Despite personal and familial connections (or perhaps because of such) I had, to date, not paid much attention to the pernicious movement that presumes to deny the Holocaust. This is in keeping with my conscious decision to spend as little intellectual and emotional energy as possible on lunatic fringe movements and other idiocies. Deborah Lipstadt’s six-year legal ordeal, which she compellingly narrates in History on Trial, changed that. The story begins as such: British author David Irving sued Lipstadt for libel in London after she called him a Holocaust denier and right-wing extremist in her 1994 book Denying the Holocaust.
Deborah Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies and Director of the Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University in Atlanta. She has taught at U.C.L.A. and Occidental College in Los Angeles. She received her bachelor’s degree from City College of New York and her master’s and doctorate from Brandeis University. In addition to History on Trial and Denying the Holocaust, she is the author of Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust. She has appeared on CNN, 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Good Morning America, Fresh Air, and The Charlie Rose Show, and is a frequent contributor to and is widely quoted in a variety of periodicals. She is currently working on a book on Jewish responses to the new anti-Semitism.
The conversation that follows ranges over a wider terrain than the riveting details of the libel trial. What seems obvious to me in the aftermath is that hateful ideologues such as David Irving, while not being defanged or declawed by intelligent and conscientious scrutiny, are less likely to be accepted as legitimate scholars. Unfortunately, even the truth seems not to derail their specious efforts. But it is not for the lack of effort by Deborah Lipstadt and others. For which we all should be grateful.
All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
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Robert Birnbaum: Is anti-Semitism a necessary condition for Holocaust denial?
Deborah Lipstadt: Yes, Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitism at its heart. That’s not to say there aren’t people who are inadvertently convinced by deniers. Imagine someone who may be sitting on an airplane next to a person who is a committed Holocaust denier and they are stuck on the runway for three hours or it’s a long flight cross country and the person [eventually] is convinced by the denier. But even those people, i.e., the putative “innocent” passengers, must, in order to believe that, “Oh, the Jews invented all this and made it up”—have to have a predilection towards anti-Semitism. That have to be somewhat anti-Semitic. I am a bit wary of saying someone is “somewhat” anti-Semitic. That’s like saying someone is a little bit pregnant. But for the deniers themselves, the people who are at the core, it’s unquestionably a form of anti-Semitism.
RB: Have you seen Henry Bean’s film, The Believer? A very interesting take on a brilliant Orthodox Jewish boy who becomes a skinhead Nazi.
DL: Yes, I read about it, but didn’t see it.
RB: Compelling, and there is a scene where he is giving a fund-raising speech and he rhetorically asks, “Why do people hate the Jews?” His answer is, “They just do.”
DL: That’s right.
RB: There are no compelling reasons.
DL: It’s not that there are no reasons. Let’s go one step back. Anti-Semitism is a form of prejudice, as is racism, as is misogyny, as are many things. Think about the etymology of the word, “prejudice.” Pre judge. In other words: “Don’t confuse me with the facts. I made up my mind before I knew anything about this person. He’s a Jew, therefore he must be rich. He must be a cheat and conniving.” So that the minute we enter into a conversation and try to find a rational reason why someone is anti-Semitic, we are engaged in a losing proposition. I think it was [Jean Paul] Sartre who said, “Anti-Semitism is not an opinion. It’s a crime.” It’s a prejudice. Also, someone told me that [historian] Peter Gay said, “Where there is smoke there are smoke makers.” In other words, there’s no rational reason for someone to be anti-Semitic, because anti-Semitism is itself irrational.
RB: This may be hyperbolic, but everyone hates the Jews.
DL: It’s convenient but not an approach I like to take. But one could say, “There are people who hate the Jews,” and in most Caucasian societies, a good proportion of people think blacks and people of color are inferior. It’s something that must be fought.
RB: In black societies, there is a color hierarchy. In Latin cultures, they look down on blacks, too.
DL: Let me contextualize about the notion of “Everybody hates the Jews.” The fact that much of anti-Semitism has its roots in the New Testament and how it has been interpreted has a tremendous impact on people’s perceptions of Jews. It remains a continuous irritant.
RB: You are a professor of Holocaust studies?
DL: I am a professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University. I teach a wide range of courses on the modern Jewish experience, etc. But now increasingly, my courses have become Holocaust focused.
RB: In a way it a big subject, and in a way it’s—
DL: You’re right, it’s a small subject. The span from ‘33 to ‘45 is only 12 years. On the other hand, it’s a humongous subject. Embedded within the topic of study of the Holocaust is the history of the experiences of the perpetrators and the victims. The event encompassed virtually all of Europe. There are the stories of what happened in each country, city, town, and community. There are the histories of the different perpetrators, and, of course, of the Allies as well as those of the bystanders. So, all in all, it’s a very broad thing. And then of course, it is linked into anti-Semitism, which has a millennial history.
RB: I was reading the New York Times piece on the opening of the new Holocaust History Museum in Israel, in Jerusalem, and it quoted Ariel Sharon to the effect that so many stories are lost.
