Creative Loafing Atlanta's alternative newspaper has a cover story on History on Trial, entitled No Denial
Emory professor keeps fighting Holocaust denier
BY STEVE FENNESSY
April 11 will mark the fifth anniversary of Deborah Lipstadt's resounding victory in a British courtroom against Holocaust denier David Irving. In the five years since Judge Charles Gray called Irving "anti-Semitic and racist," the British-born historian has been forced into bankruptcy, he's lost his home in London, and he's been relegated to driving from city to city in America, speaking in diners and legion halls to a tiny but impassioned group of supporters.
Last month, Irving gave a lecture at the Landmark Diner in Buckhead. C-Span cameras were on hand. The network wanted to air his talk back-to-back with one given at Harvard by Lipstadt, who's been on the lecture circuit recently promoting her book, History on Trial, which recounts her courtroom battle with Irving.
Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory, is 58. She was born in Manhattan and, as she writes in her book, quickly gained a reputation as being "feisty and combative." At her Jewish day school, her mother often had to be called in to defend her daughter to the principal. Over five decades, Lipstadt's independent spirit has not weakened, as C-Span soon learned when she withdrew her permission for her Harvard lecture to be taped.
Her decision was no surprise. For years, Lipstadt has consistently refused to debate Holocaust deniers.
"Where's the debate?" she says. "A debate is on two perspectives on an issue. A debate is not between complete truth and complete falsehood."
Lipstadt viewed C-Span's quest for "balance" as little more than a canard, a convenient label that justified giving Irving a forum for his discredited views.
"They would never ask Henry Louis Gates to go on with someone who said slavery never happened," Lipstadt says from her office on the Emory campus, where a photo of a sign that says "No sniveling" sits on her desk as a warning to whining students.
By last week, Lipstadt's decision had been endorsed by almost 600 historians, who signed a petition urging C-Span to cancel its broadcast of the Irving lecture.
"Falsifiers of history cannot 'balance' historians. Falsehoods cannot 'balance' the truth," the petition reads. "C-Span should not broadcast statements that it knows to be false. ... If C-Span broadcasts a lecture by David Irving, it will provide publicity and legitimacy to Holocaust-denial, which is nothing more than a mask for anti-Jewish bigotry."
"If you think about it for a nanosecond, if you think about the case and who the parties were, the idea of balance is absolutely nuts," says Ken Stern, a specialist on anti-Semitism for the American Jewish Committee. "The concept that you have to balance somebody who prevailed in a case against somebody who was exposed as a neo-Nazi polemicist is to me a bizarre take on it, and a really bad journalistic enterprise."
To Stern, C-Span's decision to "balance" the accepted history of the Holocaust with a talk by Irving is like airing an interview with the author of a book on child-rearing by inviting Michael Jackson or Jeffrey Dahmer to offer an alternative view.
"It's just nuts."
Stern first met Lipstadt in the early 1990s, when both were working on books about Holocaust deniers. Lipstadt was initially skeptical about the project, wondering "why study the historical equivalent of flat-Earth theorists?" But her research soon revealed that deniers weren't just skinheads frothing at the mouth. Many deniers had adopted, as she writes, "sophisticated camouflage tactics," such as the Institute for Historical Review, a scholarly sounding organization whose raison d'être is to argue that the Nazi extermination of Jews is a myth.One of the recurring characters in the resulting book, Denying the Holocaust, was David Irving. In the 1960s, Irving was considered a bit of a wunderkind, having written a book on the bombing of Dresden when he was just 25. In the 1970s, another book, Hitler's War, garnered positive reviews from many historians. Both the Hitler and Dresden works were seen as somewhat revisionist, in that they questioned conventional wisdom about their subjects and, in many cases, attacked the actions of the Allies while defending those of the Third Reich.
"He was somebody who was trying to keep a foot in two different worlds, and trying to balance them," Stern says. One world was among scholarly historians, the other the seamy culture of neo-Nazism and white supremacy.
Irving prided himself on relying on primary sources for his research, and disdained historians who he said merely regurgitated each other's work.
Over time, Irving's sympathies toward the Third Reich became more overt. In Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt detailed Irving's claims that, among other things, the gas chambers at Auschwitz were a myth and that Hitler knew nothing about the Final Solution. Her conclusions about Irving were blunt.
