I come to you today to speak of liars, lawsuits and laughter. The first time I heard about Holocaust denial, I laughed. Holocaust denial? The Holocaust which has the dubious distinction of being the best-documented genocide in the world? Who could believe it didn't happen?
Think about it. For deniers to be right, who would have to be wrong? Well, first of all, the victims — the survivors who have told us their harrowing stories. Who else would have to be wrong? The bystanders. The people who lived in the myriads of towns and villages and cities on the Eastern front, who watched their neighbors be rounded up — men, women, children, young, old — and be marched to the outskirts of the town to be shot and left dead in ditches. Or the Poles, who lived in towns and villages around the death camps, who watched day after day as the trains went in filled with people and came out empty.
But above all, who would have to be wrong? The perpetrators. The people who say, "We did it. I did it." Now, maybe they add a caveat. They say, "I didn't have a choice; I was forced to do it." But nonetheless, they say, "I did it." Think about it. In not one war crimes trial since the end of World War II has a perpetrator of any nationality ever said, "It didn't happen." Again, they may have said, "I was forced," but never that it didn't happen. Having thought that through, I decided denial was not going to be on my agenda; I had bigger things to worry about, to write about, to research, and I moved on.
Fast-forward a little over a decade, and two senior scholars — two of the most prominent historians of the Holocaust — approached me and said, "Deborah, let's have coffee. We have a research idea that we think is perfect for you." Intrigued and flattered that they came to me with an idea and thought me worthy of it, I asked, "What is it?" And they said, "Holocaust denial." And for the second time, I laughed. Holocaust denial? The Flat Earth folks? The Elvis-is-alive people? I should study them? And these two guys said, "Yeah, we're intrigued. What are they about? What's their objective? How do they manage to get people to believe what they say?"
So thinking, if they thought it was worthwhile, I would take a momentary diversion — maybe a year, maybe two, three, maybe even four — in academic terms, that's momentary.
We work very slowly.
And I would look at them. So I did. I did my research, and I came up with a number of things, two of which I'd like to share with you today.
One: deniers are wolves in sheep's clothing. They are the same: Nazis, neo-Nazis — you can decide whether you want to put a "neo" there or not. But when I looked at them, I didn't see any SS-like uniforms, swastika-like symbols on the wall, Sieg Heil salutes — none of that. What I found instead were people parading as respectable academics.
What did they have? They had an institute. An "Institute for Historical Review." They had a journal — a slick journal — a "Journal of Historical Review." One filled with papers — footnote-laden papers. And they had a new name. Not neo-Nazis, not anti-Semites — revisionists. They said, "We are revisionists. We are out to do one thing: to revise mistakes in history." But all you had to do was go one inch below the surface, and what did you find there? The same adulation of Hitler, praise of the Third Reich, anti-Semitism, racism, prejudice. This is what intrigued me. It was anti-Semitism, racism, prejudice, parading as rational discourse.
The other thing I found — many of us have been taught to think there are facts and there are opinions — after studying deniers, I think differently. There are facts, there are opinions, and there are lies. And what deniers want to do is take their lies, dress them up as opinions — maybe edgy opinions, maybe sort of out-of-the-box opinions — but then if they're opinions, they should be part of the conversation. And then they encroach on the facts.
I published my work — the book was published, "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory," it came out in many different countries, including here in Penguin UK, and I was done with those folks and ready to move on. Then came the letter from Penguin UK. And for the third time, I laughed ... mistakenly. I opened the letter, and it informed me that David Irving was bringing a libel suit against me in the United Kingdom for calling him a Holocaust denier.
David Irving suing me? Who was David Irving? David Irving was a writer of historical works, most of them about World War II, and virtually all of those works took the position that the Nazis were really not so bad, and the Allies were really not so good. And the Jews, whatever happened to them, they sort of deserved it. He knew the documents, he knew the facts, but he somehow twisted them to get this opinion. He hadn't always been a Holocaust denier, but in the late '80s, he embraced it with great vigor.
The reason I laughed also was this was a man who not only was a Holocaust denier, but seemed quite proud of it. Here was a man — and I quote — who said, "I'm going to sink the battleship Auschwitz." Here was a man who pointed to the number tattooed on a survivor's arm and said, "How much money have you made from having that number tattooed on your arm?" Here was a man who said, "More people died in Senator Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than died in gas chambers at Auschwitz." That's an American reference, but you can look it up. This was not a man who seemed at all ashamed or reticent about being a Holocaust denier.
