Talking conspiracy theories with the historian who defeated a Holocaust denier in court

“Every prejudice has a template.”

Rachel Weisz as Deborah E. Lipstadt in “Denial.” CREDIT: Laurie Sparham/Bleecker Street
Rachel Weisz as Deborah E. Lipstadt in “Denial.” CREDIT: Laurie Sparham/Bleecker Street

One thing you can say for David Irving: He’s not your average anti-Semite.

He’s an exceptional case, really. He’s something else. The British author built his career as a Holocaust denier, spouting his hot takes in books published as early as 1963 (The Destruction of Dresden) through the following three decades. Irving claimed that no Jew was ever gassed at Auschwitz — to be exact, that “more people died in the back of Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz” — and that Holocaust survivors and other eyewitnesses who contradicted that fact were “liars or suffering from a mental problem.”

But when professor and historian Deborah Lipstadt called Irving a Holocaust denier in her 1994 book, Denying the Holocaust, Irving was outraged. He accused Lipstadt of smearing his professional reputation, of calling him a liar. It’s all very Donald-Trump-pretending-he-didn’t-start-the-birther-movement. Except instead of channelling his fury on Fox and Friends, Irving took Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, to court.

In England, where Irving brought the case, the burden of proof lies with the defendant. So the American Lipstadt enlisted a team of British lawyers, led by Anthony Julius — then already famous for representing Princess Diana in her divorce from Prince Charles — to, essentially, prove not only that the Holocaust happened but also that Irving was an anti-Semite who deliberately distorted evidence, bending history to fit the narrative arc of his choosing. (Irving’s defense hinged on his insistence that he was not, as Lipstadt claimed, a liar, because everything he said about the Holocaust was true.)

Lipstadt won the case. In his ruling, Judge Charles Gray wrote that “Irving had for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence” and “for the same reasons, he had portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favorable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews.”

“It is my conclusion that no objective, 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,” Gray wrote.

This series of events (fittingly, for a story that is all about facts) is depicted matter-of-factly in Denial, which premieres nationwide on September 30. The screenplay by David Hare sticks razor-close to reality; dialogue from trial scenes is lifted verbatim from court transcripts. Rachel Weisz, whose parents fled the Nazis (she says her mother left Austria two weeks before the war broke out) plays Lipstadt; Timothy Spall, who has famously played a rat before, is Irving.

I spoke with Lipstadt in Washington, D.C., about what she called the “out of body” experience of seeing her story in film, the undercurrents of hatred, and prevalence of denial not just in the presidential election, but in all modern conspiracy theories (9/11 truthers, Obama birthers, and the like), and how struck she was by Irving and “the depth of his cruelty.”

Did you have any reservations about this story being dramatized?

Absolutely. There had been earlier talk of dramatizing before my book was even finished, so I would have had no control over that. And some of the people who wanted to do it wanted to fictionalize it and add mysterious elements — plans for Auschwitz are found and brought into the court! Sort of a la Perry Mason — and the thought of that horrified me. Not just because I feel my story is so important and it should only be told the way it was, not at all. But rather because, it’s a story about truth. It’s a story that hinges on proving facts and proving truth. So if you’re telling a story [like that], and you fictionalize it, what does that say about the story itself? That was why I felt it was so important to be factual.

I remember very clearly right before I signed the options, I had a long talk on the phone with the two producers who initially optioned the book. And I said to them, “Now, you understand that this is a story about truth and we’ve got to stick to the truth, and we can’t fictionalize and add elements that aren’t there?” And they said they understood it, and I had to take them at their word. And they lived up to that commitment. I stressed that, I emphasized it.

Rachel Weisz, left,and Deborah Lipstadt arrive at the “Denial” premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016, in Toronto. CREDIT: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
Rachel Weisz, left,and Deborah Lipstadt arrive at the “Denial” premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016, in Toronto. CREDIT: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Now that you’ve seen the film, does anything stick out to you as off or inaccurate?

I was struck, from the first versions of the script that I read, that every word that’s spoken in the courtroom comes from the trial transcript. David Hare understood, both the legal reasons but much more because this was about truth, that you couldn’t make up something in court and say, “It’s sort of like what happened, it’s not exactly what happened.”

