As she sat with eminent historians Yehuda Bauer and Israel Gutman, fellow academic Deborah Lipstadt was left bemused as they pitched an idea for her next book: Holocaust denial.
“I laughed,” Lipstadt recalls of the meeting, years before her high-profile libel case which threatened to undermine the fact-based truth that six million Jews were killed at the hands of the Nazis. “I thought, who pays attention to those guys? They said: ‘We think it’s important, because it’s a form of anti-Semitism that people just aren’t picking up on’. When two scholars for whom you have the upmost respect say something is important, you don’t just slop it off. So I began to research. Little did I imagine it would come to shape my life.”
The result of that meeting was the publication of her 1993 book, Denying The Holocaust, which pulled apart claims the number of victims was widely exaggerated, or worse still, that the mass-extermination of Jews never took place.
Among those she described as a ‘Holocaust denier’ was British author David Irving, who maintained no Jews were murdered by gassing at Auschwitz.
Three years after Lipstadt’s book hit the shelves, Irving decided to sue her and publisher, Penguin Books for libel. It was a tension-filled case watched by the world’s media that ultimately vindicated Lipstadt and left Irving’s reputation in tatters as a falsifier of history.
The real-life drama of that case is at the core of Denial, scripted by David Hare and starring Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt, Timothy Spall as Irving, Andrew Scott as solicitor Anthony Julius and Tom Wilkinson as barrister Richard Rampton.
Speaking this week from her home in Atlanta, Lipstadt reflects on the case and revealed why Irving had been “particularly dangerous” as a Holocaust denier.
“Unlike any other denier, he was known for something of substance,” she explains, her thick New York accent more than discernible. “He had a reputation as a writer of historical works – I don’t call him a scholar, because he’s not a historian, he lies and makes things up – but he had access to a general public that other deniers didn’t have.
“When he wrote books, people would pay attention to what he said – and began to engage in what I call the ‘yes, but’ syndrome.
“Yes, of course what he says about the Holocaust is ridiculous, but maybe there weren’t 6 million, maybe there were only 600,000.
“People were saying ‘yes, but’, instead of saying: ‘What he says is so ridiculous, I can’t believe anything he says’.
“Richard Evans [a historian who acted as an expert witness for the defence] joked to me: ‘If David Irving were to say good morning to me, I’d look out the window to see if the sun were up before I said good morning.’
“That’s what others should have done, but it didn’t happen. That’s what made me so nervous about him.”
Lipstadt, who turns 70 this year, says the biggest issue at stake was what she terms the “debatability of truth”, the idea that “people can say whatever they want and insist it is true.”
“Richard Evans joked to me: ‘If David Irving were to say good morning , I’d look out the window to see if the sun were up before I said good morning.’
Out of a matter of principle, the Emory University professor was willing to take the case all the way and not just “settle”, as many within the British-Jewish community – perhaps out of a sense of fear – urged her to do.
“If I had, he could say that Deborah Lipstadt libelled me and I, David Irving, am not a denier and my version of the Holocaust is a legitimate version. I just couldn’t have that.”
In the film, Spall as Irving describes the trial as “David versus Goliath”, referring to the fact he represented himself, whereas Lipstadt employed a substantial legal team. However, Lipstadt tells me she was one who felt like David against the Goliath of the unfamiliar British legal system.
“They say of Brits and Americans that we are two people separated by a common language,” she laughs. “I was completely a fish out of water and I didn’t understand the system.”
It was a situation that created some tension between her and solicitor Julius, as well as Rampton, her barrister, the latter with whom she had an argument at Auschwitz when he kept insisting on being shown more “evidence” that killings took place at the gas chambers.
“I was completely in the wrong,” she admits. Rampton, in fact, was trying to prepare his witnesses for cross-examination by Irving, and his diligence paid off in other ways: evidence presented at the trial on the killing process would later be used to further Holocaust research.
The hardest part of the trial for the usually-loquacious academic was remaining silent: her legal team were determined that neither she nor any Holocaust survivors would take the stand, as they felt it would risk exposing them to humiliation by Irving.
“I have friends who will tell you the biggest miracle of this case was that I kept my mouth shut,” laughs Lipstadt. “It was really hard, because I didn’t want people to say I was afraid or that I was a coward.”
Of Weisz playing her in a film about the headline-making trial, Lipstadt says she has been “tremendously impressed” by the British-born star’s professionalism. “She wanted to get it right, to understand what makes me tick, what I was thinking, what I was feeling. She would even call me up the night before doing a scene and ask me to talk her through it.”
“I have friends who will tell you the biggest miracle of this case was that I kept my mouth shut.”
It is now 17 years since the trial ended and Judge Charles Gray found in Lipstadt’s favour, calling Irving “an active Holocaust denier, anti-Semitic and racist.” I ask her what her opinion of Irving is today.
“Not much,” she retorts. He was a liar and falsifier of history before the trial and he was that afterwards. He even claims he won the trial and that it cost £6million – get the number? He’s really not important to me at this point.”
We focus instead on her vindication and the lasting legacy of that famous trial.
“So many people against whom prejudice is directed, whether they are of colour, gay or Jews, would love the opportunity to stand up and challenge the prejudiced person. I had the chance to do that and I could not be more grateful for that alone.
“Forget the movie, forget the book, forget the invitations coming my way – all those things are wonderful – but they are gravy to the opportunity to stand up to the really bad guys and win.”
Denial (12A) is released in cinemas on Friday, 27 January