By Liam Hoare
2000 Trial Cast of Characters
(in order of appearance)
Plaintiff: David Irving
Defendant: Deborah Lipstadt
Defendant: Penguin Books Ltd
Solicitor Advocate: Anthony Julius
Expert Witness: Sir Richard J. Evans
Barrister: Richard Rampton
Junior Counsel: Heather Rogers
Expert Witness: Robert Jan Van Pelt
Judge: Sir Charles Gray
Sixteen years later, the original “cast members” look back at the famous trial that debunked Holocaust revisionism—and changed their lives.
I was surprised when, the morning after I’d sent him an email, David Irving consented to my request for an interview. Frankly, I hadn’t imagined he’d want to talk about the 2000 libel trial in which he was found to be “an active Holocaust denier,” a racist and anti-Semite, and someone who “persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence” in Adolf Hitler’s favor—thus bankrupting him and ending his career as a historian. But once we’d got past the thorny issue of a date, Irving seemed more than willing to talk. Indeed, he even offered to pick me up from Inverness Airport and make up a room in the Scottish Highlands cottage where he now lives and works. (I politely declined both offers.)
Since Irving’s overwhelming defeat in Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd. and Deborah Lipstadt, he hasn’t been heard from much. That is not to say he is a recluse, but these days he is largely visible only through his website, where one can buy his books and read his pithy takes on recent news events: “Job applicants tells [sic] BBC wants people only from (less intelligent) ‘ethnic minority’ backgrounds—but the minority will soon be us White people, if this ‘migration’ madness is not halted.” Irving collects donations to fund his endeavors—the third volume of his Winston Churchill biography, as well as his memoirs and a study of Heinrich Himmler—though he has not published an original work of history since 1997.
I hadn’t thought anything was, or would be, untoward until a week before our meeting, when I found myself reading the intrepid journalist Will Storr’s 2014 study of those who hold counterfactual beliefs, The Unpersuadables, which includes a chapter on one of Irving’s newer lines of work: leading oddballs on tours of World War II and Holocaust sites in Poland, including Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair and the Treblinka and Majdanek concentration camps. Storr, who tagged along on one of these trips, thought Irving mercurial and bad-tempered, either forgetful or dismissive of his promise of an interview. Would this be my fate, too? After finally sitting down with Irving, Storr concluded, “It is as if no evidence could ever be good enough to persuade Irving that the idea of his life has been a terrible mistake.”
Sure enough, the weekend before I was due to fly up to Scotland, an email arrived in my inbox: “I am sorry to say I have to cancel our projected talk on Wednesday, as it clashes with another engagement. Sorry, but this is how things go. Suggest another date, perhaps.” My plea that I had booked the flights and a car went unheeded. “Unfortunate,” he replied. After some back and forth, we agreed to a telephone interview.
I absolutely had to speak with Irving, a central figure in this most infamous of cases, set to be revisited in a movie due out this month. Denial—directed by Mick Jackson with a screenplay by David Hare—is adapted from Deborah Lipstadt’s memoir History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier. The Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz plays Lipstadt, while Timothy Spall is Irving. Although several documentaries were made in the immediate aftermath of the case, Denial will mark the first time it has been fully dramatized. The plot begins on a clear Georgia day in the fall of 1995, when an unsuspecting professor of Jewish and Holocaust studies receives a letter that will change her life.
In 1993, Deborah Lipstadt was, then as now, teaching at Emory University, where she created the Institute for Jewish Studies, and published Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Irving, she wrote, was “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial.” He had been accused of “skewing documents and misrepresenting data…to reach historically untenable conclusions, particularly those that exonerate Hitler.” He was a “self-described ‘moderate fascist’” who associated with right-wing extremists. He was “converted…to the idea that the gas chambers were a myth,” he called Auschwitz a “tourist attraction” and he questioned the veracity of Anne Frank’s diary.
