution of members of the ethnic German minority community in Poland just prior to the outbreak of war in 1939 (which was a decisive factor in Hitler's decision to attack).

Browning expressed confidence in the reliability of the postwar "confessions" of SS officer Kurt Gerstein, which have served as a major pillar of the Holocaust extermination story. But the historian did not know, for example, that Gerstein had "confessed" that at Auschwitz alone "millions of children" had been killed by holding cotton wads of poison under their noses. (Henri Roques thoroughly discredits this key "witness" in his doctoral dissertation, The "Confessions" of Kurt Gerstein, which is available from the IHR.)

Questioned by prosecution attorney Pearson, Browning confidently cited a portion of the official wartime journal of the German governor of Poland, Hans Frank, as critically important evidence for the Holocaust extermination thesis. But under cross examination, Browning was obliged to acknowledge that he had not read the complete text of Frank's wartime journal, and that he was ignorant of what Frank had said on this subject as a Nuremberg Tribunal defendant.

No witness testimony is overlooked by Lenski, including the following:

  • Ditlieb Felderer spoke in detail about his numerous inspection visits of camp sites in Poland. He presented and commented on some 300 slides taken during those trips.
  • German writer Thies Christophersen was stationed at Auschwitz in 1944 as a junior army officer. He visited Birkenau -- supposedly the most important killing center -- several times during the height of the alleged extermination period, and saw no sign of killings.
  • Russell Barton, a British-born physician who served with British forces as a medical orderly in the infamous Bergen-Belsen camp at the end of the war, confirmed that mass deaths there were an indirect consequence of the conflict, and not of any deliberate German policy. He noted that Jewish inmates in eastern camps, including Auschwitz, were given a choice by their German captors of either remaining behind to wait for the advancing Soviets, or leaving, usually on foot, with the retreating German forces.
  • Austrian-born Canadian Maria Van Herwaarden, who survived two years of internment in Auschwitz I and II (Birkenau), confirmed that conditions were generally dreadful, and that many fellow inmates succumbed to disease. At the same time, though, and contrary to widespread "rumors," she testified that she saw no evidence of extermination or homicidal gassings.
  • Joseph G. Burg confirmed that he, along with many other Jews, had been cruelly mistreated by Romanian authorities during the war. But he emphatically rejected the allegations of a German extermination policy or program. Indeed, he testified, the Germans treated the Jews much more humanely than did the Romanians. Burg said that he inspected the Auschwitz and Majdanek camps in 1945, just months after the end of the war, but found no evidence of extermination gas chambers at either site.
  • Emil Lachout certified the contents of a 1948 Austrian Military Police Service document which confirmed that numerous false claims about homicidal gas chambers were based on perjured testimony by former inmates and statements obtained from Germans by torture. (See: IHR Journal , Spring 1988, pp. 117-126.)
  • In spite of a bad cold, Bradley Smith proved to be one of the more effective witnesses. The jury members seemed to be visibly impressed with the straight-forward, common-sense responses and observations of this veteran free thinker and libertarian. He held up admirably under Pearson's barrage of badgering and often exasperatingly petty questions.
  • Ivan Lagace, a funeral director and crematorium manager from Calgary, explained in detail why widely-accepted claims about cremation at Auschwitz and Birkenau are not technically possible. Allegations that SS camp officials were able to cremate Jewish corpses in just 15 or 20 minutes cannot possibly be true, he said, pointing out that even modern crematory facilities require about an hour and a half to cremate a body. Claims by Holocaust historian Hilberg and others that 4,400 bodies were cremated daily in Birkenau's facilities are "preposterous" and "beyond the realm of reality," Legace declared.