"Irving is one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial," Lipstadt wrote. "Familiar with historical evidence, he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda. ... He demands 'absolute documentary proof' when it comes to proving the Germans guilty, but he relies on highly circumstantial evidence to condemn the Allies. This is an accurate description not only of Irving's tactics, but of those of deniers in general."
In 1995, Irving sued Lipstadt for libel, claiming her book had smeared his name and damaged his ability to make a living as a historian.
In the U.S., Irving would have had to prove not only that Lipstadt had been wrong, but also that she had acted maliciously in publishing the errors. "The case would have been dismissed in the U.S. at the outset," says Joseph Beck, an Atlanta attorney who assisted Lipstadt during the discovery phase of the case. "And the plaintiff would have been required to pay fees for filing it."
But in Britain, the rules are reversed. As defendant, the burden of proof was on Lipstadt to prove that what she wrote was true. Her defense team would have to pore over thousands of pages of books and notes that she used in writing the book that Irving said libeled him. Her case would require expert testimony. It would take months - even years - to defend, and it would be hellishly expensive.
Lipstadt was encouraged when one of Britain's most famous attorneys, Anthony Julius, who represented Princess Diana in her divorce, agreed to take on the case for free. But as the months dragged on, the pro-bono offer turned out to be premature. Julius told Lipstadt he'd need "substantial" amounts to pay for experts and researchers. His estimated budget? $1.6 million.
As word spread of the upcoming trial, Lipstadt's defense team began taking on some generous underwriters, including Steven Spielberg. Individual donations were as high as $100,000. As one donor told Lipstadt, "Our job is to ensure that you have the means to fight. Your job is to fight."
For Lipstadt, whose policy of not debating Holocaust "revisionists" was partly to deny them the legitimacy they seek, the prospect of a trial posed a conundrum. If she fought, she knew she'd be elevating Irving and his ilk to an international stage. But if she didn't fight, thanks to Britain's libel law, Irving would win. "It made his name much more of a household name," Lipstadt acknowledges now. "But I had no choice. What was my option? He says he offered to settle for £500. He neglects to say he offered to settle for £500, an apology, and have my book taken out of circulation."
At the same time, Lipstadt says, she worried about the trial turning into a debate over whether the Holocaust happened. It was one of the reasons why her defense team decided early on not to call Holocaust survivors to the stand. Instead, the case would be tried entirely by academics arguing over the documented evidence, and much of the case would center on the Auschwitz death camp.
Says Lipstadt, "If you think about it practically, we'd have to find survivors of Auschwitz who knew about the gas chambers, who saw the gas chambers in operation. They're few and far between. Then, from the moral perspective, these people are 80 years old. [Irving's] only objective would be to make fun of them."
Indeed, as Lipstadt and her defense team showed at the trial, Irving often jokes about Jewish suffering in World War II. In a videotape made in a speech in Tampa in 1992, Irving spoke about a "professional survivor" in Australia named Mrs. Altman, whose arm is tattooed from Auschwitz. In the speech, he recalled that he told her, "Mrs. Altman, how much money have you made out of that tattoo since 1945?"
In 1991, when he said that more women had died in the backseat of Sen. Edward Kennedy's car than in the Auschwitz gas chambers, Irving also said, "Oh, you think that's tasteless. How about this? There are so many Auschwitz survivors going around, in fact, the number increases as the years go past, which is biologically very odd to say the least, because I am going to form an Association of Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust and Other Liars - ASSHOLs."
Lipstadt's defense team commissioned several World War II and Germany scholars to dissect Irving's writings. One of the scholars was Richard Evans, a Cambridge historian. Evans and two researchers began researching the "scholarship" that Irving had produced. What they found flabbergasted Evans.
"The discovery of the extent of Irving's disregard for the proper methods of historical scholarship was not only surprising but also deeply shocking," Evans wrote. "As this Report will show, it goes well beyond what Lipstadt alleges. I was not prepared for the sheer depths of duplicity which I encountered in Irving's treatment of the historical sources, nor for the way in which this dishonesty permeated his entire written and spoken output."
