Deborah Lipstadt: Holocaust historian draws record audience

Historians in the News

WINNIPEG — Six years ago, Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, found herself thrust into the international media spotlight when she was sued for libel by notorious Holocaust denier David Irving.

In a Winnipeg lecture late last month, Lipstadt recalled that her initial reaction to Irving’s libel charge against her was to dismiss it as ridiculous. But then she realized that it could be serious.

“The problem is that in British law, the burden of proof is on the person being sued,” she explained. “If I ignored the matter, he would win by default and his view of the Holocaust – that there was no German plan to annihilate the Jews, there were no gas chambers, that the number of those murdered was greatly exaggerated and that the guilty parties were rogue German officers – would have been vindicated.”

The ensuing trial in London vindicated Lipstadt and left Irving thoroughly discredited and bankrupt. As a result of her courage in standing up to Irving, Lipstadt has been much honoured and has been in great demand as a speaker.

Lipstadt was in Winnipeg April 30 as the guest speaker at the second annual Sol and Florence Kanee Distinguished Lecture series (historian Martin Gilbert was the inaugural speaker last year). She addressed an audience of about 800 people, a Winnipeg Jewish community record for a speaker.

The lecture series was inaugurated by the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada to celebrate Sol Kanee’s 95th birthday. In welcoming the audience, lecture series co-chair Harold Buchwald paid tribute to Kanee, who died on April 23 at 97, as a man who “cast a giant shadow” on world Jewish history in the second half of the 20th century.

Lipstadt, who earlier in the day told her story to more than 500 high school students from six Winnipeg high schools in a program organized by Holocaust survivor and educator Philip Weiss, did not disappoint the crowd.

The book at the centre of Irving’s lawsuit was Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, which Lipstadt had published in 1993.

She noted that she devoted just a few paragraphs in the book to Irving, whom she called one of “the most dangerous of deniers” because he had a reputation as a prolific author of history books covering all aspects of World War II.

“His books all had a whiff of anti-Semitism,” she said. “His theses were that the Axis powers weren’t so bad, the Allies did some things that were wrong and that the Jews got what they deserved.”

It wasn’t until Irving published Hitler’s War in 1978 that he begin to show his true colours and became a champion of Holocaust deniers, she said.

The defence’s strategy at her libel trial was to focus on discrediting Irving rather than try to prove the reality of the Holocaust. They called no Holocaust survivors as witnesses nor did they have Lipstadt take the stand. (Irving acted as his own lawyer.) Rather, they recruited a “dream team” of prominent historians to comb through Irving’s footnotes and check them for accuracy.

Lipstadt listed several examples of their findings where Irving distorted written records by adding people who weren’t there, adding or subtracting words to change the tone of the reports and changing the order of events to further his own agenda.

The defence team was also able to gain access to audio and video of Irving talking to supporters, and even to some passages from his diaries.

The tapes and entries portrayed a man who is bigoted, racist and misogynist, noted Lipstadt, who also gave some examples.

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