From the Noteworthy column in the January 2002 Perspectives

The Price of Truth: History, Deborah Lipstadt, and the Libel Trial

Jamil Zainaldin, January 2002

Editor's Note: The controversial libel case of Irving v. Lipstadt that reached a denouement in April 2000 in the High Court in London raises many issues relating to the duties of a historian, the ethics of revisionism, the responsibilities of the historical profession, and perhaps even to the nature of history itself. This article, based on an extended conversation with Deborah Lipstadt, tells the story of her defense of history against denial.

It is rare for an academic returning to the campus to be received as a conquering hero, to have her story spread on the front pages of newspapers—but that is exactly what happened to historian Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. She had journeyed to London to battle with one who sought to destroy her professionally and who challenged everything she stood for as a scholar and a person. The stakes were high and the outcome was unpredictable. Throughout the three-month legal contest, the progress of the case was chronicled in the popular media. What was on trial, it turns out, was not only Deborah Lipstadt but also the academic community, the profession of history, the methods and standards of scholarship, and scholarship's main objective: to find and reveal the truth.

In 1994 Deborah Lipstadt published Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. The book, a strong seller for Plume in the United States, and which attracted wide and favorable publicity in the popular press, was an exploration and exposé of a movement in the United States and abroad that had been asserting, in Lipstadt's words, that "Jews are not victims but victimizers" and that "[t]hey 'stole' billions in reparations, destroyed Germany's good name by spreading the 'myth' of the Holocaust, and won international sympathy because of what they claimed had been done to them." This argument became the building block for the deniers' ultimate claim—that Jews "used the world's sympathy to 'displace' another people so that the state of Israel could be established."

In her book, Lipstadt described David Irving, a prolific writer and author who lives in London, as "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial." According to Lipstadt, Irving occupies an especially critical place in the movement because he presents the appearance of a legitimate historian while in reality he obfuscates the truth by consciously manipulating or fabricating evidence. Although branded in 1989 by some members of the British House of Commons as a "Nazi propagandist and longtime Hitler apologist," his reputation received a boost in 1992 when the London Sunday Times handed him a special historical assignment.

When Penguin Books published an edition of Denying the Holocaust in Great Britain, Irving sued Lipstadt and her publisher for libel. (Irving knew Lipstadt, and in fact, on one occasion when she was giving a talk in Atlanta, he showed up in the audience and heckled her.) After more than four years, the case came to trial in the London High Court in January 2000.

Under American law and First Amendment jurisprudence, it is the plaintiff's responsibility to show that the defendant's statements demonstrate a reckless disregard for the truth and malicious intent. Irving's case would never have been brought in the United States. Under English law, however, a charge of libel places the burden on the defendants to prove the truth of their claim. Given the challenge of proving an affirmative, the possibility of an ambiguous ruling that might be read to give some credence to Irving was a natural concern.

One of the remarkable facts about the case was that it became front-page news in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere too. It caught the public's fascination with history. "I was amazed by the attention," Deborah Lipstadt said in an interview, "and it's hard to explain." She had, after all, spent the previous four years dividing her time between Emory and periodic bursts of intense work with her lawyers in pretrial preparations. After a trial that lasted for several months, Lipstadt won in a judgment delivered in April 2000 by Justice Charles Gray of the High Court, who declared Irving an anti-Semite and racist, "an active Holocaust denier," and a manipulator of the evidence. In an ironic conclusion to the three-month trial, Irving addressed Judge Gray in his closing statement as "mein Führer," a slip whose irony Irving alone in the packed courtroom seemed not to notice. Under British law, Irving has been held responsible for the court costs of $3 million. In August 2001 the appellate court affirmed the ruling and the case officially concluded.

What does the case mean? "The Holocaust was not on trial," Lipstadt was quick to say. "This man's version of history was on trial. Or better put, this man's writings and claims to be a historian were on trial." Lipstadt, who is writing a book about her experiences, has been interviewed much and quoted widely. For her, the case became personal. Speaking at the Emory College honors ceremony in May 2000, soon after her return from London, Lipstadt noted (quoting from the Torah and telling stories from the Talmud) that the evidentiary phase of the trial had come to a conclusion on the eve of Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance, and on "that Sabbath in synagogues the portion of the Torah which deals with the evil doings of the tribe of Amalek is read." She connected her trial with a broader responsibility of the individual to keep memory alive. She told the students, "Your teachers hope that, as you go forth from the gates of this institution and as you encounter challenges in life, you will not compromise your principles just because it is easier to do so." She reminded them that "while you cannot fight every battle," each person needs also to know that "there is a line you will not cross. . . . That you will not compromise when confronted by evil."

She also told the students a Talmudic story about a man who was sheltered by a shade tree in the hot desert, fed by the tree's fruit, and replenished by the water that flowed by the tree. Filled with gratitude, he asked how he could possibly bless the tree that already had so much of what was necessary in life. He answered his own question with the blessing "May all the trees that come from you be just like you." Filled with a gratitude for their support, Lipstadt was paying the graduating students a high compliment. We are one community, she suggested, and the students are a blessing down through the generations—beyond the campus and into society. It is not easy to separate one's faith and values, one's sense of community, and one's professional identity as a historian. However, as professionals, we generally try to do so. Lipstadt's case is one of those revealing moments in the profession when we see how these interact.

