By Deborah E. Lipstadt, PhD
If you’re looking forward to seeing the movie “Denial” (2016), starring Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall, you must read History on Trial. It’s the book on which the movie is based.
The story is a courtroom thriller based on the 1996 libel suit that author David Irving brought against historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books for publishing Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.
Irving, author of more than 30 books on World War II, including The Destruction of Dresden, Hitler’s War, Churchill’s War and Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich, has repeatedly alleged that because no one can produce a written order from Hitler ordering the extermination of the Jews, there was no formal, organized genocide.
By bringing suit in British courts, Irving forced Lipstadt and Penguin to prove the statements about him in Denying the Holocaust were true. In effect, this meant that Lipstadt was presumed guilty until proven otherwise.
Had the case been brought in a U.S. court, Irving would have had the burden of proving that the statements were wrong and defamed him. Additionally, U.S. protection of freedom of speech would have allowed some latitude in what could be said about a public figure such as Irving.
History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier is Dr. Lipstadt’s own story of the five-year trial that ultimately led to a 334-page judgment detailing Irving’s systematic distortion of the historical record of World War II.
She initially found it difficult to believe that Irving’s suit would actually go to trial. As preparations for trial crept forward, she grew more and more concerned that the judge, spectators, media and the world at large would fail to understand the corrosive nature of the anti-Semitism underlying Holocaust denial.
Irving has claimed that the diary of Anne Frank is a forgery written by an American screenwriter. While he claims Jewish deaths at Nazi hands were greatly exaggerated, he alleges that civilian deaths from the bombing of Dresden were greatly underreported.
Because the media tended to cover Irving as a historian with an alternative perspective on World War II, Lipstadt was concerned readers would take his allegations as factual. Lipstatdt was horrified to preview a documentary about Irving and learn that the filmmaker felt no need to counter Irving’s statements. In his eyes, the statements were so fallacious they needed no further discussion. In Lipstadt’s eyes, they could easily be taken as truth by poorly informed or antisemitic viewers.
History on Trial is a suspenseful, engaging courtroom drama. Lipstadt’s and Penguin’s legal team meticulously documented examples of Irving’s misstatements, omission of contextual information and extensive involvement with anti-Semitic and Holocaust denying organizations. The team physically went to Auschwitz, uncovering documentation that redesigns of the former morgues at the camp were handled in a significantly different way than other routine architectural changes.
In response to a request from Lipstadt, the government of Israel released Adolf Eichmann’s memoirs, written between his conviction and execution in 1962 to the public for the first time.
Irving represented himself during the trial. While he repeatedly dismissed his own inaccuracies as minor errors typical of any scholar handling volumes of information, he viewed any statement made by Lipstadt as having purposeful and malicious intentions toward him. In one bizarre incident, he actually addressed Justice Charles Gray as “mein führer.”
One morning, Lipstadt is approached in the corridor by an older woman, who rolls up her cardigan sleeve to show the numbers tattooed on her arm and thanks Lipstadt for all that she is going through to protect the truth of what happened.
Anyone who has ever thought or said the words, “Never again,” in relationship to the Holocaust should read this book. While nothing can take away the facts of what happened, Holocaust deniers and those who give them unchallenged public attention rob us all of the lessons of that terrible time.
For additional information about the trial and David Irving’s writings, read Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans’ book, Lying about Hitler: History, Holocaust, and The David Irving Trial. Evans served as an expert witness in support of Lipstadt at the trial.
The movie is being released this month as “Denial.”
The Author: Deborah Lipstadt, PhD
Deborah Lipstadt is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. She was a consultant to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In 1994, she was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and served two terms.
She spent her junior year of college in Israel during the Six-Day War, where she stayed as an exchange student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She completed her undergraduate work in American history through the City College of New York in 1969. She completed a master’s degree and a doctorate degree in Jewish history at Brandeis University.
In addition to History on Trial, she wrote Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory and The Eichmann Trial.