Prejudice cannot be defeated entirely, but it can be fought and with courage and stamina, and with really good lawyers. Our bookish reporter in Boston Robert Birnbaum has a fascinating conversation with scholar Deborah Lipstadt about her six-year battle with Holocaust denier David Irving.
I do recommend reading the entire interview, during the course of which Birnbaum also photographed Prof. Lipstadt - and you can see the photos, too! In the meantime, here is Birnbaum's introduction to his transcription, as well as a few excerpts from their conversation:
4 May 2005 | PERSONALITIES
Birnbaum v. Deborah Lipstadt
Despite personal and familial connections (or perhaps because of such) I had, to date, not paid much attention to the pernicious movement that presumes to deny the Holocaust. This is in keeping with my conscious decision to spend as little intellectual and emotional energy as possible on lunatic fringe movements and other idiocies. Deborah Lipstadt’s six-year legal ordeal, which she compellingly narrates in History on Trial, changed that. The story begins as such: British author David Irving sued Lipstadt for libel in London after she called him a Holocaust denier and right-wing extremist in her 1994 book Denying the Holocaust.
Deborah Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies and Director of the Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University in Atlanta. She has taught at UCLA and Occidental College in Los Angeles. She received her bachelor’s degree from City College of New York and her master’s and doctorate from Brandeis University. In addition to History on Trial and Denying the Holocaust, she is the author of Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust. She has appeared on CNN, 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Good Morning America, Fresh Air, and The Charlie Rose Show, and is a frequent contributor to and is widely quoted in a variety of periodicals. She is currently working on a book on Jewish responses to the new anti-Semitism.
The conversation that follows ranges over a wider terrain than the riveting details of the libel trial. What seems obvious to me in the aftermath is that hateful ideologues such as David Irving, while not being defanged or declawed by intelligent and conscientious scrutiny, are less likely to be accepted as legitimate scholars. Unfortunately, even the truth seems not to derail their specious efforts. But it is not for the lack of effort by Deborah Lipstadt and others. For which we all should be grateful.
Robert Birnbaum: Is anti-Semitism a necessary condition for Holocaust denial?
Deborah Lipstadt: Yes, Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitism at its heart. That’s not to say there aren’t people who are inadvertently convinced by deniers. Imagine someone who may be sitting on an airplane next to a person who is a committed Holocaust denier and they are stuck on the runway for three hours or it’s a long flight cross country and the person [eventually] is convinced by the denier. But even those people, i.e., the putative “innocent” passengers, must, in order to believe that, “Oh, the Jews invented all this and made it up”—have to have a predilection towards anti-Semitism. That have to be somewhat anti-Semitic. I am a bit wary of saying someone is “somewhat” anti-Semitic. That’s like saying someone is a little bit pregnant. But for the deniers themselves, the people who are at the core, it’s unquestionably a form of anti-Semitism.
RB: And David Irving took exception to it. [laughs] Filed suit in Britain, which is still a matter of mystery to me—how divergent the libel laws for the U.S. and the U.K. are.
DL: So absurd. Well, let me make one thing very clear. In my book, Denying the Holocaust, Irving, occupies, at most, 300 words, and probably less than that. Someone checked, and I think he is mentioned on six pages—not full pages, references. I admit that I did say some harsh things about him. I said, “He is the most dangerous of Holocaust deniers.” I said that he knows the truth and he bends it to fit his preexisting political views. And by implication, though I didn’t directly call him one, that he was an anti-Semite and a racist as well. So he sued me in England, where libel laws are a mirror image of American libel law. In the United States, if I say you libeled me, I have to prove it. In the U.K., if I say you libeled me, you have to prove you didn’t libel me. Words written are considered untrue until proven true. So if I hadn’t defended myself I would have been found guilty. I should mention that Penguin U.K., my publisher, was my co-defendant. I think that if I had not fought, that they might not have pursued the case as forcefully as they did. But they did stand by my side, to their credit.
RB: It must be noted they didn’t climb on board for the appeal.
DL: No, they left me with a $100,000 legal bill.
RB: You didn’t know British libel law then.