Lenski devotes most of a chapter to my testimony, which was given during five often grueling days on the stand. Christie took me line by line through the Harwood booklet, asking me to comment on the accuracy of just about every sentence. As a result, my testimony touched on virtually every aspect of the Holocaust issue, including the role of the Einsatzgruppen security police units in the occupied Soviet territories, the origins and precise nature of Germany's wartime Jewish policy, and the Nuremberg Tribunal testimony of wartime SS legal prosecutor Konrad Morgen. (For more on my testimony and role in the trial, see the IHR Journal,Winter 1989-90, pp. 389-425.)

While readily acknowledging the errors and misleading statements of Harwood's booklet, I affirmed its central thesis: there was no German policy or program to exterminate Europe's Jews, and nothing like six million Jews perished during the Second World War. Like Faurisson and Irving who would testify later, I stressed that the booklet's errors are almost entirely minor, and that in any case are not critically important to its main thesis.

During his wide-ranging and detailed testimony, French professor Robert Faurisson also touched on virtually every major aspect of the Holocaust story. He focused particularly on his investigation of execution gas chambers in the United States, and the alleged extermination gas chambers at the former German camps. Europe's leading Holocaust Revisionist also further discredited the testimony of star prosecution witness Browning.

Faurisson spoke at some length about the costly and exhausting trials and other outrageous legal difficulties he has had to endure in France as a result of his statements and writings on this issue. His ordeal -- which is almost unbelievable in a late twentieth century European democracy -- has included almost fatal physical attacks by bigoted thugs. (See also Faurisson's essays: "The Zündel Trials," IHR Journal, Winter 1988-89, pp. 417-431, and, "My Life as a Revisionist," IHR Journal, Spring 1989, pp.5-63.)

Without a doubt, the trial's most important witness was Massachusetts execution hardware expert Fred Leuchter, who testified at length about his on-site investigation of the alleged extermination gas chambers at Auschwitz, Birkenau and Majdanek. For some years, Faurisson had been saying that a neutral American gas chamber expert should carry out an impartial investigation of the alleged extermination gas chambers of Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau - the five sites that are the core of the Holocaust extermination story. Persuaded by Faurisson, Zündel commissioned Leuchter to carry out this history-making investigation.

Leuchter's qualifications as America's foremost execution hardware expert were well established in the Toronto courtroom. For one thing, William Armontrout, warden of the Missouri State Penitentiary, testified under oath that he had consulted with Leuchter on the design of his state's execution gas chamber, and declared that Leuchter is the only such specialist in the United States.

As is now well known, of course, Leuchter concluded that the inspected sites were never used as extermination gas chambers, and never could have been used for that purpose. Since the 1988 trial, his detailed report on his investigation has been widely circulated around the world in numerous languages, and has itself become history-making. As a result, Leuchter has become the target of a vicious campaign by the same Mafia that has tried to silence Zündel.

The final defense witness was David Irving, arguably the most widely read and recognized historian in the world today. Speaking in clear and imposing language, the tall, handsome British scholar made a striking impression. Lenski's record of his wide-ranging and often fascinating testimony alone makes this book well worth reading.

Irving's appearance as a witness for Zündel was all the more remarkable because prosecution attorney Pearson had praised him earlier as a dissident historian who nevertheless did not "deny the Holocaust." For some years, though, Irving had privately been disturbed by the absence of any documentary evidence for a German extermination program or policy. Studying the just-completed Leuchter Report in Toronto settled the matter. In the courtroom, as Lenski reports, Irving dramatically repudiated his earlier position and endorsed the Revisionist view of the Holocaust story. After referring to Leuchter's Report as "shattering" and "a stroke of genius on the part of the defense," the judge forbade Irving from making any further reference to it.

Irving endorsed the central thesis of the Harwood booklet, while also conceding its obvious flaws. "I don't think there was any overall Reich policy to kill the Jews," he said. He pointed out the injustices of the Nuremberg Tribunal, and spoke of the persecution that invariably befalls anyone who seriously challenges the Holocaust extermination story.

