The good guys win in Deborah Lipstadt’s memoir, Denial (previously published as History on Trial). That’s not a spoiler. I think anyone who has even a passing interest in Holocaust history would have been aware of Lipstadt’s legal battle with a prominent Holocaust denier.
In her acclaimed 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt named David Irving ‘one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial’. When the book was released in the UK, Irving promptly filed a libel suit against Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin. And this is the important detail in this story – British libel law presumes defamatory words to be untrue, until the author proves them true. Therefore, the burden of proof is on the defendant rather than the plaintiff (as it would be in the US). As a result, if Lipstadt and Penguin had not fought Irving’s claim, they would have been found guilty of libel and in turn, Irving could have stated that his definition of the Holocaust was legitimate.
Irving is essentially an ideologue who uses history…in order to further his own political purposes.
It became the task of Lipstadt and her legal team to prove that Irving was not a credible historian, and in particular that he had deliberately interpreted historical documents in a way that favoured his anti-Semitic beliefs. It was an enormous task – Lipstadt was supported by a team of solicitors, historians, and experts. Irving represented himself.
I still marvelled at the fact that he seemed utterly convinced that it was my book – and not his words and actions – that were the cause of his troubles.
What to say about this book? It’s a deep-dive into the minutiae of Holocaust history, and necessarily so. Lipstadt and her team had to pick apart and verify everything from diaries and first-hand accounts of the Holocaust, to testimonies from war crimes trials and architectural drawings of gas chambers.
The majority of the book details legal procedure and courtroom events, and while some might think that that would be as exciting as reading the iTunes T&Cs, it was made interesting by Lipstadt’s personal reflections on events. Lipstadt was extremely frustrated that her legal team wouldn’t put her on the stand (her view was that she was the best person to defend her own words whereas her legal team would not give Irving the opportunity or satisfaction of cross-examining Lipstadt, and more importantly, their strategy was to rely on their expert witnesses to discredit Irving’s version of history). There were other frustrations – a tense visit to Auschwitz as part of their research; a ban on Lipstadt talking to the media; the perceived fripperies in the British courts (although I did love the fact that her barrister cracked open a decent bottle of red during the lunch breaks).
Even though the blurb of this book reveals the outcome of the trial – Lipstadt has a resounding win and newspapers declared that ‘history has had its day in court and scored a crushing victory’, there is still plenty of tension and suspense in her story.
If you feel like hearing Lipstadt’s account of the trial (rather than reading about it), this video is 54 minutes well spent –
In Australia you can watch the movie version of the book on SBS OnDemand.
See Lisa’s thorough and thoughtful review of Denial here.
As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (June 24): Belfast 12°-18° and Melbourne 4°-16°.