My ordeal with Irving showed `I was wrong to laugh 20 years ago’ 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. At the trial of Ernst Zundel, the Canadian Holocaust denier, he 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 [which] 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.”
That same year he declared it his goal to “sink the Battleship Auschwitz.”
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.
A couple of lawyers’ letters, I naively assumed, and all would be resolved. 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.
His talks are replete with references to how he is being persecuted by the Jewish community. In 1992, he told an audience that “our old traditional enemies” are “the great international merchant banks [which] are controlled by people who are no friends of yours and mine.”
In Baton Rogue, La., he told a critic in the audience whom he assumed was a Jew: “You people aren’t liked either. You are not just disliked in the way that I am disliked in that you get bad reviews from the newspapers. You’re disliked in the way that people put you in concentration camps and line you up on the edge of tank pits and machine gun you into them.”
He talks not only about what has been done to Jews, but what will be done to them.
In 1984, he blamed Jewish organizations for the cancellation of his book contract and cautioned that “they will live long to regret it.”
In 1998, he compared American Jews’ professional success to Jews in Weimar Germany and warned that such success might give “rise to the…same dire consequences as happened in Nazi Germany.”
Regarding a Holocaust memorial in Baltimore, he asked, “Why do we need a memorial…we haven’t done anything to the Jews yet.”
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 Protocols of the Elders of Zion are proven forgeries that are based on a ludicrous premise. Nonetheless, they continue to circulate. 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.
Though I would never have placed myself in the arena with him, once dragged in, I had no option but to fight. I have consistently refused to debate deniers. I have declined appearances on talk shows and news programs because they entailed appearing with a denier, giving the notion that there are two sides to this issue.
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.”
An experienced litigant, Irving may have assumed I would “settle,” i.e. pay some symbolic figure, apologize to him and agree to the withdrawal of my book from publication.
Two years prior to my book’s publication, Irving described what happens to defendants in libel actions: “There comes a very expensive stage for both parties known as discovery…discovery is an ugly phase, for plaintiff and defendant, when you face each across a lawyer’s table…and you say, `I want to see your documents and you can see mine.’ And at that stage usually the defendants crack up and cop out.”
I was wrong to laugh 20 years ago when I first heard about deniers. I was wrong to laugh when I opened the letter informing me that Irving was considering a suit. And I was entirely wrong to assume that it was just a nuisance. It was far more than that.
But David Irving was far more wrong than I if he thought that I would “crack up and cop out.” I did neither. I fought this charge with all my strength. It was a demanding battle. Yet, on some level, it has also been a surprisingly rewarding endeavor. It taught me much about evil, but it also taught me about goodness, friendship and about doing the right thing. That too is part of this story.
Deborah E. Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. On April 11, 2000, a British court ruled against Irving, who had sued Lipstadt and Penguin Books, the publisher of her book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.