Denying the Holocaust sold few copies in Britain, and Lipstadt was far from the first to call Irving a Holocaust denier. But something about that book raised Irving’s hackles. In late 1994, he traveled to Atlanta, crashed one of Lipstadt’s campus lectures and hijacked the question-and-answer session. The audience turned around to see Irving brandishing one of his books. He told the assembled students that what Lipstadt had said about the Holocaust was a lie. Withdrawing from his jacket pocket $1,000 in cash, all in $20 bills, and waving the bundle aloft, he offered the sum to the first person able to provide evidence for the existence of the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Irving later described Lipstadt as indignant. Certainly she was caught off guard and taken aback by the incident.
A year later, Lipstadt received the letter announcing that Irving planned to sue her for libel. “I laughed,” Lipstadt recalls in her distinctive New York accent. Notwithstanding the commotion Irving had caused during her lecture, she thought Irving’s threat was ludicrous. Indeed, Lipstadt was perplexed as to why he was suing her “over something of which he is quite proud.” Over the next year, it became apparent that this was no laughing matter. From one letter grew a multi-million-pound libel dispute that would consume several years of Lipstadt’s life and put on the line not only her reputation as a historian but the world’s understanding of the Holocaust.
When I reach Irving over the phone, I catch him during a lunch engagement in Nairn—just up the road from Inverness—which Irving excuses himself from in order to chat. Away from the table and out on the street, Irving’s words are slightly muffled, buffeted by maritime winds and passing traffic. While occasionally prone to rambling, at 78, he is still quite sharp. He sued Lipstadt, he says, because she “led a campaign against St. Martin’s Press to persuade them” not to publish his book, Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich. Lipstadt has always denied this, and there’s no evidence to suggest she played a role in the publisher’s decision. Her opinion on whether Irving’s book should be published first surfaces in Frank Rich’s column in The New York Times in April 1996, a year after Irving threatened to sue.
The Goebbels controversy—or what Irving made of it—fed his belief that he was the victim of an international Jewish conspiracy to silence him. By suing Lipstadt, he believed he could strike a blow against what he called the “enemies of truth.” Lipstadt—whose deep ties to Judaism and the Jewish community can be traced through her childhood in New York’s Rockaways, her student days when she undertook a mission to the Soviet Union to aid refuseniks, and her academic career in Jewish studies—became a symbol in his mind. Irving tells me he believes “people like Steven Spielberg…were rounded up…before the trial” to raise money for her defense.
Irving also felt genuinely wounded by what Lipstadt had written, particularly the accusations that called into question his reputation as a historian. Lipstadt did “very real damage to my professional existence,” Irving would later proclaim in court. He compared the label “Holocaust denier” to “being called a wife beater or a pedophile. It is enough for the label to be attached for the attachee to find himself designated as a pariah, an outcast from normal society. It is a verbal yellow star.”
Above all, Irving likely sued Lipstadt because he considered her a soft target, especially after their encounter in Atlanta. He may have assumed that as an American academic—and as a woman—Lipstadt wouldn’t fight back and might settle rather than be dragged through the English courts, which are famously friendly to libel claimants. Lipstadt had “the misfortune of standing in line with all the other critics,” Irving concludes, “and I picked on her to sue.”
The trial having done for him what the duel did for Alexander Hamilton, it is easy to forget the kind of reputation Irving once enjoyed as an iconoclastic historian of the Third Reich, a formidable researcher with a ferocious appetite for new and interesting documents and an interviewer of former and modern-day Nazis. At the height of his dispute with St. Martin’s Press over Goebbels, Christopher Hitchens called him “one of the three or four necessary historians of the Third Reich,” defending him on national television and in the pages of Vanity Fair. Not bad for someone who dropped out of University College London and learned German on the job as a steelworker at the Thyssen plant in the Ruhr Valley.
Close observers of Irving, though, saw long before the trial that a rot had set in. There were clues in the thesis of Hitler’s War, his 1977 biography of Adolf Hitler, which put forward the notion that Hitler had neither ordered nor known of the Holocaust, and that when he was made aware, he attempted to stop it. “As for the concentration camps he comfortably left that dark side of Nazi rule to Himmler,” Irving wrote, arguing that “Hitler grasped quite early on that anti-Semitism would be a powerful vote-catching force in Germany,” but once in power, he “paid only lip service to that part of his Party creed.” Adolf Hitler, according to Irving, was not an anti-Semite.
With Hitler’s War, Irving became the “self-appointed attorney of Hitler before the bar of history,” says Christopher Browning, author of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. The book pushed Irving further out of the mainstream. He began flirting with Holocaust deniers and right-wing extremists, but he did not become one of them until 1988. The source of Irving’s Damascene conversion can be traced to one man: a rather odd and unimpressive fellow named Fred Leuchter, whose day job was consulting with American government authorities on improving their methods of executing criminals—including the gas chamber.
Leuchter was commissioned by Ernst Zündel, then on trial for Holocaust denial in Canada, to go to Auschwitz and investigate the gas chambers there. Without the knowledge of the authorities, Leuchter tore through the site, hacking hunks of masonry at random from the floors, walls and roofs of the ruins of the gas chambers, which he then placed in Ziploc bags and smuggled back into the United States for testing. The so-called Leuchter Report concluded that the residue of cyanide in the remains of the gas chambers was too low for Auschwitz to have functioned as a place where people were gassed to death en masse.
Irving was an expert witness in the trial and rushed to publish Leuchter’s findings, which were almost immediately debunked, in Britain. He then revised Hitler’s War to expunge all references to the Holocaust. The figures in the report, Irving tells me, “impressed me and still impress me.” Robert Jan van Pelt, professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture and a specialist in the architecture of Auschwitz, has another opinion of Leuchter’s work: “No self-respecting historian who applies the minimum standards of professionalism would have taken the Leuchter Report seriously,” he says. “Leuchter doesn’t go to the archive, doesn’t consult eyewitness testimony, and doesn’t do the minimum research or investigation to come to the conclusion.”
Someone who trusted Leuchter, van Pelt says, would have done so on the basis of ideological motivation. In other words, to believe the Leuchter Report, one would have had to want to believe it.
Once Irving formally filed his suit in London in September 1996, Lipstadt needed representation and turned to Anthony Julius. Prior to the Irving trial, Julius was best known as the man who represented Princess Diana during her divorce proceedings and as a scholar of anti-Semitism in the work of T.S. Eliot.
Lipstadt had no choice but to fight this suit. Unlike in the United States, where free speech is constitutionally protected and a plaintiff must prove he has been defamed, English law places the burden on the defendant to show that what she said was reasonable, justified or misunderstood. Had she settled, it would have been to concede that what she had written was indefensible and therefore untrue—that Irving was not a Holocaust denier.
Julius and his partner, James Libson, crafted a defense strategy that turned the tables on Irving by entering a plea of justification, meaning that even if what Lipstadt wrote in her book was defamatory, her words were supportable because they were true. It was this strategy that would turn Irving v. Penguin Books into the trial of David Irving. Proving Lipstadt right required “an immanent critique of Irving’s work,” Julius explains. To do this, the defense planned to examine “the very same documents Irving looked at and demonstrate that his use of them was not honest.” In other words, the goal was to shift the focus away from having to prove the Holocaust happened and toward how Irving arrived at his conclusion that it hadn’t.
A team of historians was assembled, beginning with the esteemed Sir Richard J. Evans, president of Wolfson College, Cambridge and an expert in the broad sweep of German history. “Anthony Julius called me to his office—I didn’t know him at all—and he explained to me what needed to be done,” Evans says. “He thought that I had the combination of the knowledge of historical epistemology on the one hand—dealing with questions of ‘What are facts?’ ‘What is fiction?’ ‘What’s truth?’ ‘What’s false?’—and, on the other hand, I was able to do the detailed kind of work that’s required” when handling original German documents, some of them penned in inscrutable, obsolete forms of handwriting.
Lipstadt was keen on having historian van Pelt join the team as its expert on Auschwitz to assess, as he explains, “what we knew about Auschwitz and how we know it,” with a special focus on “what was available as to evidence about the genocidal use of the Auschwitz crematoria.” Also on board were Browning, covering the Einsatzgruppen, Operation Reinhard and the Wannsee Conference; Peter Longerich of Royal Holloway, University of London, for analysis of Hitler’s role in the Final Solution; and Hajo Funke of the Freie Universität Berlin, covering Irving’s connections with the far and extreme right in Germany.
