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Violence at the Threshold of Detectability

The new millennium began with a bizarre legal battle. The David Irving trial, which unfolded at the English High Court of Justice between January and April 2000, involved one of the most aggressive cross-examinations of architectural evidence—drawings, models, aerial and ground-level photographs—ever undertaken in a legal context. The case unfolded around a libel suit filed by David Irving against an American writer and her publisher, Penguin Books, for calling him “the most dangerous of all holocaust deniers and a falsifier of history.” Awkwardly, the process forced the veracity of claims on both sides to be put on trial, and crucially not by means of historical narration, but by subjecting the accusations to legal rules of evidence. On the tenth and eleventh days of the trial, January 26 and 27, the legal debate revolved around the architecture of one of the gas chambers—an underground structure that was part of Crematorium II in Auschwitz-Birkenau. One detail emerged as central to this debate. Irving, representing himself, focused his cross-examination of the expert witness facing him—architectural historian and Auschwitz expert Robert Jan van Pelt—on four small holes in the ceiling of the concrete roof of the structure. According to the few surviving witnesses—both victims and perpetrators—it was through these holes that the cyanide poison coming out of canisters labeled “Zyklon-B” would enter a room packed with thousands of people.

Van Pelt’s expert report, submitted to the court before the session began, conceded that “these four small holes … cannot be observed in the ruined remains of the concrete slab,” but explained that verification was impossible due to the state of the roof. The roof slab broke, twisted, and folded in on itself in the explosion that was meant to eliminate its use as evidence, and has only disintegrated in the fifty-six years since. Traces of the holes were discovered a few years later, but in 2000, the court heard the following exchange:

Irving: And you do accept, do you not, that if you were to go to Auschwitz the day after tomorrow with a trowel and clean away the gravel and find a reinforced concrete hole where we anticipate it would be from your drawings, this would make an open and shut case and I would happily abandon my action immediately?
Van Pelt: I cannot comment on this. I am an expert on Auschwitz and not on the way you want to run your case.
Irving: There is my offer. I would say that that would drive such a hole through my case that I would have no possible chance of defending it any further.

Irving’s line of argument proposed that without these holes, the cyanide poison could not have been introduced into the room, and the room thus could not have functioned as a gas chamber. If the structure was not a gas chamber, then indeed Auschwitz could not have been a death camp. Without Auschwitz as the functional and symbolic center of the extermination process, the Holocaust, as a premeditated policy of industrialized racially motivated killing, could never have happened. “No holes no holocaust,” as another negationist already proposed; and if it didn’t happen, Irving could not be accused to be the falsifier of history—quod erat demonstrandum!

Read the full article here.