At the same time, Evans wrote, Irving was no dummy. He knew his subject. "His numerous mistakes and egregious errors are not, therefore, due to mere ignorance or sloppiness; on the contrary, it is obvious that they are calculated and deliberate. That is precisely why they are so shocking. Irving has relied in the past, and continues to rely in the present, on the fact that his readers and listeners, reviewers and interviewers lack either the time, or the expertise, to probe deeply enough into the sources he uses for his work to uncover the distortions, suppressions and manipulations to which he has subjected them."
Throughout the three-month trial, Lipstadt's lawyers would not let her testify or even talk to the press. For Lipstadt, the forced silence was excruciating.
"For anybody who knows Deborah," Stern says, "she's a person who speaks her mind, who has strong opinions and is not retiring or shy by any means."
Still, her role as spectator gave her time to watch Irving and wonder what made him what he is - at least at first.
"I did wonder, and then I stopped myself from wondering," she says. For instance, what if when he was growing up, Irving's mother had a bad experience with a Jew. What good is wondering about that, Lipstadt asks. And, more to the point, what does it justify? "I could say, 'Did his mother have a bad experience with a blue-eyed person, or a bad experience with an Episcopalian?' " To Lipstadt, figuring out the psychological dynamics of anti-Semitism in a person was a waste of time.
But in fact, making the case that Irving was an anti-Semite was a deliberate tactic on the part of Lipstadt's attorneys, to show that Irving's deliberate misrepresentation of the facts had a racist agenda. (In that regard, Irving was a help; at one point, he addressed the judge as "Mein Fuhrer.")
And in the end, Judge Gray agreed, ruling that Irving had "repeatedly crossed the line between legitimate criticism and prejudiced vilification of the Jewish race and people." Irving, Gray ruled, was an anti-Semite and a racist.
Gray further found that Irving had time and again failed to live up to the standards of historians and that Irving's "mistakes and misconceptions" were "consistent with a willingness on Irving's part knowingly to misrepresent or manipulate or put a 'spin' on the evidence so as to make it conform with his own preconceptions."
As Lipstadt says, "All historians make mistakes. But these kind of mistakes? Every single one ... they always go in the same direction. Every one you track, it's always exonerating the Germans, blaming the Jews, exonerating Hitler, inflating German suffering, decreasing Jewish suffering."
For Lipstadt, the victory wasn't about validation for her work, which she knew was sound. But, she says, the case "carried a responsibility. Look, if we had lost by some fluke, the history of the Holocaust would have been safe. It wasn't like, 'Oh my God, it didn't happen because David Irving won.' But there could have been a lot of damage - collateral damage. And pain to people. And I didn't want to be the person responsible for that."
Others believe the stakes were greater than even Lipstadt will acknowledge. One of them is her friend and colleague, David Blumenthal, a professor of Judaic studies at Emory.
"If he had won the case," Blumenthal says, "it would have been a major victory for the folks who are out there denying the Holocaust. He's one individual with his own craziness on the subject, but he's being used by a lot of people, including Arab propagandists and anti-Semites. They quote him as the source. They're still quoting him, but had he won the case, he would have been much more widely quoted."
Lipstadt is holding fast to her policy of not debating deniers. Yet she says they also can't be ignored. She brings up an analogy one of her attorneys told her during the trial. Deal with Irving, he told her, the same way you'd clean shit off your shoes.
"That's how we should think about people who are filled with prejudice, whether it's a David Duke or a National Alliance white supremacist, whoever it might be," Lipstadt says. "Our job is to find a way of fighting them without building them up."
Last weekend, C-Span aired an hour-long discussion on the trial. The network abandoned its quest to "balance" its coverage of the Holocaust. Instead, it included a Washington Post reporter who covered part of the trial in 2000. View the program at www.booktv.org and check out Lipstadt's blog - www.lipstadt.blogspot.com. Documents from the trial can be found at www.hdot.org.
Hear Dr. Lipstadt
Deborah Lipstadt will speak at a forum titled "Facing History: The Past as a Guide to the Future." Also speaking is Earl Lewis, Emory provost and professor of African-American studies. The forum begins at 7:30 p.m. on Wed., April 13, at the Atlanta History Center, 130 W. Paces Ferry Road. Cost is $7, or $5 for History Center members. Reservations are required. Call 404-814-4150. A book signing will follow the discussion.