To represent Lipstadt and Penguin Books in court, Julius approached the barrister and seasoned defamation specialist Richard Rampton. “I hadn’t read any of Irving’s books,” says Rampton, who is played by Tom Wilkinson in Denial. His below-ground chambers are situated among a warren of buildings that together form London’s Middle Temple. “I had to take off quite a long time before I went into court, partly to learn the history—which I didn’t know much about—and partly in order to learn to read the German documents because Mr. Irving was a very notable scholar.” His junior counsel in this case would be Heather Rogers. “It’s not unusual in principle for a libel case to take you into a world with which you’re not familiar,” Rogers says. “What’s unusual about this is the scale of it—the scale of the demolition of the work.”
By the time Irving walked into the Victorian Gothic High Court building the morning of January 11, 2000, wearing a £2,000 bespoke Gieves and Hawkes chalk-stripe suit, carrying his books and papers, he faced a great wall of evidence that had been assembled by the defense. Over the previous two to three years, his public works had been dissected, and no private paper was left unturned. Irving, then, was already on the defensive as he rose to give his opening statement. The courtroom overflowed with supporters and detractors, journalists and historians, Holocaust survivors and anti-racism campaigners, neo-Nazi skinheads and a mysterious blonde beauty who was a constant presence at Irving’s side.
Evans, who spearheaded the research, did not read Irving’s work before he began to compile his report. “I thought it was very important to start from a neutral point of view,” he says as we speak in his office at London’s Gresham College. Taking two editions of Hitler’s War and checking its assertions against the original sources, Evans found, as he writes in his book Lying about Hitler, that Irving “consistently and repeatedly manipulated the historical evidence in order to give the impression that it supported his view that Hitler did not know about the extermination of the Jews, or, if he did, opposed it.” Irving’s work “was revealed as a house of cards, a vast apparatus of deception and deceit.”
One example cited in the trial concerned Heinrich Himmler’s handwritten telephone log from November 30, 1941. It records a call he made from Hitler’s bunker to Reinhard Heydrich in which he says, “Judentransport aus Berlin. Keine Liquidierung”—“Transport of Jews from Berlin. No liquidation.” Irving claimed in Hitler’s War that this was evidence that Hitler ordered no liquidation of Jews, but to Evans, it was perfectly clear from the original German—as well as from other archival material—that this referred to one trainload of Jews transported from Berlin to Riga between November 27 and 29, 1941, and not transports in toto, as Irving implied.
Irving’s private papers, including his diaries and speeches obtained during the discovery process, were a trove of bigotry and chauvinism, allowing the defense to link his personal views to his public work. As Evans explains, with “a lot of the unpublished stuff, particularly the speeches, he’s less guarded than he is on paper.” Among this collection, the defense found a poem, composed by Irving and recited to his baby daughter upon sight of “half-breed” children (his words), in a diary entry dated September 17, 1994. It became notorious during the trial:
I am a baby Aryan
Not Jewish or Sectarian
I have no plans to marry-an
Ape or Rastafarian
Irving was tasteless (his word) about the Holocaust. In a speech given in Ontario in October 1991, he said, “More women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.” In an address in Tampa four years later, Irving said that “you”—meaning Jews—“never ask yourselves why you are disliked,” adding that the “short answer is yes” as to whether Jews are responsible for Auschwitz. On race, Irving confirmed in a New Zealand television interview in June 1993 that he felt “queasy” seeing black men playing for the England cricket team.
It was quite the picture. On one side of the courtroom, Lipstadt and her coterie of lawyers and expert witnesses: Julius, Rampton, Rogers, Evans and two of his doctoral students, Penguin’s lawyers, and so on. On the opposing side, alone before the judge and English justice, Irving, who had elected to represent himself in court. Irving tells me it was only in part a financial consideration. “You had a choice, either of hiring a lawyer to fight your action, a lawyer who doesn’t understand much about history or writing books, and having a not complete knowledge of all the law—or on the other hand you could go in person and then you’ll have a historian who knows all the history, but doesn’t know much about the law but you’re able to learn up about it.” Irving believed he was best qualified to present his case.