DL: Right. We have lost so many stories. We have lost so many people. All the potential that was lost is brought home in different ways. For example, last week I was talking to Howard Gardner, who teaches at Harvard. He mentioned the fact that his family left Austria and arrived in the United States in late ‘38 or ‘39, right around Kristallnacht [the night of Nov. 9, 1938, when German and Austrian officials staged a massive pogrom against Jewish citizens—eds.]. He has a great mind and has had a great impact on our society. All that would have been lost. Gardner is but one example of all the [other] people who had so much potential who were lost. What could all of those children have contributed had they been allowed to grow into maturity? What kind of benefit could they have brought to the world? We don’t know so many of the stories. Many of them died before they had a chance to write their stories. I was in Auschwitz at the 60th anniversary commemoration [of its liberation by Allied forces], in January. Auschwitz has a tremendous cache of pictures—when people were deported, in their suitcases they brought the family pictures—like now we take the CD-ROM with the family album on it. Who were these people? A tremendous amount has been lost. So many stories, so many lives—
RB: It seems more poignant and urgent, given the recognition or identification of the 2Gs, the second generation, which leads to the dying out of the survivors themselves and their stories.
DL: I was struck by that at Auschwitz in January. The next time there is a commemoration, let’s say the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, there will be virtually no one alive who survived the camp. At my trial we made a strategic, forensic decision, not to call survivors as witnesses. This wasn’t a “Did the Holocaust happen trial?” It was a libel trial, and our job was to prove that I told the truth. If we had called survivors to the stand, they would have served as witnesses of fact and that would suggest we needed proof that it happened, which, of course, we did not. Another reason we did not call survivors was that [David] Irving was a litigant in person, pro se, in other words, he was representing himself, and we didn’t think it was ethical to put survivors in the witness box. So instead we assembled this dream team of four historians and a political scientist. They relied on documents, letters, and testimony, both perpetrator testimony and survivor testimony. By the way, we relied only on testimony from trials that took place before 1950. We did not want to give Irving a chance to say that the testimony was “contaminated” by subsequent stories and memoirs that were written in the years after the Holocaust. Historians feel that a person’s testimony about an event that is given close to the event is more valuable than that given years later. We demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt, as the judge’s verdict and judgment indicated, that the man [Irving] is a complete liar when it comes to the Holocaust—and other things as well. So to some degree, the trial represented the passing of the memory torch. The poet Paul Celan asked, “Who will be the witnesses for the witnesses?” They will be, amongst others, the historians. It’s an important job and it will be a heavy burden, but it can be done. My trial helped prove that.
RB: Let’s talk about the last few years and the big chunk it represents. You wrote a book called Denying the Holocaust.
DL:The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, right.
RB: And David Irving took exception to it. [laughs] Filed suit in Britain, which is still a matter of mystery to me—how divergent the libel laws for the U.S. and the U.K. are.
DL: So absurd. Well, let me make one thing very clear. In my book, Denying the Holocaust, Irving, occupies, at most, 300 words, and probably less than that. Someone checked, and I think he is mentioned on six pages—not full pages, references. I admit that I did say some harsh things about him. I said, “He is the most dangerous of Holocaust deniers.” I said that he knows the truth and he bends it to fit his preexisting political views. And by implication, though I didn’t directly call him one, that he was an anti-Semite and a racist as well. So he sued me in England, where libel laws are a mirror image of American libel law. In the United States, if I say you libeled me, I have to prove it. In the U.K., if I say you libeled me, you have to prove you didn’t libel me. Words written are considered untrue until proven true. So if I hadn’t defended myself I would have been found guilty. I should mention that Penguin U.K., my publisher, was my co-defendant. I think that if I had not fought, that they might not have pursued the case as forcefully as they did. But they did stand by my side, to their credit.
RB: It must be noted they didn’t climb on board for the appeal.
DL: No, they left me with a $100,000 legal bill.
RB: You were very kind to not make more of that.
DL: I was left feeling pretty bitter, because they really backed out in the middle of the appeal. They felt they had done enough. They claimed that their insurer would not pay any more. But they could have paid and taken it as a business expense. It was not the right thing for them to do.
RB: They had done enough? If you hadn’t fought the appeal…
DL: It might have been reversed. I think that Penguin assumed that would not happen. They believed that we had won such an overwhelming victory on the trial, we didn’t have to do additional research for the appeal. The problem was that Irving had managed to introduce new evidence during the appeal, even though technically there should be no new evidence during an appeal. My defense team wanted to address his new evidence point by point. They believed nothing should be left to chance. This was [my lawyer] Anthony Julius’s modus operandi. Penguin did not think that was necessary, even though Irving was bringing in new evidence.
RB: Supposedly [new].
DL: You are right. His new “evidence” was essentially a new pack of lies. But they had to be exposed as such. Ironically or revealingly, in the middle of the appeal, he withdrew this supposed new evidence. And, now if you go to his Internet site he says he wasn’t allowed to enter it. This is typical of his adherence to truth. During the appeal, his lawyer explicitly said, “I’m withdrawing the evidence.” I think Penguin thought it would be self evident that Irving’s appeal should be thrown out. I had a lawyer, who is the smartest guy I know—and I know a lot of smart people—Anthony Julius. He said, “You leave nothing to chance.” Anthony believed that if this had been a commercial case, you wouldn’t say, “Of course we don’t have to expend every effort to convince the judge.” Julius believed we had to fight this as if it was the most important commercial case that has ever crossed your desk.
