“Certain things are true,” says the American historian Deborah Lipstadt in the newly-released movie, Denial. “Elvis is dead. The ice caps are melting. And the Holocaust did happen.
“Millions of Jews went to their deaths in camps and open pits in a brutal genocide which was sanctioned and operated by the leaders of the Third Reich. There are some subjects about which two points of view are not equally valid.”
On September 5, 1996, the British author and Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall in the movie) filed a libel suit against Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) and her British publisher Penguin Books.
In 1993, in her book, Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt had called Irving a Holocaust denier and accused him of distorting evidence and manipulating historical documents.
Irving had authored a series of books about the Third Reich and World War II. Among these: The War Path; Hitler’s War; The Trail of the Fox (a biography of Erwin Rommel); and The War Between the Generals (on the infighting among the Allied high command).
Of these, Hitler’s War (1977) was–and remains–the most controversial. Although Irving admitted that the Holocaust had occurred, he claimed that Hitler hadn’t ordered it–or even known about it. He blamed Reichsfuhrer-SS Henirich Himmler and his number-two deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, as its architects.
For decades, Irving boasted that no one had ever found a written order from Hitler ordering the Holocaust–and offered to pay £1000 to anyone who could find such an order.
In later years, Irving completely denied that the Holocaust had occurred. He claimed that gas chambers had never been used to exterminate Jews and there was no officially-sanctioned Third Reich plan to slaughter European Jewry.
But Irving claimed that Lipstadt’s labeling him a Holocaust denier had tarred him as a disreputable historian–and had thus damaged his professional reputation.
Irving sued in a British court because the burden would be on the defendant to prove that s/he had not committed libel. (In American courts, the plaintiff must not only prove s/he has been libeled, but with actual malice.)
Lipstadt faced a second hurdle: Her lawyers ordered her to not take the witness stand. They wanted to put and keep the focus entirely on Irving–and to make his virulent anti-Semitism the issue in the case.
In her 2005 autobiography, Denial, Lipstadt described the agonies she endured in preparing for–and sitting through–this trial:
“For four years I immersed myself in the works of a man who exuded contempt for me and much of what I believed. I lost many nights of sleep, worried that because of some legal fluke Irving might prevail.”
For Lipstadt, more was at stake than the possibility of losing a big chunk of money.
Above all, she feared that an Irving victory would give anti-Semites a legal precedent for “proving” that the extermination of six million Jewish men, women and children hadn’t occurred.
The case was tried in a London court from January to March, 2000.
Entering court on the first morning of trial, Irving assured the assembled reporters that he would be victorious.
Asked where his legal team was, he said he had chosen to represent himself: They might know the law, but he knew the topic–Hitler and the Third Reich.
The outcome was a disaster–for Irving.
Among the expert witnesses testifying on behalf of Lipstadt was Richard J. Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge University and author of a three-volume history on the Third Reich. In his examination of Irving’s work, Evans found:
“Not one of [Irving’s] books, speeches or articles, not one paragraph, not one sentence in any of them, can be taken on trust as an accurate representation of its historical subject.
“All of them are completely worthless as history, because Irving cannot be trusted anywhere, in any of them, to give a reliable account of what he is talking or writing about. … if we mean by historian someone who is concerned to discover the truth about the past, and to give as accurate a representation of it as possible, then Irving is not a historian.”
Judge Charles Gray found that:
“Irving had for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence” and that “for the same reasons, he had portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favorable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews.”
The judge also found that Irving was “an active Holocaust denier; that he was anti-Semitic and racist and that he associated with right-wing extremists who promoted neo-Nazism.”
Irving was discredited as a historian and ordered to pay all of Penguin’s costs of the trial, estimated to be as much as £2 million ($3.2 million in American currency). When Irving didn’t pay, he was forced into bankruptcy and lost his home.
Asked by a reporter, “Will you stop denying the Holocaust on the basis of this judgment?” Irving replied, “Good Lord, no.”
Denying the truth about the past didn’t work for David Irving. Soon America will discover if it works for Donald Trump.