Sunday, February 25, 2007
Profile from Bnai Brith Magazine
Denying the Deniers
Deborah Lipstadt and the fight to preserve the memory of the Holocaust
by Allison Hoffman
[photos by Jillian Edelstein]
The story of how a feisty college professor named Deborah Lipstadt came to symbolize the fight to preserve the memory of the Holocaust. Lipstadt's forum was a British courtroom, where she successfully rebuffed a libel lawsuit filed against her by David Irving, one of the world's most notorious Holocaust deniers. Although Irving was disgraced, historic revisionism — and other mutations of the Big Lie —continues to thrive, and the truth bravely staggers on.
A few months ago, shortly after an Austrian court sentenced Holocaust denier David Irving to three years in prison for attempting to manipulate history, Holocaust historian and author Deborah Lipstadt took to her computer blog and issued her own scathing verdict. "Once again," Lipstadt wrote, mincing no words for her longtime nemesis, "Irving seemed to behave in a way that said, 'I can do whatever I want, say whatever I want, and get away with it.' The problem is, he can't."
One reason Irving can't is that his celebrated attempt to legitimize his own peculiar view of history by targeting Lipstadt had boomeranged horribly only a few years earlier.
A self-taught historian of the Third Reich, Irving filed suit in London in 1995, claiming that Lipstadt had libeled him by describing him as a Holocaust denier because of his publicly stated view that there had been no gas chambers at Auschwitz, and no officially sanctioned attempt by Hitler to annihilate European Jewry.
Not only a putative scholar, Irving was also widely known in his native Britain as a shameless self-promoter who pulled stunts that included offering to pay a thousand pounds to anyone who could produce a signed piece of paper proving that Hitler authorized the mass killing of Jews.
Lipstadt, by contrast, was a conventional, albeit fiercely outspoken, inhabitant of academia-a professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, who was recognized and respected in Jewish circles, but not well-known much beyond.
A native New Yorker, Lipstadt is, at 59, herself too young to be a survivor, and though her German father's immediate family did survive the war, he had left Europe in the early days of the Third Reich.
As an undergraduate, Lipstadt studied American politics, but after graduation, she made what she has described as an "impetuous decision" to spend two years studying at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In Israel, she says, she fully understood the influence of Israel and the Holocaust on the modern Jewish psyche for the first time, and decided to spend her career studying it.
Her first book, "Beyond Belief" (1986), examined how American newspapers of the 1930s and '40s played down or entirely ignored the persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe as well as the subsequent Holocaust itself.
Her second book, the one that eventually made her famous, was "Denying the Holocaust" (1993), which exposed a cadre of "historians" - including Irving - and so-called "lay experts" from California to Europe who made it their business to deny evidence of the Shoah. In her book, Lipstadt accused Irving of being "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial."
If Irving ever thought he had found an easy mark in Lipstadt, he was mistaken. "You could not call her an introvert," noted Jehuda Reinharz, now the president of Brandeis University, who met Lipstadt when they were both graduate students there in the 1970s. "She has always been quite clear as to where she stands, and the role she played in the trial and after, not by choice but because of circumstances, did not cow her." Another longtime friend, the Jerusalem-based playwright Joyce Klein, drew a parallel between Lipstadt and Queen Esther, the fabled heroine of the Purim story. "She [Lipstadt] took very seriously this idea that she was put in this place for a reason, that she was fulfilling a role no one else could fulfill," Klein told me. "There was a definite sense of mission, a sense of doing something for a cause."
Lipstadt demurs. "All I did was defend myself," she says of her decision to contest Irving's libel suit. But of course, she wasn't just defending herself. She was also defending the collective memory of the Holocaust, which is losing the reinforcement of living testimony as the remaining survivors of that epochal genocidal campaign die off.
"Survivors or children of survivors will thank me for what I did, which is mind-boggling to me," she told me recently from Rome, where she spent the spring semester teaching. "It's not that I'm such a humble person-I put a lot of effort into the fight, and who doesn't like to be thanked for something they've done? But compared to what they went through, I didn't do very much."