RB: I skipped ahead.
DL: Right, we sort of started at the end. Back to the beginning: A few months after the book appeared in England, Irving announced that he was going to sue me. My first inclination was to laugh. I thought: “This is ridiculous. This is completely stupid.”
RB: You didn’t know British libel law then.
DL: I didn’t know British libel law but I did know that he [Irving] had called the Holocaust a legend, in a courtroom, under oath, in Canada testifying as a witness for [Holocaust denier] Ernest Zundel, who was on trial. Then in the early ‘90s, upon being asked by reporters why the Holocaust had disappeared from a recent edition of his book when it had been in the book in an earlier edition which appeared in the ‘70s, he said, “If something didn’t happen, you don’t dignify it with a footnote.” He said to a survivor who appeared with him on Australian radio, “Mrs. Altman, how much money did you make from having that number tattooed on your arm?” So I thought that in light of all the things he had said, my statement that he is a denier was no big innovation. I was not saying anything radical. But he was waiting. He was just poised to pounce. I really believe he wanted to get me.
RB: Maybe. And probably. What about the withdrawal of St. Martin’s book contract?
DL: Yes, it came about around the same time. He had a contact with St Martin’s, a distinguished publisher, to publish his Goebbels book. Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkusheard about this and severely criticized St. Martin’s. These publications essentially said, “This is crazy. This guy is a Holocaust denier. Why is St. Martin’s publishing his work?” So that raised the flag, and the issue entered the public arena.
RB: Would he have sued you if his livelihood hadn’t been threatened?
DL: Who knows? Remember, he frequently threatens to sue people. He had gotten away with saying all these things and now he was being called to account. At this point, Frank Rich, the op-ed columnist for the New YorkTimes, who was doing a column on the topic, called and said, “What do you think?” And I said, “Having David Irving write about the Holocaust is like asking Jeffery Dahmer to testify in a case on child abuse.” I was being just a bit hyperbolic.
DL: So Frank Rich included that in his column. Then the WashingtonPost called, and I essentially repeated the same thing. And that was it. Period. I never talked to anyone at St. Martin’s. They never called me. I never called them. I never wrote a letter or signed a petition, if there even was a petition. I was quoted twice. And then the head of St. Martin’s took a closer look at the manuscript. After reading the manuscript, he said that the theme of the book was that whatever happened to the Jews, they had coming to them. The publisher made the decision to cancel the contract. However, I don’t think that the St. Martin’s incident was the only thing which lead him to sue me. You can’t ignore the fact that I am a woman. During the trial he gave an interview to Reuters in which he described the women who worked for him as a “very nice woman with nice breasts.” There are other reasons for him choosing me. He perceives of me as a puppet of the so-called world Jewish conspiracy. Of course, as a woman I can’t be the leader of the conspiracy, I can only be the puppet who takes orders. A woman couldn’t be in charge of a conspiracy, certainly not one which, he claims, has caused him such grief. If he knew anything about the Jewish community he’d know we are so disorganized that we couldn’t have a conspiracy even if we wanted.
RB: Judge Gray’s verdict is unwavering and unqualified in every way on Irving.
DL: It’s unrelenting.
RB: Irving is all the things any one could have said—and more.
DL: Much more than I said about him in my book. That’s one of the ironies of this entire case. As a result of the research we had to do to defend me, we discovered just how egregious Irving’s record is.
RB: And he is still around. And he shakes one of [your lawyer’s Richard] Rampton’s hands as you say—
DL:—like it’s a rugby match. That was at the very end of the trial. He turns to Rampton, my barrister, and says: “Well done, Mr. Rampton. Well done.”
RB: And now here he is again. So—
DL: Well, I think he is around. He essentially is talking to his followers at this point. But first, I want to go back to something I was saying a moment ago. Another reason he went after me was because I was an American and I was far away and I think he thought, that once “she discovers how complicated British laws are she is going to run the other way.” The final factor that lead him to sue me was I am an identifying Jew, part of the so-called organized Jewish community and this was a way of getting at them—using me to get at them. I wanted an unrelenting decision from the judge and much to everyone’s amazement, I got it. It’s true that Irving is still around, still writing books, and giving speeches. However, when he comes to the United States, many of his talks are sponsored by the National Alliance, one of the most racist and anti-Semitic groups around.
RB: Which he claimed he doesn’t have a relationship with.
DL: Exactly. In other words, he’s is preaching to his choir. Another result of the trial is that every time he speaks or is quoted, his name is accompanied by some variation on the adjectival phrase, “David Irving who was found by the courts to be a Holocaust denier,” or a liar or a racist, etc.
RB: But C-SPAN—
DL: Yes, C-SPAN—in the name of “balance,” and that’s their word, as Richard Cohen said in the WashingtonPost—is giving him a second life. And it’s just crazy. If someone announced tomorrow, “The earth is square,” would C-SPAN suddenly run to Harvard or to MIT and ask a Nobel Prize winner to appear on the network and debate them? Or if the late Richard Feynman, the great scientist, had been scheduled to talk about the moon landing, would C-SPAN invite someone who said the landing really took place on a sound stage in Nevada? It’s crazy. It’s just nuts.
