A scholar recounts her titanic legal battle with Holocaust denier David Irving. She won in court, but the struggle continues.
In her new memoir History on Trial, Deborah Lipstadt, a renowned Emory University professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies, tells a captivating tale of the British libel trial that she was forced into when the English Holocaust denier and Third Reich "historian" David Irving foolishly sued her. Irving claimed Lipstadt had ruined his reputation by describing him as a Holocaust denier and Nazi admirer in her 1994 work, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. The trial, which began in January 2000, proved Irving was indeed as Lipstadt had written, and that he was a mean-spirited, racist buffoon and shoddy historian to boot.
History on Trial is peopled with somewhat eccentric characters whose dedication to defending the truth about the Holocaust is inspiring. And Irving — who, in one of the greatest Freudian slips of all time, actually referred to the judge as "Mein Fuhrer"— adds troubling color to the story. The book is a real page-turner, holding the reader until the end, even when the outcome of the trial is already known.
The book has some interesting tidbits about Irving. He comes across as a truly vile human being who likes to mock Holocaust survivors and hang out with neo-Nazis. The most telling anecdote describes how Irving approached former Nuremburg prosecutor Robert Kempner in 1969 to say that he intended to go to Washington to prove that the official record of the Nuremburg trial was falsified. Kempner noted at the time in a recently unearthed memo to J. Edgar Hoover that Irving made "anti-American and anti-Jewish statements." It seems Irving dedicated himself to Nazi views long, long ago.
Memory, Scholarship and the Law
There is a disturbing aspect to the memoir. Although the trial ended in a total legal victory for Lipstadt — and Irving will forever be tagged, as he was by Judge Charles Gray, as a slipshod researcher, a "racist" and an "anti-Semite" — the victory outside the courtroom was less than complete.
This is partly due to the nature of British libel law, which puts the burden of proof on the defendant, rather than on the plaintiff who is claiming to have been libeled (which is how the American system works). As a result, publishers are often reluctant to release controversial books in Britain. Indeed, as Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz points out in his afterword to Lipstadt's book, British libel law has led to a "chilling of free speech" and a stifling of academic inquiry. A case in point: The publication in Britain of John Lukac's The Hitler of History was delayed three years because of threats from Irving. When it was finally distributed — even though that wasn't until after the absolutely decisive verdict in Lipstadt's favor — Lukac's publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, had toned down the sections on Irving for the British market.
Another result of the British system is that defending even a flawless book can cost a fortune in legal fees. Indeed, the Lipstadt case might not even have seen the inside of a courtroom if it hadn't been for the willingness of Penguin Books, Lipstadt's publisher, and several donors to absorb the enormous costs of a drawn-out trial. Up to that time, Irving's skillful employment of libel threats had allowed him to maintain a reputation as a serious historian for far longer than he should have been able to. The trial was necessary for the truth about Irving to come out.
Another distressing aspect of this tale is the considerable academic cowardice that Lipstadt had to contend with when Irving sued. Lipstadt writes that a leading Holocaust historian suggested that she simply let Irving win. When she replied that that would effectively validate Irving's denial of the Holocaust, the reply was, "So what?" Others thought that going to court would transform Irving into a celebrity or free-speech martyr, as if that unlikely possibility mattered more than proving that his writings on the Holocaust are deeply flawed and animated by virulent anti-Semitism. And still others warned that Lipstadt was cheapening herself by becoming a media personality. It is unsettling that prominent historians would find defending the truth about the Holocaust so unimportant.
Truth and 'Fairness'
It is downright scandalous that a Hitler apologist like Irving could be taken seriously for so long by so many distinguished historians. For decades, Irving was publishing works on World War II to great applause, even though many falsified parts of the Nazi record. As the historical research presented at the trial made clear, Irving's obvious aim was to cleanse Hitler of his crimes. Irving was intent on dismissing the reality of the Holocaust, thereby relieving the Nazis of responsibility for their crimes, and he also used his research to legitimate Nazis lies about Jews.
The celebrated British military historian, Sir John Keegan, is Exhibit No. 1 of this problem. He praised Irving's book Hitler's War even though it falsely argued that Hitler did not know about the Final Solution — and Keegan was not alone in his praise. Even after Irving lost his libel case, Keegan criticized Lipstadt in an editorial, writing that the trial "will send a tremor" of fear through historical circles. Keegan also wrote that Irving's denial of the Holocaust was only "a small but disabling element of his work." Historians like Keegan have protected Irving's reputation over the years — even though Irving's work is sub par, something revealed by the in-depth examinations of his work and documentation undertaken by the defense team's assemblage of leading experts. Those studies, compiled by notable Holocaust historians such as Christopher Browning, will now stand permanently as a rebuttal to the disturbing farce that Holocaust denial "research" represents.
But the idea that Holocaust denial is merely the "other side of the story" persists in sometimes remarkable quarters. Just this March, the American cable channel C-SPAN was planning to televise a speech by Lipstadt about her memoir. In the interests of what a C-SPAN producer described to Lipstadt as "fairness and balance," C-SPAN decided to air a presentation by David Irving as well that would represent "the opposing view." C-SPAN apparently thought there was some kind of legitimate historical debate over the existence of the gas chambers and Hitler's knowledge of the Final Solution — a complete and utter misreading of contemporary historical scholarship. In fact, C-SPAN's bizarre position drew an angry letter of protest signed by more than 200 historians from around the world.
Lipstadt's memoir is a powerful reminder that truth needs to be vigilantly defended. If Irving and his ilk had their way, the largest state-ordered mass murder in history would actually disappear from the record.