Review published on September 5, 2018.
In 1993, Deborah E. Lipstadt published a book called Denying the Holocaust. In this, she called British historian David Irving, a prolific author of books on World War Two, ‘one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial’. She went on to say that he was a ‘Hitler partisan wearing blinkers’, and that ‘on some level Irving seems to conceive himself as carrying on Hitler’s legacy’. In the entire book, she devoted no more than two hundred words to Irving. Despite this, and as he had done on previous occasions, Irving decided to file a court case against both Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin, for the ‘accusations’ which she levelled upon him. These cases, and the ‘provocative books’ which he himself wrote, gave Irving ‘a certain notoriety’. Denial: Holocaust History on Trial follows the entire trial, in which Lipstadt was victorious, from beginning to end.
Denial is described as a ‘riveting, blow-by-blow account of this singular legal battle, which resulted in a formal denunciation of a Holocaust denier that crippled the movement for years to come. Lipstadt’s victory was proclaimed on the front page of newspapers around the world, such as The Times (UK), which declared that ‘history has had its day in court and scored a crushing victory.’ Elie Wiesel declares that Lipstadt’s book is an ‘absorbing narrative of an event that has reverberated throughout the world [and which] will be read with interest and gratitude by future generations’. The San Francisco Chronicle deems it ‘possibly the most important Holocaust-related trial since Adolf Eichmann was tried in Israel in 1961.’
As the trial was to take place at the Royal Courts of Justice in the United Kingdom, American lecturer and author Lipstadt faced very different judicial proceedings to those which she would have endured in the United States; a ‘mirror image’, no less. In the United Kingdom, she was the person who had to prove that what she said about Irving was true; in the United States, it would have been up to Irving to prove Lipstadt wrong. She had to assemble a legal team in the United Kingdom, as well as a research assistant under her care at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where she worked as a lecturer in Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies, to work tirelessly on amassing an extensive body of evidence. She essentially had to prove to the courts that the Holocaust happened.
Denial brings together Lipstadt’s extensive journal entries, as well as transcripts of the trial. It has been split into three sections, which deal with ‘The Prelude’, ‘The Trial’, and ‘The Aftermath’. Lipstadt begins by setting out her interest in, and personal reasoning for, studying Modern Jewish History and the Holocaust, and then the process of how she came to research deniers, something which posed a challenge for her from the very beginning.
At first, I found Lipstadt’s prose style rather accessible and easy to read, but it soon became bogged down with so much detail from the trial. At times, when a lot of participants are present in conversations or briefings, it can tend to get a little confused. This is not due to the way in which Lipstadt sets things out; rather, it has to do with the naming of characters, and the ways in which she refers to them. There is little consistency in places here; for instance, she speaks to historian Chris Browning, referring to him as ‘Browning’ in one sentence and ‘Chris’ the next. This is easy enough for the reader to work out, of course, but it does feel a little jarring at times.
The confusion which I felt in particular passages may have been expected; due to the nature of the book, a lot of intricate legal language is used, and is not always explained in context. Lipstadt discusses of the personal impact which the trial has upon her, although not always in as much detail as seemed fitting. The pacing felt a little off at times, too, and some sections tended to feel a little plodding in consequence. At times, there is a curious sense of detachment in Denial, despite Lipstadt herself being such an important part of the case. This may be because she is unable to speak during the trial upon the advice of her lawyers, who do so on her behalf.
I am still baffled as to how anyone can dispute the horrors of the Holocaust; there is so much firsthand evidence available to the modern historian, all of it heartbreaking. I very much admire Lipstadt for bringing such despicable Holocaust deniers to the fore in her work. As Lipstadt notes, ‘In a way, I found it harder to write about deniers than about the Holocaust itself. The Nazis were defeated. Deniers were alive and kicking and reveling in their efforts.’
Despite this, I did not get on that well with the way in which the trial was presented in Denial. As I read, I was continually asking myself whether I was enjoying the book. Of course, given its nature and content, Denial has a lot of merit. I found that overall, however, my reading experience felt rather negative. Whilst the material here is fascinating, I did not feel as though the reportage of the trial was as well executed as it could have been.
Kirsty Hewitt 3/4
Denial: Holocaust History on Trial by Deborah E. Lipstadt
Ecco 9780062659651 pbk Jan 2017