RB: I looked at some website for one of those nutso, straw man groups that support Irving and they have 13 questions for you to answer, which if anyone of them [were the type of person who] had read this book, would be totally irrelevant. An amalgam of crap, slurs, half-truths posed as questions—
DL: These questions are, as you say, slurs, half-truths, and completely ridiculous. Irving keeps saying that Deborah Lipstadt took the Fifth. First of all, [laughs] there is no constitution [in Britain]. No. 2, I didn’t take the Fifth. In the United Kingdom there is no obligation for the defendant to testify. No. 3, I wrote a book, and David Irving was suing me for what I wrote. There was nothing I could add by going on the stand that was relevant to the case and, in fact, when he recently spoke in Atlanta, he said, “If Lipstadt had taken the stand, I would have asked her about views on intermarriage.” Now, what does that have to do with my calling him a Holocaust denier?
RB: The judge would have allowed that?
DL: He might have.
RB: Judge Gray did give Irving much latitude.
DL: He gave him tremendous latitude. And it drove me nuts while it was going on.
RB: So you were shocked that verdict was so damning?
DL: I was floored, it was so compelling. I never expected such an all-encompassing verdict. Did you see Richard Bernstein’s piece in the New York Times on the radical groups in Germany and how they are presenting themselves in a more “respectable” demeanor? I was in Germany last week, and at a press conference I said that this tactic, on the part of extremists of appearing respectable, started with Holocaust deniers. They were among the first to figure out that most people make their judgments about people based on external appearances. Therefore, if an extremist comes swaggering in to the room in high black boots with swastikas and looking like skinheads, people take one look at them and say, “Oh my God, I know what you are. And I want to have nothing to do with you.” But if the same extremists come into the room in a nice tweedy jacket, maybe with patches on the elbows and jeans or whatever, smoking a pipe, and they begin to speak rationally, people are more likely to listen. In this regard, deniers say, “Oh, I’m not an anti-Semite, I just have certain questions about the Holocaust which perplex me. And I don’t understand why Professor Lipstadt is afraid to answer those questions. I am just interested in open debate. What’s wrong with open debate?” And in Germany the far right party, the NPD, is inclined, rather than to parade in swastikas, to say, “We want to commemorate the ‘bombing Holocaust’ in Dresden. We want to give equal attention to the victims.” But what they are really doing is whitewashing the crimes of the Third Reich by engaging in immoral equivalencies.
RB: I did watch Errol Morris’s[documentary] film, Mr. Death and I was struck by how pathetic [the subject, execution-device designer and later Holocaust denier [Fred] Leuchter is. This may be an understatement, but there is something really wrong with him. [In his testimony in defense of Ernest Zundel,] he claimed he tried as hard as he could to get the information about the gas chambers at Auschwitz and he was the only person qualified. And the technician from the lab states—
DL: It’s all junk. Leuchter, a man from Malden, Mass., claimed he was an engineer. He was not. According to the then Alabama attorney general, [Edward] Carnes, who now is a federal judge, Leuchter was running a scam. He would go to penitentiaries that had electric chairs and he would say, “Hire me as a consultant, and if you don’t hire me as a consultant I am going to go to one of the people on death row and offer my services to them to say that your electric chair is faulty and will cause cruel and unusual punishment.” He proclaimed himself a lethal-injection specialist.
RB: It was funny in an odd way that [in the movie] he seemed to leapfrog from one thing to another. He started with the electric chair, and then he was brought in to look at the lethal-injection machinery and then the gallows. And he readily admits his only qualifications for any of it was the [unrelated] thing he had done before—for which he hadn’t been qualified.
DL: It was a complete sham.
RB: But aided by other people.
RB: He also says in Mr. Death, that most everything he was taught in school was wrong.
DL: It’s a certain mindset. Anyone who interacted with Leuchter should have recognized that there was something strange about this guy. But I think David Irving so wanted Leuchter to be right that he overlooked all the glaring errors in his report. He received the report, and two days later he went into the Canadian court and said, “I am now convinced these claims [the gas chambers] are all lies.” Irving’s willingness to fabricate was also, in my opinion, a reflection of this desire to find evidence to prove his foregone conclusions. Irving showed a willingness to lie and completely fabricate. Even I was surprised by the extent to which he did so. For example, Irving puts [Hitler compatriot Hermann] Goering at a meeting he was never at. And when Rampton asked Irving why he did that, Irving said under oath, “Oh that was author’s license.” He said so with the greatest of equanimity. And I sat there thinking, “And he calls himself an historian?” He gives his readers a footnote which is supposed to help them verify his reference. But what does the footnote read? “Hitler’s trial.” In other words, all 800 pages of it.” [laughs] Footnotes are supposed to help—
DL: 800 pages.
RB: What was 8,000 pages, then?