The one complaint David Hare has about our film is, he said, it’s not based on a true story, it’s a true story. We’re sitting here in front of the poster of the film and if David Hare were here he might be crossing out “based.”

People have to stand up for what they believe, and the facts are the facts, and just because it’s there and just because you read it doesn’t make it true. And in this age of truthiness, this post-factual era, “there are two sides to every story,” which there aren’t, it calls for thoughtful people to really be able to stand up and challenge these things.

Early on in his work, he prepared a 10–20 page document for me, [spelling out], “This is what happened to you.” He was beginning to figure out how to take this massive story and turn it into a workable screenplay. On the cover of that document, he put in a quote, I believe from Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo, about truth. When I read that, I hadn’t even started reading the document itself, I felt, this guy knows. He understands what it’s about.

Given the timeline of film production, you didn’t necessarily know, in advance, the particular political climate into which the movie would be released.

Not only “not necessarily.” None of us imagined. We thought we were making a film about Holocaust denial. And that would have been enough. It was, indeed, large enough. Because we understood that at the heart of Holocaust denial is the difference between facts, opinions, and lies. If I were to say to you, “It’s my opinion that the Earth is flat,” you would say, “That doesn’t quite qualify as an opinion. That’s a lie. That’s a misstatement. That goes against all the evidence.” Holocaust deniers make up all these things and then want to be thought of as “opinions,” and be part of a conversation as opinions.

Deborah Lipstadt celebrates outside London’s High court on Tuesday April 11, 2000 after she won the case brought against her and her publisher, Penguin Books, by British historian David Irving. CREDIT: AP Photo/Adam Butler
Deborah Lipstadt celebrates outside London’s High court on Tuesday April 11, 2000 after she won the case brought against her and her publisher, Penguin Books, by British historian David Irving. CREDIT: AP Photo/Adam Butler

But no one dreamt it would have the contemporary relevance. And lots of people have said to me, “This is a metaphor for the American presidential campaign.” Someone who makes up things and is convinced that they’re true and keeps repeating them, [like the lie that] Muslims danced in New Jersey on 9/11… And when you say, “There is no evidence to that, and the reporter who first said he heard it withdrew that report,” the answer is, “many people believe.” At one point, Newt Gingrich, during the RNC, [confronted with a fact] in an interview, he said, “That’s your view.

But, having said that, I think it goes much beyond the American presidential election. It would be too easy to say this is all about one candidate. The fact of the matter is, I think the Economist said last week, we live in a post-factual world. But even before that, Colbert talked about “truthiness.” If I believe something is true, then it’s gotta be true.

And now we have the internet to back up that thing — and I’m not beating up the internet, I couldn’t do my research without it. But we live in a world where there’s much more exposure to conspiracy theories, because of the internet, and people believe that there are two sides to every story and if I believe it, it has validity. There’s things like vaccines. We know that the claim that vaccines cause autism was based on junk science. Climate change: The consensus of all scientists who work in the field is, it’s caused by humans. They differ on how fast, on its impact, and that’s science. Otherwise, it’s groupthink. And they’ll come up with a consensus and study more, maybe the consensus will change. But the ice caps are melting.

Whether you’re talking about the American presidential election, or Sandy Hook, or 9/11, or Brexit, it calls on people to do their homework… to challenge untruths.

During the campaign for Brexit, Michael Gove who was then Minister of Education in Cameron’s cabinet and one of the leaders of the Brexit fight, was being interviewed. The interviewer said, “The experts say…” And Gove responded, “People in this country have had enough of experts.” And this is coming from the minister of education! What’s education if not to make students understand expertise and become experts in whatever field?

There’s a new conspiracy theory making the rounds, that the murder of those little children in Sandy Hook is a fake, it never happened, it was all a setup by the Obama administration or anti-gun people to get gun control legislation. People who believe 9/11 was an inside job, or that all the Jews who worked in the World Trade Center were called the night before and told not to come to work. Now, think about the absurdity of that charge. What that suggests is that there is some central authority, which has the phone number of every Jew in the New York metropolitan area — maybe the world — and where they work, and that 3,000 were called, and no one talked about it. It’s important that it goes way beyond the presidential election. It’s the willingness of people to believe these absurdities.

