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SITTING IN HER OFFICE on a summer afternoon amid piles of court documents and newspaper clippings from around the world, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies Deborah Lipstadt is relaxed and casual. It’s late in the day, and she sports tousled red hair, shorts, and a T-shirt that reads, “Shakespeare’s Insults, No. 3027: ‘You speak an infinite deal of nothing.’ ”

The setting is a far cry from the London courtroom in which Lipstadt played a critical role in a high-stakes global drama this past spring. Sued for libel by once-respected historian David Irving, Lipstadt was involved in a case that involved millions of dollars, professional reputations, academic freedom, and the historical record of perhaps the worst crime against humanity, the Nazi Holocaust.

Author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, Lipstadt had named Irving as one of a group of anti-Semites who had devoted their careers to denying that the Holocaust had taken place or who argued that historians had vastly overstated the extent of its devastation.

Ultimately, the decision could not have been more clear if the bewigged British judge had worn Lipstadt’s sardonic T-shirt while addressing her accuser. The outcome was a ringing victory for Lipstadt and her scholarship on Holocaust denial—and a stunning defeat for Irving and his colleagues, who seek to erase the record of the Nazi execution of six million Jews.

Irving sued Lipstadt for libel in London, where defendants bear the burden of proof. In the U.S, plaintiffs must prove statements made about them are false, but British courts don’t honor the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of the press. A recent New York Times article says British libel laws make London “a magnet for litigators.”

“British libel law is a big problem for scholars,” says Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who calls Lipstadt’s case “one of the first great international free speech cases.”

Lipstadt believes Irving, whose “revisionist” writings had already made him an outcast among serious historians, chose to sue her specifically because “he thought I wouldn’t fight back. I’m a woman, an American, and a Jew. This was his way of getting back not just at me, but all his critics.”

Irving had once gone so far as to heckle Lipstadt when she spoke at DeKalb Community College in Atlanta, demanding that she provide “one scrap of evidence” that Jews were gassed to death in concentration camps. Lipstadt had always refused. As she wrote in Denying the Holocaust, “The Holocaust was not a matter of debate. . . . To do so would give them [the deniers] a stature they in no way deserve.” Instead, her book systematically destroys the deniers’ “proof” of Hitler’s innocence and of the giant “hoax” of the Holocaust.

Deniers like Irving had often cloaked their specious theories in the robes of academic freedom, a guise that some used to place their inflammatory advertisements in campus newspapers. After running one such ad, the Georgetown Record’s editor wrote, “The issue of freedom of expression outweighed the issue of the offensive nature of the advertisement.”

“Given this position,” Lipstadt writes, “one should logically expect to find op-ed columns, letters to the editor, and advertisements claiming that women should be kept barefoot and pregnant, that individuals of African descent should be physically separated from America’s ‘European’ population, . . . and a variety of other nonsensical positions that are held by some portion of the population. . . .

“Opinion,” she says, citing Hannah Arendt, “must be grounded in fact.”

The trial commanded the world’s attention. With the support of Jewish groups worldwide, Lipstadt’s publisher, Penguin, hired Anthony Julius, Richard Rampton, and James Lipsom of the renowned firm Mishcon de Reya. They knew that to prove Irving a liar, their evidence had to be unimpeachable. Even a partial vindication of Irving, however slight, would be seen as a complete victory by the deniers.

Lipstadt’s defense team decided not to call Holocaust survivors to corroborate their story. Elderly and fragile, many would have crumpled under the stress. Nor would Lipstadt testify. The deniers would be denied their “debate.” Instead, the lawyers relied on such experts as Professor Richard Evans of Cambridge University, a specialist in German history who testified that Irving’s “sheer depth of duplicity” shocked him.

Seth Kornfeld ’97C, a former student of Lipstadt and family friend, went with his parents to London to support her and witness the historic trial. While there, Kornfeld and his family had dinner with Lipstadt and members of her legal team. Kornfeld was something of a student of the Holocaust. Besides taking Lipstadt’s course on Holocaust films, he’d studied at

Tel Aviv University and read extensively on his own. When Lipstadt’s legal researchers explained the strategy of using established history to disprove Irving’s claims rather than calling Holocaust survivors to the stand, Kornfeld asked whether the lawyers had considered admitting the diaries of Nazi Adolf Eichmann into evidence. “Eichmann admitted all of it—the camps, the gassing, everything,” Kornfeld says.

Thirty-seven years after Eichmann’s trial and execution in Jerusalem, his diaries remained in Israel’s state archives while legal issues were disentangled. Lipstadt’s researchers asked if she could get access to them. She agreed to find out. To do so, she would have to contact the attorney general of the state of Israel, Elyakim Rubinstein. A friend who works in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s office referred Lipstadt to the attorney general’s adviser. He told her he believed Rubinstein would view the request favorably, and, indeed, Rubinstein convened a meeting of special advisers to discuss the matter.

“Barak agreed to release them,” says Lipstadt, “and within forty-eight hours, we had them.”

Although the London judge would not admit the diaries into evidence, saying Irving could not have used them to form his opinions, Lipstadt lawyer Rampton was able to draw on the diaries for his final cross-examination of Irving, pointing out that even Hitler’s closest advisers acknowledged the gassing at camps. More importantly, after nearly four decades, the diaries are now widely available to scholars.

In the end, Justice Charles Gray agreed with Lipstadt’s evaluation of Irving as a Hitler apologist, Holocaust denier, and liar. Irving was instructed to bear the $3 million cost of her defense. (He is said to be seeking an appeal.)

“I never thought she would lose,” says Emory President William M. Chace. “My only worry, one many people harbored, was that the judicial decision would be ambiguous, and that David Irving would get something positive out of it. He did not. Deborah won everything.”

“Had David Irving won,” says Lipstadt, “the ability of people to write about Holocaust denial would have been seriously curtailed.”

“This case would have been laughed out of any American court. But we all aspire to publish internationally,” Dershowitz says. “British courts must be very careful about which cases they want to put in the hands of a jury, or a single judge. Who knows who you might get? . . . Dr. Lipstadt’s victory makes it a little easier for the rest of us.”

New York libel defense lawyer Floyd Abrams agrees. “English libel law can be used to stifle the very sort of speech which is at the heart of academic freedom. . . . My own view is that the English are far less tolerant of free speech than they should be. . . . The decision sent a powerful message to scholars and other writers of serious books intended for wider audiences. A loss or mixed message would have had a truly disturbing impact on continued exercise of free speech.”

Charles Maier, professor of European studies at Harvard, says, “By and large, historians and academics don’t like it when academic debate is carried on by lawsuit.” Nevertheless, he believes it was important to show that some arguments are “outside the bounds of normal debate.”

Says Maier, “In modern democracy, it’s become important for each group to understand the suffering of others. Each has its own pain. There’s a current effort not to come to terms with people’s legacies—the Holocaust for Jews, slavery for African-Americans. No one wins the debate, but there’s an attempt to diminish the legitimacy of the others’ experience.”

Fortunately, the effect of Lipstadt’s trial was the reverse: people were reminded of the horrors of Nazi Germany and educated about the dangers of resurgent anti-Semitism.

Lipstadt is already working on her next book, recounting her experiences leading up to and including the trial. “It’s a book only I can write,” she says.

Things might have gone differently, but as Abrams says, “She had just one thing going for her: the truth.”

Krista Reese is a frequent contributor to Emory Magazine.







© 2000 Emory University