Deborah Lipstadt
whose years in court
with a Holocaust denier
inspired the new film

October 3, 2016

in Interviews


Deborah Lipstadt

Deborah Lipstadt
Photo: Charles Munitz
Boston Arts Diary

A talk with the author of the groundbreaking Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1993) who, after publication of the book, was taken to libel court in Britain by a prominent Holocaust denier, David Irving, the story of which is the basis of the current film Denial starring Rachel Weisz.

Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, wrote a groundbreaking work, Denying the Holocaust, in 1993 in order to address the issue of those extremist “historians” who have sought to promote the position that the Holocaust as commonly understood as the systematic extermination of millions of people, mostly Jews, during World War II, was, to one extent or another, a fiction.

Lipstadt’s book catalogues many of these approaches in the hopes of calling them into question. As a result of allegations in her book, Lipstadt was taken to libel court in 1996 in Britain by one of these “historians,” David Irving, and Lipstadt, with the aid of a team of British lawyers, significantly including Anthony Julius and Richard Rampton, successfully, over the course of seven years, defended herself against Irving’s accusations.

Denial (2016), a film directed by Mick Jackson with a screenplay by David Hare and starring Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt, is currently in release (scheduled to open in Boston on October 7). It’s a dramatized account of Lipstadt’s trial against Irving, well documented in Lipstadt’s account History on Trial: My Day In Court With David Irving (2005).

I got to speak with Lipstadt who was in Boston on September 22nd in anticipation of the release of the film. The following is an excerpted and edited version of that conversation.

CM (Charles Munitz, aka BADMan): Your character (as portrayed in Denial by Rachel Weisz), demonstrates incredible passion and outrage at the capacity of this character, David Irving, to say the sorts of things he does, while, at the same time, exhibits a growing appreciation that the more specific, evidence based, approach taken by your British lawyers, Anthony Julius and Richard Rampton, was the necessary one.

DL (Deborah Lipstadt): Look – it’s a movie. David Hare’s genius was in looking for, and finding, the film’s dramatic arc. He realized that the dramatic arc couldn’t be about my relationship with Irving just because he was a no-goodnick. Hare shows Irving in the beginning and at the end on television saying of course I’m going to go on denying the Holocaust, which gives a good sense of who he is. Clearly Hare wanted to show how viscerally I reacted against Irving, but he also picked up on the fact that I had a tense relationship with the lawyers, particularly at the beginning before I fully understood what they were doing and before I could get over my passions. The movie, for necessary dramatic purposes, makes more of that tension than really was the case. But it did take me awhile to separate out my passion for this cause and my sense of outrage at characters like Irving to settle into a confident relationship with my lawyers and their legal approach. I wound up giving up seven years of my life to fight this thing. Books didn’t get written, students didn’t get advised, I went back and forth to London; it was tedious, hard and exhausting. To listen to Irving’s lies and not be able to respond generated a lot of emotion for me, but ultimately I also understood, I got what my lawyers were doing. It took me awhile, but I did get it, and they were right and I was completely wrong.

CM: At various points you have refused to engage in debate with Holocaust deniers like Irving, but this lawsuit brought by him caused a kind of direct confrontation that ultimately won your day in court. This raises the interesting question about how generally to engage with extremists like Irving. It seems there are two generally held positions about this. One argues for refusing engagement so as not to give such people any further publicity; the other argues for raising one’s voice immediately against them in hopes of directly quashing their incendiary views.

DL: My answer is: it depends. There’s no simple answer. There’s no cookie cutter for all of them. You can’t fight every battle. But there are certain battles you can’t turn away from.

CM: You were brought into a battle by Irving, but didn’t you draw the ire of people like him by publishing Denying The Holocaust?

DL: But I didn’t write the book to battle with them! I wrote the original book to address the people who might be confused about who these Holocaust deniers are and think Yes, I believe the Holocaust happened, but were there really gas chambers? Maybe there’s something to what they’re saying! Answering these questions is very important, but you have to do it with facts. Anthony Julius said something very significant to me. It’s portrayed in the film as part of the trial but actually I was standing in his office. I said I want to destroy this guy, I want to win this. He said Deborah, he’s not important. And I looked at him like he was nuts and I said You have spent hours and hours working pro bono, you’re now working at a highly reduced rate, you’re spending all your time with this and you say it’s not important??? And he said to me Think of it as the dirt you step on in the street – it has not intrinsic importance unless you fail to get it off your feet and bring it into the house and get it on the carpet – then you’re in trouble. In other words – David Irving is not important, David Duke is not important, the important thing is to expose their lies but then move on in an affirmative way. Defeat them, expose them, and do it in a way without building them up. It’s hard. There’s no cookie-cutter way to do it. Each case is different.

CM: This raises obvious questions, as well, about academic freedom.

DL: If you go to the internet, search for “Deborah Lipstadt and the Oxford Union,” the oldest debating society other than the Friday night table of many Jews. I spoke there during the course of the trial and they posted my comments against laws outlawing Holocaust denial. Should Holocaust denial be outlawed? I said No! I don’t want to cede to politicians the authority to decide what can or cannot be said. I was just in Germany and talking with a very bright young man and he said No, no, there are certain things that should be illegal to say! Mine is a very American approach, but I think nothing should trump free speech. I don’t want some judge or politicians to specify what constitutes racist talk or not. That doesn’t work, it’s antithetical to what we are as a country. But if it’s not going to be outlawed, it puts a responsibility on those of us who believe in freedom of speech to challenge them, not to simply acquiesce and say oh, we’ve got freedom of speech, they can say whatever they want.

CM: So does this bring any different perspective on the issue of engaging in debate with these characters?

DL: I don’t think so. Would you debate someone who says the earth is flat? Then you’re saying there’s an opinion that the earth is flat and an opinion that it’s not flat. I would expose them, I’d talk about them. There’s a small organization but they get attention every once in awhile, called NAMBLA – North American Man-Boy Love Association – a group of people who say sexual relations between adult men and young boys is a good thing because it shows boys how much they’re loved. I wouldn’t engage them in debate! It’s disgusting, it’s child abuse. I might debate someone about what we should do about people who are child abusers. Should be we lock them up and throw away the key? Should we put them on medicine which castrates them, makes them impotent? But to debate them? To spend my time in serious conversation with them? To treat them as worthy opponents? Should I sit across a famous child psychologist and argue against child abuse while they argue the opposite? I’m not going to give them that. They’re liars, that’s the whole point. Holocaust deniers are liars. Why should someone who is an historian of the Holocaust give a liar a platform? I’ll debate someone who’ll say that the Holocaust was not fundamentally about anti-Semitism but was about Hitler as an expansionist who wanted to conquer Europe and the Holocaust was a by-product. But I won’t debate someone who denies it.

CM: I was curious about your assessment of Cambridge-based documentary director Errol Morris and his 1999 film about Fred A. Leuchter (Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.) whose testimony about Auschwitz figures significantly, on Irving’s side, in your trial.

DL: I saw a rough cut of Errol’s work at a very early stage and Errol is so smart he thought that everyone is going to hear this guy and think this guy is a flaming idiot. I was sitting there appalled and Errol was sitting there chuckling at how crazy this guy was. I said You can’t do this. I think Errol subsequently screened an early version to some university students and some walked out and asked Was Leuchster telling the truth or not? and Errol realized he had to bring experts into the film – Robert Jan Van Pelt (who also testified at Lipstadt’s trial) and others – and I think it ended up being a good movie. He’s a magnificent filmmaker.

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