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'Denial' Recounts Professor's Legal Battle With Holocaust Denier


Finally today, at a time when everybody has an opinion, at a time when people can argue about anything and everything, what exactly is truth? Are there some things that are beyond debate? Those are some of the simple, yet deeply important questions at the heart of the new film "Denial." It stars Academy Award-winner Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt. She's an American professor of Holocaust Studies who fought a notorious British Holocaust denier named David Irving in a British court.


TIMOTHY SPALL: (As David Irving) Let me reveal something to you, professor. I am that David Irving about whom you have been so rude. Yes, yes, I am he. And it puzzles me that you think yourself qualified to attack me, given that I have 30 years experience in the archives. I have to conclude that the reason you don't engage with people you disagree with is because you're (unintelligible), and you might learn some facts, facts Ms. Lipstadt, which don't suit your opinions.

MARTIN: Deborah Lipstadt wrote a book about her experience called "History On Trial: My Day In Court With A Holocaust Denier" which served as the inspiration for the film. And professor Lipstadt was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Professor Lipstadt, welcome to the program. Thanks for joining us.

DEBORAH LIPSTADT: Thank you very much, Michel. It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: When did denial of the Holocaust start?

LIPSTADT: In truth, there was denial very soon after the Holocaust through the '50s into the '60s. But most of it was primarily far right extremist, neo-Nazis, and it took a shift in the mid-'70s. They got rid of the neo-Nazi uniforms, and they got rid of meetings where they sieg heiled - and things like that.

And, instead, they began to present themselves as out to revise mistakes in history and present themselves as academics, and they produced academic-looking journals. So it was an attempt to take the same hatred, but dress it up in a more presentable veneer.

MARTIN: Well, David Irving - you described in your first book as one of the most dangerous spokespeople of the Holocaust Denial movement. Why was that?

LIPSTADT: Because unlike other deniers who were known simply as deniers, David Irving had a reputation as a writer of historical works, a lot of works on World War II. He was a very good writer, and, though the books had a sort of far-right inclination and they always were looking for the good of the Nazis and the bad of the Allies, they contained a lot of information.

And a lot of people paid attention to them, so that when he became a denier in the late '80s, he had entree - his books used to be reviewed - even The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, Washington Post - the major journals and many reviewers - much to my consternation - what they did engage in was, yes, but - yes, this is ridiculous, but let's take the rest of what he says seriously.

MARTIN: Well, let's just be clear about one thing - that David Irving brought suit against you. You did not go pursuing him.

LIPSTADT: Bingo. So many people still make that mistake. I did not sue him. I don't believe in dragging history into the courtroom. When my book on Holocaust denial came out, it was bought by Penguin U.K., and it appeared in the U.K. in the mid-'90s. And within a few months after that, he brought suit against me.

In the book, I devote a couple of pages to David Irving. I said harsh things about him. I said he's a Hitler partisan because he had written this book claiming Hitler didn't know about the Holocaust, and more importantly that unlike other deniers who had just repeated what they had been told, he knew the documents. He knew the facts, and he doctored them to make them appear as if they were - denied the existence of the Holocaust. And he waited 'til the book came out in the U.K. and then he sued me there.

MARTIN: I just want to make clear also, too, that every word of the trial that is depicted in the movie actually occurred. This comes from the actual trial transcripts. But there's something else I wanted to ask you about which is that there's a scene in which you are actually being pressured to settle. That would mean what? Saying that...

LIPSTADT: Well, it would have either meant, first of all - meant apologizing to him for calling him a denier, and then settle, you know - I don't know whether I could have said, well, there weren't 6 million, but there were 2 million. You know, it was absurd.

You can't fight every battle, but there are certain battles you can't turn away from because had I settled, then I would have acknowledged I indeed did libel him when I called him a denier, and ipso facto therefore his version of the Holocaust is a true version. He's not a denier, and his version, of course, says there was no plan to kill the Jews. There were no gas chambers. Hitler was the best friend the Jews had in Germany. And this is all a myth made up by Jews to get them attention, to get them sympathy, to get themselves political power.

MARTIN: Is it a part of you that feels any chagrin that, you know, David Irving is still denying the Holocaust, and there are still many, many people who are still denying the Holocaust?

LIPSTADT: People who deny that 9/11 wasn't attacked and that, you know, the bomb's placed inside - there are people now who deny Sandy Hook, people who argue that Muslims were dancing in New Jersey, and there's no evidence of that. But believe it. There are people who deny, you know, lots of things that we know are fact. I think it was The Economist that recently said we live in a post-factual era - or Stephen Colbert - a great social commentator said truthiness. We live in that era.

And I think it places a great responsibility certainly on the responsible media, but also on other people, too. And not just academics, but when someone says something that's totally absurd, well, what's your factual basis for that? Well, I read it on the Internet. Well, where did you read it? What did they say? Who is this person?

My trial was it - and the victory that my lawyers achieved was a result of hard work, slogging through documents, tracing back to the sources. It's hard stuff that I'm asking people to do. But in this the age of truthiness, in this age of where facts don't matter and I have a right to my opinion. Well, you may have a right to your opinion, but if your opinion is based on a lie, it's not an opinion. It's a lie. We have to be willing to challenge that. Otherwise, far more than just the history of the Holocaust is at stake.

MARTIN: Deborah Lipstadt teaches modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University. Her legal battle against Holocaust denier David Irving is the subject of the new feature film "Denial" starring Rachel Weisz. It opened Friday in New York and Los Angeles and opens nationwide later this month. Deborah Lipstadt, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LIPSTADT: Thank you, Michel. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.