Even more importantly, though, Lipstadt was defending the sanctity of history itself, which is her primary academic focus. "There is a certain compact between author and reader," she told me. "The author promises not to twist the facts, and to report disagreements, to say that unlike Mr. X who believes that one plus one is two, I believe the answer is 12. But with Irving, you look at the citations and the sources and there is no proof; he takes things which are not there and says that they are there." In particular, Lipstadt recalled, Irving went to great lengths to distort evidence regarding Hitler's role in the events of Kristallnacht, as well as his orders regarding the deportation and extermination of Jews in the eastern labor and death camps.
As the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who covered the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, wrote in an essay for The New Yorker nearly 40 years ago, "Even if we admit that every generation has the right to write its own history, we admit no more than that it has a right to rearrange the facts in accordance with its own perspective; we don't admit the right to touch the factual matter itself."
Facing a man who, like other Holocaust deniers fit the description of a "paper Eichmann" (in the phrase coined by the French Jewish scholar Pierre Vidal-Naquet), Lipstadt chose to take the fight directly to Irving by resolving to prove the veracity of what she had written-that is, to demonstrate that Irving and his cohorts had manipulated historical facts when they disputed whether key aspects of the Holocaust had ever taken place.
Complicating Lipstadt's task was the fact that British libel law is notoriously sympathetic to the plaintiff. In British courts, the burden of proof rests with the defendant-just the opposite of the American system. Several friends advised Lipstadt to settle with Irving, not only to avoid the possibility of losing the case, but also to deprive him of a public forum that might legitimate his views.
As Lipstadt recounts in her memoir of the court fight, "History on Trial," her defense was orchestrated by Anthony Julius, a London lawyer who is also acclaimed for his writing on modern antisemitism. It was Julius who assembled a small army of historians and other experts who set out to demonstrate that Irving had distorted evidence and otherwise shredded his own credibility as a historian.
The one thing Lipstadt refused to do, however, was to call Holocaust survivors as witnesses-partly to spare them the ordeal of being cross-examined by Irving, who acted as his own counsel in the trial. In declining to pursue that option, Lipstadt also hoped to prepare for the day in the not-distant future when the existence of the Holocaust would have to be defended without survivors remaining to bear their own witness.
"We conducted the trial as though there were no survivors, because we don't need the survivors any longer to establish what happened," Robert Jan van Pelt, the Dutch academic who provided expert defense testimony on Auschwitz during the trial, said in a telephone interview. "There is more documentation about the Holocaust than about any other event in history, and the evidence is all there. In no other historical event do we ask the survivors to go in and establish what actually happened."
Lipstadt elaborated: "One of the things my trial demonstrated is that the historians can defend the truth based on the available evidence and testimony. There is an impact when those who can speak in the first-person singular are no longer available, and something valuable will be lost, but the documents triangulated with the oral histories and testimony by perpetrators are in fact a better form of evidence."
In April 2000, after a grueling, four-month-long trial that cost the defense more than $3 million, Lipstadt finally prevailed. The trial judge found that her criticisms of Irving were well-founded, and that no "objective, fair-minded historian" could possibly doubt that Jews were murdered in gas chambers at Auschwitz.
The 355-page ruling was undoubtedly a vindication for Lipstadt and her supporters, but there was something undeniably "asymmetrical" about the whole episode, Julius said by telephone. "Losing the case would have been much more seriously adverse than winning was beneficial."
Jehuda Reinharz, whose academic specialty is modern Jewish history, agreed, arguing that "if she had lost, it would have been an enormous weapon against Jewish history, against the state of Israel, against the credibility of every historian who has ever written about the Holocaust. This idea that Jews have created a myth about the Holocaust-it's like a new blood libel, and Deborah was able to puncture that."
In many ways, the verdict was the death knell of traditional, right-wing Holocaust denial that aped the methods of professional historians to produce what Lipstadt and others have called "pseudo-history," complete with its own research institutes, published journals, and annual conferences.
