He denied the Holocaust and got away with it. Until one woman fought back.
“[In] ‘95 I got a letter ... that David Irving was thinking of suing me for libel, for calling him a Holocaust denier. And my first reaction was to laugh."
Those are the words of Deborah Lipstadt, a professor and expert on Jewish history, whose story is the real-life inspiration for the new film, "Denial." In 1993, Lipstadt wrote a book called "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory." In it, she called a man named David Irving a Holocaust denier.
You see, David Irving had previously denied the existence of gas chambers and asserted that the active targeting and extermination of millions upon millions of Jewish people was gravely exaggerated. He went so far as to state that Hitler himself had attempted to protect the Jewish people in the midst of these events. Irving grossly distorted history to suit the narrative of his choosing, and Lipstadt mentioned that in her work.
Lipstadt thought Irving's suit was too absurd to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, she soon realized he was very serious.
Lipstadt found herself in a defining moment of her life — should she brush off the suit and settle? Or should she take a stand, knowing that would involve lawyers, a lengthy trial in a country that's not her home, and the monumental task of, in essence, proving the existence of the Holocaust?
Lipstadt knew that, for her, there was only one option. Watch this moving clip.
In spite of the challenges that she knew lay ahead, Lipstadt decided to fight.
The case would be held in the U.K., which puts the burden of proof on the defendant in cases of libel (though there were some changes to the law in 2013). This meant that it would be up to Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, to prove that Irving’s claims about the Holocaust were false and that he was in fact a denier.
As the trial progressed, Lipstadt and her team began to feel fairly confident they would win, but one moment threw them for a loop. Lipstadt recalls, "The judge asked, 'Can one be a genuine Holocaust denier?' In other words, if you really believe it didn’t happen, is that wrong?"
She explains, "We were flabbergasted by that because it’s sort of, can you be a genuine racist? If you really believe people of color are lesser beings is there something wrong with that? And of course there’s something wrong with that. Because it's based on a lie."
It was that desire to help truth prevail — and to demonstrate there are consequences for lying — that propelled Lipstadt forward.
Lipstadt didn’t want to be at the center of such a huge public battle. But when the fight arrived at her doorstep, she couldn't turn away.
"You can’t fight every battle. Because otherwise you go through life fighting. But there's certain battles you can’t turn away from. There's certain challenges you can't ignore," she said.
She knew that if she lost the case, the consequences would stretch far beyond the verdict.
"Anybody else who would have wanted to write after about these guys would have been shut down, and publishers would have been too scared to publish them," she said.
And what message would it have sent to the loved ones of Holocaust survivors?
As Lipstadt put it, she needed to fight on "behalf of people who can’t. Either because they never survived or even if they survived they don’t have the opportunity to stand up and do this."
She continued, "The most touching thing to me — and even now I can hardly all these years later talk about it without getting emotional — was the response of survivors and children of survivors."
“We thought over the course of the trial that we would win, but we never thought that we would get such a damning verdict."
The judge didn't just rule against Irving — Lipstadt recalls that in his verdict, the judge called Irving a racist and an anti-Semite, branding Irving a pro-Nazi active Holocaust denier.
As Lipstadt put it, "The judge was really appalled by the way David Irving manipulated history. … It was all we could have hoped for and more."
Irving was ordered to pay Lipstadt's legal fees. A few years later, he was arrested in Austria and sentenced to three years in prison for Holocaust denial.
It’s not a cliché: One person really can make a difference.
Even when it's hard, even when the odds seem stacked against you, there's an intrinsic benefit in speaking up for what you know to be right. For exposing hate for what it is.
One person can make a world of difference.