DL: Was it 8,000? Maybe it’s 8,000 pages. [It was 8,000 pages.—eds.] I was giving him more credit. Evans’s report was 800 pages. Maybe I am confusing the two. Now there’s an example of an honest mistake. In fact, it’s a mistake that works in Irving’s interest. To cite something that is 8,000 pages long is even more egregious and shows you are trying to hide something. You don’t give that kind of citation in a footnote if your objective is to help your readers find your original source.
RB: Additionally, what I found troubling is someone like [military historian and writer] John Keegan and—
DL: D.C. Watt. Keegan was even more outrageous than Watt. Actually, they were both outrageous—I shouldn’t privilege one over the other. I’ve talked to a lot of British historians who were appalled by both of their reactions. And when I asked them [these historians] for an explanation, they have uniformly said to me, without my posing it, “It’s the old boys’ network.” David Irving for all his lies and all his distortions looks a whole lot more like them—
DL:—then does a woman, an American, a Jew. But Keegan was particularly appalling. He opened his article, written the day after the trial, with, “The news that David Irving has lost his libel case will send a tremor through the community of 20th-century historians.” When he read this essay, [historian] Richard Evans was appalled. He said to me, “Who brought this case? Who forced the professor of history into the courtroom, where she has to come up with over a million and a half dollars to defend herself?”
RB: Did Keegan make the claim that no historian could undergo the scrutiny that Irving underwent?
DL: No, that was Watt.
RB: Is that true?
DL: Of course not. We certainly looked at his work very closely. We knew we would find mistakes. Mistakes always creep in. I reviewed the manuscript of my book a thousand times. Yet, I know that there are mistakes that crept in. But Irving’s so-called mistakes always move in the same direction: exoneration of the Nazis, condemnation of the Jews, over and over and over again. And these are not mistakes. The judge uses the word “deliberate.” Let me give you a few examples. Irving switches the sequence of what is said at a meeting so that, according to him Hitler ends the meeting by saying it’s not necessary to kill the Jews, when, in fact, the meeting really ended with Hitler delivering a horrendous harangue about the killing the Jews. Another example: Irving mistranslates a telegram that goes out during Kristallnacht, which says “Stop the arson.” According to Irving this means that Hitler was calling an end to the violence, when in fact it was a call for an end to arson and only arson. The Germans were afraid of the fires because entire city blocks were going up in fire. We found a myriad of these kinds of so-called mistakes over and over again. All scholars make mistakes—clearly we do. We misplace, we reverse numbers. But the things Irving did were deliberate, so said the judge.
RB: It was also interesting that Van Pelt in Morris’s film, his take on Holocaust denial was that it came from vanity.
DL: If you read the report that he prepared for the court, which has now been published as a book, The Case for Auschwitz, you will see that he thinks it’s partially vanity but that it is also anti-Semitism. It’s all these things together. But there is certainly vanity. David Irving seems to me to be an exceptionally vain person. He could have had lawyers representing him. But he felt he could do a better job than any lawyer. Though I doubt that even with lawyers the outcome would have been any different.
RB: Did he pay his court costs?
DL: [emphatically] No! In fact, I dropped my attempt to make him pay and now he has turned around and sued me, arguing that I should have to pay his expenses because I dropped the pursuit of him. We were in court two days ago to argue this. Each time he does this it runs up my legal bill. In the U.K., loser pays costs so, after the trial, he owed my defense fund a million and three-quarters. I paid for an independent book and document assessor who specializes in the Holocaust to go to England to assess the value of his papers. He felt that at the most they were worth $200,000 or so. We hoped to get control of them, in lieu of the cash Irving owed us, and sell them to a library or archive. But by then Irving had already run the clock up so there were $80,000 or $90,000 worth of lawyer bills and we hadn’t even gone to court. It became clear that this was a losing proposition. The lawyers’ bills would wipe out anything we would get from him. Finally, last June , I said, “The trial itself was about a principle, about truth, this is about money. Leave it alone, I’m giving it up.” And I was really upset with myself even though I knew it was the right decision, from a legal and financial perspective. But he has documents that no historians have ever seen and which he should really make accessible. My actions would have made them accessible.
RB: Some of which he may or may not have stolen, yes?
DL: Well, that I don’t know. But I have the feeling that some of them were obtained from families of Nazis who entrusted their documents to him and to no one else. I don’t know if he stole any of these documents. Now he has gone into court to sue me for having conducted a frivolous case against him because I dropped the pursuit of costs. It makes no sense. It makes no sense at all.
RB: Any way that could backfire on him?
DL: I’m not sure. It’s just he wants to cause me as much grief as possible. He did tell the C-SPAN people the case itself wasn’t over and that we are going back into court. And they fell for that. [laughs]
RB: Is Anthony Julius still representing you?
DL: His firm is. He handed this over to their bankruptcy specialist, Daniel Davis.
RB: I can’t imagine what twist of law would give Irving a victory now.
DL: I can’t imagine. I don’t know. But I can’t imagine what twist of law would ever force me to be back in court spending more money to defend this. That the courts wouldn’t just look at this and say, “Get the hell out of here, Mister.”
RB: Before your libel trial, was the Zundel case in Canada the biggest case of Holocaust denial?
DL: Yeah, I think so. But the difference of course was [that] there the Canadian government was prosecuting Zundel for violating a form of hate-speech law. In contrast, this was the first case in which the denier was the plaintiff.
RB: And where is Zundel?
DL: He was just deported to Germany from Canada for hate speech and for more than that. He has a very active website, which was being used by people whom the Canadian government judged to be terrorists and spreading terrorist materials. So the reasons for his being deported had, apparently, relatively little to do—if anything at all—with his Holocaust denial.
RB: Montreal has a significant [Jewish] community; does Canada, other than Montreal?
DL: Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. There were a lot of Jews who came to Canada at the turn of the century and after the war—not during the war.
RB: I am wondering what Zundel’s activities—
DL: He published The Hitler We Loved and Why. Also UFOs: Nazi Secret Weapons? The guy is a complete nutcase. He is crazy, but apparently—according to the Canadian courts—also quite dangerous.
RB: So you publish a book on this six-year ordeal. What do you think is going to happen? How does this resonate?
DL: On one level it was finally letting my voice be heard. I’m a talker. That’s my business, that’s my tool. Moreover, throughout this case I never spoke except on the day of the verdict, when I gave a press conference. So the book is my way of expressing my views, emotions, and experiences. Furthermore, I was the only one who had the whole story, so to speak, of hiring the lawyers and putting the case together. On top of that, I had this incredible series of encounters with survivors and children of survivors and veterans—British and American. I wanted to be able to tell that part of the story as well. So, on some level, I hope this book is the final chapter of this saga. But C-SPAN [chuckles] may be changing that.
Look, the First Amendment guarantees that everybody has the right to stand on a corner and make a fool of themselves. And that includes David Irving. But that doesn’t mean that I have to invite them into my house.
RB: If he is still in court with you, then it isn’t finished.
DL: I can’t imagine he is going to get very much out of this thing.
RB: Yes, but you couldn’t have imagined the libel trial, either.
DL: That’s right. I have been wrong before.
RB: It’s pretty screwy. So here you are going out to talk about your book. What’s your sense of who has read it?
DL: A lot of people. What’s so invigorating is last night I was on a Comcast cable nightly news show—the guy had read the book. He read anecdotes and stories. And I am getting a lot of invitations to speak at law schools. And to lawyers. There is a major international law firm which has its home base in Atlanta and it has invited me to be the main speaker at its annual partners meeting, which will be held in the Grand Hall at Ellis Island. The senior managing partner, who called me, said, “I read your book. I know your work. I can think of no one better to speak to our group.” And the response to the C-SPAN attempt to put David Irving on with me and to create the debate that I, on principle, will not have, has been tremendous.
RB: Where is the balance if they put him on without you?
DL: [chuckles] You go ask C-SPAN. Where is the balance if they put him on with me after what’s [transpired]? I don’t know. I think they have “selective balance.” It’s the fuzziest kind of thinking. The producer at C-SPAN who was handling this kept on assuring me this was not a decision she had made on her own, but that it had been discussed at the “highest levels.” Book TV [C-SPAN] is watched by millions of people and, as you well know, it’s where authors want to be seen and heard. C-SPAN gives you an uninterrupted hour and sometimes more. So I really wanted to be on the show. It was not, however, worth compromising a principle. Holocaust denial is not worthy of debate. Even though you can bury the deniers easily.
RB: Well, you can’t.
DL: In a way you can, but you can’t. They lie and distort the facts. In that arena, they can be defeated. But once you defeat them, they just come back and reincarnate themselves and their arguments. But that’s true of all haters. We can never fully defeat racism. But we can keep fighting it.
RB: We apparently live in a time when judgments are not reality based. People are polled on all sorts of issues that they affirm, which have been debunked.
DL: It’s scary, very scary. And that a station of such caliber, that’s not driven by advertising and ratings should do this—I said to the C-SPAN producer, “If you put him on, especially by himself, you are going to cause great damage to C-SPAN.” She responded by assuring me that: “We don’t have advertisers. We are not susceptible to pressure.” I said, “I am not talking about pressure. I am talking about credibility.” Credibility!
RB: Had the producer read your book?
DL: She talked like she did, but given her decision I couldn’t imagine that she had. I don’t know. I don’t believe in denying free speech. I am not saying David Irving should be silenced. I am saying C-SPAN has [just] so many slots. To give one to a man who has been declared by three different courts, [to be] a liar and falsifier of history, who perverts and distorts, is a travesty. To give him one of those slots and then to force me into that debate, that’s just appalling. They wanted me to be the enabler.
RB: The aftermath is, of course, that you are subject to all sorts of vilification as an anti-free-speech person.
DL: Look, the First Amendment guarantees that everybody has the right to stand on a corner and make a fool of themselves. And that includes David Irving. But that doesn’t mean that I have to invite them into my house. So, too, a university doesn’t have to provide these people a platform. And C-SPAN or any television network doesn’t have to put them on. There are those who asked, “Should Holocaust denial be outlawed?” I was asked that a lot in Germany when I was there last week. Germany is a different situation, a unique case in terms of hate speech, given its history. Let’s set Germany aside. I don’t want to weigh in about that. As far as other countries are concerned, no, I think Holocaust denial should not be outlawed. If you do, you turn it into forbidden fruit. After Prince Harry, not the sharpest blade in the drawer, wore that swastika, people said the EU should outlaw the swastika. And I said, “That is really ridiculous because you turn it into forbidden fruit, especially for young people.”
RB: And he was universally ridiculed and scorned.
DL: Right. Except one of his cousins, Princess Whomever, said recently—I am paraphrasing here—“Oh it only happened because of the ownership of the media.” [See Princess Michael’s comments here.] Hmm—Another aspect of the Prince Harry incident was that, the press immediately connected it to the Holocaust. I think that is too bad. [The] Brits should have been appalled because of World War II and the bombing of London, the Blitz and because of all those British soldiers who died slogging across the Continent. In this country, of course, there is that pesky First Amendment issue of free speech. I don’t want to silence Holocaust deniers, but I don’t think that we have any obligation to invite them in and provided a platform, particularly when there are only a limited number of places on the platform. Regarding my being against free speech, let’s go back to the trial. Who tried to silence whom? David Irving offered to settle shortly before the trial. What were the terms? Five hundred pounds to a charity of his choice. Right!
DL: And second, an apology and withdrawing the book from circulation and having it pulped. Now who was trying to silence whom? And then [John] Keegan says after I win, that my victory will send a shudder through the community of historians. As if I had tried to silence him.
RB: Not only do you have David Irving as—I don’t want to say adversary, uh, demon—but you have been attacked by Ward Churchill [the controversial ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder].
DL: Yeah. [chuckles]
RB: Which is an interesting issue. I accept that the Holocaust is not like other genocides and I am not an expert on genocide, but having read Samantha Power’s book and taking note of the difficulties in coming up with an acceptable legal definition of genocide—let me digress to my mother for an example. My mother seems to apply genocide only to the Jewish experience—she seems unconcerned about the other genocides of the 20th century.
DL: I understand why she might do that, but I think it is wrong to do so. Sometimes Jews fear that their pains will get lost and people will not understand the tragedy they have suffered. I am active in working with the Armenian community on fighting Armenian genocide denial. When I was Germany I said, in front of 350 people, that it’s a travesty that Turkey should be allowed into the EU before it acknowledges the Armenian genocide.
RB: Isn’t the Turkish author [Orhan] Pamuk having problems there now because of his revisiting the Armenian genocide in his latest novel [Snow]?
DL: I think that’s the case. But at the same time we have to remember that nothing is ever the same as something else. For example, I went to South Africa and there were many aspects of apartheid that were just like Nazi Germany. But the white South Africans were not intent on murdering all the blacks because they needed them to do their scut work and to build and maintain their rich economy so they could live comfortably, thank you very much. But Ward Churchill contends that because in my book I don’t mention the [killing of] native Americans, which I hasten to point out, wasnot my topic, I am a genocide denier. In the book I was addressing Holocaust denial. It wasn’t about the denial of genocides. But then Ward Churchill says that because I don’t mention the Native American killings there is “no difference between a Deborah Lipstadt and an Adolf Eichmann.” I recently began to read his articles more carefully. It is the first time I saw the word “motherfucker” in a supposedly scholarly article.
DL: The guy [Churchill] has one idea. Which he argues, not very well, over and over again. Now it appears that he may have plagiarized from a professor in Canada.
RB: Churchill may even be a scam artist.
DL: The real fault lies with the administration of the University of Colorado. He never went through the regular hiring process. The guy doesn’t have a PhD. They didn’t closely read his articles. They were so excited about getting a supposedly Native American—and now the Native Americans are saying he is not even Native American—that they were scammed. There is good reason for the academic process. Then, once they decided that hiring him would bring luster to the university, they had to find a department willing to take him. And now, with all the controversy about him, the university administration was about to buy him off for a half million dollars. Talk about shooting yourself in more than just the foot. [laughs] But on a more serious plane, when you focus on the Holocaust and argue that in many respects it is unlike the other terrible genocides, that doesn’t mean that you are saying, “Oh the other sufferings are inconsequential.” If a Cambodian person says, “My parents died in the Cambodian genocide,” and I say, “The Cambodian genocide was not a holocaust,” not only is that insensitive, it is comparative pain and comparative pain is stupid. If I were sitting here and you said to me, “I just had a root canal.” And I said, “Oh, I had two of them.” Does that make you feel better? Comparative pain is a completely useless exercise. So to argue that Holocaust has unique elements is not to diminish the suffering of others.
RB: In Eva Hoffman’s book, After Such Knowledge, she mentioned she had done some radio broadcasts and later met a Rwandan in London who expressed great appreciation for her observations on the Holocaust. Hoffman opines, “He was not having a good genocide.”
DL: It’s not by chance that Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general [who was in charge of United Nations peacekeepers dispatched to Rwanda in the spring of 1993, as the genocide there was beginning], spoke for the first time in public when he was interviewed by Ted Koppel at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. This was about three or four years ago. The whole uniqueness argument doesn’t take you anywhere.
RB: I bring it up—I am not saying my mother is guilty of some wrong—she seems to be obsessed.
DL: What happens is that some Jews fear that if they make these comparisons it takes attention away from Jewish pain and suffering. Jews fear that because they have a profile of being successful today, people don’t think they really suffered. I say to my students when we discuss why the United States did so little, I say there was the Depression and there was isolationism—I sound like such an apologist. I sound like the person who disgusted me when I was a college student and heard this. And I said, “Some day people are going to say, ‘What were you doing during the genocide in Sudan?’” I try as often as I can, [though] I don’t always succeed, to mention the Sudan. Rwanda happened 10 years ago. Bosnia happened six years ago. But the Sudan is happening right now. [emphatically] A genocide. And we should be going nuts. We’re not.
RB: You reminded me of David Rieff’s remark in his book [on Bosnia], Slaughterhouse,that the phrase “Never again” seemed to be reserved for Jews in mid-century Europe.
DL: That’s true. And the phrase was coined long after nothing was done. So who knows if it is anything more than a slogan? There has been some action by the world, but not enough. You know, it’s so easy to rewrite history. When I was in Germany, Germans discussed their intention to want to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the “liberation” of Germany. Excuse me, liberation from whom?
RB: You have been criticized in some quarters for using the Fragments book. [The book is the memoir of Binjamin Wilkomirskic, in which he claimed to have survived the Holocaust as a child. Its veracity has been called into question by a number of experts.—eds.]
DL: Oh, God, what an old story. First of all, I used the Fragments book early on, shortly after it appeared. Then some suspicions arose that it might not be accurate. I was asked, on the run, literally on the fly, by Blake Eskin: “What if it weren’t quite true?” So I said, “Then it will be a powerful novel.” When I found out the degree to which Wilkomirski falsified that story, I immediately stopped using it. But my throwaway line continues to be cited.
RB: Had you considered using Blake Eskin’s book [A Life in Pieces, in which in part he investigates Wilkomirski’s story,] as a companion piece?
DL: No, I don’t want to give Wilkomirski a dime.
RB: Where is he now?
DL: In Switzerland. He made a lot of money on his book and he’s a complete fraud. Before all this came to light, I met him and something just did not seem right. First of all he looked very young to be a survivor. And he was always half in tears. When it was time for him to go to the airport, he said, “I have to have someone who comes with me. You can’t send me in a car. I need someone to come with me.” And he was traveling with his wife. So he was not alone. I know a lot of survivors and I don’t know any who are so pained that they can’t function. Many are in deep, deep pain, but they know how to function in life. That’s one of the reasons, in addition to lots and lots of luck, that they survived. Wilkomirski’s behavior was like a caricature of what he thought a survivor should be like. Blake Eskin has made a whole career out of that one sentence. It makes me wonder about him in general.
RB: Is there an end to this?
DL: No, there is no end. There is no end to anti-Semitism. There is no end to racism. There is no end to prejudice. You keep fighting the battles. It’s not a war that you win, but it’s singular battles that you might win.
RB: It’s your sense that the latest court episode ends at some point but [the focus] turns to something else?
DL: I don’t think he [Irving] will be able to go on. There has to be a limit to what Irving can do to me. He’s going around saying that if they publish my book in London, he is going to sue me again. So he’ll try again. If this is how he wants to spend his time, then let him. Before the trial, he said to the New York Times, “Lipstadt has been taken out of the line to be shot.” To his surprise, I shot back. I gave better than I got. And I’ll keep giving better than I got.
RB:History on Trial hasn’t been published in Britain?
DL: The wonder of Amazon—people in Britain are buying it, but it hasn’t been picked up by a British publisher. I wonder if they will [pick it up].
RB: Even given the verdict in the trial, it would still cost money to defend.
RB: And it costs Irving nothing, especially of he goes pro se and then avoids paying the cost when he loses.
DL: That’s right.
RB: What are you doing next?
DL: I want to do something on Jewish response to anti-Semitism. On tactical and strategic responses—the Jewish community gets a lot of it all wrong in how it responds. We blew it in relation to Mel Gibson and gave him a gazillion dollars worth of publicity he could never have bought. I’m not sure the Jewish community has responded well to anti-Semitism, some of which does exist, even on campuses. I’d like to think through those issues.
RB: Whatever the response to Mel Gibson, the movie was going to be a big thing.
DL: Well, not as big as the Jewish community helped make it.
RB: Did they?
DL: They didn’t plan on helping him but in the end they did. They thought in the beginning by criticizing he’d come around and he’d say, “Let’s work together on making this a better film.”
RB: Given his father’s views?
DL: Once you know what his father said about the Holocaust and about Jews, we should have known better. Every time someone criticized him he played it more and more—he just played at being the victim. At some point his critics in the Jewish community should have said, “You know what, next time the press asks for a comment we should state that we have nothing to say.” I faced a similar situation. For five years I had to say, “No comment. I have nothing to say.” I wanted to talk to the press during my trial. I wanted to go on C-SPAN. I wanted to be there. But sometimes you have to be silent because the alternative is worse.
RB: This subject deserves a documentary.
DL: You find me the filmmaker.
RB: Me? I should find the filmmaker? [laughs]
DL: I have to go soon.
RB: OK. Thank you very much.
DL: This was great
Copyright 2002, 2016 Robert Birnbaum