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Deborah Lipstadt Fights a Holocaust Denier

In April, a London court found historian Deborah Lipstadt “not guilty” of libel for calling the infamous David Irving a Holocaust denier in her book Denying the Holocaust. Because of the peculiarity of English libel law, Lipstadt needed to prove that Irving knowingly denied facts about the Holocaust that he knew to be true. She set out to prove her case, and in the process to prove the truth of the Holocaust as well. She offers here her reflections on the experience.

In 1995, when I opened a letter informing me that David Irving was suing me for libel for calling him a Holocaust denier, I had precisely the same reaction that I had 20 years earlier when I first heard that there were people who denied the Holocaust. I laughed.

Why, I wondered, take this seriously? Holocaust-deniers reminded me of flat-earth theorists. The idea was preposterous.

Irving’s charges seemed equally preposterous. He had repeatedly denied the Holocaust. He had said there was no “Reich policy to kill the Jews” and “no documents whatsoever show that a Holocaust had ever happened.”

In Germany, Irving declared the Holocaust a “blood lie [that] has been pronounced on the German people.” In 1991, he dropped mention of the Holocaust from his new edition of Hitler’s biography because “if something didn’t happen then you don’t even dignify it with a footnote.”

Given this record, how could he claim that I libeled him by calling him a denier? This was, I presumed, a nuisance lawsuit, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

But Irving was doing this in England, where the laws favor the plaintiff. I had to prove the truth of what I said. He did not have to prove the falsehood.

I never anticipated the havoc this fight would wreak with my professional and personal life. At the post-verdict news conference, I was asked: “Given all that has happened, would you write the same things about Irving?”

The answer was “No.” Were I writing my book now, I would write even more harshly about him. This legal action, which he instigated, allowed my lawyers to demand the release of reams of his personal papers documenting his activities. We know far more about him than we ever did before. We hoisted him on his own petard.

I fought him because I could not run from evil, even when the evil is rooted in nonsense, for nonsense can cause significant damage. The Holocaust teaches that evildoers must be stopped early, before they can inflict much damage. Hitler was far less of a foe in the early 1930s than in the 1940s. So, too, deniers must be stopped now.

I have not yet fully unpacked what it meant to be a defendant in a libel suit that brought together the Holocaust, free speech, and historiography. I shall never forget as I entered the court on the first day being told by survivors: “We are counting on you.”

Nor shall I forget being enveloped after the trial by a man outside the courtroom who said: “My parents died in Auschwitz. In their name: Thank you.”