A scholar recounts her titanic legal battle with Holocaust denier David Irving
By Heidi Beirich
History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving
By Deborah Lipstadt
New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005, $25.95 (hardback)
In her new memoir History on Trial, Deborah Lipstadt, a renowned Emory University professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies, tells a captivating tale of the British libel trial that she was forced into when the English Holocaust denier and Third Reich "historian" David Irving foolishly sued her. Irving claimed Lipstadt had ruined his reputation by describing him as a Holocaust denier and Nazi admirer in her 1994 work, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. The trial, which began in January 2000, proved Irving was indeed as Lipstadt had written, and that he was a mean-spirited, racist buffoon and shoddy historian to boot.
History on Trial is peopled with somewhat eccentric characters whose dedication to defending the truth about the Holocaust is inspiring. And Irving — who, in one of the greatest Freudian slips of all time, actually referred to the judge as "Mein Fuhrer"— adds troubling color to the story. The book is a real page-turner, holding the reader until the end, even when the outcome of the trial is already known.
The book has some interesting tidbits about Irving. He comes across as a truly vile human being who likes to mock Holocaust survivors and hang out with neo-Nazis. The most telling anecdote describes how Irving approached former Nuremburg prosecutor Robert Kempner in 1969 to say that he intended to go to Washington to prove that the official record of the Nuremburg trial was falsified. Kempner noted at the time in a recently unearthed memo to J. Edgar Hoover that Irving made "anti-American and anti-Jewish statements." It seems Irving dedicated himself to Nazi views long, long ago.
Memory, Scholarship and the Law
There is a disturbing aspect to the memoir. Although the trial ended in a total legal victory for Lipstadt — and Irving will forever be tagged, as he was by Judge Charles Gray, as a slipshod researcher, a "racist" and an "anti-Semite" — the victory outside the courtroom was less than complete.
This is partly due to the nature of British libel law, which puts the burden of proof on the defendant, rather than on the plaintiff who is claiming to have been libeled (which is how the American system works). As a result, publishers are often reluctant to release controversial books in Britain. Indeed, as Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz points out in his afterword to Lipstadt's book, British libel law has led to a "chilling of free speech" and a stifling of academic inquiry. A case in point: The publication in Britain of John Lukac's The Hitler of History was delayed three years because of threats from Irving. When it was finally distributed — even though that wasn't until after the absolutely decisive verdict in Lipstadt's favor — Lukac's publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, had toned down the sections on Irving for the British market.
Another result of the British system is that defending even a flawless book can cost a fortune in legal fees. Indeed, the Lipstadt case might not even have seen the inside of a courtroom if it hadn't been for the willingness of Penguin Books, Lipstadt's publisher, and several donors to absorb the enormous costs of a drawn-out trial. Up to that time, Irving's skillful employment of libel threats had allowed him to maintain a reputation as a serious historian for far longer than he should have been able to. The trial was necessary for the truth about Irving to come out.
Another distressing aspect of this tale is the considerable academic cowardice that Lipstadt had to contend with when Irving sued. Lipstadt writes that a leading Holocaust historian suggested that she simply let Irving win. When she replied that that would effectively validate Irving's denial of the Holocaust, the reply was, "So what?" Others thought that going to court would transform Irving into a celebrity or free-speech martyr, as if that unlikely possibility mattered more than proving that his writings on the Holocaust are deeply flawed and animated by virulent anti-Semitism. And still others warned that Lipstadt was cheapening herself by becoming a media personality. It is unsettling that prominent historians would find defending the truth about the Holocaust so unimportant.
Truth and 'Fairness'
It is downright scandalous that a Hitler apologist like Irving could be taken seriously for so long by so many distinguished historians. For decades, Irving was publishing works on World War II to great applause, even though many falsified parts of the Nazi record. As the historical research presented at the trial made clear, Irving's obvious aim was to cleanse Hitler of his crimes. Irving was intent on dismissing the reality of the Holocaust, thereby relieving the Nazis of responsibility for their crimes, and he also used his research to legitimate Nazis lies about Jews.
