In 1996, British writer David Irving sued author Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, for libel after the American historian portrayed him as a Holocaust denier in her book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.” After four years and roughly $3 million in legal fees, a verdict in a British court — where, in contrast to our legal system, the burden of proof falls on the defendant, not the plaintiff — vindicated
Lipstadt, leading to her memoir, “History on Trail: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier.”
That memoir has now been made into the movie “Denial,” featuring Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt, Timothy Spall as Irving, and Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott as Lipstadt’s legal team: barrister Richard Rampton and solicitor Anthony Julius. Lipstadt sat down for a chat about the new film — and the surprisingly timely reverberations of the old case.
Q: Is there anything in the zeitgeist today — perhaps as it relates to some of the more outlandish things that are being said by a certain presidential candidate — that might explain why we are seeing a movie about this 16-year-old case?
A: I think there is something in the zeitgeist, but it’s something totally fortuitous, in the sense of by chance. When we first knew that the film would be shot last year, no one thought it would have any relevance. By late December, early January, it was clear that it did. But it’s not just about Trump.
Q: Yet you wrote an opinion piece this summer titled “Is Donald Trump’s Inadvertent Anti-Semitism Worse Than the Real Thing?”
A:What I want to say about this, because I’ve been asked about this by a lot of people, is that it would be a mistake to see the timeliness of this film strictly in terms of the American presidential election. Think about the 9/11 conspiracy theories — that there were bombs planted in the World Trade Center; that it was an inside job; that 3,000 Jews were called the night before and told to stay home from work. Or Brexit. Michael Gove, [former] minister of education in [former U.K. prime minister David] Cameron’s cabinet and a great supporter of Brexit, when asked to name an economist who supported Brexit, said, “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.” Sandy Hook was a hoax. Vaccines cause autism.
Q: Are people simply getting more credulous?
A: I don’t know. I couldn’t function without the Internet. It’s my research, my keeping up with contemporary affairs. But people who have a crazy idea over here and a crazy idea over there can now find each other. And they can be very active and seem like they’re many. The other thing is the postmodern idea that there are two sides to every issue. There are not two sides to every issue. You can argue why the Holocaust happened, but not that it happened.
Q: As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” Does that explain it?
A: You have facts, opinions and lies. What you have in Holocaust denial — in Sandy Hook, 9/11, vaccines, Brexit — is lies being presented as opinion, and then migrating over to facts. It’s racism, anti-Semitism, birtherism presenting themselves as legitimate ideas. Birthers say, “We want to know where he was born.” How come nobody asks that of George W. Bush or Bill Clinton? It’s racism. It’s those -isms being mainstreamed.
Q: In the film, Irving’s Achilles’ heel is shown to be his inflated ego, which your legal team exploits in order to get him to agree to a trial by judge, because of the case’s complexity. Was he really that narcissistic?
A: We knew that Irving had a massive ego, and we played to that ego to get him to agree to a single judge. Not that we were afraid of going to a jury, but we wanted a judge whose intellect we could depend on.
Q: The film highlights the differences between the United States and Britain, both in law and temperament. Rachel Weisz‘s portrayal comes across as a person trying hard not to explode. Was it hard to go along with the buttoned-up approach of your legal team?
A: In my family, the lore is that my first sentence was “Me do it.” I’m an academic. I decide what I want to teach. I decide what I’m going to write about. I work by myself in my study. The movie is very accurate in its depiction of my frustration.
Q: What was at stake here, besides money?
A: If Irving had won, he could have declared damages to his reputation. And because the British and American legal systems are so close, American courts are often willing to enforce British legal decisions. But there was a bigger issue. Had he won, he could have said, “Deborah Lipstadt called me a Holocaust denier. I am not a Holocaust denier. Ipso facto, my version of the Holocaust is correct.” That would have been a devastating defeat — for history.
Q: Would the outcome have been the same if you had simply not defended yourself against these ridiculous charges? Could he have won by default?
A: That’s exactly right. If that had happened, the thought of looking a survivor in the eye was personally devastating. But back to the “forensic” Deborah and the “emotional” Deborah, I’m not always so emotional, but I started feeling very alone and threatened. Anthony and Richard — both of whom felt about this case tremendously — started from forensics. I sort of moved to understand their perspective by the end. They were right. And it isn’t that they came to understand the emotion but that they became much more willing to express that emotion. The night of the verdict, Richard went to dinner with a couple of the other people involved in the case. As they were standing on the street after dinner, he broke into tears. He wept.
Q: Where is that emotion in the film? On screen, we only see him refuse to shake Irving’s hand after the verdict.
A: That actually happened. It was an expression of contempt. Contempt for what this man did to history, contempt for his duplicitousness, contempt for his anti-Semitism.
Q: Did you ever think it was an open-and-shut case?
A: I never thought it would be simple, because I had worked on deniers. But I thought I’ll bring a couple of quotes that he’s made, and we’ll show them to the judge. Anthony, who’s a meticulous lawyer and a meticulous intellect, said, “No, we’re not going to do that. We’re not going to depend on the court to recognize the significance of such statements as ‘I’m going to sink the battleship Auschwitz’ and ‘More women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz.’ We’re going to follow the footnotes.” It was an exercise in historical investigation.
Q: Isn’t that a very granular approach?
A: Yes, but on a granular level, where the grains had huge implications. We weren’t looking for “Oh, you made a little mistake here and there.” Irving said he had a document that says Hitler woke up on Kristallnacht — woke up in the middle of the night — and found out what happened and said, “Stop the madness.” Irving cited a telex that went out. If you look at the telex, what the telex said was “Arson against Jewish shops and the like is to be halted.” The reason that order went out is that they were setting fire to Jewish shops, to synagogues, Jewish old age homes, etc., and whole city blocks of non-Jewish institutions were being destroyed. Fire doesn’t know where to stop.
Q: How has Holocaust denial changed since the 2000 trial?
A: I describe the kind of Holocaust denial we had to fight as hardcore denial. That kind of denial has diminished, except perhaps in the Muslim world. In terms of the Western world, what you have more of now is what I call softcore denial. Not denial of the facts, but someone saying, “I’m so tired of hearing about the Holocaust.”
Q: Is that more or less pernicious than the other kind?
A: It’s more pernicious. I’ll use a very high-class, academic word: It’s squishier. It’s harder to pin down. There are no footnotes you can follow. The anti-politically correct movement, the I-can-say-whatever-I-want attitude of today — I think it all ties together.
Q: What’s the takeaway or message of the film?
A: Good films don’t have messages. That’s a documentary — or a bad film. The takeaway, for me, is that there are facts, there are opinions and there are lies. And they are different things. We live in a world of post-factualism. You can’t fight every battle, but there are certain battles that you can’t turn away from.
Denial (PG-13, 110 minutes). At area theaters.