CAST OF CHARACTERS (IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE)
PLAINTIFF: DAVID IRVING
DEFENDANT: DEBORAH LIPSTADT
DEFENDANT: PENGUIN BOOKS LTD
BARRISTER: ANTHONY JULIUS
EXPERT WITNESS: SIR RICHARD J. EVANS
BARRISTER: RICHARD RAMPTON
JUNIOR COUNSEL: HEATHER ROGERS
EXPERT WITNESS: ROBERT JAN VAN PELT
JUDGE: SIR CHARLES GRAY
SIXTEEN YEARS LATER, THE ORIGINAL "CAST MEMBERS" LOOK BACK AT THE FAMOUS TRIAL THAT DEBUNKED HOLOCAUST REVISIONISM--AND CHANGED THEIR LIVES.
I was surprised when, the morning after I'd sent him an email, David Irving consented to my request for an interview. Frankly, I hadn't imagined he'd want to talk about the 2000 libel trial in which he was found to be "an active Holocaust denier," a racist and anti-Semite, and someone who "persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence" in Adolf Hider's favor--thus bankrupting him and ending his career as a historian. But once we'd got past the thorny issue of a date, Irving seemed more than willing to talk. Indeed, he even offered to pick me up from Inverness Airport and make up a room in the Scottish Highlands cottage where he now lives and works. (I politely declined both offers.)
Since Irving's overwhelming defeat in Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd, and Deborah Lipstadt, he hasn't been heard from much. That is not to say he is a recluse, but these days he is largely visible only through his website, where one can buy his books and read his pithy takes on recent news events: "Job applicants tells [sic] BBC wants people only from (less intelligent) 'ethnic minority' backgrounds--but the minority will soon be us White people, if this 'migration' madness is not halted." Irving collects donations to fund his endeavors--the third volume of his Winston Churchill biography, as well as his memoirs and a study of Heinrich Himmler--though he has not published an original work of history since 1997.
I hadn't thought anything was, or would be, untoward until a week before our meeting, when I found myself reading the intrepid journalist Will Storr's 2014 study of those who hold counterfactual beliefs, The Unpersuadables, which includes a chapter on one of Irving's newer lines of work: leading oddballs on tours of World War II and Holocaust sites in Poland, including Hitler's Wolf's Lair and the Treblinka and Majdanek concentration camps. Storr, who tagged along on one of these trips, thought Irving mercurial and bad-tempered, either forgetful or dismissive of his promise of an interview. Would this be my fate, too? After finally sitting down with Irving, Storr concluded, "It is as if no evidence could ever be good enough to persuade Irving that the idea of his life has been a terrible mistake."
Sure enough, the weekend before I was due to fly up to Scotland, an email arrived in my inbox: "I am sorry to say I have to cancel our projected talk on Wednesday, as it clashes with another engagement. Sorry, but this is how things go. Suggest another date, perhaps." My plea that I had booked the flights and a car went unheeded. "Unfortunate," he replied. After some back and forth, we agreed to a telephone interview.
I absolutely had to speak with Irving, a central figure in this most infamous of cases, set to be revisited in a movie due out this month. Denial--directed by Mick Jackson with a screenplay by David Hare--is adapted from Deborah Lipstadt's memoir History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier. The Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz plays Lipstadt, while Timothy Spall is Irving. Although several documentaries were made in the immediate aftermath of the case, Denial will mark the first time it has been fully dramatized. The plot begins on a clear Georgia day in the fall of 1995, when an unsuspecting professor of Jewish and Holocaust studies receives a letter that will change her life.
In 1993, Deborah Lipstadt was, then as now, teaching at Emory University, where she created the Institute for Jewish Studies, and published Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Irving, she wrote, was "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial." He had been accused of "skewing documents and misrepresenting data ... to reach historically untenable conclusions, particularly those that exonerate Hitler." He was a "self-described 'moderate fascist'" who associated with right-wing extremists. He was "converted ... to the idea that the gas chambers were a myth," he called Auschwitz a "tourist attraction" and he questioned the veracity of Anne Frank's diary.
Denying the Holocaust sold few copies in Britain, and Lipstadt was far from the first to call Irving a Holocaust denier. But something about that book raised Irving's hackles. In late 1994, he traveled to Atlanta, crashed one of Lipstadt's campus lectures and hijacked the question-and-answer session. The audience turned around to see Irving brandishing one of his books. He told the assembled students that what Lipstadt had said about the Holocaust was a lie. Withdrawing from his jacket pocket $1,000 in cash, all in $20 bills, and waving the bundle aloft, he offered the sum to the first person able to provide evidence for the existence of the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Irving later described Lipstadt as indignant. Certainly she was caught off guard and taken aback by the incident.
A year later, Lipstadt received the letter announcing that Irving planned to sue her for libel. "I laughed," Lipstadt recalls in her distinctive New York accent. Notwithstanding the commotion Irving had caused during her lecture, she thought Irving's threat was ludicrous. Indeed, Lipstadt was perplexed as to why he was suing her "over something of which he is quite proud." Over the next year, it became apparent that this was no laughing matter. From one letter grew a multi-million-pound libel dispute that would consume several years of Lipstadt's life and put on the line not only her reputation as a historian but the world's understanding of the Holocaust.
When I reach Irving over the phone, I catch him during a lunch engagement in Nairn--just up the road from Inverness--which Irving excuses himself from in order to chat. Away from the table and out on the street, Irving's words are slightly muffled, buffeted by maritime winds and passing traffic. While occasionally prone to rambling, at 78, he is still quite sharp. He sued Lipstadt, he says, because she "led a campaign against St. Martin's Press to persuade them" not to publish his book, Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich. Lipstadt has always denied this, and there's no evidence to suggest she played a role in the publisher's decision. Her opinion on whether Irving's book should be published first surfaces in Frank Rich's column in The New York Times in April 1996, a year after Irving threatened to sue.
The Goebbels controversy--or what Irving made of it--fed his belief that he was the victim of an international Jewish conspiracy to silence him. By suing Lipstadt, he believed he could strike a blow against what he called the "enemies of truth." Lipstadt--whose deep ties to Judaism and the Jewish community can be traced through her childhood in New York's Rockaways, her student days when she undertook a mission to the Soviet Union to aid refuseniks, and her academic career in Jewish studies--became a symbol in his mind. Irving tells me he believes "people like Steven Spielberg ... were rounded up ... before the trial" to raise money for her defense.
Irving also felt genuinely wounded by what Lipstadt had written, particularly the accusations that called into question his reputation as a historian. Lipstadt did "very real damage to my professional existence," Irving would later proclaim in court. He compared the label "Holocaust denier" to "being called a wife beater or a pedophile. It is enough for the label to be attached for the attachee to find himself designated as a pariah, an outcast from normal society. It is a verbal yellow star."
Above all, Irving likely sued Lipstadt because he considered her a soft target, especially after their encounter in Atlanta. He may have assumed that as an American academic--and as a woman--Lipstadt wouldn't fight back and might settle rather than be dragged through the English courts, which are famously friendly to libel claimants. Lipstadt had "the misfortune of standing in line with all the other critics," Irving concludes, "and I picked on her to sue."
The trial having done for him what the duel did...