The Lipstadt Affair
Emory's Deborah Lipstadt prepares to do battle with Holocaust denier David Irving
Steven H. Pollak, staff writer
The stage has been set for a courtroom clash pitting the well-known Holocaust denier David Irving against Emory University's Deborah Lipstadt. The conflict, which centers around libel charges Irving brought against Lipstadt for her 1993 book, "Denying The Holocaust: The Growing Assault On Truth And Memory," is set to go to trial in London next January.
Irving, a self-described "mild fascist," is author of more than 30 books. He questions, among other things, the use of gas chambers at Auschwitz. He is suing Lipstadt for defaming his reputation as a historian.
In her book, Lipstadt labels Irving "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial... who is most facile at taking accurate information and shaping it to confirm his conclusions."
Irving's chances for success are enhanced in the United Kingdom, where the burden of proof required in libel suits places the defendant at a disadvantage. Lipstadt's co-defendant is her publishing house, Penguin Books, Ltd.
In the United States, the plaintiff must prove that alleged libelous statements were made with malice and prior knowledge that the statements were false, while English law asks the defendant to demonstrate the veracity of a statement, according to William Lee, a journalism professor at the University of Georgia.
"The bottom line is, it's much easier to win a defamation action in England than it is in the United States," said Lee. "That's probably why this suit was brought in England rather than the United States."
Lipstadt wrote the book because of her concern that Holocaust deniers are finding mainstream forums for their ideas. She buttresses her point -- "the denial of the Holocaust has no more credibility than the assertion that the earth is flat" -- by shedding light on the questionable modus operandi of deniers and then submitting evidence to refute their claims.
Lipstadt, who declined to discuss the upcoming trial on the advice of her attorneys, is an internationally recognized Holocaust scholar who was recently named chair of the Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University. She said Holocaust deniers are typically extremists.
"It's a way of getting at Jews and the Jewish community," she said. "My fear is that it will be accepted as a valid historical perspective, which it's clearly not."
For his part, Irving said he is the object of hatred by Jewish and other organizations bent on destroying his legitimacy as a historian. He prefers the term "revisionist" to describe his views on the Holocaust. He may have chosen to bring a lawsuit against Lipstadt in England because her book was published there.
"Lipstadt may find it unfortunate that she is the one to be taken out of the line and shot," he said via e-mail from Key West, Fla. "The fact is that Lipstadt was silly enough to print her libels within the jurisdiction of the British courts. Others have been more circumspect."
Lipstadt's defense will likely be "justification," an English legalism meaning the published material is truthful. Unlike in American courts, Irving can not sue for a specified amount in damages. If he wins the case, English law dictates that the court assesses an amount.
Lipstadt's lawyer, Anthony Julius, of London's Mishcon de Reya law firm, declined to comment for this article. Julius is well-known as the divorce lawyer for the late Princess Diana; he has also written a book about anti-Semitism in the works of poet T.S. Eliot.
Daniel Levitas, an Atlanta-based writer and researcher who specializes in issues of equality and hate groups, submitted a 42-page sworn affidavit stating that he witnessed Irving consorting with known neo-Nazis, racist skinheads and members of the Ku Klux Klan during an appearance in Smyrna, Ga. in 1992. Levitas said the lawsuit was an attempt to elevate Irving's profile in the neo-Nazi community.
"David Irving has filed this lawsuit in an attempt to present himself as the victim of a smear campaign and therefore someone who is in dire need of financial support," Levitas said. "David Irving himself is an unrepentant bigot who consorts so frequently with neo-Nazis as to be indistinguishable from them."
Peter Novick, a history professor at the University of Chicago and the author of "The Holocaust In American Life," is not worried that an Irving victory could legitimize the arguments of Holocaust deniers.
"The big problem for these wackos is being ignored," he
said. "Even if [Irving] won, it would be seen for
what it is, a purely, technical, legal thing of no substance
or meaning whatsoever. These guys are so discredited
already, it wouldn't matter."
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October 8, 1999