In 1993, Deborah E. Lipstadt's "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. The trial was an event, covered around the world.
Lipstadt was online Tuesday, Feb. 22, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss her book and her six-year legal battle.
Lipstadt is Dorot professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies and director of the Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University.
Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday'sBook Worldsection.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Do you agree that David Irving lost his case not based on facts but rather because the judge was afraid that, as it says in Book World, "...had Irving prevailed on the narrow legal issue... (it would have cast) doubt on the ... Holocaust itself."
A few years ago I heard David Irving speak and bought one of his books. He did not deny the Holocaust, he merely presented facts.
Deborah E. Lipstadt: Irving lost his case because on every historical issue that we brought up he was repeatedly shown to have either lied, perverted the evidence, ignored available evidence, or committed some other historical "malfeasance." There were no "legal" issues as such involved in the case. In fact, the judge said exactly that on the day of the verdict when he rejected Irving's attempt to appeal on the basis of the legal issues involved. The judge said, there are none, there are only historical issues.
Deborah E. Lipstadt: For those interested in transcripts of the trial, the expert witness reports, the Judge's judgment, and other material on the trial, you might be interested in going to www.hdot.org. It is an Emory-sponsored website on the trial. No bells or whistles just documentation.
You might also want to check out lipstadt.blogspot.com
Did anyone ever take David Irving to Auschwitz and the other death camps?
Deborah E. Lipstadt: Irving made a big fuss at the trial that he is banned from visiting Auschwitz. When my barrister reminded him that the Auschwitz ban was not issued until eight years after he first testified [at the Zundel trial] that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Why, my barrister inquired, in those intervening eight years did he not ever visit the archives? Irving, chuckling, said he would probably have been banned earlier if he had tried to visit. "It is like the big casinos in Las Vegas. They do not the want the big winners to come." When he said that I heard someone in the public gallery gasp. I almost fainted. [See History on Trial, pp. 122-23.]
A voice from your past here. First, congratulations on your perseverance not to mention your victory.
My question relates to the academic community here in the U.S. In the past decade, it seems to be swinging in a more anti-Israel direction which often translates into anti-Semitism. Did you find your peers at colleges and universities supportive of you or did they keep their distance.
Deborah E. Lipstadt: Some of my colleagues [not here at Emory] thought the whole thing was silly. They compare Irving to a flat-earth theorist upon whom it is of no use to expend any time or energy. They contended that I should simply ignore him. Of course, given the nature of British libel laws, I could not do that.
Palo Alto, Calif.:
Thanks for carrying the truth torch, and inveighing against an Orwellian mind-set.
Deborah E. Lipstadt: Thanks for your good wishes. I did what I had to do. In the UK the burden of proof was on me. Had I not fought him he would have won by default. I could not let that happen
The fact that 6 millions Jews died in the Holocaust is so widely accepted that almost no one asks the obvious question -- what are the sources for this number and how reliable are they? (Not to suggest the number is zero; but how well established is six million as opposed to 4 or 10 million?)
On a related question -- the number of non-Jews killed is usally quoted as 2 to 6 million. Why is this number known to only a rough approximation, while the number of Jews is almost universally accepted at a single figure?
Deborah E. Lipstadt: Our guesstimate is based on comparing the pre-war Jewish population with the number of survivors. There are, in fact, respected historians [Hilberg] who have lower numbers and those who, in the light of information gleaned from archives that were opened after the fall of the Soviet Union, argue that it is higher. It is generally accepted to be between 5-6 million.
Regarding non-Jews: the number 2-6 million has no basis in fact. It depends who you are counting. The number of Soviet citizens, for example, who died in the war is far higher than that. Are you refering to non-Jews who died in concentration camps? In that case the number is far lower. Are you talking about wartime casulties? On the battlefield? Off?
Simon Wiesenthal used to talk of the 11 million victims [6 Jews, 5 non-Jews]of the Holocaust. until historians challenged him to demonstrate what 5 million non-Jews he was talking about. He had to admit he virtually pulled the number out of the air. There were many more than 5 million non-Jewish deaths, but not as part of the Holocaust.
Is David Irving still active and what is the extent of his "influence" at this time?
Deborah E. Lipstadt: David Irving continues to lecture and [self] publish his books. He travels and lectures, speaking to his ardent supporters. From reading what he has to say about the case, I sometimes get the impression that he is dealing in "verdict" [actually its called a judgment] denial, i.e. you might think he won the case based on what he has to say about it.
What differences do you find between Holocaust denial when you wrote your book and today?
Deborah E. Lipstadt: As a result of the trial, all Holocaust denial arguments as they stood until 2001 have be shown to be completely bogus. The deniers suffered a real setback in that when the evidence was on the table their claims were shown to be essentially worthless.
