Fighting for power of truth

The day before the verdict, Deborah Lipstadt and I shared a coffee in the elegant London hotel that had become her home during the weeks of the trial.

Actually, I had coffee; she buzzed with adrenaline.

On that bright April morning in 2000, she glowed in the way people do when they find themselves on the world stage in a warm and favorable light. During her three months in the spotlight, the professor from Emory University had emerged as a champion for truth and justice in the eyes of Americans and Europeans who followed the trial.

For three months her attorneys had defended against allegations that Lipstadt had libeled David Irving, a self-taught English historian. To be clear, she indeed had called Irving a liar and worse in her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.”

Irving had forged a handsome career, including a posh residence in Mayfair, by trashing the long-accepted understanding of the Holocaust. He traveled the world selling books and dismissing assertions that the Nazis orchestrated the extermination of millions of Jews and others. In Irving’s view, Hitler was innocent of whatever harm his regime may have done to the Jewish people.

The Fuhrer, Irving attested, was more uncle than oppressor to the Jews.

Irving had been particularly unsparing in his assault on the accepted accounts of mass exterminations at Auschwitz. “It’s baloney, it’s legend, ” he once said. “I say quite tastelessly, in fact, that more women died in the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz.”

He argued that Auschwitz was only a work camp and that the ovens purportedly used to incinerate the bodies of its victims were installed after the war.

Lipstadt would have none of that. In her book, she assailed Irving as a bigoted would-be historian who had intentionally distorted historical facts to support his extremist political views.

He claimed her portrayal was supremely damaging to his standing and income potential, so he sued her and her publisher for damages. In the reverse of what happens in American courts, British law placed the burden on Lipstadt to prove she was right to call Irving a liar rather than requiring Irving to prove she had defamed him.

It was an astounding trial to observe. I spent weeks covering it in a cramped courtroom in the stately High Court in central London. Irving, generally dressed in a dark pinstripe suit, provided his own defense. Lipstadt sat quietly through it all at the defense table.

I hadn’t thought about the trial in many years until the other day, when I saw a trailer for the upcoming film “Denial.” Rachel Weisz portrays Lipstadt; Timothy Spall plays Irving. The film opens in Atlanta on Oct. 7.

I wonder how the film will resonate in an age where truth has for many become a matter of opinion. We all are watching a presidential campaign that often treats facts and long-accepted truths as pliable stuff that can be molded to support whatever argument you want to make. The truth – the indisputable, immutable bottom line – has never seemed so fragile.

It makes me long for the clarity of that British courtroom, where the truth was systematically defended by the hard evidence of Nazi records, science and rational thought.

The case started as a test of whether Lipstadt’s assault on Irving was justified; it evolved into a trial over the truth of the Holocaust and, in a way, the value of facts.

To prove Irving was a fraud, Lipstadt’s legal team summoned a legion of respected historians who presented reams of Nazi records, photographs and other documents – some of which hadn’t been public before – to prove Irving had denied the undeniable. The defense provided evidence that the Holocaust consumed between 5 million and 6 million innocent lives in a well organized and recorded enterprise driven by hatred - Hitler’s hatred.

The truth seemed to gain strength with each block of evidence.

The day after our coffee at the hotel, Sir Charles Gray, wearing robes and a periwig, issued his ruling in a calm, measured tone. To be sure, Gray said, Lipstadt’s depiction of Irving in her book was damaging. Yet, he said, it was true and therefore not libelous.

“The picture of Irving which emerges from the evidence of his extra-curricular activities revealed him to be a right-wing pro-Nazi polemicist, ” the judge said. “It appears to me to be incontrovertible that Irving qualifies as a Holocaust denier.”

By implication, the court also ruled that the accepted account of the systematic genocide by the Nazis was indisputably accurate.

It was a good day for the truth, but it wasn’t a final victory.

Since the trial, Lipstadt has continued her work at Emory and has written two more books, “History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving,” and “The Eichmann Trial.” She has also continued in her outspoken attacks when she believes the truth has been misplaced.

As for Irving, he lost that flat in Mayfair, which, he says, recently sold for $10 million. He lives in a big house in Scotland and drives a 35-year-old Rolls Royce. He spent a year and a half in an Austrian prison a few years back for denying the Holocaust — a fate that Lipstadt opposed. He is working on a biography of Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s henchman and chief death camp organizer. He says he bears no ill will toward Lipstadt.

Lipstadt recalls the trial as a test of the place facts hold in understanding our history. “The trial was about the difference between fact and opinion — truth and lies,” she said in an email. “Our objective was to demonstrate to the court not what happened in the Holocaust — though we did end up doing that as a byproduct — but prove that what deniers such as Irving say is based on lies and distortions of evidence.

“Of course, another important element was that the ‘opinions’ held by deniers such as Irving are laced with anti-semitism, racism, and love of Nazism,” she wrote. “More than laced with, they are built on the foundation stone of those hatreds.”

She also sees the war on truth continuing. “During the Brexit debate, a leading politician who favored leaving said: we are tired of hearing from the experts,” she said. “Scientists say vaccines do not cause autism; but parents say that’s their opinion. I said something to a friend, who believes all media — with the exception of Fox — is liberal media, about ‘fact checkers.’ He said, ‘Why should I believe fact checkers?’

“It is very distressing.”

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