There was another consideration. The trial was, for Irving, part of a larger narrative in which he was the victim of an international conspiracy, organized by Jewish groups, to ruin his reputation and wreck his career—one built on saying things that allegedly could not be said. To defend himself against Lipstadt and Penguin’s assembly of experts and lawyers, then, was the perfect illustration of this narrative and one that he calculated would impress both the press and the judge.
There was no jury in the courtroom, for Irving had acquiesced to a trial by judge alone. “I was sure that we would win either way,” Julius says, “but I also had the sense that in front of a jury, the ability to conduct a trial according to the strategy that had been devised would be more challenging, and I also wanted to deny Irving the chance to grandstand in front of a jury.” During an intial hearing, Julius suggested that the case was far too complicated to be heard by a jury, and Irving readily agreed. “The way I presented the case was intended to appeal to his vanity,” says Julius. “He’s much less intelligent than he thinks he is.”
Lipstadt did not utter a word in court from the beginning to the end of the trial—a deliberate part of the defense strategy. “We were not going to engage directly in what I might call ‘goodies versus baddies,’” Rampton says. “It was going to be a case about Irving’s credentials and values as a historian.” Lipstadt had wanted to testify. “It was a big fight between us,” she confides, but she ultimately conceded that putting her on the stand wouldn’t have added anything relevant. It would have turned the trial into a “personal engagement” when the case was about what she’d written. “Why give him [Irving] that pleasure, that opportunity?”
The defense also determined it was not in its interest to call Holocaust survivors as witnesses of fact, a decision Julius and Lipstadt argued over but one for which the former takes sole responsibility. “There were two ways to fight this case. The first was to prove the Holocaust, and that would have meant inviting survivors to submit to bullying cross-examination. ‘When you got off the train, did you turn left or right?’ ‘Did you see men in gray uniforms or blue uniforms?’ The alternative was to put Irving’s work under forensic scrutiny,” for which, Julius explains, one did not need survivors.
Even with the prospect of being confused or humiliated by Irving under hostile cross-examination, survivors inundated Lipstadt with requests to testify. “My heart was breaking telling them they couldn’t,” she says.
Trial proceedings would last 32 days, overseen by Sir Charles Gray, a veteran of many major defamation cases who has since retired from the bench. Since Irving was to be a litigant in person, Gray allowed him a good deal of leeway throughout, to Lipstadt’s occasional frustration. “You’ve got someone who’s floundering, who doesn’t understand the system, who doesn’t know what will happen next, and your function is mainly to help him,” Gray explains on a blissfully sunny afternoon with the light pouring in through the open French doors of his London riverside home. “You try to get the thing resolved right.”
To convince the judge of the illegitimacy of the defense’s justification, Irving questioned Evans, van Pelt, Browning, Longerich and Funke on their reports, and faced interrogation from Rampton. He was especially good at playing to the gallery, packaging his case in a way that was media-friendly. “You do accept, do you not,” he told van Pelt as he was cross-examining him, “that if you were to go to Auschwitz the day after tomorrow with a trowel and clean away the gravel and find a reinforced concrete hole where we anticipate it would be from your drawings, this would make an open and shut case and I would happily abandon my action immediately?” His “No holes, no Holocaust” theory made headlines. Unfortunately for Irving, so did the moment in his closing argument when he inadvertently referred to the judge as Mein Führer.
Van Pelt, however, was prepared for Irving’s tricks. As part of the trial preparation, Lipstadt, van Pelt, Rampton and Rogers visited Auschwitz. Rampton and Rogers debated whether it was necessary to go, but in the end they decided it was “to test the strength of van Pelt’s reconstruction of what had happened and that’s very difficult to do unless you’re on site,” Rampton says. What took place in the archives and as they trudged around the snowy grounds of the campsite in their overcoats was an interrogation by Rampton of van Pelt “to see if I could hold myself,” van Pelt says, with Rampton essentially playing the role of a Holocaust denier, poking and prodding at van Pelt’s evidentiary case.