Today, the most active area of Holocaust denial is the Arab/Muslim world. You see some really crude examples of it in that arena. In fact, some [though certainly not all] Arab/Muslim intellectuals have caustioned against using Holocaust denial [as well as known forgeries such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion] in the fight against Israel. It just, they argue, makes their side look silly.
The kind of Holocaust denial you see today in the Western world [particularly in Europe] is a comparison of the Holocaust with the actions of Israel. However one might feel about the State of Israel and its policies, there is no comparison. To do so is to whitewash the Third Reich
What is to be gained from denying The Holocaust? I mean, who benefits from making these claims? Is it an orchestrated effort by anti-semetic groups alone or are there others who benefit as well?
Deborah E. Lipstadt: It is primarily an antisemitic effort. There is a strange irony here. Deniers say the Holocaust did not happen but suggest that, should it have happened, it would have been entirely justified. [I know that is a convoluted sentence but these are people who think in a very convoluted fashion.]
Many deniers [it is hard to generalize about all of them] resent the sympathy they feel Jews have gained as a result of the Holocaust. They resent [if not more so] the existence of Israel. They cannot abide Jews.
Denying the Holocaust is deniers' way of getting at the Jews... or trying to do so.
What was Irving's aim in denying the Holocaust. Would you label him an antisemite?
Deborah E. Lipstadt: I am not sure of Irving's aims but I can tell you that the judge declared his writings, speeches, and comments to be antisemitic and racist.
It seems to me that another factor is that he loves the publicity and this wins him a lot of attention.
That, in fact, is one of the challenges in fighting these kind of folks. Defeating them without giving them undue pr.
What's wrong with denying history? It's really quite common. Goldhagen said Germans had genocide in their genes, until Birn and Finklestein demolished his case. Peters said Palestine was empty when the Zionists first came, until Finkelstein pointed out the flaws in her arguments. Many supporters of Israel claim the Palestinians left of their own accord in 1948, until Benny Morris showed the fraud in that argument. The Israeli and U.S. governments deny the holocaust of the Armenians, yet Bernard Lewis was fined by a Fench court for genocide denial. (And before you blow a gasket, remember the term "holocaust" was first used in a genocidal sense to describe what the Turks did to the Armenians). Cristol says the attack on the USS Liberty was a mistake, even though every survivor allowed to speak says otherwise, as Bamford notes. Yet all these falsifications persist today, encouraged by official governmental policies.
David Irving merely follows a long line of history deniers. It's worked for others, so why single out Mr. Irving? We can shelve his books alongside those of Goldhagen, Cristol, Peters and Lewis. Right in the Holocaust Museums across America.
Deborah E. Lipstadt: I am not going to point out all the historical flaws in your question. I just want to remind you that I did not go after Mr. Irving. He sued me. He tried to force me to withdraw my book from circulation. He tried to curtail my freedom of speech.
I don't believe in suing historians or dragging these issues into court. He does.
Falls Church, Va.:
Did Irving ever contact you privately after the legal battle? Also, do you ever fear that being so outspoken could make you a target?
Deborah E. Lipstadt: I don't see why I should have contacted him. I had nothing to say to him and I certainly had heard enough from him during the close to 3 month legal battle.
A target? Not really.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Would you say that the community of deniers is larger or smaller now than it was 10 or 20 years ago?
Deborah E. Lipstadt: It's a bit hard to answer that question. I don't think they have grown substantially but with the Internet their ability to spread their tales has grown. They get to "speak" to a wider audience than they did before.
I do believe that my trial -- by hewing closely to the facts -- dealt them a severe blow. As Judge Gray ruled. Their arguments about the Holocaust "distort," "pervert," "[are] misleading," "unjustified," "travesty, and "unreal."
How are Holocaust-denial claims presented (in Muslim/Arab world and the likes of Irving), in light of known facts and pictures that have been available for years? Are these "fakes," not unlike UFO sightings?
Deborah E. Lipstadt: I should have mentioned earlier that for examples of Holocaust denial in the Arab/Muslim world check out MEMRI, the organization which translates from the Arab press. It is a treasure trove of information.
Of course the "fakes" are like UFO sightings. There is no logic or factual basis to them. That's why I don't debate them. There is nothing to debate.
I am not suggesting that there is nothing to debate about the Holocaust. Historians engage in fierce debates, e.g. could Auschwitz have been bombed? Were the Germans "pre-disposed" to being willing executioners? When did Hitler et.al. decide on the murder of the Jews? These things are all open to debate. What is not open to debate is whether it happened or not. On that the victims, bystanders, perpetrators, documents, material evidence etc. etc. etc. all agree.
Can you tell us more about your work at Emory University?
Deborah E. Lipstadt: At Emory I teach about the Holocaust. I also have helped set up a website on my trial, www.hdot.org, which is, as I mentioned at the outset, a great resource for historical documentation about the trial.