One thing that stuck out to me in the film, and it reminds me of the conversation around birtherism, was this unwillingness to connect anti-Semitism to Holocaust denial. This idea that it’s possible to deny the Holocaust and that the denial, at its root, is not about anti-Semitism. I’m curious what you think about that, and what we’re seeing now. A person can say something that is objectively, on its face, racist, but then when you call that statement racist, they respond with, “You can’t call me a racist, I’m not racist at all.”

“Who are you to say it’s racist?” Yes, people who don’t recognize that the birtherism fable has racism at its heart. You just have the new African American history museum, and some will say, “Well, we’ve heard too much about slavery.” Or, “Oh, enough about the Holocaust. We’ve heard enough about the Holocaust.” To say that about one of the primary genocides in human history is to suggest, “eh, it wasn’t such a big deal, and you’re going on about it.” Deeply, deeply disturbing things.

But to go back to your question, the failure to see Holocaust denial, at its heart, as a form of anti-Semitism, is very disturbing. And actually, that was the purpose of my whole book, the book that got me sued, Denying the Holocaust. Because, think about it: The Jews made up this myth about one out of every three Jews in the world being murdered. And if someone told you, “They made it up, it’s all a myth,” your natural question would be, “Why would anybody make up such a story? Why would they go to such efforts?” And the answer that the denier would give you is, “Well, what did the Jews, quote-unquote, get out of the Holocaust? Money and a state.” Even though the idea that Israel was a direct response to the Holocaust doesn’t hold up historically. But that’s the way people see it. That goes to the heart of the anti-Semitic charges.

Every prejudice has a template. If I want to engage in racism, at some point in the template, there’s going to be stereotypes of the person of color — African Americans in this case — as “shiftless and lazy.” That’s the stereotype of racial prejudice… Or pretty young blondes: stupid. There’s that template. The anti-Semitic template is money and secret, devious power.

Every prejudice has a template. If I want to engage in racism, at some point in the template, there’s going to be stereotypes of the person of color — African Americans in this case — as “shiftless and lazy.” That’s the stereotype of racial prejudice. Or if I’m going to do a racial prejudice of gay men, it’s going to be weak-wristed, effeminate. Or gay women: butch. Or pretty young blondes: stupid. There’s that template. The anti-Semitic template is money and secret, devious power. Jews are few in number, but they control our foreign policy, they control our banks, they control this. And that’s the template of Holocaust denial; that’s exactly where it fits. The idea of denial as a form of anti-Semitism — it’s certainly that. And in David Irving’s case, it was deep-seated racism as well.

You obviously knew a lot about David Irving before the trial began and before he’d ever sued you. He was in your book. I’m curious what you learned about him over the course of the trial that was surprising to you.

David Irving arrives at the London high court on January 12, 2000, to attend the second day of his libel case. CREDIT: AP Photo/Max Nash
David Irving arrives at the London high court on January 12, 2000, to attend the second day of his libel case. CREDIT: AP Photo/Max Nash

That’s a great question. I knew about him in theory. I knew about him in writing. I had never — and this is why Timothy Spall’s depiction of him is so powerful; it’s chilling at times — the depth of his contemptuousness. The depth of his cruelty. The depth of his disregard of truth. The depth of his hatred of Jews. Seeing it up close and personal, I sat here, he was as far away from me as that corner, for ten weeks. Seeing it up close and personal was riveting and chilling.

The film shows you as struggling to accept your lawyers’ strategy, particularly the decision to not have Holocaust survivors testify. But I’ve read that you agreed to that readily. What really happened there?

You need a dramatic arc, and David Hare could not use as a dramatic arc my relationship with David Irving because my perception of Irving — nothing changed in my sentiments about him, except maybe that he was more nefarious and malicious than I thought in the beginning. But in the book, I do talk about learning to trust my lawyers. And the fight I had at Auschwitz with him [which is shown in the movie] is very real. I understood sooner than the movie makes it clear why they didn’t want survivors to testify, but I still was getting that pressure from them. If there’s a little bit of license, it’s how long it took me to not be so stupid — to understand the wisdom of their actions.