“This drove Lipstadt crazy,” van Pelt tells me. She thought it was inappropriate and “it created obvious tension.” Lipstadt says, “I misunderstood what he was doing,” and worried that Rampton’s questions were sincere, but came to understand that van Pelt had to be “prepared to be challenged”; Rampton and Rogers were acting as “lawyers who were preparing a case.” (Rampton, meanwhile, says that the visit to Auschwitz helped him see the case from Lipstadt’s perspective. The Holocaust “isn’t quite part of my tradition in the way it is if you are Jewish. It’s an appalling place,” he says.)
It was fortunate for van Pelt and the other expert witnesses that Irving was equipped with neither the requisite skills nor the knowledge of the law to conduct an effective cross-examination. The idea is to “set a trap through a long sequence of questions and only ask for yes or no answers,” van Pelt says, with a view to backing the witness into a corner. Instead, “Irving was fishing,” which is why fundamentally he didn’t get anywhere with any of the defense’s expert witnesses. He was, van Pelt concludes, “radically underprepared, and a good lawyer could have done much more damage” to him and his report. “I never really got a thorough cross-examination.”
Still, Irving’s cross-examination of Evans was heated and contentious. (Irving referred to Evans in his trial diary as “that horrid little Welshman.”) Evans adopted a strategy of saying, “Could you point to the page in my report where I say that, please?” whenever Irving referenced something he had written. “I have a problem, Mr. Irving,” Evans told the court, “which is that, having been through your work, I cannot really accept your version of any document, including passages in my own report, without actually having it in front of me, so I think this may be a problem for us.” Evans says Irving had a “naïve belief” that he could kill off his report by finding a few mistakes. “He can’t seem to see the wood for the trees. He’s obsessed with detail.”
Irving, Rampton surmises, “had a different sense of what the case was actually about. He came across as somebody who felt quite wounded by what had been said about him, who genuinely thought his qualities as a historian had been unfairly criticized.” Under cross-examination, Irving also had a tendency to make concessions, strategically or otherwise, “when the evidence became irresistible,” Rogers says. Although, as Julius adds, “with anti-Semites, you never know the extent to which they believe it or the extent to which they’re just mischief-making—they’re just enjoying baiting Jews.”
The verdict came on April 11, 2000. Irving faced a hostile reception when he arrived at court that morning. An egg, launched from the throng outside, cracked on the back of his head, its contents sliding down his jacket. Irving turned around but quickly marched on. He appeared grumpy and his face was sullen, and though it was a damp day his visage had nothing to do with the weather, for when Lipstadt turned up later, she was clearly suppressing a smile. They all knew what was coming, though perhaps not the sheer forcefulness with which Sir Charles Gray would deliver his opinion. “I was fairly clear on where I thought the truth lay,” Gray tells me.
“My assessment is that, as a military historian, Irving has much to commend him.” These were the last kind words Gray had for Irving. Gray then went on to say that Irving appears to take “every opportunity to exculpate Hitler.” His views on Hitler and the Jewish question “have a distinct air of unreality about them,” “at odds with the evidence.” On the Holocaust, “the cumulative effect of the documentary evidence for the genocidal operation of gas chambers at Auschwitz is considerable,” such that no fair-minded historian “would have serious cause to doubt that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz and that they were operated on a substantial scale to kill hundreds of thousands of Jews.” It is “incontrovertible that Irving qualifies as a Holocaust denier.”
“I’m afraid I just thought this was a lot of cobblers, really,” Gray says of Irving’s case against the Holocaust—in other words, it was complete nonsense. “It was never going to get anyone anywhere. It was just hopeless pushing at a door which was never going to open, so I was not really very impressed.” His damning conclusion came to be the most quoted passage of his epic judgment:
The charges which I have found to be substantially true include the charges that Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favorable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.
Lipstadt and Penguin were victorious. “I’ve been in litigation now for almost 40 years,” Julius says, “and this was the one case where I was never in any doubt about the outcome.” Rampton tells me, “It wasn’t as much of a battle as I thought it was going to be in some ways. Anthony said to me after, ‘Well, that was a walk in a park. That was a turkey shoot,’” he laughs. “Not quite.”
Sixteen years later, with time to reflect, I wanted to hear what everyone thought about the trial’s significance, beginning with the professor who would become a star. “I think the trial was an important moment in the fight over truth,” Lipstadt says. Her post-trial memoir became a bestseller and caught the attention of Hollywood. The trial of David Irving was the crucible that made Deborah Lipstadt. It showed, she says, that “you can have your own opinions but you can’t have your own facts. The minute you lose sight of those facts, the minute you divorce yourself from those facts, you’re on dangerous territory.”
