'Irving was waving dollar bills, asking if anyone could prove the Holocaust'
As a film about the David Irving libel trial opens on Holocaust Memorial Day, historian Deborah Lipstadt talks to Paul Whitington about her battle with the infamous denier
If George Orwell were alive to present awards for the best examples of double-speak, this year's winner would surely be White House strategist Kellyanne "alternative facts" Conway. But the Trump administration has a way to go before it rivals the linguistic contortions of the Third Reich, which perpetrated perhaps the greatest lie in history.
Emblazoned in giant metal letters above the entrance gates to every concentration camp, the phrase Arbeit Macht Frei (work will make you free) gave the poor souls who trudged beneath it the idea that by toiling honestly they might somehow redeem themselves in the eyes of their captors.
Not so. Some weren't given the chance to work at all, and were frog marched directly to the gas chambers, while the rest were worked till they could work no more then gassed, burned and buried in anonymous mass graves. And as if all of that wasn't bad enough, within a few decades some people were denying that any of this had ever happened at all.
Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the noisiest, Holocaust denier was the British historian David Irving, whose attempt to sue American historian Deborah Lipstadt is now the subject of a major film.
'Denial' stars Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt, who in the mid-1990s was going about her business when Irving decided to sue her for libel.
She had described him in print as a Holocaust denier, a charge he vigorously rebuffed, so Lipstadt was forced to come to London and defend her name in a trial that became a pitched battle to defend the legacy of the death camps. In the film's opening scene, Irving (Timothy Spall) invades one of her lectures to challenge her, and when I talked to Deborah earlier this week, I wondered if that first encounter had been heightened by the filmmakers for dramatic effect.
"Not at all," she tells me.
"It happened exactly like that. I'd never seen him before in my life to that point, and I was giving a guest lecture at a community college in Atlanta, and suddenly he stood up and interrupted, saying 'I'm that David Irving'. And he began waving around a bunch of dollar bills, and saying 'I have a thousand dollars here for anyone who can prove that the Holocaust happened', and I was in this terrible dilemma.
"I don't believe in debating people who deny the reality of the death camps - it's a ridiculous position and I didn't want to dignify it by debating him. And if I take him on, the students sitting there will think, 'oh my God, there are two sides to this story', but then again, if I don't debate him it looks like I can't answer him.
"And in fact Rachel called me the morning she was about to film that scene, and she said, 'tell me what you were thinking, tell me what you were feeling', and I told her that I was like a deer in the headlights - I didn't know what to do. I didn't debate him, and yet all the students thought, 'she can't answer him'. It was not a good moment. But it was a prelude for him to sue me, he wanted to first scare me and then sue me."
When the first legal letter arrived, she thought it was a joke. "I laughed, I thought it was ludicrous. Because here was a man who'd said 'I'm going to sink the battleship Auschwitz'; here was a man who in an interview with a survivor in Australia, pointed at the number on her arm and said 'how much money have you made from having that number tattooed on your arm'; here was the man who said 'more people died in Senator Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than died in gas chambers at Auschwitz'.
'So it seemed to me that here was a man who was very proud of being a Holocaust denier, and so when he said (he was going to sue me), I thought 'this is ridiculous, nothing will ever come of this'. But it did."
At the time, Irving was taken very seriously by many as a historian, and before the trial Lipstadt was attacked by such high-profile British academics as John Keegan, who described her as "self-righteously politically correct". Amongst other things, Irving had suggested in his writings that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were a fiction. All of this would become central to the bad-tempered 32-day trial.
"A lot of the publicity for the film talks about how we had to prove the Holocaust happened," she says, "but actually we really weren't doing that. What we were doing was following Irving's footnotes back to the sources to prove that he was a liar. So where the sources said 'I have evidence and I have a document here that proves a, b and c', we'd go back and find that the document says nothing like that. We came up with about 25 or 30 different examples showing that he makes claims, and claims to have proof for them, and he doesn't have proof. It was all a tissue of lies."
But the hardest thing about the trial for Deborah was her lawyers' insistence that she remain silent throughout, and not take the stand, as to do so would play into Irving's hands.
"Torture is probably the right word for it," she laughs. "In fact, I have friends who say that the biggest miracle of the entire case was that I kept my mouth shut! And, yes, he was trying to provoke me, saying terrible things about me in the press and saying she's afraid and so forth, and the thought that someone was accusing me of being afraid drove me nuts. I desperately wanted to respond, but I was convinced by the lawyers that it was wrong thing to do."
They were right: Irving lost his case, his reputation was destroyed, he was unable to pay his legal costs and was subsequently declared bankrupt. "I got no money from him," she recalls, "I didn't cover my expenses, I never went after him for cost, Penguin did but I didn't.
"But it was an exposure of him, an exposure of what he was. The judge called him every synonym for liar, and destroyed his claims that the gas chambers at Auschwitz had not existed. And that's what I hope people will come away from the film with, that there's a difference between lies, truth and facts. As someone said recently, you're not entitled to your own facts."
In 2005, Irving was jailed in Austria under that country's Holocaust denial laws, a move Lipstadt disagreed with. "David Irving has a right to free speech," she explains. "He has a right to say what he wants, whatever I might think of it. I don't want lawmakers deciding what can and cannot be said, I think that's dangerous and we see that happening today in my country, the United States."
Buoyed perhaps by the publicity the film has attracted, and the current vogue for far-right politics, Irving has emerged from the undergrowth in recent months, claiming a surge in followers and even embarking on a lecture tour.
"He's going around now saying he has thousands of followers," Lipstadt concludes. "I have no idea if that's true, but even if it is, there are a lot more people who'll see this film and see what a liar and a racist and a misogynist and an anti-Semite he is, so that's ok with me."