Let me also briefly mention -- since you asked -- how supportive of me Emory was during this whole long story. I discuss it in the book. However, since we who work in the unviversity arena are so often cynical about university's and especially their administrations, I thought I should reiterate this.
In any case see History on Trial, pp. xvii-xix, 25, 68, 97, 151, 189, 203, 308-09.
I followed the trial closely, and was particularly impressed
by the detail of the judgment against Irving -- a complete
point-by-point evisceration of Irving's (sometimes
shifting) claims. Isn't it interesting, though, how even this
chat shows to what extraordinary lengths some people
will go to deny the evidence?
Deborah E. Lipstadt: Though I should not be surprised by it, it does continue to blow my mind. For examples of even more denial see some of the comments on lipstadt.blogspot.com [especially in relationship to Ward Churchill's declaration that there is no difference between a Deborah Lipstadt and an Adolf Eichmann].
Is the trial you had similar to the QB VII trial that Leon Uris was involved in many years ago?
Deborah E. Lipstadt: It is based on the same principle in that both Uris and I, as the defendants, were required to prove the truth of what we wrote as opposed to the Claimant [Plaintiff] having to prove the falsehood.
The difference is that Uris lost because he said the Polish doctor has been responsible for the death of thousands when he was responsible for "only" the death of hundreds. [He had to pay the fine of the lowest coin in the realm, a ha'penny.]
BTW, on the eve of the trial I made a small private pilgrimage to Courtroom 7 [QB 7] and resolved that while Uris lost in the courtroom but won in the court of public opinion, I wanted to win in both.
I just wanted to say thank you for all of your work. I studied the Holocaust while attending the University of Vermont and we would occasionally have a denier sign up for one of the classes or attend a lecture. It was flabergasting how steadfast these people were in their beliefs -- even when presented infallible truths such as detailed records kept at the camps, videos made (show anyone Night and Fog and they will understand the utter distruction of life), and many other examples. And I think that is the scariest part of it all.
Deborah E. Lipstadt: While deniers' attempts to pervert history are deeply disturbing, don't let them get you down. They really are unimportant [as long as we know how extensively they twist history] as are most haters, whomever the object of their hatred.
Also, when I last checked, there were more people in the US who believed Elvis was alive and well than who believed the Holocaust did not happen. That may only be half a consolation....
A few years ago a book called "Hitler's Willing Executioners" (or something like that) caused quite a controversy by suggesting that the existence of the Holocaust was wildely known and supported by the German populace.
Is there a common understanding of how many people willingly and with full knowledge participated?
Deborah E. Lipstadt: This is a very important question. We now know that many people in Germany had extensive knowledge of the killings. Let me give you just a few examples.
There was a professor who lived in Dresden, Victor Klemperer, who despite having to live in a "Jew house" and was prevented from having a radio, had no family members in the Wehrmacht, Einsatzgruppen, or SS [who could report firsthand on the mass shootings in the East or the killings in the camps] yet he was able to write in
August 1942 about a report of a 17 year old boy who died in a concentration camp. Boy supposedly died of colitis. Kelempers wondered, "Since when does a vigorous young person die of this?"
In mid-January 1943 Klemperer writes about suffering from a constant and ghastly fear of Auschwitz, a place from which no body every comes back.
Now if he knew this, imagine how much more people with direct contacts with the front knew.
BTW, there is new book by Eric Johnson and Kar-Heinz Reuband, What We Knew, [Basic Books] which is an oral history of Germans living during that time and addresses precisely this issue.
They demonstrate, as have many other historians before them including Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, just how extensive the knowledge of the killing and the participation -- directly and indirectly -- in it by Germans was.
You cite MEMRI as a source for information on Holocaust
denial in the Middle East. That seems ironic to me given
that that organization is extremely selective in what it
chooses to translate and publish.
Deborah E. Lipstadt: I can't speak to what MEMRI doesn't choose to translate and publish. I can only speak to what it does choose to translate and publish and much of that, especially in regard to antisemitism in general and the Holocaust in particular, is pretty frightening. [And MEMRI is not my only source for this kind of material.]
And no one has ever argued that their translations are off the mark.
Deborah E. Lipstadt: I think that there are a number of things to keep in mind regarding Holocaust denial in general and my trial in particular:
1. Irving sued me. As I said in answer to another question: I don't believe history belongs in the courtroom.
2. Irving lost in an overwhelming fashion. There was not ONE point of history on which he prevailed and, as Professor Richard Evans, our lead historical witness noted, on every single one of Irving's statements about the Holocaust he found a "tissue of lies."
3. More importantly however, is the fact that deniers themselves are really not important. In fact, they are pretty pathetic figures as their futile attempts to try to disporve the truth are exposed.
4. Those who choose to expose their manipulations of the truth must try to do so without building them up into more than they are.
5. The same goes for racists and other sources of prejudice.