Now, lots of my academic colleagues counseled me — "Eh, Deborah, just ignore it." When I explained you can't just ignore a libel suit, they said, "Who's going to believe him anyway?" But here was the problem: British law put the onus, put the burden of proof on me to prove the truth of what I said, in contrast to as it would have been in the United States and in many other countries: on him to prove the falsehood.
What did that mean? That meant if I didn't fight, he would win by default. And if he won by default, he could then legitimately say, "My David Irving version of the Holocaust is a legitimate version. Deborah Lipstadt was found to have libeled me when she called me a Holocaust denier. Ipso facto, I, David Irving, am not a Holocaust denier." And what is that version? There was no plan to murder the Jews, there were no gas chambers, there were no mass shootings, Hitler had nothing to do with any suffering that went on, and the Jews have made this all up to get money from Germany and to get a state, and they've done it with the aid and abettance of the Allies — they've planted the documents and planted the evidence.
I couldn't let that stand and ever face a survivor or a child of survivors. I couldn't let that stand and consider myself a responsible historian. So we fought. And for those of you who haven't seen "Denial," spoiler alert: we won.
The judge found David Irving to be a liar, a racist, an anti-Semite. His view of history was tendentious, he lied, he distorted — and most importantly, he did it deliberately. We showed a pattern, in over 25 different major instances. Not small things — many of us in this audience write books, are writing books; we always make mistakes, that's why we're glad to have second editions: correct the mistakes.
But these always moved in the same direction: blame the Jews, exonerate the Nazis.
But how did we win? What we did is follow his footnotes back to his sources. And what did we find? Not in most cases, and not in the preponderance of cases, but in every single instance where he made some reference to the Holocaust, that his supposed evidence was distorted, half-truth, date-changed, sequence-changed, someone put at a meeting who wasn't there. In other words, he didn't have the evidence. His evidence didn't prove it. We didn't prove what happened. We proved that what he said happened — and by extension, all deniers, because he either quotes them or they get their arguments from him — is not true. What they claim — they don't have the evidence to prove it.
So why is my story more than just the story of a quirky, long, six-year, difficult lawsuit, an American professor being dragged into a courtroom by a man that the court declared in its judgment was a neo-Nazi polemicist? What message does it have? I think in the context of the question of truth, it has a very significant message. Because today, as we well know, truth and facts are under assault. Social media, for all the gifts it has given us, has also allowed the difference between facts — established facts — and lies to be flattened.
Third of all: extremism. You may not see Ku Klux Klan robes, you may not see burning crosses, you may not even hear outright white supremacist language. It may go by names: "alt-right," "National Front" — pick your names. But underneath, it's that same extremism that I found in Holocaust denial parading as rational discourse.
We live in an age where truth is on the defensive. I'm reminded of a New Yorker cartoon. A quiz show recently appeared in "The New Yorker" where the host of the quiz show is saying to one of the contestants, "Yes, ma'am, you had the right answer. But your opponent yelled more loudly than you did, so he gets the point."
What can we do? First of all, we cannot be beguiled by rational appearances. We've got to look underneath, and we will find there the extremism. Second of all, we must understand that truth is not relative. Number three, we must go on the offensive, not the defensive. When someone makes an outrageous claim, even though they may hold one of the highest offices in the land, if not the world — we must say to them, "Where's the proof? Where's the evidence?" We must hold their feet to the fire. We must not treat it as if their lies are the same as the facts.
And as I said earlier, truth is not relative. Many of us have grown up in the world of the academy and enlightened liberal thought, where we're taught everything is open to debate. But that's not the case. There are certain things that are true. There are indisputable facts — objective truths. Galileo taught it to us centuries ago. Even after being forced to recant by the Vatican that the Earth moved around the Sun, he came out, and what is he reported to have said? "And yet, it still moves."
The Earth is not flat. The climate is changing. Elvis is not alive.
And most importantly, truth and fact are under assault. The job ahead of us, the task ahead of us, the challenge ahead of us is great. The time to fight is short. We must act now. Later will be too late.
Thank you very much.