Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
March 6, 2005
NONFICTION HISTORY ON TRIAL
LIBEL BATTLE UNCOVERS MISSTEPS OF HISTORIAN
In the fall of 1995, Deborah Lipstadt, director of the Institute of Jewish Studies at Emory University in Atlanta and author of Denying the Holocaust , received a letter informing her that she had been threatened with libel for a few paragraphs she had written in that book about British historian David Irving.
She tossed the letter onto a pile on her desk, and a few weeks later, asked a research assistant to spend a little time tracing the sources of her arguments and refuting Irving's claims.
But the matter didn't end there.
By January 2000, Lipstadt was in London for the start of a 10-week libel trial. History on Trial reconstructs the events of that trial and of the months and years that led up to it.
Throughout the trial, her lawyers would not allow Lipstadt, who describes herself as "feisty and combative," to testify. Hard though it was for her to be "a spectator—observing but not participating—in a drama where my work and reputation were on the line," she mostly managed to keep her mouth shut and devoted her energy to taking copious notes on the trial, which she brings to vivid life in the book.
Lipstadt's defense—she was eventually acquitted—ended up costing more than $1 million. Her publisher contributed to her defense fund, and her university helped, but she was still left with an overwhelming financial burden.
One of the first individuals to offer help was Les Wexner, with whose Wexner Heritage Foundation Lipstadt was involved. He also motivated other people to contribute to the defense fund.
History on Trial is a compelling introduction to the British legal system, where the burden of proof is on the defendant. To clear her name, Lipstadt's legal team had to prove that "Irving had lied about the Holocaust and had done so out of anti-Semitic motives."
Although she confesses that before the trial most of her legal knowledge "was gleaned from television's Law & Order ," Lipstadt caught on fast, and she clearly defines the differences between British and American courts.
She paints thumbnail sketches of many of the individuals who entered into the courtroom drama, but the most memorable are the antagonists, Lipstadt's barrister, Richard Rampton, and Irving, who represented himself in court.
The contrast between the sharp but subdued Rampton, who occasionally appears to be napping, and the theatrical Irving, who elicits a hummed Twilight Zone theme from a member of the court audience when he addresses the judge as "mein Fuhrer," engages the reader.
But beneath the courtroom theatrics lies a deeper drama: the battle for the truth about a period of history receding into the past as those who experienced it dwindle in number.
Lipstadt's lawyers pointed out how in his books, Irving omitted a word here, mistranslated another there, decided that a subject would "bore" his readers and slipped changes into successive versions.
Himmler's diary, for example, records that Hitler asked that one trainload of Jews not be deported. Irving repeatedly translated the term as trainloads and used the passage as evidence that Hitler had forbidden all deportation of Jews.
In quoting a German general about Hitler's involvement in the execution of 5,000 Jews in Riga, Latvia, Irving cut the testimony in half: What Irving had done was include the first half of Hitler's orders that the mass shootings "must stop"—but he omitted the second half of the orders, which instructed that the executions be carried out more discreetly.
None of these transgressions is earth-shattering, but the cumulative effect is to erase the experience of millions of people.