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February 21, 2005
Lipstadt book recounts trial with Holocaust denier
BY Michael Terrazas
Deborah Lipstadt wrote in the introduction to her new book, should be stopped with reasoned inquiry, not with the blunt edge of the law. In the 300-plus pages that follow, Lipstadt describes how, over nine weeks in London in 2000, she and a team of attorneys and historians did both to David Irving, whose name promises to be forever preceded by two words: “Holocaust denier.”
History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving (HarperCollins, 2005) is Lipstadt’s day by day—almost moment by moment—account of her tangle with Irving in a British libel court, from which she emerged the unqualified victor. A writer who has spent his career explaining World War II in ways that consistently exonerate or soften the culpability of the Third Reich, Irving brought the suit against Lipstadt for labeling him a Holocaust denier in her 1995 book, Denying the Holocaust: A Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.
Irving filed suit in London against Lipstadt and her United Kingdom publisher, Penguin, because under British libel law the burden of proof is on the accused, even when the case involves a public figure such as Irving. Lipstadt was incredulous that, for the few hundred words in her book that concerned Irving, she was being dragged into what could be a long and very expensive ordeal.
But it was not a lonely ordeal, despite how Lipstadt might have felt at times. Indeed, it turned out she had much of the world in her corner. Not only did individuals and groups come forward with the financial support she needed (Lipstadt’s lawyer, Anthony Julius, represented Princess Diana in her divorce case), but the case even prompted momentous state action: The Israeli government released the 1961 prison diaries of Nazi SS leader Adolf Eichmann, which had been kept sealed for more than 40 years, to assist Lipstadt’s case.
“It was unbelievable,” Lipstadt said of the attention during the trial. “I’d be walking down the street, and there would be crowds of people taking my picture, other people telling me, ‘Good luck.’”
History on Trial recounts the entire case, from the first murmurs Lipstadt heard of Irving’s threatened litigation, to the systematic attack her legal team conducted on Irving and his professional work, to the final decision.
Barrister Richard Rampton, arguing on Lipstadt’s behalf, made the case that Irving misrepresented or outright falsified historical documents in his research, and that his Holocaust denial was part and parcel to his ideology and association with right-wing extremist groups.
Again and again, Irving (who claimed not to be a Holocaust denier even after making public statements like, “More women died on the back seat of Senator Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz”) was trapped between his own faulty research and his claims about the Holocaust. In virtually every instance, Irving claimed he’d simply made a mistake—except each mistake tilted in favor of the Nazis.
In the end, presiding Judge Charles Gray handed Lipstadt a complete and total victory, calling Irving “incontrovertibly” a Holocaust denier and anti-Semite. Gray ruled Irving’s “falsification of the historical record … was 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 a substantial portion of Lipstadt’s legal bill, a process that later became entangled when he claimed bankruptcy.
Lipstadt acknowledged that History on Trial offers her some closure on the matter, but she has not yet finished delousing; Irving pursued several appeals of Gray’s verdict, and even now Lipstadt said he is trying to sue her again.
One would think, after such a lengthy legal battle, that she might want to take a breather from death camps. But Lipstadt—Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust History and director of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies—said, “The Holocaust is too important to people who suffered from it, to their families and
children, to say, ‘I’m just going to leave it alone.’”
Regarding David Irving, Lipstadt said, for all his unpleasantness, he pales in significance next to her chosen area of study. “He may be a falsifier of history and a racist, but he’s nothing compared to the Germans and their allies.”
Indeed, far from leaving study of the Holocaust alone, Lipstadt continues to point out the lessons that can be drawn from it. Last semester she helped form an organization that raised awareness and financial support to address the crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region, which some have labeled a genocide. “To not do anything,” she said, “struck me as the height of hypocrisy.”
And, try as she might, Lipstadt cannot fully escape the shadow of Auschwitz. Appointed twice by former President Bill Clinton to serve on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council (the group responsible for administration of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington), Lipstadt recently was asked by President George W. Bush to accompany Vice President Dick Cheney on
a Jan. 25–28 delegation to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Allied liberation of the concentration camp. Lipstadt’s trip diary of the experience is posted at www.lipstadt.blogspot.com.
“Over the years,” she wrote of being photographed alongside the Cheneys laying wreaths of flowers, “I have become a bit used to being photographed by a bunch of reporters. It doesn’t happen often but it does happen. This time however it was completely surrealistic. I wasn’t walking into or out of a courtroom. I wasn’t addressing a press conference about the Holocaust. I was in Auschwitz. The experience epitomized the sentiments I have about this trip in general. It has been a whirlwind of emotions.’”
With all she’s been through, Deborah Lipstadt should be well used to whirlwinds.
Lipstadt will speak and sign copies of History on Trial on Wednesday, Feb. 23, at 6 p.m. in the Jones Room of Woodruff Library. For more information, call 404-727-7620.