Historian Deborah Lipstadt is vindicated in libel suit brought by Holocaust denier
April 11, 2000
When Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt published Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory in 1994, she did not expect her analysis of Holocaust deniers to land her in a British courtroom. But widely read writer David Irving, whom Lipstadt cited as one of the most prominent deniers, sued her and Penguin Books for libel, choosing England as the venue because British libel law put the burden of proof on Lipstadt to show that what she had written was true. On April 11, 2000, Lipstadt was vindicated when Judge Charles Gray found in her favor, calling Irving "a right-wing, pro-Nazi polemicist" and "an active Holocaust denier ... anti-Semitic and racist."
Irving hoped that the trial, by offering a platform for his beliefs, would convince a broad public to question the authenticity of the Holocaust as a historical fact. Lipstadt, not wanting to offer Irving that platform, refused to testify at the trial. Her defense, however, presented eminent historians who combed through Irving's public and private writings and research with intense attention to the way his personal prejudices distorted his historical accounts. The trial's outcome was considered a resounding victory for history and free inquiry. London's Daily Telegraph newspaper said the trial had "done for the new century what the Nuremberg tribunals or the Eichmann trial did for earlier generations."
Although the trial brought Lipstadt international fame, she was a well-established Holocaust scholar well before she went to court. Her 1986 book, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, examined the ways the American press covered the persecution of European Jews between 1933 and 1945. She was appointed to two consecutive terms on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, helping design the section of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum devoted to the American response. From 1996 to 1999, she also served as a member of the State Department's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom, where she advised the Secretary of State on matters of religious persecution abroad.
After the three-month-long trial, the culmination of a six-year legal battle between Lipstadt and Irving, Lipstadt returned to Emory University, where she is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies and the Director of the Rabbi Donald A. Tam Institute for Jewish Studies. In January 2005, she was part of the official U.S. delegation to the ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. She was also the 2005 winner of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs' Al Chernin Award, given to the person who best exemplifies protection of the First Amendment. Lipstadt's account of her legal battle, History on Trial, was released by HarperCollins in early 2005.
In February 2006, Irving was sentenced to serve three years in an Austrian jail for having denied the existence of the Holocaust in a speech and interview given in Austria in 1989; he was released after serving thirteen months of his sentence.
To learn more about Deborah Lipstadt, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
See also: Judaic Studies in the United States.
Sources: www.religion.emory.edu/faculty/lipstadt.html; Emory Magazine, Autumn 2000; Emory Report, April 2000; Deborah Lipstadt, History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving (New York, 2005); Transcripts of the trial can be found at www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/i/irving-david/judgment-00-00.html; news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/4733820.stm.