Lipstadt never doubted that she would see the case through to its conclusion, and repelled Irving's 1999 effort to settle out of court (on condition that she apologize and donate 500 pounds sterling to a charity of his choice). Asked what she thought the case was really about, she replied, "A man who lies, deceives, distorts, and spews hatred, and his attempt to silence his critics by making an example of me." Once he sued, going to court was the only option for her. For the rest of us, this trial sits as a compelling episode charged with multiple meanings.

Certainly it is a victory for scholarship, truth, and memory. The trial itself was exhaustive in its review of evidence. Professional historians would quickly agree that historical disputes are not ideally resolved in legal settings. Our craft depends on context, interpretation of evidence, nuances of meaning—and trust. We do not routinely pore through every footnote, tracing sources back to archival or primary records, because we trust that scholars play by the rules. Irving did not. The most devastating testimony that lasted over eight days of the trial came from Richard Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge, who examined in the minutest of detail the footnoted strands of evidence Irving relied upon and demonstrated a persistent pattern of distortion, manipulation, and fabrication of evidence. (Evans has since written his own account of the trial in Lying about Hitler, published by Basic Books.) We are all vulnerable when people choose to lie. The case itself was a public lesson in the ethos of scholarship, a dialogue at-large about methodology and honesty as the foundation of our craft.

Lipstadt's case is also strong evidence of the credibility that professional historians have in the eyes of the public, of the hunger that the public has for history, and of the general recognition by the public, scholars, and others that the past never really passes. Historians often talk about a contested past; this contestation, we have always known, is important not only to historians but also to the public at large. Lipstadt's case reminds us again of this and of the vital role that historians can play when they enter public dialogue.

The other side of this coin is the tension that can come between the professional and the public. To the public, history can be personal; the story or testimony of each person is valid for that person, and each brings that perspective to the world and the past. The World War II veteran "knows" that history because he or she was in it—and actually lived it. That perspective is certainly real, no one can deny. Professional history and testimonial history can be two different things, but is not easily understood as such by either side, and on occasion can come into conflicts over meaning. We see this in debates about the Confederate flag in some southern states and proposals to build monuments or museums that enshrine a particular memory or vision of the past, to name two examples. How do we "talk" about these divergences in public settings? What is the role of our professional associations?

Lipstadt's case is interesting because the testimonial and the professional are not easily separated. Irving, she said, "dances on the graves of Holocaust victims." Yet she also said to me that "we must be scholars and not preachers." The purpose of Holocaust studies is "to study the history of what happened. Not to find a moral ground. Historians get into trouble when they do that." On the other hand, the facts—and stories—have a power to evoke a moral ground that we cannot ignore either.

There is something of a dissonance between the case as a celebration of history's victory, and the sense that history is slipping in public appreciation and support and the generalized complaint that we are being taken over by "historical amnesia." This can be cut in a number of ways, but one would be that in the U.S.-dominated marketplace of entertainment, values of veracity and authenticity are good only insofar as they serve merchantable ends—and they can be twisted as needed for drama or any other reason. The contested ground here is not only the perspective of the past, but who gets to tell about that past and how, and who among those speaking are telling the truth. On vitally important issues, the Lipstadt case suggests that the professional historian can prevail. But on other issues that are important, though perhaps not as pivotal, history may be losing ground. Who has not at one time or another felt a sense of horror in the face of the entertainment industry's power to shape and present an image of history without any apparent accountability, except perhaps Nielsen ratings or box-office receipts? Understanding the problem is a challenge; attacking the problem is bigger still. Our profession has begun dealing with these issues, but they seem overwhelming.

In some respects, the backwash of the culture wars has left the profession with some public baggage. A word used by Irving and others who have challenged the existence of the Holocaust is "revisionism." This is a slippery and unfortunate word, as professional historians often use that word loosely to describe historiography and their own work. However, like "political correctness," "revisionism" has found its way into the popular vernacular and on occasion is pointed at humanities scholars and scholarship with profoundly negative meanings. When the Air Force Association attacked the National Air and Space Museum's plans for the Enola Gay exhibition some years ago, the curators were accused of being—what else—"revisionists."

The strength of the historical profession is its diversity, its foundational respect for freedom of inquiry, and its appreciation that breakthroughs in scholarship come when we abandon old ways of thinking. This setting calls on us to tolerate some views that are objectionable, and it invites us to reserve judgment in the course of events. We're not sure how the story will end. Lipstadt asks if we can let discourse go too far—she contends that not all points of view or expressions are equal and some expression simply does not belong in the arena of public discourse. For this reason she has refused requests to debate Holocaust deniers on television and radio programs. She is aware this is not a popular position.

Her case reveals the tremendously important role historians can, must, and often do play in our public discourse—and the special responsibility of the historian who is able to speak not only to the generations to come in our classrooms and lecture halls, but also to the public. That public space is occupied by lots of other interests, but that is only to be expected. Many historians are sensitive to the risks of entering the fray—both internally in the profession where there is diversity of viewpoints and externally (especially in the media) where the work of humanities scholars has been called into question as "revisionist" or "politically correct." Still, understanding the public responsibilities that come with the privileges of our craft is a theme I see running through Lipstadt's trial—and a reminder that we must always be vigilant against the spread of distortions of undeniable historical fact.

—Jamil Zainaldin is director of the Georgia Humanities Council and is a part-time visiting professor at Emory University. A legal historian, he has published several studies including Law in Antebellum Society: Legal Change and Economic Expansion (New York: Knopf, 1983). He was formerly deputy executive director of the AHA.