by Ari Levine (@arilevine11)
(Cover photo from IMDb)
A few years ago, I went to a screening of the Rachel Weisz film Denial at Brandeis University. Based on an unbelievably true story, the film’s protagonist, Deborah Lipstadt, was in the audience at this Brandeis screening (where she got her PhD) and was sitting just a few rows in front of me. The film dramatizes a critical battle in the history of Holocaust scholarship and historiography, a lawsuit that put history on trial. Lipstadt, an expert on Jewish history and the Holocaust, wrote Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory in 1993.
To Lipstadt, denying the Holocaust as a historical truth is an expression of anti-Semitism that certain deniers conceal as earnest historical revisionism. She warns of one writer in particular, David Irving, when she writes, “Irving is one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial. Familiar with historical evidence, he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda.” Seeing himself depicted in such a negative light led Irving to file a lawsuit in British court against professor Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books. In the British court system, the defendant (in this case Lipstadt and Penguin) had to prove their own innocence as well as effectively prove he was a liar and argue the Holocaust. Lipstadt and her legal team arranged a defense team that brought together several historians on Germany and the Holocaust as expert witnesses, including Richard J. Evans, Robert Jan Van Pelt, and Christopher Browning. Irving, on the other hand, represented himself.
A writer of popular histories on World War II, David Irving was known for having controversial and contrarian views on the war that bordered largely on sympathy towards Hitler and the Nazis. His first book, The Destruction of Dresden (1963), came from a desire to paint the allies in as negative a light as Irving could muster. Richard Evans spent a couple years prepping for the trial by intensely examining every piece of writing Irving ever wrote. He and his team of postgraduate assistants focused on The Destruction of Dresden because amongst the contemporary scholarship, “Irving perhaps attracted the most attention and has the largest popular readership…The Destruction of Dresden was probably the most widely read of Irving’s books.” Irving made a credible enough claim that the bombing of Dresden and ensuing firestorm was a horrific atrocity committed against German citizens, but he bolstered his claim with flimsy history.
It’s not often a Hollywood production focuses on historiography, but Denial gives particular focus to the defense’s strategy of portraying Irving as a racist not through his words and ideas but through his sloppy and distorted historical research. We learn in graduate school to follow a historian’s sources, and their sources’ sources. Richard Evans did just that with the footnotes in The Destruction of Dresden. At some point, Irving met and interviewed Hans Voigt, a local official in Dresden at the time of the bombings. Voigt was placed in charge of establishing a bureau which would help collect the records and belongings of those already dead and those buried in the ruins of the city. Irving’s first distortion, according to Evans, was to refer to Voigt’s bureau as being in charge of tallying a death-roll.
Voigt told Irving that the official number dead was 40,000, but that it was actually 135,000. Without investigating this claim, Irving put the larger number in his book as the number of people killed by the Allied bombing. In subsequent editions, the number seemed to grow higher and higher, up to 250,000. Of course, he claimed his source for the updated numbers came from the chief medical examiner of Dresden, when in fact it came from a random urologist, not a health official. Evans concludes that Irving’s historiography was seriously flawed, explaining, “His numerous mistakes and egregious errors are not, therefore, due to mere ignorance or sloppiness; on the contrary, it is obvious that they are calculated and deliberate. That is precisely why they are so shocking.”
To give a couple examples of Irving’s influence as a historian after the initial success of The Destruction of Dresden, Howard Zinn cites Irving’s ‘research’ in his bestselling A People’s History of the United States, which is frequently taught in schools and colleges. And Kurt Vonnegut, in his seminal classic Slaughterhouse-Five, writes “One of the books that Lily had brought Rumfoord was The Destruction of Dresden, by an Englishman named David Irving…I deeply regret that British and U.S. bombers killed 135,000 people in the attack on Dresden…” That such notable writers as Zinn and Vonnegut embraced Irving’s work demonstrates his mass appeal, at least in the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike most other Holocaust deniers, Irving presented himself as a historian, rather than a racist conspiracy theorist. This is why Lipstadt considered Irving so dangerous. He was not in charge of a hate group, like David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
However, this is not to suggest he was a hidden bigot. Irving’s focus for his 1977 book Hitler’s War was to absolve Hitler of any responsibility of directing what he referred to as the “monstrous killing machine” that was Auschwitz; by 1983, Irving began “offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who could prove that Hitler knew about the Holocaust. By the time the second edition released in 1991, Irving appeared to fully embrace Holocaust denial, removing any reference of a final solution and changing Auschwitz from the “monstrous killing machine to “a slave labor camp.” Speaking before a neo-Nazi rally in Calgary in 1991, Irving boasted “I say quite tastefully, in fact, that more women died in the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car…than ever died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.”
