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Deborah Lipstadt: A matter of fact

Deborah Lipstadt. Photo/Getty Images

When American academic Deborah Lipstadt called self-styled historian David Irving a bigot who had falsified and distorted documents, he sued. Bad mistake.

It was a bright cold day in April, 2000, and in Courtroom 37 of the gothic Royal Courts of Justice in London, British writer David Irving was turning an embarrassed shade of red. Before him, a robed and wigged judge was reading a 300-page ruling in a rapid monotone, minute by minute eviscerating Irving’s lifetime of work and stripping him of the carefully curated veneer of academic credibility that cloaked his opinions.

Irving, Mr Justice Gray ruled, “qualifies as a Holocaust denier”. His books, some 30 of them, published by prestigious houses over a 40-year career, sought to “exonerate the Nazis for the appalling atrocities which they inflicted on the Jews”. In 19 separate instances, Irving had “misrepresented and distorted” historical evidence. Nor was that all. Irving was “content to mix with neo-fascists and appears to share many of their racist and anti-Semitic prejudices … his extra-curricular activities reveal him to be a right-wing pro-Nazi polemicist”.

As his respectable persona was obliterated and his reputation crushed, Irving turned steadily redder. Across the courtroom, Deborah Lipstadt sat quietly, soaking up the monumental victory. After a 32-day trial, the American intellectual, who had been the target of Irving’s libel suit, was utterly vindicated. In her 1994 book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, Lipstadt had accused Irving of being an “ardent admirer” of Hitler who “seems to conceive of himself as carrying on Hitler’s legacy”. She further said he and his “Holocaust revisionist” comrades bent historical evidence until it “conforms with [their] ideological leanings and political agenda”. When served with the suit in 1996, she chose not to settle, not to admit she defamed Irving. She chose to stand and fight.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer


In Britain, the burden of proof in a libel case is on the defendant, not the plaintiff, and so what was at stake was the historical truth of what had happened at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp between 1942 and 1945, when at least 1.1 million European Jews were either gassed, starved or worked to death. Indeed, at stake was the very concept of truth itself. If Irving had won, pure lies would have been given the protection of law. The Daily Telegraph grasped the gravity of the ruling when it remarked in an editorial a few days later, “The Irving case has done for a new century what the Nuremberg Tribunals or the Eichmann trial did for earlier generations.”

Lipstadt, then as now professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, was born in New York in 1947 to Jewish parents, her father having fled Europe. When the dust settled after the case, Lipstadt penned History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, which has now made its way to the screen. Denial, now in New Zealand cinemas, is written by Bafta-winner David Hare, who has dealt with the Holocaust before in his adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, and stars Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt and Timothy Spall as Irving. Most of the trial dialogue is taken direct from court transcripts.

Child survivors at Auschwitz. Photo/Getty Images

On the road

Since the release of Denial overseas, Lipstadt has found herself devoting a great deal of time to travelling, giving speeches and engaging in public debates on the lessons to be learnt from the Irving trial. The Listener spoke to her during a brief break at her home in Atlanta before she flew to the UK.

“I don’t want to portray myself as Joan of Arc riding to protect truth,” she says in a broad Queens drawl, “but I do feel a certain burden as someone who fought a battle like this to point these things out. Because I know the slippery slope: I know the slippery slope of lies being lifted up into opinions encroaching on facts … I have the responsibility to be a pain in the ass, y’know?”

A story about the importance of defending truth against the looming, corrupting forces of misinformation, propaganda and lies, Denial could not have arrived at a more appropriate time: the White House is occupied by a man who has, at best, a tenuous relationship with the truth. According to Politifact, only one in every 25 of Donald Trump’s utterances on the campaign trail was true. His campaign earned open declarations of support from members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist groups – precisely the kind of rabble Irving associated with. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January, the White House released a statement that failed to mention the deaths of six million Jews in the Shoah.

“Unexpectedly, this film speaks to the contemporary political situation, not just in the United States [but] for Brexit, and anti-vaccines, and all those kinds of things, all of which are based on lies,” Lipstadt says. “The issue of lies and truth and alternative facts, which can also be called lies, and post-truth and all that has become something quite relevant and quite disturbing.”

David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt. Photo/Getty Images

A direct line can be traced from the tactics of Holocaust deniers to those who today attempt to muddy the waters, she says. Just as Irving armoured himself with a Savile Row suit and clipped upper-crust accent, modern fantasists and fabulists dress up in “normative clothing” in a bid to be accepted by the public.

“There are no white robes, no burning crosses, and it’s presented and made to sound quite reasonable and rational,” she says. “That’s what I saw with Holocaust deniers, that they had a definite objective. Their objective was to take these lies and dress them up in reasonable clothing so that they could encroach upon the facts.”

Lipstadt sees her defence approach in the Irving trial as a “template or model” for confronting lies told by public figures. “The legal strategy we were following was not to do with what happened, but to prove that what Irving and by extension all deniers were saying happened did not happen,” she says. “In other words, we followed his footnotes … we followed the footnotes back to the sources.”

