The Holocaust's mere existence shouldn't have to be argued. But in an election year where increasingly, basic facts are on trial, the new movie Denial is disturbingly relevant. The historical drama concerns the 2000 court case Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd., in which historian Deborah Lipstadt's team of lawyers essentially had to prove that Jews died at Auschwitz.
This trial was a libel case that David Irving (played in the movie by Timothy Spall) brought against Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz) and her publishers at Penguin. He sued after Lipstadt called him, among other things, "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial" in her book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Irving contended that she had damaged his reputation as a serious historian in the process. Lipstadt countered that he was a Holocaust denier -- Irving claimed that not a single Jewish person died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz and that Hitler never sanctioned any murders. But since Irving, an Englishman, filed the lawsuit in London, this was not the trial Lipstadt was expecting.
Under British libel law, the burden of proof is placed on the defendant, not the plaintiff. This meant that Lipstadt had to convincingly argue her original statements were true. And in order to prove Irving was an anti-Semite who distorted history as she claimed, she actually had to prove historical facts.
Lipstadt enlisted the help of lawyers Richard Rampton and Anthony Julius (famous in the UK for representing Princess Diana in her divorce), along with several historians. Together, they poured over Irving's many books and scoured old speeches for damning statements. They didn't have to look too hard for those -- as shown in the trailer, Irving was famous for quipping that "more women died on the back seat of Senator Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than died in the gas chamber at Auschwitz.” He also spoke at a neo-Nazi rally in Halle, Germany in 1991. Rampton showed footage of that audience screaming, "Sieg heil!" in court.
Also shared in court? A horrific excerpt from Irving's diary, which is recreated in the movie. Rampton discovered a brazenly racist poem that Irving had composed to sing to his young daughter when biracial children walked by.cEven when confronted with those lines, Irving insisted he was not a bigot.
But painting Irving as a racist was only half the battle. Rampton and Julius also had to shoot down his Holocaust hoax theories. In books like The Destruction of Dresden and Hitler's War, Irving argued that gas chambers simply never existed at Auschwitz. Jewish prisoners there did die, but it was from diseases like typhus. Some overzealous SS officers also surely executed Jews, Irving conceded. But they were not acting under orders from Hitler, who was unaware of any plans for the "Final Solution." In one of his more fantastical claims, Irving blamed the Allies for cutting down the Jewish population. He wrote that many concentration camp survivors were shipped "westward when they ended up in cities like Dresden," and left as sitting ducks when the British bombed Dresden in 1945. The destruction of this German city was the real massacre of World War II in Irving's eyes. He even cited a forged Nazi document to bolster his claims.
To counter his wild lies, Rampton and Julius called several historians to the stand. One of them, Richard Evans, condemned Irving's "sheer depth of duplicity" in court. Rampton also drew on the diaries of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, who fully admitted to the horrors of the Holocaust, in his cross-examination of Irving. (Lipstadt had hoped to admit them as evidence, but was denied.) He further asked architectural historian Robert Jan van Pelt to produce an exhaustive forensic report of Auschwitz, which he defended on the stand and later turned into a book.
A central issue in the movie that also played out in the real courtroom was Rampton's decision not to put Lipstadt nor any Holocaust survivors on the stand. Since Irving acted as his own attorney, Rampton and Julius feared he would relish the opportunity to attack Lipstadt, whom he had already heckled at one of her lectures in Atlanta. But they were much more nervous about Irving mocking the pain of Holocaust survivors to their faces. Remember: this was a man who encouraged his daughter to belittle biracial people while she was still an infant. They knew he would turn their memories into a punchline.
In the end, the team didn't need those witnesses to win. After deliberating for four weeks, Judge Charles Gray ruled in favor of Lipstadt and Penguin, concluding that Irving had "for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence." Lipstadt returned home, where she got to work on a new book, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier. Irving was left disgraced. He was later banned from several countries, and spent over a year in Austrian jail for his inflammatory comments.
The real Lipstadt has already endorsed Denial, which opens September 30th, for its historical veracity. As for any implicit parallels between onscreen Irving and another loud-mouthed racist, she would only say, "I think it goes way beyond just Trump. I think one of the messages of the film is that there’s a difference between facts, opinions, and lies. Even if you say a lie with great conviction, it’s a lie. Certain things we can debate, but certain things happened and certain things are facts."
Feature Image via YouTube