The trial also did much to shape the lives and careers of Evans and van Pelt. They, too, wrote books about the case and their experiences. It is hardly a coincidence that Evans became much more of a Third Reich specialist in the years following the trial, completing a masterly trilogy of monographs on the Nazi period as well as a work on the Third Reich in history and memory. As for van Pelt, earlier this year he showed “The Evidence Room”—an installation based on the evidence he mustered in his case for Auschwitz at the Irving trial—at the Venice Architecture Biennale.
Evans is proud to have taken part in the trial. “I think we showed you could prove these events and that Holocaust denial is all based on falsification,” he tells me. Similarly, van Pelt believes the case was vital for historians. “There is a long history of judges and juries making far-reaching decisions on historical fact,” he says. “It is very good for historians and the historical profession”—which operates on the basis of evidence, fact and interpretation—“to have to face the environment the court offers. The court is a good place to review these issues.” Historians, van Pelt argues, should not be afraid of the court “to come to the right conclusion.”
For the lawyers—Rampton, Rogers and Julius—the confrontation with the Holocaust had an emotional impact above and beyond the legal significance of the case. Rampton still has a tremendous memory and command of the evidence, and the timbre of his voice edges on occasion toward cracking while discussing Auschwitz. Rogers explains that presenting such a case was a strange and sensitive task. “There’s a kind of weirdness,” she says. “It is a forensic exercise, and you’re having that as a forensic debate, detaching partly from the fact these were real people who’ve been killed, but you’re also aware of it at the same time.”
“It was certainly a case in which I take pride and which I think it was necessary to win,” Julius tells me. Ten years after the trial, Julius would publish a majestic study of English anti-Semitism, Trials of the Diaspora, whose introduction points to the resonance of this case for Jews, especially Holocaust survivors: “I suspect it may have something to do with an intense, unsatisfied desire to be rescued, one that survives their liberation.” Lipstadt, in this trial, was to be the agent of their liberation. Also, as he adds in our interview, “Jews who feel generally embattled as Jews always appreciate successes.”
But Julius is cognizant of the case’s limitations. Irving came from a very particular school of Holocaust denial, one that manages to be pseudo-academic, pseudo-historic and pseudo-scientific all at once. Unable to prove that the Holocaust did not happen, it perverts methods of study in order to cast doubt on evidence, giving an air of scholarly respectability to what is, essentially, a project of the far right to rehabilitate the Third Reich.
The trial of David Irving dealt this variety of Holocaust denial a killer blow. Its arguments were torn to shreds, it lost its most important asset in Irving, and by 2002, its primary outlet—the California-based Journal for Historical Review—went out of print. “The line of argument that produced the Leuchter Report became a dead end,” van Pelt says. What Julius sees, however, is that “we were off chasing a version [of Holocaust denial] that essentially was already dead, while the other version was growing unattended.”
“At a time when the problems for Jews were coming from the left and not the right, were speaking English and not German, and were coming from civil society rather than the state, to have a trial which affirms the exact opposite of those three propositions—which makes of current anti-Semitism centrally the vampire version of the Second World War—I think risks blinding people about the true nature of the contemporary threat,” says Julius.
Lipstadt agrees, arguing that as the Irving trial made what she terms “hardcore Holocaust denial” unacceptable in much of the Western world, “softcore” forms began to supersede it. These include anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in or emanating from the Arab and Muslim worlds; the argument that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians; the claim that the Holocaust is equivalent to other genocides; and the complaint that we simply hear too much about the Holocaust. “At the moment, no,” Lipstadt says, as to whether Holocaust denial poses a threat today. “But I’m enough of a historian not to say it won’t come back.”
No one was transformed by the trial of David Irving more than Irving himself. At one point in his career, he earned more than £100,000 a year in royalties from his books alone. He drove a Rolls Royce and had an apartment in London’s ritzy Mayfair neighborhood. “My accountant asked what steps I had taken in anticipation of retirement,” Irving told the court at one point. “I replied that my books were my pension fund.”