Watching the courtroom scenes, I was really surprised at how hard it is to prove an obviously true thing. Did you have the same experience?

It was tedious. We had the evidence. In his judgment, the judge said — I’m paraphrasing — “No thinking person could doubt that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz.” But we had to lay it out, document by document by document. I wouldn’t say it was hard. I would say it was tedious. I would say it called for lots of work, and this brings us back to one of your earlier questions about contemporaneous things.

Whether you’re talking about the American presidential election, or Sandy Hook, or 9/11, or Brexit, it calls on people to do their homework. Certainly the media — that big term, as if you’re all cut from one whole cloth, which you’re not — but not just the media, to challenge untruths. “I heard that.” Well, where did you hear that? “I read it on the internet.” Well, where? What? Who? People have to stand up for what they believe, and the facts are the facts, and just because it’s there and just because you read it doesn’t make it true. And in this age of truthiness, this post-factual era, “there are two sides to every story,” which there aren’t, it calls for thoughtful people to really be able to stand up and challenge these things.

You still teach, right?

Yes. Not this semester. Emory has been terrific. They said I can educate more people out here talking about this than if I had my class now.

What’s your take on the young students you see every day? What is their perception of denial in general and Holocaust denial specifically?

Well, when they come to me, they’re coming knowing who I am and what I’m involved in. I think most of the students I see are very thoughtful and know it’s wrong but they don’t understand how to approach it.

Because we understood that at the heart of Holocaust denial is the difference between facts, opinions, and lies. If I were to say to you, “It’s my opinion that the Earth is flat,” you would say, “That doesn’t quite qualify as an opinion. That’s a lie. That’s a misstatement. That goes against all the evidence.” Holocaust deniers make up all these things and then want to be thought of as “opinions,” and be part of a conversation as opinions.

Someone will come to me in class and say, “Professor, how do we know the Diary of Anne Frank is not a fraud?” Now, I know that question comes out of a denial question. Someone who says, “How do we know President Obama is really born in America?” They’re coming out of a birther question. They may not know it, because nobody says, “How do we know George W. Bush or anybody else was born in America?” So it’s coming out of a birtherism charge, but they don’t know it. That’s the danger. So at that point, I don’t say, “You can’t ask that.” I show them logically. The charges make no sense. It’s an exercise in following the footnotes. But it’s hard.

Timothy Spall as David Irving in “Denial.” CREDIT: Laurie Sparham/Bleecker Street
Timothy Spall as David Irving in “Denial.” CREDIT: Laurie Sparham/Bleecker Street

I’ve read a bit about how you are a passionate advocate for free speech. And at the same time, I’ve been thinking about this election and wondering, is NBC responsible for giving Donald Trump a platform? Are the publishers who published David Irving’s work responsible for giving him a microphone?

I gave a speech to the Oxford Union in January about this, against laws outlawing Holocaust denial. I don’t think politicians should have the decision making power over what we can and can’t say. I was just in Germany and I talked with a young man, a thoughtful man, and he said, “I think there should be laws against insulting religions.” And I said, “Who’s going to make them? Who is going to decide, that’s okay and that’s not okay? That cartoon is acceptable?” I don’t want the politicians doing that. So I’m very much against those laws. I think they’re dangerous, even though that means Holocaust deniers are given free rein, which means those of us who challenge them need to have the facts to challenge them.

Although, in this case, we’re not talking about the law. NBC could have said to Trump, years ago, “We don’t want to put you on TV.” Or David Irving’s publisher could have said, “This is trash and we won’t publish it.”

When I wrote my book, Denying the Holocaust, I had a whole chapter on the battle for the campus. Students would say, “We have to publish this Holocaust denial because of freedom of the press.” And I said, “Freedom of the press means the government can’t tell you what to write and what not to write. You have to have a responsibility of what you put in there.”

So NBC has freedom of the press. Does it give this man free rein, does it not challenge, does it not point out doubts? Freedom of the press doesn’t mean every Tom, Dick, Harry, Sally, and Jane gets a platform. I think there’s more responsibility on the media than that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.