Holocaust Denial Keeps Historian Vigilant In Fight To Preserve Facts

by Sarah Monks

South China Morning Post
March 12, 2008 Wednesday

Historians have to be "very brave and indefatigable" in pushing for
the truth, says Deborah Lipstadt, a history professor in the US and
author of the book Denying the Holocaust – the Growing Assault on
Truth and Memory.

Professor Lipstadt, 60, prevailed in a six-year legal battle with
British Holocaust denier David Irving who sued her for libel over
that book. The Atlanta-based academic, invited to Hong Kong for a
Jewish community centre programme, believes that facing up to history
liberates nations and people from living a lie.

"Why do psychologists try to force people to find the truth in their
past? Because it doesn’t go away," she said during her visit last
week. "Everybody uses history selectively. The more totalitarian the
regime the more likely they are to control that kind of history."

Professor Lipstadt and her defence team, which included Princess
Diana’s solicitor Anthony Julius, made their own history in the
libel trial eight years ago in London. She is still at the front line
whenever Holocaust denial arises, tracking and exposing it through
her blog.

In her 1993 book Professor Lipstadt described author David Irving as
"a Hitler partisan wearing blinkers". She said he distorted evidence,
manipulated documents and misrepresented data "to reach historically
untenable conclusions". After Penguin UK published the book in Britain,
where a defendant in a libel action must prove the truth of what he
or she wrote, Irving sued.

The defence strategy was not to prove that the Holocaust happened –
"any more than it is necessary to prove that the second world war
happened", said Professor Lipstadt. This obviated the need to call
Holocaust survivors as witnesses, sparing them the likelihood of
distressing cross-examination by Irving, she added, who represented
himself in court.

Instead, the defence team set out to furnish scholarly proof, with
other historians as expert witnesses, that her statements about
Irving were true. The trial preparation involved intricate analysis of
his writing, footnotes and use of sources, and "a forensic journey"
to the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp. At the end of
the 12-week trial, the High Court judge delivered a 355-page judgment
saying it was "incontrovertible that Irving qualifies as a Holocaust
denier". The judge found that he was an anti-Semite and a racist,
had deliberately falsified the historical record and "was motivated
by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own
ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation
of historical evidence".

The trial took over and "shaped my life", said Professor Lipstadt,
who recounted the experience in her 2005 book History on Trial – My
Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier. She has turned down attempts to
embroil her in debate with Irving. "I can’t debate a Holocaust denier
because on the Holocaust there are not two sides of the issue. I’m not
saying you can’t debate things about the Holocaust – there are all
sorts of things historians differ on – but not whether it happened,
because that’s a fact," said Professor Lipstadt.

"And when you know that the arguments the deniers are making are based
on lies and mis-statements of truth, then you certainly can’t debate."

Holocaust deniers often used the issue of free speech as a smokescreen,
she said. They claimed they were being "shut down" by doctrinaire
historians, and portrayed themselves as "the ones who are really
balanced and open minded".

An invitation to Irving last November to address the Oxford Union
debating society on free speech ignited a furore in Britain over how
far the principle that everyone is entitled to their say should be
tested. In a statement supporting hundreds who protested outside the
venue Professor Lipstadt said: "Some of those who have defended the
Oxford Union have called for open minds. The problem with people with
open minds is that sometimes their minds are so open their brains
fall out."

She saw the issue of free speech as a matter of what constraints
governments imposed. "It’s not a matter of my obligation to provide
the person who is saying these words – especially if they’re hateful,
prejudicial words – with a platform to say them." She said that
far from being a champion of free speech, Irving had sued her to
silence her.

Yet Professor Lipstadt said she derived no satisfaction when in 2006
Irving was imprisoned in Austria after pleading guilty to Holocaust
denial, which is a crime there. She opposed censorship and did not
believe that laws against Holocaust denial were wise as they made
martyrs of the accused. "The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is
with history and with truth," she said.

She said there had been many instances of denial in history, from past
refusal to acknowledge the mistreatment of North American Indians
and Australian Aboriginals, to denial of the massacre of Armenians
in Turkey during the first world war and the Nanking Massacre in
1937-38. She found it hard to believe that a generation had grown up
in China knowing little about the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

"The thing that you’re trying to hide, that you’re ashamed of,
sits like an 800-pound gorilla in the middle of the table and you
make-believe it’s not there," said Professor Lipstadt. "Then you
try to create ways of getting round it, over it, under it, and it’s
there in your life, you’re just not admitting it. It’s detrimental
to a country’s well-being to ignore or to deny what happened."

Professor Lipstadt, who is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and
Holocaust Studies at Emory University, described history as "very
controversial" and the past as her context for seeing the present.

"Don’t just show me what’s happening now, give me a context, give me
a background," she said. "That is history’s great gift."