The celebrated British military historian, Sir John Keegan, is Exhibit No. 1 of this problem. He praised Irving's book Hitler's War even though it falsely argued that Hitler did not know about the Final Solution — and Keegan was not alone in his praise. Even after Irving lost his libel case, Keegan criticized Lipstadt in an editorial, writing that the trial "will send a tremor" of fear through historical circles. Keegan also wrote that Irving's denial of the Holocaust was only "a small but disabling element of his work." Historians like Keegan have protected Irving's reputation over the years — even though Irving's work is sub par, something revealed by the in-depth examinations of his work and documentation undertaken by the defense team's assemblage of leading experts. Those studies, compiled by notable Holocaust historians such as Christopher Browning, will now stand permanently as a rebuttal to the disturbing farce that Holocaust denial "research" represents.
But the idea that Holocaust denial is merely the "other side of the story" persists in sometimes remarkable quarters. Just this March, the American cable channel C-SPAN was planning to televise a speech by Lipstadt about her memoir. In the interests of what a C-SPAN producer described to Lipstadt as "fairness and balance," C-SPAN decided to air a presentation by David Irving as well that would represent "the opposing view." C-SPAN apparently thought there was some kind of legitimate historical debate over the existence of the gas chambers and Hitler's knowledge of the Final Solution — a complete and utter misreading of contemporary historical scholarship. In fact, C-SPAN's bizarre position drew an angry letter of protest signed by more than 200 historians from around the world.
Lipstadt's memoir is a powerful reminder that truth needs to be vigilantly defended. If Irving and his ilk had their way, the largest state-ordered mass murder in history would actually disappear from the record.
Wednesday, July 27, 2005
The Southern Poverty Law Center's Summer issue of their Intelligence Report features a review of History on Trial:
Thursday, July 21, 2005
In an article about Darfur in today's (July 21) issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, columnist Jane Eisner cites Prof. Lipstadt. Here are some excerpts:
American Rhythms | Each of us can help Darfur: Just let the horror seep in
By Jane Eisner
I had, until now, shied away from writing about the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, on the weak but justifiable grounds that my job is to opine about national issues, and this was something happening on a distant continent.
Now I feel too guilty to stay silent.
Guilt might even have motivated some of the nation's clergy to remind congregants that if we are all, indeed, God's children, then we can scarcely sit by as 300,000 people or more are slaughtered and nearly two million displaced.
I can attest: Guilt works. I heard this very message from my rabbi Saturday, and my conscience hasn't left me alone since. I can no longer pretend it's not in my job description to express outrage and demand action against what is being called the worst genocide since World War II.
That historical analogy weighs heavily on Jewish people, and on Monday, they responded in kind. Just about every major religious and communal Jewish group in the nation signed a document calling upon President Bush to promote immediate and comprehensive international intervention in Darfur.
"What excuse do we have?" asks Deborah E. Lipstadt, the Emory University historian who has detailed how the Holocaust was downplayed and denied as millions of Jews and others were murdered in Europe.
"If we're going to talk about the Holocaust, about what was, then we have to be concerned about what is or we lose all moral credibility."
Monday, July 11, 2005
Prof. Lipstadt was recently interviewed by David Marr, of the Sidney Morning Herald:
The truth on trial
Sydney Morning Herald
Saturday 09th of July 2005
David Irving is on the road in Florida and Alabama, flogging his books to the faithful. He calls his tour "Hurricane David" but there's barely a breeze behind the disgraced historian as he swings through the southern United States this week. The venues of his talks in Montgomery, Orlando and West Palm Beach are secret to all but his followers. Entry: 10 bucks at the door and satisfactory ID.
This is a man who has fallen a long, long way. Gone are the Rolls and the flat in Mayfair. The praise of great historians has dried up. Universities that matter no longer invite him to lecture. Newspapers all but ignore him. For 30 years, his books on Nazi Germany and World War II were published by the leading houses of the world. Now he self-publishes. The belligerence that made him a feared adversary in the courts is now confined to his brawling website, where he pursues his grudges against Australia, Jews, Israel and his nemesis, Deborah Lipstadt.
Over scrambled eggs in a Sydney cafe last week, she puzzles over his latest web attack. "Nature Alert: Slab-throated Dip coming to Australia. Lipstadt will continue her lucrative and well-financed global Smearfest against British historian David Irving." And so on. The abuse defeats us both: what on Earth is a "slab-throated dip"?
Nothing much about Irving surprises this fiery woman after so many years spent grappling with him. On a long list of his faults she includes: "Hatred. A visceral hatred for Jews and other minorities and an adoration of the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler. He's also a bully." Lipstadt reckons he's one of those people who love to be hated. "Otherwise, he wouldn't say the things he says."
