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Debunking the lies of a Holocaust denier
By: MARILYN H. KARFELD Senior Staff Reporter
History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving. By Deborah E. Lipstadt. New York. HarperCollins Publishers. 2005. 346 pp. $25.95.
It seems hard to believe today that David Irving, whose name is almost automatically followed by the phrase Holocaust denier, would sue Emory University historian Deborah Lipstadt for libel for calling him just that.
But in 1993, when Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish studies, published her groundbreaking book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, Irving, a British citizen, was a World War II historian and Hitler biographer of some repute. Holocaust denial was still the province of fringe right-wing extremists, yet to emerge as a significant tenet of a global anti-Semitism movement.
In just a few paragraphs in her book, Lipstadt calls Irving one of the most dangerous proponents of Holocaust denial, who distorted and manipulated documents and historical evidence.
In his books and speeches and in the trial, held in London, Irving insisted that Hitler did not order the mass extermination of Jews and that he even tried to halt some of the killings. Among his many outrageous statements: The murder of six million Jews was a myth; most of the Jews who died in the Holocaust were the victims of typhus and unauthorized shootings by rogue soldiers at the front; and “more people died in the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.”
Two years after the publication of her book on Holocaust denial, Irving sued Lipstadt and her British publisher Penguin UK for libel. He chose a British courtroom rather than an American one because the libel laws in Great Britain favor the person bringing the suit. The defendant must prove that what he or she wrote was the truth.
In America, the burden of proof falls on the plaintiff, not the defendant. And a public figure like Irving has to show that these statements were written with reckless disregard for the truth.
After five years of legal jockeying and $1.5 million in research expenses and legal costs, the case against Lipstadt finally went to trial in 2000.
During her 10 weeks in court, her attorneys refused to put her on the stand or allow her to talk to the press. The articulate professor chafed against the restrictions. In her latest book, History on Trial, Lipstadt finally has her chance to speak about the trial, which was heard by a judge, not a jury. She does so in absorbing, well-paced prose, and her personal memoir reads more like a novel than a nonfiction account.
Although most readers probably know the trial’s outcome, Lipstadt still provides a sense of drama, recording in vivid detail her misgivings and feelings and those of her legal team. The testimony of historians debunking Irving and his many distortions and lies makes for riveting reading.
Knowing that Holocaust survivors were counting on her to stand up for them, Lipstadt frequently worries that the case isn’t going well. She fears that the judge, who often appears to support Irving in his comments and questions, might rule in her favor but in such an even-handed way that she won’t be truly vindicated.
The highly publicized trial resulted in a huge victory for Lipstadt. The judge declared it “incontrovertible that Irving qualifies as a Holocaust denier.” His statements, the judge said, confirm that he was an anti-Semite and a racist who “deliberately skewed the evidence to bring it in line with his political beliefs.”
In Britain, the loser has to pay the defense costs. But after losing his appeals, Irving declared bankruptcy. Lipstadt decided that it wasn’t worth her time and energy, not to mention huge sums, to go after any of his assets.
The trial to her had not been about documents and money. It was, she writes, about “historical - as well as my personal - integrity.”
Deborah Lipstadt speaks on Thurs., Nov. 17, at 7:30 p.m. at Siegal College of Judaic Studies in Beachwood. Free, but limited space. Reservations required. 216-454-4050 or rsvp@siegal college.edu
Friday, November 4, 2005
Lipstadt at Cleveland "Festival of Jewish Books and Authors" (Nov. 17)
Prof. Lipstadt will be one of the featured authors at the Jewish Community Center of Cleveland's seventh annual "book fest". Here is a review of History on Trial from the Cleveland Jewish News: