Deborah Lipstadt is not accustomed to being quiet.
Even as a kid growing up in Queens, Emory's Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies and chair of the Rabbi Donald A. Tam Institute for Jewish Studies earned a reputation as "feisty and combative" at the Jewish day school she attended, frequently causing her mother to be summoned to the principal's office to defend her red-haired daughter's argumentative nature.
"I had the impression that although she did not appreciate these school visits, she admired my gumption," Lipstadt writes in her most recent book, History on Trial . "I knew I had been named Deborah because she loved the biblical character. When I was still quite young, she had described how Deborah led her people in battle and dispensed justice. I liked the notion that I was named after such a person."
So it follows that some five decades later, when Lipstadt was sued for libel by British author and Holocaust-denier David Irving, she was hardly at a loss for words. But her defense team deemed it best she remain silent throughout the three-month trial, staying out of the witness box and away from the press, in order to keep the focus where it belonged: on Irving's credibility rather than her own.
An eloquent, outspoken college professor and scholar to whom words are as powerful as weapons, Lipstadt called the imposed quietude "excruciatingly hard." Dutifully biting her tongue, she took notes and filed away her impressions, waiting for the time when she could tell her own story. That time came in February of this year with the release of her book History on Trial: My Day in Court With David Irving .
In the months since, Lipstadt has appeared on TV and in the press around the U.S., Europe, and even in Australia, now unfettered by a promise of silence. The book, described as a "legal thriller" with commercial appeal, has been favorably reviewed and is selling well, she reports.
History on Trial is a blow-by-blow account of the Irving v. Lipstadt trial, from the moment Lipstadt learned of the lawsuit in 1995 to the judge's sweeping ruling in her favor five years later. At issue was Lipstadt's 1993 scholarly book, Denying the Holocaust: An Assault on Truth and Memory , in which she referred to Irving, calling him "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial." Irving sued her for libel in Britain, where the burden of proof rests with the defense--meaning Lipstadt had to prove, in essence, that Irving was indeed a Holocaust-denier as her book claimed. The lawsuit put Lipstadt in an international spotlight and so dominated her professional and personal life that when it was over, she was compelled to depart from academic writing to put the experience into her own words.
A blend of journalism and journal, historical fact and human feelings, History on Trial was both more and less difficult to produce than a scholarly work, Lipstadt says--and considerably more intimidating because of the deeply personal nature of the work.
"The book was a chance for me to tell the story from my own perspective," Lipstadt says. "After keeping silent throughout the trial, it was a chance for my voice to be heard."
Lipstadt is not a child of Holocaust survivors --her father left Germany before the Third Reich and her mother was born in Canada--but she grew up in New York City in the 1950s among European Jewish immigrants whose lives had been indelibly marked by the Second World War. Many had lost relatives in the death camps.
Lipstadt describes her family life as one that encouraged intellectual curiosity and scholarly exploration. While she was raised in a Modern Orthodox Jewish home, her parents took care to expose her and her brother and sister to the broader culture, nurturing an appreciation for books, art, music, and politics. They opposed the war in Vietnam and marched for civil rights in Harlem. Their dinner table, Lipstadt reports, was often the site of spirited debate.
Lipstadt attended City College of New York and then, eager to go abroad, studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem from 1966 to 1968. Her travels gave her a sharper sense of the Holocaust and its shattering consequences. After she returned to the U.S., she studied modern Jewish history at Brandeis University, earning her master's degree in 1972 and Ph.D. in 1976. Her interest in the Holocaust, and particularly America's response to it, deepened.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, Lipstadt taught history at the University of Washington and later at the University of California in Los Angeles; but UCLA was a poor research fit for her and she was denied tenure. Soon afterward, two professors at the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem asked if she would be willing to look into the Holocaust denial movement, an international network that seeks to minimize the devastation of the Holocaust and cast Jews as sympathy-seekers.
Lipstadt agreed, somewhat dubiously.
"Convinced that deniers were fringe extremists," she writes, "I asked these two leading Holocaust scholars: why study the historical equivalent of flat-earth theorists? [The scholars] believed this a new, potentially dangerous form of anti-Semitism. Though they thought it should be analyzed, I was not entirely convinced."
But as she began to examine the practice of Holocaust denial more closely, Lipstadt quickly came to understand their concern. What was most alarming about Holocaust deniers, as she explained to the audience during a talk at the Atlanta History Center in April, was their mask of legitimacy, their insidious portrayal of the Holocaust as a two-sided "issue" subject to academic debate. Leaders of the movement had created scholarly looking organizations such as the California-based Institute for Historical Review; held national and international conferences; and published journals that aspired to academic credibility.
Indeed, Holocaust deniers were so successful in cultivating a serious image that throughout the 1990s college newspapers accepted advertisements from these groups, despite policies that otherwise prevented ads promoting hostility toward any religious or ethnic group. The editors claimed that to reject these ads would be to curb academic freedom of speech.
"If you appear looking like a neo-Nazi, people know exactly how to categorize you," Lipstadt says. "So [the Holocaust deniers] figured out instead how to become Holocaust revisionists . . . they were [posing as] serious historians looking at an issue. And there is a direct link between the attempt to rewrite history and the attempt to push a certain political agenda."
With his silver hair, square jaw and ruddy complexion, David Irving is the picture of the tweedy British history buff. Although he did not finish college, his first book, The Bombing of Dresden , was published when he was only twenty-five to considerable acclaim and commercial success. Known for his thorough research methods that relied mainly on primary sources, Irving quickly became a prolific historical writer. He has written more than two dozen books on history and World War II in particular.
But even in his early work, a theme began to emerge: Irving repeatedly sought to elevate the wrongs of the Allied Forces while minimizing those of the Nazis. In 1977, Irving published Hitler's War , which argues that Adolf Hitler did not promote the Final Solution (the plan to exterminate Jews in Europe) and actually had no knowledge of it. By far Irving's most famous work, Hitler's War has been widely criticized for "apologizing" for Hitler and painting him in a favorable light.
When Lipstadt began researching Holocaust denial, the trail naturally led to Irving. In scholarly circles, he was beginning to gain a reputation for his sympathy with Hitler and the Nazi party and his questionable research and theories on the Holocaust itself. Many historians believed his personal ideology was compromising his work. When Hitler's War was re-released in 1991, for instance, Lipstadt found striking contrasts between the two versions: the gas chambers had disappeared, as had any mention of the Holocaust.
As a public figure, Irving left no doubt where he stood ideologically. A frequent speaker to far-right-wing audiences and groups associated with the neo-Nazi movement, he had publicly declared Auschwitz "Disneyland for tourists," Hitler "the best friend the Jews had in Europe," and the Holocaust a "fabrication" and "legend." He is infamous for tastelessly quipping, "More women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz."
So it's not surprising that when Lipstadt first learned Irving was suing her and British publisher Penguin for libel because she had called him a Holocaust denier, her first response was to dismiss it as "nothing more than sound and fury."
Despite the weighty evidence in the court of public opinion, the British Royal High Court required a more deliberate analysis, and Lipstadt was obliged to mount a formidable defense. While funding for the trial ultimately came from a range of sources, Lipstadt has long praised Emory for its early and sustained support. When she first learned of Irving's intent to sue, she became panicked about money, wondering where the funds for her legal expenses would come from. Emory's board of trustees voted to allot $30,000 to her defense before she even asked. Later the University gave more, as well as leave with pay to attend the trial. "I am grateful for the University's commitment to moral engagement," she says.
"Every so often a colleague tackles a problem of such immense social consequence that the university must support the efforts," says University Provost Earl Lewis. "Deborah Lipstadt earned University support for courageously and truthfully speaking about the relationship of the past to the present. She knows that to deny the Holocaust is to render damage to all humanity. It was an important call, and correct call, for Emory to support her in the ways it did."
Led by solicitor Anthony Julius, famous for serving as Princess Diana's divorce lawyer and less so for writing a book about anti-semitism in the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Lipstadt's legal team spent two years conducting an exhaustive evaluation of Irving's work to gather support for Lipstadt's claims. Richard Rampton, a renowned barrister in the field of libel and defamation law, presented their finding to the court.
During the trial--in which Irving represented himself, declaring no one else as capable of doing so--Lipstadt's defense produced instance after instance in which Irving twisted the truth to conform to his own skewed views of history. Cambridge historian Richard Evans was recruited as an expert witness and worked with two researchers to examine Irving's writings. After some initial skepticism on his part, what he found shocked him deeply.
"A knotted web of distortions, suppressions, and manipulations became evident in every single instance we examined," Evans wrote in his report for the court. "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. ...His numerous mistakes...are calculated and deliberate."
Throughout History on Trial , Lipstadt often quotes directly from the court proceedings, giving the reader a window into the courtroom and a sense of the drama that pervaded the ordeal. Many of the most sensational moments sprang not from testimony about Irving's historical research--although that certainly provided ample evidence against him--but from accounts of Irving's public expressions of his personal views.
Ultimately, Justice Charles Gray agreed with Lipstadt that Irving was both an antisemite and a racist, as well as a liar and a cunning manipulator of history. In his 355-page judgment, he found that Irving's "falsification of the historical record was both deliberate and ... motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence."
Irving was ordered to pay the $3 million cost of the trial, and the judgment was the lead story in newspapers and media around the world. After trying to have her "libelous" book pulled from shelves, David Irving had instead given Lipstadt and her work the spotlight on a world stage.
The resounding victory was overwhelming for Lipstadt, who writes in History on Trial, "I lifted my arms in victory, looking more like a prizefighter than a professor....We had won and we had done so conclusively."
F or Lipstadt, at the heart of the Irving trial lay conflicting desires--one to speak out against Irving in the name of Jews and Holocaust victims, and another to refuse to dignify his arguments by engaging in a debate. The notion that the very existence of the Holocaust is a matter for discussion is one that Lipstadt has resisted from the beginning.
"Our objective was not to prove the Holocaust had happened. No court was needed to prove that," she writes of her legal defense. "Our job was to prove the truth of my words, namely that Irving had lied about the Holocaust and had done so out of antisemitic motives."
Still, there were many times at which Lipstadt felt she had somehow been handed the role of protecting the history of the Holocaust--a heavy weight for any one historian to carry. At one point, she writes, "The trial seemed destined to morph from an examination of Irving's abuse of historical records into a debate on whether or not the Holocaust took place. Worse, there was nothing I could do to change this."
Five years after the trial, Lipstadt continues to battle the misguided perception that she and Irving are on opposite sides of an argument. A few weeks after her book appeared, the TV network C-Span invited Lipstadt on Book TV to discuss History on Trial --welcome publicity for any author. C-Span planned to air a lecture by Lipstadt at Harvard to educate viewers about the book.
But there was a catch: C-Span also intended to feature a talk by Irving in the next time slot, for "balance." When she learned of this plan, Lipstadt canceled her appearance on a long-held principle.
"How can one debate someone, on any topic, who deliberately lies and falsifies history?" Lipstadt wrote in a letter to the New York Times. "I would be delighted to appear on C-Span, but not as part of a debate that is no debate."
C-Span's decision to air Irving back-to-back with Lipstadt sparked a national response. Editorials appeared in newspapers around the country, including one by Richard Cohen of the Washington Post : "This is the Crossfire mentality reduced to absurdity, if that's possible," he wrote. "For a book on the evils of slavery, would it counter with someone who thinks it was a benign institution?"
The network received more than three thousand letters and e-mails, including one from Emory's Edward Queen of the Center for Ethics, objecting to the move. Some five hundred university historians and high-profile journalists signed a petition supporting Lipstadt and criticizing C-Span:
"As historians and social scientists, we strongly oppose your reported decision to broadcast a lecture by Holocaust-denier David Irving, to 'balance' your intended broadcast of a lecture by Holocaust historian Prof. Deborah Lipstadt," the petition said. " ... A recent report by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies found that Holocaust-denial is a real and growing problem and continues to be actively promoted in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere, and in some cases enjoys government sponsorship. 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."
C-SPAN wound up producing and airing a show that offered commentary on History on Trial by Washington Post writer T.R. Reid, as well as video clips from past appearances by both Lipstadt and Irving. For Lipstadt, the controversy was a sobering reminder that even though she had won a resounding victory against Irving in court, the dangers he and others like him pose are still clear and present--and must continue to be brazened out.
"Our all-encompassing victory notwithstanding, [the trial] was not the last battle against deniers or, for that matter, against antisemites, because anti-Semitism itself cannot be 'defeated'," she writes in History on Trial. "It will wither away, or not--probably the latter--of its own accord. Since anti-Semitism and, for that matter, all forms of prejudice are impervious to reason, they cannot be disproved. Therefore, in every generation they must be fought."
Lipstadt says she is looking forward to returning to the research on modern anti-Semitism she had only just begun ten years ago, when the letter from Penguin hijacked her academic career. But she acknowledges that the Irving trial has changed her and shaped her as a scholar and teacher.
"My voice has more resonance now," she says. "I happen to be one of those people whose battle got a lot of attention. It's no more important than anyone else's. But students tend to resonate to people who stand up and fight for something."
Jacob Cherry, an Emory College junior from Westchester County, New York, took Lipstadt's Holocaust studies course last year. Although she routinely devotes only one lecture during the semester to the Irving trial, Cherry says Lipstadt's personal experience lends an added layer of poignancy to her teaching about the Holocaust.
"She is one of the most inspirational, passionate people I've ever known," Cherry says. "She is one of those professors who you know, when you look back thirty years from now, you will remember what she said. It's amazing to get to take a class from such a central figure in Holocaust studies."
Although Lipstadt has maintained she never set out to defend the truth of the Holocaust, in many ways the Holocaust survivors and Jews who supported her fight looked to her to do just that. It was a bittersweet burden she both resisted and bravely embraced. And it was finally the victims who brought out the strongest emotion in Lipstadt, leaving her feeling "particularly unnerved." Many survivors contacted her during the trial and afterward; she also spent time with Auschwitz survivors in January as a member of the official American delegation chosen to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
"Dear Professor Lipstadt," one woman wrote. "You do not know me and we will probably never meet. ... My mother was killed in Auschwitz. If David Irving had won my mother would have been a victim a second time! So too would everybody else who perished there. I loved my mother very much and have not seen her since April 14, 1939 when I was fourteen years old. She was killed on October 23, 1944. Gratefully yours, Anna Bertolina."
This letter, and dozens of others, touched Lipstadt deeply. In a moving passage of her book, she describes her feelings about those who perished in the Holocaust and her role in preserving their memory.
"In Jewish tradition...Taking care of the dead is called hesed shel emet, the most genuine act of loving-kindness, because it is then that we most closely emulate God's kindness to humans, which also cannot be reciprocated," Lipstadt writes. "For five years I had the privilege to do hesed shel emet, to stand up for those who did not survive or who could not stand up for themselves. I did not choose this field of research in order to perform this act of hesed. I did not write my book on deniers expecting to engage in this act. I did not choose this fight. But now, as I look back, I am filled with gratitude. If someone had to be taken out of the long line to fight this battle, I feel gratified to have been the one."