She has in mind remarks such as this, delivered to a gathering in Calgary in 1991: "More women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz. Oh, you think that's tasteless. How about this ... I am going to form an Association of Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust and Other Liars. A.S.S.H.O.L.S."
Irving made Lipstadt famous by suing her and losing. For some time, he had combined a career as an iconoclastic historian - demanding the right to tell uncomfortable truths - with a penchant for suing his detractors. Most folded. Lipstadt and the publisher Penguin Books did not. "I hope this doesn't sound self-serving," she says, buttering her last piece of toast. "But David Irving underestimated me."
At the time, 1995, she was a youngish, rather obscure professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta with a great deal to learn about the quirky way libel is handled in the British legal world. She could not be sued in the US for what she said about Irving in her book Denying the Holocaust. But in Britain, the onus was on her and Penguin to justify the remarks she made about Irving in those pages: that he was a Holocaust denier, an anti-Semite, a racist and a falsifier of history. "My impression is that he sued me because he's been waiting to get me," Lipstadt says. "He saw me as a representative of the Jewish community, I don't know why. I'm a Jew. I'm an active Jew. I live a Jewish life. But he thought that by going after me he could go after the Jewish world."
Penguin was insured. Lipstadt's backers in America raised $US1.75 million ($2.3 million) for the fight. Together they assembled a team of forensic scholars to re-research Irving's books. By the time the trial opened in London, they had honed their counter-attack to 19 examples of lies and fakery - from Irving's wild guesstimates of the death toll in Dresden to his slippery claims that Hitler was a friend of the Jews. In April 2000, a London court delivered a crushing victory to Lipstadt that would leave Irving's reputation as a scholar in ruins.
This battle is the subject of a riveting new book by Lipstadt: History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving. No one who loves history can fail to be fascinated by the unpeeling of Irving's lies by Lipstadt's team of academic sleuths. They shred the man's scholarship and conclude: "This is not how a historian works."
It's a courtroom drama that reached its comic depths on the last day of the trial, when Irving addressed the judge as "Mein Fuhrer". Lipstadt writes: "There was a moment of intense silence as the entire courtroom - Judge Gray included - seemed frozen. Then everyone erupted in laughter ... Irving, who seemed not to have grasped what had happened, marched on."
Lipstadt's interest in the phenomenon of denial goes beyond the Holocaust. She is pleased that Edgar Ray Killen has finally been convicted for the Mississippi Burning murders. "They did it but it took 40 years." And while she is in Sydney she will join Professor Ronald Suny of the University of Chicago to discuss the first great race slaughter of the 20th century. "That Turkey turns itself into a pretzel to deny the Armenian genocide is a mark of shame," Lipstadt says. "And it does Turkey no good because they know it happened."
On her fourth visit to Australia, Lipstadt is well aware we have a denial industry of our own - denying Aboriginal massacres and denying the stolen generations. As she talks about the general principles and purposes of denial, she moves back and forth between denials of the Holocaust, Aboriginal slaughter and even the moon landing, which some believe was filmed on a sound stage in Nevada. Lipstadt sees even these strange souls illustrating an important truth: "Scratch a lie like that and you'll find some political motive." What's theirs? "You can't trust the government."
And these lies make life easier for us. "If someone said to you, 'You know, we've found out the Aborigines really weren't murdered and that they very happily gave up their land,' you'd say, 'Oh my God, I live in a better place, I live in a better society. I don't have this society that has this terrible shame and legacy."' And what's wrong with living under this delusion? "When you grapple with the past you rise above it."
The work of deniers is oddly easy. They don't have to prove much. All they have to do is cast doubt. But this requires they have public reputations as scholars. Lipstadt saw Irving as "the most dangerous of deniers" because he had built a reputation as a serious, if rather quirky, historian. "He was fresh. He had a vibrant way of writing." But Lipstadt believes the problems with Irving were always underestimated.
Right from the beginning, there were historians contesting his facts. When his first book, The Destruction of Dresden, appeared in 1963, they queried Irving's controversial death count: up from about 40,000 to 135,000. Each book that followed over the next 30 years provoked similar academic brawls over the facts. But somehow none of this really dented Irving's standing as a scholar.