Lipstadt alludes indignantly to Trump’s unfounded allegation that he was bugged by the Obama administration. “You made that claim,” she says. “Prove it. Show me the evidence. Show me the evidence.

“That’s one of the things I gleaned from my trial that is really applicable to a wider audience, to wider parameters … the need to not be on the defensive, but to demand the people making the claims are using evidence.”

Anne Frank. Photo/Alamy

Hard to keep silent

In order for the strategy to work in the courtroom, however, Lipstadt had to remain silent for the five years of legal proceedings: she could not take the witness stand, she could not speak to the press.

“It was very difficult,” she says. “Very difficult. Because I felt so strongly about this, I felt emotionally caught up in it. My career, my reputation, the decision I made to fight it were all front and centre and in the spotlight.”

She felt so strongly about the need to speak that she clashed with her counsel Richard Rampton QC (played in Denial by Tom Wilkinson) while standing outside the gates of Auschwitz on a research trip. Her enforced silence also meant that Holocaust survivors, some of whom wanted to give their first-hand evidence, had to keep quiet, too. Their pleas for a voice, to not be silenced again, make for some of the film’s most gut-wrenchingly powerful scenes. When the court was played Irving’s repertoire of tasteless jokes and callous insults, they could only watch on from the gallery: “More women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz,” was Irving’s favourite. Anne Frank’s diary was a hoax. The death camp, he chortled, was “Disneyland”.

“When he was his most despicable self, that’s when it became intolerable,” Lipstadt recalls. But as the trial progressed, and as more of Irving’s mental gymnastics were exposed in the courtroom, she came around. “I recognised that this wasn’t about me. It was about much bigger issues. It took me a while to figure that out.”

Since the case closed in 2000, and her account of it was published in 2006, Lipstadt has returned to teaching at Emory and writing on other topics, such as the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1962. And yet Irving still hovers in her background, an unsightly spectral presence.

“I’m tied to him,” she says with a hint of sadness. “I resent it sometimes because my other work does get …” – a pause – “not diminished, but less attention. But sometimes it gets more attention because I did this. My feeling is that I can use the platform that has been handed to me by virtue of him having sued me, I can us it for good things, to alert people to anti-Semitism, to alert them to alternative facts, to the lies, to the manipulation of truth. If I’m tied to him for that, so be it.”

Irving himself is a disgraced man, bankrupted in 2002 by the damages awarded to Lipstadt and her legal team, sentenced to jail in Austria for his denial, and barred from entering a handful of other countries, including New Zealand. Immediately after the damning verdict was handed against him, commentators spoke dismissively of Irving disappearing into the underworld of cyberspace, never to be heard from again. Over the past 17 years, however, cyberspace has come to him. There are hundreds of hours of his speeches on YouTube, all of them notable only for the vicious anti-Semitism that stains the comments section beneath.

Rachel Weisz, left, plays Lipstadt in the film Denial. Photo/Getty Images

Hundreds of emails

Living in luxury, at the expense of an anonymous benefactor, in a 40-room mansion in the Scottish Highlands, Irving still maintains an expansive website proclaiming the “truth” about the Holocaust and the Third Reich, and claims he receives hundreds of emails from fans every day.

The internet has become the principal arena for the airing of “alternative facts”. Social-media feeds have become susceptible to flows of fake news and outright propaganda. The anonymity of the digital world makes it hard to challenge the untruths that thrive there. And yet Lipstadt doesn’t dismiss this new way of living as a lawless wilderness.

“I see the internet as a gift,” she says. “Sometimes I try to put myself back in the age of Gutenberg, and I imagine people sitting around in a pub drinking ale or whatever, and saying, ‘Books? Knowledge in the hands of the common folk? Who knows what they’ll do with it?’

“With every advance comes a responsibility. I think we have to be much more vigilant in what we put up [on social media] and what we say online. We have to hold the bar very high and demand proof and demand evidence.”

A campaign against dishonesty and falsehood has no shortage of raw material, Lipstadt says: Turkey continues to deny the Armenian genocide of 1915; the Hutus in Rwanda still claim the genocide in that country was a “civil war”; lifelong British Labour Party member and former London Mayor Ken Livingstone was this month suspended for a further year from the party for defending anti-Semitic remarks by an MP and insisting that Hitler tried to help Jews in the 1930s; far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen flew in the face of historical fact when she claimed French police weren’t complicit in the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup of Parisian Jews in 1942; a recent study conducted by the pro-Israel lobby group the Anti-Defamation League found that only a third of the people who know of the Holocaust believe it took place.

“Prejudice doesn’t go away,” Lipstadt says with fire in her voice. “Racism doesn’t go away. Anti-Semitism hasn’t gone away. Lies haven’t gone away. Conspiracy theories have gotten a new lease of life in recent years.

“We’re in a very difficult time, a time that calls for good people to be vigilant about what we challenge. We have to be willing to challenge the unwelcome guest at the dinner party. We have to be willing to be the person who says the king has no clothes.”

Denial is in cinemas now. Read the review here.

This article was first published in the April 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.