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.
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.)
Watch the trailer below:
Julius, best known for successfully representing Princess Diana against the House of Windsor in her divorce, was quick to take the case, even though it meant doing much of the work pro bono.
“[Irving] is an Englishman and therefore had a huge advantage,” Julius says of what convinced him. “I knew that Deborah as a foreigner might be lost in the terrain of the British libel law. It didn’t take me any time to say yes. I’m a Jew. And although I didn’t lose any family members during the Holocaust—we’ve been in Britain for three generations and before that, in Russia—I had a sense of a lucky escape.”
For legal support and advocacy, Julius turned to his longtime associate Rampton, considered to be one of the nation’s leading experts in libel law. “This was an important case,” Rampton says. “I am not Jewish, but I have had friends who were victimized in WWII.... I had to say yes.”
Early on, the pair made the decision that neither Lipstadt nor any Holocaust survivors would testify in court. Rampton pointed out that Irving, who had spent years poring over Nazi documents, had a detailed knowledge of the period: “He would have mercilessly bullied Deborah and any of the Holocaust survivors like nobody’s business.” The decision frustrated the professor; she was under tremendous pressure from the international Jewish community to speak up and defend her statements. “She was upset about the decision,” Rampton recalls. “But she sat there in court, listening to Irving say awful stuff in court. And she sat there biting her finger. She might have wanted to get up and hit him, but she didn’t. She has the patience of Job.”
Watch an interview with Deborah Lipstadt below:
Instead, Lipstadt’s legal team adopted the strategy that it would prove the professor’s statements to be true by establishing that Irving was indeed a Holocaust denier. To do so, the team pulled together a group of reputable historians and scoured Irving’s books for any major distortions of history; it set about proving his more controversial claims false.
For one, Irving asserted that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were not used to kill people and that the Jews there died largely because of typhus and other diseases—not from the poison pellets that were lowered into the chambers where children and adults were held prisoner.
The legal team examined documents and photographs and went on research trips together. One of the most meaningful moments for the team was a journey to Auschwitz. Rampton doesn’t mince words when describing the concentration camp: “Auschwitz is one of the worst places on Earth.”
As for Denial being a re-creation of what Lipstadt, Rampton, and Julius went through during their five years of trial preparation and court appearances, “The film could have been awful; it could have been terribly sentimental,” Rampton says. “But it was done with such restraint. The filmmakers let the story speak for itself."
While no film can stop Holocaust denial from continuing, Denial may well inspire thought about the importance of establishing a collective truth, one that can instruct future generations. “It’s about the evils of the falsification of history,” Rampton says. “It’s history about history—and that has value.”
Denial opens in select theaters Sept. 30 and nationwide Oct. 21.
This story is presented in partnership with Participant Media, the parent company of TakePart and Pivot.