Lipstadt says the public looks at historians slugging it out in this way as "two little boys having a pissing match". So were we lazy all those years not checking Irving's footnotes for ourselves? "No. There is an unspoken element of trust that if a historian sits down and writes this and a serious publisher publishes it, then I can, by and large, believe that it's the truth."
How high on the list of sins does Lipstadt place the sheer invention of sources: "The highest. For all historians. It doesn't matter what you're writing about, if you're writing the history of cooking or the history of fashion or the history of the Iraq war - if you invent a source, I can trust nothing you say."
Of course, all sides in these familiar historical brawls claim to be the genuine article, fearlessly devoted to accuracy. On his website, Irving boasts he is spearheading "the international campaign for real history". For Lipstadt, what distinguishes real historians is the way they deal with evidence that contradicts their own conclusions. Real historians acknowledge this difficult material and give their reasons for dismissing it. Fakes like Irving, simply ignore it.
The to-and-fro of contending historians might have continued for eternity, unresolved. But Irving sued.
Early in History on Trial, Lipstadt writes: "I did not believe that courtrooms were the proper place for historical inquiry." The American was amazed by the rituals of English law. She was appalled to be ordered by her legal team to shut up - no evidence in court and no interviews with the press - until the whole thing was over. But she discovered an English courtroom could be "a pretty damn good place" to settle great questions of history.
There was no jury. The judge spoke German. There was lots of time. The plaintiff could no longer bluster his way through. "In court we said: 'Mr Irving, show us the document.' He was compelled to show us the document and when you look at the document it showed he was completely lying about what happened there, or he's making it up, or he's reversed the dates, or he's put someone at a meeting who wasn't there, or he quotes half a speech. What we show is that you can't trust anything the man says unless you go and document it and prove it. And that's what's led in part to his downfall - that and his bizarre comments and bizarre behaviour."
Bankrupt and yet to pay a ££2 million ($4.7 million) bill for court costs, Irving has only one public asset these days: his claim to be a martyr for free speech. It is a claim Australia has done much to bolster by banning him from these shores six times since 1992. That this is the result of intense lobbying by the Jewish community is no secret. And Irving's travel plans have now been frustrated by the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments. But each time this happens the Australian press gives - as it must - a thumbnail account of Irving's Holocaust-denying views. It's great publicity.
Lipstadt does not believe in making Holocaust denial a crime. In History on Trial, she writes: "Those laws would render denial 'forbidden fruit', making it more - not less - alluring." She acknowledges that preventing Irving from entering this country draws attention to his views. But when asked if she therefore disapproves of Australia's ban, she ducks the question. "I don't think any good would come from having him come here."
So should he be banned from America? "There's no grounds on which he can be banned from the United States. No. I think it's pathetic. He comes to the United States now, he travels around the country, he talks to his most ardent followers - he talks to them in diners."
But wouldn't he be reduced to the same fleapits in Australia by this time? "That could well be the case. But I don't know whether there's a sense that he might give succour, give strengthening, reinforcement to people who do bad things."
Lipstadt's absolute bottom line is that she won't debate Irving - or any Holocaust denier. "First of all it suggests there are two sides to this story. Second of all, as we show in the trial, they are liars. For them to make the argument that this didn't happen, they've got to be lying about the facts. I can debate someone where we have diametrically opposed positions - abortion, death penalty, things that are very emotional and important ... But I can't debate someone who is simply making things up. That's what the deniers are all about."
History on Trial by Deborah Lipstadt is published by HarperCollins ($45). Professor Lipstadt's website is http://Lipstadt.blogspot.com. David Irving's website is www.fpp.co.uk. The judgement can be read at www.hdot.org.
Wednesday, July 6, 2005
Australian Broadcasting Corporation's TV program Lateline's July 5 edition features Prof. Lipstadt and History on Trial in two segments:
New book details Irving Holocaust Case (Transcript)
In 2000 historian David Irving attempted to sue American author Deborah Lipstadt, claiming she had defamed him by calling him a holocaust denier. Mr Irving lost the case and historians say the result has significant implications.
[Real Video | Windows Media]
History on trial (Transcript)
Academic and historian Deborah Lipstadt discusses her latest book History on Trial which details her battle with David Irving, who was suing her over claims he was a holocaust denier.
[Real Video | Windows Media]