English justice put an end to that. Irving brought the suit seeking vindication, perhaps even redemption, and left with nothing. After a spate of television appearances in the trial’s aftermath, Irving effectively disappeared. His collected works cannot be found in bookstores or public libraries. In March 2002, after failing to make an interim payment of £150,000 in legal costs to Penguin Books, Britain’s High Court had Irving declared bankrupt. Two months later, Irving lost his Mayfair apartment.
Irving was totally finished by 2006, when he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in Austria for violating that country’s constitutional law on re-engagement in Nazi activities. Serving only 13 months before being released on probation, he was deported back to Britain and barred from reentry. “Very boring,” Irving says when I ask what it was like inside. “I soon realized that the entire prison staff population was on my side…What was distressing was to be separated from my child and her mother…But I had a lot of opportunities. I wrote 4,000 pages of handwritten manuscript.” Irving doesn’t blame the Austrian government, but rather “a Jewish body in Austria who…demanded my arrest…I don’t bear any grudges for the Jews trying this kind of thing,” he says. “When you recognize who’s behind it, you just chuckle and move on.”
During my wind-battered conversation with Irving, he tells me he sees himself as Hitler’s “ambassador for posterity.” “I think Adolf Hitler has had a bum rap from the historians, and his reputation is gradually getting better,” he says. I am curious, naturally, about what there is to be an ambassador for. “Just one word: Autobahns, for example,” Irving says enthusiastically. “Or architecture. He was a creator. Winston Churchill was a destroyer and Adolf Hitler was a creator.”
When I point out that Hitler dismantled German democracy, Irving cuts me off. “What’s so wonderful about democracy?” he exclaims. “We don’t have democracy in England. Nobody asked us, for example, if we want immigration. Nobody asked us if we wanted to have another 20,000 or 30,000 Syrian immigrants.
“Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship was just what Germany needed in the 1930s, and for a few years it worked very well…and then it became derailed but through no fault of his own, but I’m not going to go into that.” By “that” he means “the Holocaust,” which he continues to believe should be attributed to SS head Heinrich Himmler and other leading Nazis.
Even today, Irving does not consider himself a Holocaust denier, because he acknowledges the mass shootings of Jews on the Eastern Front and the gassing operations in the Operation Reinhard camps in Poland. Still, in our conversation he refers to Auschwitz as “small beer,” the Holocaust as a “brand name” and the Final Solution as a “police operation” and “a product of war which got out of hand.” Irving describes the Holocaust as genocide, then quickly corrects himself. “To say [it was] a genocide is rubbish. Genocide is a handy word but you can’t genocide a people if you can’t get your hands on all of them.”
Irving also insists he isn’t anti-Semitic. “It’s a miracle that I’m not,” he says. “And it’s not thanks to the Jews that I’m not anti-Semitic.” He maintains that Jews should ask themselves about their own victimhood regarding the Holocaust and warns that they are setting up a parallel scenario, this time in America.
“You’re seeing it all over now. In the 1930s, the Jews had all the prominent positions in certain professions…in Germany,” he says. “And in America it is now exactly the same. They moved over to America and they’ve occupied the same positions. I say to them…‘Don’t you realize you’re now running the exactly [sic] same risk as you ran in 1933? You’ve got all the positions—all the positions of power in America. You control the media, you control the newspapers, you control the banks—everything that matters—and who’s to say it’s not going to happen again?’”
Isn’t that just blaming the Jews for their own destruction? I ask. “You’re right,” he says. “It is. They have to be aware of these things, and if they’re wise, they try to avoid presenting that. But they’re not that wise. They’re not as clever as that.”
And so ends the trial of David Irving. “I’m often asked if I would do it again, and the answer is, Yes, yes, yes, yes,” he says. “I was in a position where I was at the foot of a hill, and I could see this huge landslide, this avalanche, thundering down the hill toward me—this avalanche of lies and defamation not just from Deborah Lipstadt, but from the Jews, Jewish authors, around the world. The only way to stop the avalanche was to start hammering pegs into that hillside as far away from me as possible,” he concludes, “and that’s what I did.”