History on Trial: My Day In Court With David Irving
Reviewed by Dan Markel
By Deborah E. Lipstadt
Until only a few years ago, a veneer of respectability attached in some scholarly circles to the historical writings of David Irving. Famous historians such as Sir John Keegan and Professor Gordon Craig viewed Irving's works as indispensable to understanding the full nature of World War II.
Nonetheless, Irving's statement that "more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz," among others, frustrated, if not outraged, all but the community of Holocaust-deniers in which Irving had ensconced himself.
In 1993, Emory University Professor Deborah Lipstadt wrote Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, a book in which, among other things, she accused Irving of writing nothing more than gussied-up anti-Semitic pap that sought to deny the truth of Hitler's involvement in the plan to murder European Jewry.
Shortly thereafter, Irving sued Lipstadt and Penguin, her publisher in England, under England's libel laws.
This choice of venue was both significant and unsurprising because, unlike the United States, England places the burden of proof upon defendants.
Moreover, England, unlike the United States, did not require a public figure like Irving to prove that Lipstadt made her allegedly defamatory statements with "actual malice." Thus, while a suit against Lipstadt would likely not have even surfaced in America, it required incredible labor on the defendant's part in England.
As Lipstadt's lawyer, Anthony Julius, described the task, the defense had to show that Irving "subordinated the truth to spread anti-Semitism and engender sympathy for the Third Reich."
Although Lipstadt's account of the trial focuses on the many falsehoods underlying Irving's works, she begins with a gripping narrative of her own journey into academia and the origins of this lawsuit.
THE DAUGHTER of modern Orthodox parents, Lipstadt grew up in New York's Upper West Side. Prior to graduate school, she travelled to Israel in 1966 to study at Hebrew University.
Despondent that, at that time (on account of Jordan's closure of the border to Jewish tourists) she was unable to visit Jerusalem's Old City, Lipstadt trekked to Greece to obtain a new passport from the American Embassy there.
She eliminated all traces of the Israeli origins of her trip, and sojourned from there to Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan to the Old City.
Upon her return to Israel through the Mandelbaum Gate, the Israeli border guards remarked that Lipstadt had guts, but maybe no sechel (intelligence).
Five years later, after starting her graduate work at Brandeis, Lipstadt again entered the lion's den, travelling to the Soviet Union in 1972 to meet Jewish refuseniks and help prepare the groundwork for their possible emigration to Israel.
This time, upon the KGB's confrontation with accusations of "spreading lies about the Soviet regime," Lipstadt wisely accepted their "invitation" to leave the country.
These two tales of youthful pluck and pragmatism serve as windows into Lipstadt's ultimate decision to fight the Irving libel accusations rather than save five years of time, emotional toil and expense by simply issuing a retraction and apology.
With the commendable support of her university, her publisher, and philanthropists from around the world, Lipstadt assembled a first-rate team of historians and advocates to show the forensic basis for Irving's deliberate distortions of the historical record. (To that end, interested persons may find an array of relevant materials on the Holocaust Denial on Trial website: www.hdot.org.)
History on Trial not only captures the excitement and occasional despair of the team's ordeal in preparing for and enduring the 10-week trial. It also trenchantly exposes the implications of the team's victory for historians and their readers.
Lipstadt's book, then, functions as far more than a mere "case for the Holocaust." It serves as an introduction to the historian's craft and the kinds of disputes in which reasonable historians engage.
For example, at the outset Lipstadt makes plain that various aspects of the Holocaust are the subject of legitimate and competing historical interpretations, and that it was not her goal, either in her scholarship or at the trial, to shut down rivalling understandings, say, of whether Hitler wanted to take power to eliminate European Jewry or whether Nazi officers in the East "initiated the murders" of the Jews for functional reasons – murders which were subsequently ratified by Hitler's approval.
While one might think this admonition is overcautious, it turns out that this reminder was vitally important because certain well-known historians improperly chastised Lipstadt about the purported "chilling effect" inflicted by her hard-fought victory.
Their concern is arrant tripe. After all, it was Irving who brought suit against Lipstadt and her publisher; Lipstadt never sought to silence Irving.
She simply published her views, which undermined Irving's denials of the Holocaust's nature and scope, and showed that his rendition of history was no more than distortions in service to an extremist ideology.
Indeed, the more limited nature of Lipstadt's ambition is what enabled two vigorous free-speech advocates – Anthony Lewis (formerly of the New York Times), and Harvard Law School's Alan Dershowitz – to write an introduction and afterword, respectively, on Lipstadt's behalf.
In any event, Lipstadt's memoir of her experience as a defendant is one of the best general-interest books I've read in years. It is not only instructive, provocative and riveting – it is inspiring. History on Trial has earned a well-deserved place in every home that cares about truth, and about the courage to speak it.
The writer is a lawyer in Washington D.C. His writing can be found at www.danmarkel.com.