How does one have an argument with someone who doesn’t play by the rules? And how does one argue with someone who consistently refutes the truth of eyewitnesses, documentary evidence, and archaeological findings? This is the position that historian Deborah Lipstadt found herself in when David Irving sued her and her publisher for libel after she published a book about Holocaust denial. In Denial: Holocaust History on Trial, Lipstadt shares all that happened to her in the five years she spent preparing her defense and the libel trial that concluded in 2000. This book is hard to read (or listen to, in my case). Lipstadt takes us deep in to Holocaust denial territory; that territory is full of appalling distortions of reality and anti-Semitism. The audiobook narrator does a solid job reading the text and captures Lipstadt’s matter-of-factness well, but she does occasionally struggle with the German words in the text.
Lipstadt offers a short but thorough background for herself before jumping into her work on Holocaust denial, which she thought was going to be self-limited. She planned to write a book and then move on to something else. But then one of the major subjects of her book, Denying the Holocaust, David Irving, sued for libel. Her lawyers believed that Irving hoped she would back down to avoid a costly trial. Ironically, a large part of Irving’s case was that Lipstadt and other historians were trying to silence him.
The trial itself lasted less than two months. The preparation for the trial took five years, because Lipstadt and her solicitors had to prepare an irrefutable defense. In the United Kingdom, where Irving sued, the person who sues has the advantage. Where an American court would have to consider freedom of speech, in a British court, the accused libeler has to prove that what they said was absolutely true; it can’t just be an opinion. So Lipstadt’s solicitors assembled a team of historical experts to review Irving’s writings, his history of anti-Semitism, and the actual historical evidence of the Holocaust, to blow Irving out of the water.
Irving is alternatively a bully and a victim in Denial. He attempts to badger the expert witnesses into admitting mistakes or gaps in the historical record. He also gives long speeches in court about how he is a victim in all this, that he is being silenced and that he can no longer make a living writing. He claims over and over that there is a conspiracy against him and he takes great umbrage that his reputation has been damaged.
Lipstadt shows him damning himself from his own mouth on more than one occasion. He is clearly a liar and a Holocaust denier. There is so much proof that he has lied and distorted evidence that it seems absurd that he is still arguing. And yet, he makes an attempt (and some of his witnesses also) to show that he is presenting a “useful” “alternate” interpretation. This part of his defense reminded me of so many other people who have tried to argue “alternative facts.” There are some things that are objectively true, that can only be interpreted in another way if the interpreter has an agenda, as Irving did, to distort facts to support their own point of view.
Denial fascinated me and not always in a good way. As I listened to the audiobook on my long drive to visit family in Arizona, I hissed—actually hissed at my speakers—as Irving and his ilk would constantly belittle survivors, ignore important details, fabricate details, and outrageously lie about what happened during the Holocaust. Irving’s position is infuriating for its disrespect and audacity that I had to marvel at Lipstadt’s restraint as she sat in court, listening to it, without responding. I wouldn’t have been able to do what she did.
Denial is an important book. Not only does it share Lipstadt’s harrowing legal journey, it shows us how important it is for historians to be scrupulously ethical and honest in their work. History should not and cannot be a tool for people to use to their own ends however they wish. Denail clearly shows us what can happen if it is. I shudder to think what might have happened in Lipstadt had chosen not to fight. Thankfully for all of us, Lipstadt is a fearless warrior. And also, thankfully for all of us, the court was on her side and on the side of history.