Nonfiction review: 'History on Trial' by Deborah E. Lipstadt
Reviewed By Martin Schmutterer, Special To The Star Tribune
February 13, 2005 HISTORY0213
When Deborah Lipstadt opened her mail on a "perfect fall day" in 1995, she had no idea that the letter she had received from her publisher would spark a five-year legal battle challenging historical truth, the memory of the Holocaust and freedom of speech.
It was absurd: David Irving, a controversial military historian known mainly for his sympathetic portrayal of prominent Nazis, was accusing her of defamation. She had called him a Holocaust denier and impugned his reputation as a historian in her book "Denying the Holocaust," and upon publication in Britain, Irving would sue. That he was a denier didn't matter. Because of British libel laws, Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin UK, had to take his complaint seriously. In "History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving," Lipstadt finally testifies about being the defendant in one of the most important trials of the 20th century.
Many colleagues and friends told Lipstadt to ignore the lawsuit or settle with Irving. Neither was possible. In England, defamatory words are presumed to be untrue, which is a tremendous burden, and anything less than a vigorous defense would bring credibility to those who view the Holocaust as legend or lie. And as her description of Irving was intended to be defamatory -- damaging to his reputation -- she could not argue that her words were simply misunderstood or that she had meant no harm. Lipstadt was left with only one option: She had to prove the truth of her accusations. With the help of expert witnesses, including eminent historians Christopher Browning, Robert Jan van Pelt and Richard Evans (whose own book about the trial, "Lying about Hitler," is also excellent), Lipstadt's legal team proved a pattern of distortions of evidence throughout his body of work, a history of anti-Semitism and racism and a willingness to downplay and even deny the Holocaust.
To her dismay, Lipstadt's legal team kept her from testifying and making public comment. And her frustration with her lawyers in this regard is a recurring theme, even though she acknowledges that they were usually right. It killed her to see Irving, who served as his own counsel and had no qualms about talking to journalists, swagger roguishly in public and charm the news media. Irving's message was clear and effective: He portrayed himself as an outsider who questioned received wisdom and was being censored for his efforts. Many, including the eminent military historian Sir John Keegan, saw Lipstadt as the politically correct schoolmarm hushing the bright but naughty boy asking difficult questions. Never mind that Irving sued her and has threatened others with similar legal action.
Upon entering her barrister's chambers in London before the trial, Lipstadt told him, "I feel as if I am entering the Dickensian to discuss the Kafkaesque." Indeed, sometimes the proceedings took bizarre turns, such as Irving calling the judge "mein Fuehrer" or Monty Python-esque exchanges between Irving and witnesses. But Lipstadt is continually reminded of the importance of her trial by the kindness of strangers and well-wishes not only from the Jewish community but from everyone she encountered -- from hotel clerks to taxi drivers. She had the "privilege to do hesed shel emet, to stand up for those who did not survive or who could not stand up for themselves."
Most of the coverage of this trial has focused on Irving. It is often referred to as the "David Irving case" or the "Irving libel trial" as if he were the defendant. But Lipstadt doesn't dwell on Irving in "History on Trial"; that he is a liar, a manipulator of historical record and a denier is evident enough. Instead, she takes back the trial for herself, for those who suffered and for those who died. Anything less would be an injustice.
Martin Schmutterer also writes for Ruminator Review. He lives in St. Paul.
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