"Irving was the most polished, most intelligent of these guys," explained Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic, a magazine devoted to examining and disproving pseudo-scientific claims. "The past few times I've seen him speak, he just acted as if there were no trial, as if all the things that came out after the trial never happened, but now these guys are starting to run low on funds. The worst thing that could happen to them has happened-they're being ignored."
But instead of vanishing, the phenomenon Reinharz called "the new blood libel" hasn't gone away; it's just been taken up in different quarters. Earlier this year, at about the same time Irving was being sentenced in Austria, a leading Iranian newspaper sponsored a competition for cartoons denying the Holocaust, in retaliation for the Danish publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist.
Meanwhile, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has given a series of press conferences in which he called for proof of the Holocaust, though he has allowed that it might indeed have taken place. In that case, Ahmadinejad asked that Israel be relocated to Europe so that Palestinians would no longer be made to pay for the crimes of the Nazis. That position echoes an idea propounded by many pro-Palestinian activists, who appear to be animated in part by maverick author Norman Finkelstein, the ardently anti-Zionistic son of Holocaust survivors. Finkelstein argues that Jewish efforts to preserve the memory of the Shoah have created a "Holocaust industry" that exploits guilt over Nazi atrocities in service of Zionist interests.
"There is now a kind of Islamic antisemitism which is distinct from classic far-right antisemitism, but which incorporates into it the conception of the Jews running riot over Islamic interests," Julius said. "It's a genuinely new mutation of antisemitism which has been grafted onto the 19th-century claims."
On another front, Lipstadt is fighting the creeping effects of post-modernism and other forms of relativistic thinking that create a hospitable climate for the propagation of fallacies like Holocaust denial. "In part it's the sense that anything goes, when in fact everything does not go," Lipstadt said emphatically. "But it's a failure to think clearly to say that all points of view are equivalent and all views are equal."
To illustrate the perils of relativistic thinking, consider the cases of memoirists James Frey, the author of "A Million Little Pieces," and J.T. LeRoy, author of "The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things," who were recently exposed as fabricators. (Leroy, purportedly a man who was abused as a child, turned out to be the invention of a Brooklyn writer named Laura Albert.)
All too often, both transgressions were viewed through the distorted lens of "truthiness," a bogus concept popularized late last year by the television comedian-pundit Stephen Colbert, to describe a philosophy that gives credence to "what you want to be true, as opposed to what the facts support." In The New York Times, the book critic Michiko Kakutani made the conceptual link between the seemingly meaningless fabulism of Frey and LeRoy and the potentially dangerous denial of scrupulously documented genocide, writing that "when people assert that there is no absolute historical reality, an environment is created in which the testimony of a witness to the Holocaust … can actually be questioned."
Indeed, Kakutani quoted Lipstadt, who wrote in "Denying the Holocaust" that if no events or facts have fixed meaning, then "any truth can be retold." Lipstadt went on in her book to make the prescient argument that relativism could also be used to defend any speech as valid speech, in the name of free inquiry, which indeed is exactly what Irving's defenders did during her libel trial. They tried that tack again during Irving's trial this year in Austria for breaking that country's hate-speech laws by publicly denying the Holocaust. (It's worth noting that Lipstadt opposes criminalizing Holocaust denial on the grounds that censorship is not an effective deterrent, and can serve to create martyrs.)
"In part it's sloppy thinking, a failure to think clearly. There is the sense that all points of view are equivalent, that anything goes, when in fact, everything does not go," Lipstadt said in an interview, adding later by email: "People have mushy standards."
Of course, Lipstadt continued in the interview, the fibs of writers like Frey pale by comparison to the pernicious falsehoods spread by Irving and other deniers, which are "a different matter," she believes.
"Holocaust denial is lies and distortions," Lipstadt said. "So I wouldn't over-intellectualize the deniers. I think now people see Irving for the clown that he is."