Rather than play to Irving’s game and debate the Holocaust, Lipstadt’s team of historians and lawyers made Irving and his career as a historian the center of the case. Rather than prove the Holocaust happened, which would prove Irving incorrect in his own assertions but allow him a place in a hypothetical debate, they proved Irving was a Holocaust denier fueled by his own hatred of Jews and adulation of Adolf Hitler. The defense’s barrister, Richard Rampton, put it bluntly, “My lord, Mr. Irving calls himself a historian. The truth is, however, that his is not a historian at all but a falsifier of history…Mr. Irving has used many different means to falsify history: invention, misquotation, suppression, distortion, manipulation and not least mistranslation.”
In her book that sparked this trial, Lipstadt differentiates between revisionist historians who revisit historical with new questions and/or evidence from Holocaust deniers, who use Historical revisionism as a facade to hide their true intentions. Lipstadt writes, “In an attempt to hide the fact that they are fascists and anti-Semites with a specific ideological and political agenda— they state that their objective is to uncover historical falsehoods, all falsehoods.” Deniers of this sort found a home with journals like The Institute for Historical Review whose mission was to uncover the real historical truths (when in reality the vast majority of its publication rejected ethical historical practice) and with controversial but “legitimate” scholars like David Irving.
Thus, Irving made his biggest mistake as being labeled a racist and an anti-Semitic Holocaust denier in open court would erode his academic facade. As captured in Denial, the most memorable piece of evidence of Irving’s personal racism from the trial came from his diary, which was submitted as evidence. Rampton reads to the judge a nursery rhyme that Irving had taught his infant daughter: “I am a Baby Aryan/ Not Jewish or Sectarian/ I have no plans to marry an/ Ape or Rastafarian.” This was a turning point in the trial. Irving had rested largely on a free speech argument, that Lipstadt could not call him a Holocaust denier as he merely held a contrarian opinion on the Holocaust. But Lipstadt argued in her book that all Holocaust deniers are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and this rhyme turned the favor toward Irving being a sincere racist, and thus winning the libel case for Lipstadt.
The judge, Sir Charles Anthony St. John Gray, issued his opinion on April 11, 2000. He supported the defense’s argument that Irving willingly misrepresented history, and that his “historiographical “errors” converge, in the sense that they all tend to exonerate Hitler.” He continues, “My conclusion [is] that Irving displays all the characteristics of a Holocaust denier. He repeatedly makes assertions about the Holocaust which are offensive to Jews in their terms and unsupported by or contrary to the historical record.” Finally, Mr. Justice Gray concludes most bluntly, “Irving is an anti-Semite and a racist.”
What was on trial in David Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt? The true account of the Holocaust? Ethical historiography? An opportunity to redefine what it meant to be antisemitic and racist in the new millennium? I believe all of these were at stake in this trial. Amazingly, I saw the movie, with Professor Lipstadt in the audience, but could still hardly believe everything was true. Creative liberties have to be taken somewhere. But reading through the trial transcripts, the events that took place in the courtroom had the same dialogue (his equation of Chappaquiddick with Auschwitz is shown prominently in the beginning of the film’s trailer), with the same evidence, and the same attention given to prove Irving as a racist and a bad historian. Denial, by focusing on the historiographic details and questions often emphasized in graduate school, is a film that stands as a testament to good history.
 Lipstadt, Deborah. Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. London: Penguin Books, 1994. 181.
 Evans, Richard J. Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial. New York: Basic Books, 2001. 150.
 Evans. Lying About Hitler. 150-156.
 Evans, Richards. “Expert Witness Report by Richard J. Evans FBA” in Irving vs (1) Lipstadt and (2) Penguin Books. Available online through Pratique de l’Histoire et Dévoiements Négationnistes. https://phdn.org/negation/irving/EvansReport.pdf. Section 1.6.2
 Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2003. 421, 704.
 Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-dance With Death. New York: Dell Publishing, 1999. 233-234.
 Bazyler, Michael J. “The Holocaust on Trial: David Irving vs Penguin Books Ltd. and Deborah Lipstadt.” in Jews on Trial, edited by Robert A. Garber. Jersey City: KTAV Publishing House. 2004. 226.
 Bazyler. “The Holocaust on Trial”. 226
 Bazyler. “The Holocaust on Trial”. 227
 Guttenplan, D.D. The Holocaust on Trial. New York: W.W. Norton. 31-32
 Lipstadt. Denying the Holocaust. 4.
 Judgement Section 13.161
 Judgement Section 13.161