Deborah Lipstadt, a university professor whose six-year legal struggle with a Holocaust denier was chronicled around the world, says people who deny or minimize the systematic murders of six million Jews during World War II are trafficking in lies.
“It’s probably the original ‘fake news’,” Lispstadt said in an interview this week. “This is not some mistake that they got their history wrong, they misunderstood a historical fact. This is antisemitism, pure and simple, an attempt to target Jews.”
Lipstadt, 70, an Emory University professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust studies, will bring her message to Columbia Sunday as part of the University of South Carolina’s annual Solomon-Tenenbaum Lecture series.
Her topic is “contemporary antisemitism” – an issue back in the national spotlight with a white supremacist and neo-Nazi march last month in Charlottesville.
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“I’m going to talk about some of that,” said Lipstadt, referring to Charlottesville. “It’s very worrisome, very troubling.”
During World War II, German leader Adolph Hitler and fellow Nazis carried out a systematic program of rounding up and executing Jews. In recent years here in the United States, neo-Nazism has made headlines. Evidence at last winter’s trial of Charleston church killer Dylann Roof showed Roof admired Hitler and his white supremacist, anti-Jewish and anti-black race theories. This spring, the FBI arrested a Roof-inspired neo-Nazi accused of plotting an attack on a synagogue in Myrtle Beach.
In Sunday’s talk, Lipstadt is expected to touch on her legal battle with British writer David Irving, whom she labeled “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial.” When he sued her for libel in Great Britain, one of the first decisions she had to make was whether to go to court and give him the publicity that would result from a long court fight, in where Irving’s “fake” version of history would be given a kind of false equivalence with historical fact.
She went to court.
“You always have to fight on behalf of truth,” she said. Some people might dismiss Irving as promoting “the equivalent of the flat-earth theory,” but “it could be in the future that many people think that the Holocaust was made up.”
The Holocaust is one of the most well-documented genocides, with overwhelming evidence from survivors, bystanders, historians and even the perpetrators, so beating Irving in court might seem easy.
But Irving was no ordinary opponent. He had written numerous books on World War II. Although he was regarded by many historians as being somewhat soft on Hitler’s role in the Holocaust, he also was regarded by many as credible.
Irving’s assertions included that the Auschwitz death camp was “baloney,” that the Holocaust was a “legend,” that Hitler tried to protect the Jews, and that Anne Frank’s diary – which has served as an introduction to the evils of the Holocaust for millions of American students – was “a romantic novel, rather like ‘Gone With The Wind,’ ” as Lipstadt recounts in her 1993 book “Denial: Holocaust History On Trial.”
Irving was a clever and aggressive man who would viciously attack anyone who questioned his version of Nazi events with misleading statements designed to prove that they were lying or mistaken, as Lipstadt recounts in “Denial.”
Moreover, after her 1993 book – calling Irving a denier – was published in England, Irving sued her in London. Under English law, Lipstadt had the burden of proof that she was telling the truth about Irving – meaning, she had to prove not only that Irving was wrong, but that he knew he was making false statements. (In the United States, Irving would have had the burden of proving Lipstadt a liar.)
Lipstadt’s subsequent book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” is the story of her legal struggle, including her 10-week trial in 2000 in London, where it was by no means certain she and her publisher, Penguin, would win. If Irving won, he could have claimed that his version of history was accurate, Lipstadt writes. The book was later made into a 2016 movie, “Denial.”
Lipstadt won because of a team of England’s best lawyers and scholars who scoured Irving’s published writings and statements, as well as numerous people who contributed the $1.5 million to her defense fund.
As her lawyer, Richard Rampton, told the judge, the case proved that Irving “is not a historian at all but a falsifier of history. To put it bluntly, he is a liar.”
What motivates someone like Irving?
“Antisemitism and love of Hitler,” Lipstadt said.
Although the Holocaust was a program of systematic extermination carried out against Jews, other groups were marked for large-scale death as well – including gypsies, gays, various civilians and Ukrainians.
What makes the Jewish experience with the Holocaust different is that “only in the case of the Jews did it have to be done right away before the war was over, and not just Jews in Germany, but Jews from one end of Europe to the other,” Lipstadt said. “The Jews were clearly first and foremost on their list.”
F.K. Clementi, USC’s interim director of Jewish Studies, said although subjects such as genocide are studied at the university, Lipstadt “has experienced first-hand a battle from which the triumph of justice, historical truth, and Holocaust memory itself depended.”
“She is the living proof that what we teach and learn in our classrooms is not just abstract concepts, but real-life lessons with real-life consequences” said Clementi, who will help introduce Lipstadt Sunday. “What we do, what she did, matters beyond the borders of any single university’s campus.”
If you go
WHO: Deborah Lipstadt will speak as part of the University of South Carolina’s Solomon-Tenenbaum annual lecture series, which brings high-profile guests speaking on Jewish issues and related topics. In the past 25 years, speakers have included the late Nobel prize winner Elie Wiesel and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: MyCarolina Alumni Center, 900 Senate St. in the Vista
COST: Free and open to the public