Just as Zündel had intended, this legal contest became to a considerable extent a "trial on the Nuremberg trial." As the trial progressed, the narrower legal questions of his alleged guilt and the character of the Harwood booklet became less and less relevant. Indeed, Judge Thomas complained that "this trial became a showpiece for the Institute for Historical Review."

In his concluding chapter, "Summation, Verdict, Aftermath," the author ably summarizes the final pleas to the jury by attorneys Christie and Pearson. Lenski also attempts to explain the seemingly inexplicable guilty verdict, and describes some of the consequences and implications of this trial for Canada and the Western world.

In spite of claims by both prosecutor Pearson and judge Thomas that the Harwood booklet "will likely cause racial and social intolerance unless something is done about it," not one bit of evidence was presented to show that anyone had ever been harmed or injured as a result of Zündel's publication of Did Six Million Really Die?. On this point alone, an open-minded outsider might easily assume that the jury would decide to acquit the defendant. And yet, in spite of all the testimony and evidence, the jury members agreed on a guilty verdict. Judge Thomas then sentenced Zündel to nine months imprisonment.

Why did the jury members decide to convict? Lenski provides some probable but unavoidably speculative answers. For one thing, by pointing to Zündel's publication of booklets that uncritically praise Hitler and the Third Reich, the prosecution succeeded in portraying the defendant as an unrepentant Nazi -- just about the most damning accusation that can be made against anyone these days.

The prosecution was also able to discredit -- to a greater or lesser degree -- just about every one of Zündel's witnesses. The impact of Russell Barton's helpful and enlightening eyewitness testimony about Bergen-Belsen, for example, was lost on the jury when he readily agreed with Pearson that German officials had exterminated six million Jews. It did not seem to matter that, as he admitted, this belief was derived from what he had casually read and heard from others, and was not based on any personal experience or systematic study. Robert Faurisson's trials and legal difficulties in France were cited by the prosecution attorney to cast doubt on his motives and ethics, and to portray him as a threat to social peace and public order. Similarly, Irving was portrayed as a right-winger, Felderer as mentally unsound, Christophersen as a Nazi, and so forth.

Time and time again, this trial proved that Holocaust revisionists are held to a more exacting standard than other dissidents. Canadian authorities do not bother themselves about publications that challenge any other generally accepted view of contemporary history.

As unfair as it was, the Zündel trial points up the importance of rigorous accuracy on the part of Holocaust Revisionists. Revisionists have set themselves the great task of trying to persuade people that what they have been told by leading historians, standard reference works and governmental authorities is not true. For this reason, Revisionists have the burden of proof. It is not enough to convince those who are already inclined to doubt the Holocaust extermination story. To have any significant or lasting impact, it is essential to reach and persuade those who are understandably quite skeptical of Holocaust Revisionism -- particularly intelligent and open minded men and women of good will who influence others.

This book is not without defects. Like Sergeant Friday in the old "Dragnet" series, Lenski has given us a mostly "just the facts, Ma'am" account. The main weakness of this essentially journalistic work is probably its paucity of analysis, which would have helped the reader to make better sense of the abundant historical information.

Also, because Lenski was not in Toronto during the trial itself, his book does not adequately communicate the trial's dramatic tension. The electric atmosphere in the large and often packed Toronto courtroom easily rivaled the drama of a LA Law television showdown. Nor does the author quite capture the sense of dynamic purpose, idealism and drama that suffused Zündelhaus, the defendant's barracks-like campaign command center. Finally, Lenski's less than relevant and sometimes subjective comments about racial/social issues detract from the book's effectiveness.

But these are relatively minor defects. On balance, I heartily recommend this readable, well-organized, engaging and even fascinating account.

For those interested in what is probably the most socially and political significant historians' debate of our time, this is both an excellent introduction to the dispute and a valuable reference survey of the entire Holocaust issue. And whatever one may think of Ernst Zündel or revisionism, the author deserves our thanks for producing this memorable account of a history-making trial with the most profound social implications.