Inside the Trial to Prove the Holocaust Happened
Anthony Julius had heard a thing or two about Holocaust deniers. The British solicitor had read about them and their outlandish claims in the newspaper; he’d also seen a few speaking on television.
Holocaust deniers are a collection of people who claimed that many of Hitler’s most nefarious acts during WWII never happened. According to many such doubters, Hitler had not ordered the gassing of Jews, and when he learned of it, he tried to stop it. Some deniers went as far as to say that the scale of the Holocaust—close to 6 million Jews died during the period—was greatly exaggerated and that the German concentration camps were brutal work camps, not death camps. The same group often asserts that the Jewish community constructed the Holocaust narrative as a way to manipulate public opinion in its favor.
“Holocaust denial is just rubbish, malicious rubbish,” Julius tells TakePart.
His colleague Richard Rampton, on the other hand, had never come across these WWII revisionists. “Holocaust denial was all new territory for me,” says the barrister, who adds that he found the claims of such deniers to be “nasty and laughable. It isn’t rational.”
Yet here they were, two legal eagles—Julius the high-profile solicitor and Rampton the veteran barrister—going head-to-head in court with a Holocaust denier: David Irving, a British author who had written extensively about WWII, sometimes from the perspective of the Germans. Related The True Tale of the Woman Who Took Down the Holocaust DenierPromoted
Irving was suing their client, American professor Deborah Lipstadt, for libel. His charge: Lipstadt had identified him as “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial” in her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Memory and Truth, adding that Irving “is at his most facile at taking accurate information and shaping it to conform to his conclusions.” Irving, the author of Hitler’s War, a Nazi-sympathetic book published in 1977, regards himself “principally as a biographer of top Nazis (and others),” as he told The New York Times in an email. He claimed Lipstadt’s accusation was untrue and that her assertion damaged his reputation as a historian and brought about U.S. publisher St. Martin’s Press’ cancellation of his biography on Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
Lipstadt, who is based at Emory University in Atlanta, was surprised to receive word of Irving’s suit, which he filed in British court in 1996. But she was more dismayed to learn that under British libel law, the accused is guilty until proved innocent—a direct contrast to the American approach of innocent until proved guilty. Thus, the onus was on the defense to prove that what she had written about Irving was true and not malicious and that he was distorting the facts of Nazi Germany—in essence, denying that the Holocaust had happened.
Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, had the option of settling with Irving and walking away from a protracted court battle. But both decided to fight. That’s when Lipstadt called Julius for help. The contentious court case that followed forms the basis for the new film Denial, which opens on Sept. 30. (Disclosure: Denial is produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media.)