DL: I didn’t know British libel law but I did know that he [Irving] had called the Holocaust a legend, in a courtroom, under oath, in Canada testifying as a witness for [Holocaust denier] Ernest Zundel, who was on trial. Then in the early ‘90s, upon being asked by reporters why the Holocaust had disappeared from a recent edition of his book when it had been in the book in an earlier edition which appeared in the ‘70s, he said, “If something didn’t happen, you don’t dignify it with a footnote.” He said to a survivor who appeared with him on Australian radio, “Mrs. Altman, how much money did you make from having that number tattooed on your arm?” So I thought that in light of all the things he had said, my statement that he is a denier was no big innovation. I was not saying anything radical. But he was waiting. He was just poised to pounce. I really believe he wanted to get me.
RB: Judge Gray’s verdict is unwavering and unqualified in every way on Irving.
DL: It’s unrelenting.
RB: Irving is all the things any one could have said—and more.
DL: Much more than I said about him in my book. That’s one of the ironies of this entire case. As a result of the research we had to do to defend me, we discovered just how egregious Irving’s record is.
RB: I looked at some web site for one of those nutso, straw man groups that support Irving and they have 13 questions for you to answer, which if anyone of them [were the type of person who] had read this book, would be totally irrelevant. An amalgam of crap, slurs, half-truths posed as questions—
DL: These questions are, as you say, slurs, half-truths, and completely ridiculous. Irving keeps saying that Deborah Lipstadt took the Fifth. First of all, [laughs] there is no constitution [in Britain]. No. 2, I didn’t take the Fifth. In the United Kingdom there is no obligation for the defendant to testify. No. 3, I wrote a book, and David Irving was suing me for what I wrote. There was nothing I could add by going on the stand that was relevant to the case and, in fact, when he recently spoke in Atlanta, he said, “If Lipstadt had taken the stand, I would have asked her about views on intermarriage.” Now, what does that have to do with my calling him a Holocaust denier?
RB: Did [Irving] pay his court costs?
DL: [emphatically] No! In fact, I dropped my attempt to make him pay and now he has turned around and sued me, arguing that I should have to pay his expenses because I dropped the pursuit of him. We were in court two days ago to argue this. Each time he does this it runs up my legal bill. In the U.K., loser pays costs so, after the trial, he owed my defense fund a million and three-quarters. I paid for an independent book and document assessor who specializes in the Holocaust to go to England to assess the value of his papers. He felt that at the most they were worth $200,000 or so. We hoped to get control of them, in lieu of the cash Irving owed us, and sell them to a library or archive. But by then Irving had already run the clock up so there were $80,000 or $90,000 worth of lawyer bills and we hadn’t even gone to court. It became clear that this was a losing proposition. The lawyers’ bills would wipe out anything we would get from him. Finally, last June , I said, “The trial itself was about a principle, about truth, this is about money. Leave it alone, I’m giving it up.” And I was really upset with myself even though I knew it was the right decision, from a legal and financial perspective. But he has documents that no historians have ever seen and which he should really make accessible. My actions would have made them accessible.
RB: So you were shocked that verdict was so damning?
DL: I was floored, it was so compelling. I never expected such an all-encompassing verdict. Did you see Richard Bernstein’s piece in the New York Times on the radical groups in Germany and how they are presenting themselves in a more “respectable” demeanor? I was in Germany last week, and at a press conference I said that this tactic, on the part of extremists of appearing respectable, started with Holocaust deniers. They were among the first to figure out that most people make their judgments about people based on external appearances. Therefore, if an extremist comes swaggering in to the room in high black boots with swastikas and looking like skinheads, people take one look at them and say, “Oh my God, I know what you are. And I want to have nothing to do with you.” But if the same extremists come into the room in a nice tweedy jacket, maybe with patches on the elbows and jeans or whatever, smoking a pipe, and they begin to speak rationally, people are more likely to listen. In this regard, deniers say, “Oh, I’m not an anti-Semite, I just have certain questions about the Holocaust which perplex me. And I don’t understand why Professor Lipstadt is afraid to answer those questions. I am just interested in open debate. What’s wrong with open debate?” And in Germany the far right party, the NPD, is inclined, rather than to parade in swastikas, to say, “We want to commemorate the ‘bombing Holocaust’ in Dresden. We want to give equal attention to the victims.” But what they are really doing is whitewashing the crimes of the Third Reich by engaging in immoral equivalencies.