Yeah, but he was such a good witness

Holocaust scholar quoted ‘madman,’ publishing trial told

One of the world’s leading authorities on the Holocaust has quoted selectively and extensively a German SS officer who was obviously a madman, the defence at the Ernst Zündel trial has alleged.

Among the claims sworn to by the Nazi, who ultimately hanged himself while awaiting trial for war crimes, was a statement that 25 million Jews were killed in two small extermination camps and that 700 to 800 people could be crammed into a 25-square metre gas chamber.

“Don’t you think it reflects on an author that some statements are absolutely ridiculous?” defence counsel Douglas Christie asked Raul Hilberg, a professor at the University of Vermont who has spent more than 35 years studying the Holocaust.

Mr. Zündel is charged with two counts of publishing false news which caused or was likely to cause racial or social intolerance. His articles question the Holocaust and postulate an international conspiracy of Communists, Zionists, bankers and secret societies. The Crown must prove Mr. Zündel knew the information was false.

Professor Hilberg agreed that Obersturmbanführer Kurt Gerstein, the SS officer, was most unreliable on some topics covered in sworn affidavits. But Prof. Hilberg defended his decision to quote the officer on other subjects in a book he wrote on the Holocaust.

Obersturmbanführer Gerstein was one of the few people who could provide information about gas chambers at the Treblinka and Belzec camps in Poland, Prof. Hilberg explained.

The officer said he was responsible for dispensing poison to several camps in Poland to be used to kill internees.

“Beyond that, I realized, of course, what kind of person he was and I did not rely on any statements I regarded as imaginative or incredible,” the witness said. “I think he was given to great excitability. What can you say?”

“You could say he was crazy,” Mr. Christie said crisply. The lawyer accused Prof. Hilberg of quoting only those statements from the “madman” which bolstered conventional ideas on the Holocaust.

“I’m not making diagnoses here,” Prof. Hilberg replied. “I would not characterize him as totally rational, but I’m not here making those kinds of judgments.”

Prof. Hilberg has been accepted as an expert witness. He has testified that about five million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis.

Yesterday, he said some of the SS officer’s claims were outrageous, while others, such as the number of people who could fit into a chamber warranted skepticism.

He said it was intellectually sound to use the portions which withstood scrutiny or seemed plausible, while making no mention of the outlandish statements. “For my purposes, it sufficed that there were gas chambers,” he said.

Mr. Christie maintained that if Prof. Hilberg can quote selectively with impunity, then his client is not guilty of any sin either.

For most of the morning session, Mr. Christie engaged in a grim battle over what really took place during the last days of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and whether documents exist to show Adolf Hitler actually ordered the extermination of the Jews.

Prof. Hilberg said nobody has to believe or try to verify there was such an order just because he concludes in his book there was.

Mr. Christie then asked if that statement could not also apply to the articles Mr. Zündel is charged with publishing.

“No, it is not the same,” Prof. Hilberg said.

The argument was typical of the strenuous going-over Prof. Hilberg’s writings and previous testimony are getting at the hands of Mr. Christie. The lawyer demands precise sources for everything and then frequently criticizes those.

One protracted argument concerned the use of the word “resettle” in Nazi reports and whether it was a euphemism for annihilate, as Prof. Hilberg fiercely maintained.

“The word used was relocate,” Mr. Christie said at one point. “To me that doesn’t mean annihilate.”

“That’s the difference between you and me,” the witness replied hotly. “I’ve read thousands of documents. I know what it means in the context.”

“You alone understand, right?” Mr. Christie asked sarcastically.

Later, Mr. Christie questioned whether crematoria Prof. Hilberg saw on a recent trip to Poland were really as the Germans left them.

“They were as you’ve been told the Germans left them, right?” he asked.

“I was not present when these buildings were blown up,” Prof. Hilberg said in exasperation.


Kirk Makin

The Globe and Mail

January 17, 1985