History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving

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9780060593766: History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving

In 1993, Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish Studies at Emory University, published the first comprehensive history of the Holocaust denial movement. In this critically acclaimed account, Lipstadt called David Irving –– a prolific, respected, and well–known writer on World War II who had, over the years, made controversial statements about Hitler and the Jews –– one of the most dangerous spokespersons of the denial movement. A year later, when Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin UK, for libel in a London courtroom, the media spotlight fell on Deborah Lipstadt and, by extension, on the historiography of the Holocaust. Five years later, when David Irving lost his case after an intense ten–week trial, Lipstadt's resounding victory was proclaimed on front pages of newspapers worldwide. The implications of the trial, however, were far from over.

History on Trial is Deborah Lipstadt's personal, riveting chronicle of the legal battle with Irving, in which she went from a relatively quiet existence as a professor at an American university to being a defendant in a sensational libel case. This blow–by–blow account reveals how Lipstadt raised $1.5 million for her defense, which included a first–rate team of solicitors, historians, and experts, among them Anthony Julius, a literary scholar who is better known as the late Princess Diana's divorce lawyer. Lipstadt describes how in forced silence she endured Irving's relentless provocations, including his claims that more people died in Senator Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, that survivors tattooed numbers on their arms to make money, and that nonwhite people are a different "species." She also reveals how her lawyers gained access to Irving's personal papers, which exposed his association with neo–Nazi extremists in Germany, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, and the National Alliance, which wants to transform America into an "Aryan society." In the course of the trial, Lipstadt's legal team stripped away Irving's mask of respectability through exposing the prejudice, extremism, and distortion of history that defined his work, even his once highly regarded account of the Dresden bombing.

Part history, part edge–of–your–seat courtroom drama, History on Trial goes beyond the historiography of World War II and the Holocaust to reveal the intricate way in which extremism and deliberate historical distortions gain widespread legitimacy and help generate hatred. An inspiring personal story of perseverance and unexpected limelight, here is the definitive account of the trial that tested the standards for historical and judicial truths, a trial that the Daily Telegraph of London proclaimed did "for the new century what the Nuremberg tribunals or the Eichmann trial did for earlier generations."

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About the Author:

Deborah E. Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies and director of the Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University. She is the author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.

From The Washington Post:

In 1993, Deborah E. Lipstadt's groundbreaking Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory dissected a fringe, relatively isolated phenomenon of hard-core deniers. By the time she walked into a British court in 2000 to defend herself against a libel suit filed by one of those deniers, David Irving, Holocaust denial had been so transformed as to have become a critical part of the mushrooming global anti-Semitic movement.

Today Holocaust denial -- roughly analogous to maintaining that slavery never existed in the United States -- consists of a growing and sophisticated network of anti-Semites who either deny that there was a Holocaust or deny certain fundamental aspects of the Holocaust (such as the basic facts of Poles' or the Catholic Church's participation in crimes). Meanwhile, fellow travelers join in by radically minimizing aspects of the Holocaust or attacking Holocaust scholars or survivors as hucksters. The effect -- and the usually explicit agenda of these traducers -- is to spread suspicion and lies about Jews (in newspapers, books, speeches and all over the Internet), especially those revolving around conspiracy theories about shadowy webs of Jewish power.

This 21st-century context for the libel suit emerging from her 20th-century book (which was featured on the cover of Book World on its release) made Lipstadt's trial more than a difficult personal odyssey and more than an admirably executed exercise in exposing the fraudulence of one of a long list of scholar-masqueraders. The trial was an event, covered around the world, of substantial social and political importance. The truth of the Holocaust was in no sense on trial. Still, had Irving prevailed on the narrow legal issue -- showing that Lipstadt libeled him by calling him a denier -- anti-Semites and gullible reporters would have falsely played the verdict as casting doubt on the existence of the Holocaust itself.

Lipstadt's memoir tacks closely to the events themselves. A disciplined writer, she does not wander into long detours on the many philosophical or sociological paths along her way. Rather, she delivers a well-paced, expertly detailed and fascinating account of the trial process, including the long months of preparation and the courtroom proceedings themselves. Among other things, she provides an education in the very different character of Britain's libel laws (where the defendant must affirmatively prove the veracity of her statements), legal procedures (one kind of lawyer, a solicitor, prepares the case; another, a barrister, tries it) and rules and customs at trial. This alone will interest those by now so familiar with the American legal system.

The core of the book is the preparation for the discrediting of Irving's writings (which cannot properly be called either scholarship or history) and, ultimately, the destruction of his international reputation. Irving had until then been a popular peddler of apologetics for Hitler and German wartime crimes. Even before becoming a full-fledged denier, Irving denied -- against all evidence -- that Hitler even knew of the mass murder of Jews. Shockingly, Irving had been taken seriously by a part of the politicized historical profession that has a weakness for such exculpatory writings. Lipstadt's solicitor, the estimable Anthony Julius (who was also the late Princess Diana's divorce lawyer), was not among them. As he explained to Lipstadt early on, "We will argue that Irving subordinated the truth for ideological purposes and that his comments about the Holocaust were designed to spread antisemitism and engender sympathy for the Third Reich."

So they did. Aided by a team of expert witnesses, Lipstadt's barrister demolished both Irving's general claim that he was not a denier and his individual fabrications (including that Auschwitz had no functioning gas chambers used to exterminate Jews, and that the Germans' systematic mass shootings of Jews in the east were merely arbitrary, unauthorized "Mi Lai-type massacres"). Although this was a great team effort and a major legal victory, their task was inherently easy; Irving was the historians' equivalent of a flat-earther, and he had also previously been on record denying that the Holocaust happened. ("I don't see any reason to be tasteful about Auschwitz," Irving declared in 1991 before a group of rightists and neo-Nazis. "It's baloney. It's a legend. . . . more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz.")

Lipstadt's resounding legal victory in a trial that lasted nearly three months was made still easier by Irving himself, a train wreck in the courtroom. To get the flavor of his behavior, consider another part of his 1991 speech to the neo-Nazis (his arithmetic, of course, is as inaccurate as his taste is vulgar): "There are so many Auschwitz survivors going around, in fact the number increases as the years go past, which is biologically very odd to say the least, because I am going to form an Association of Auschwitz survivors, survivors of the Holocaust and other liars. . . . A-S-S-H-O-L-S." Irving, we see, is an inspiration for those today who attack wholesale the truthfulness of survivors. If he were not so unlikable, so shameless in his lies, it would be hard not to squirm when reading of his courtroom buffoonery and string of embarrassing setbacks.

Lipstadt's steadfastness, which can be seen throughout this book, stood her and historical truth well. A lesser person might have wilted under the enormous financial and media pressure. Against her nature, Lipstadt followed Julius's instruction to remain silent throughout, never speaking either in court or to the media that were not entirely fair to her. Only after the verdict did the world finally hear her voice, and only with this book do we hear it fully for the first time.

Reviewed by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Copyright 2005, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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