A Discourse on 'Denial'
Deborah Lipstadt ’72 Ph.D. ’76 was awarded the 2016 Alumni Achievement Award
“I always tell my students to think about the etymology of the word prejudice. Pre - judge. [Essentially this says,] ‘I’ve made up my mind; don’t confuse me with the facts,’” Deborah Lipstadt ’72 Ph.D. ’76 explained to the crowded Wasserman Cinematheque.
Prejudice is something that Lipstadt, a Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University and the author of several books including “Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust,” “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” and “The Eichmann Trial,” is all too familiar with.
In 1996, a lawsuit was brought against Lipstadt by the historian David Irving, who claimed that she had used defamatory language in one of her books in reference to him.
Irving is most known for his denial of the systematic gassing of Jews in Auschwitz and his belief that Hitler was minimally, if at all, responsible for the ordered killing of Jews. In her book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” Lipstadt, among other statements, called Irving “a dangerous spokesperson” for deniers.Rather than choosing to settle the case, Lipstadt chose to go to court and challenge Irving directly.
In April 2000, after three months of trial, Judge Charles Gray ruled in favor of Lipstadt.
In 2005, Lipstadt went on to publish the book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” about her experience fighting Irving in court. The book has now been turned into the film “Denial,” directed by Primetime Emmy-winner Mick Jackson and starring Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz, who portrays Lipstadt. On Thursday, the Brandeis Alumni Association and the Film, Television and Interactive Media department at the University hosted a film screening of “Denial.” Prior to the start of the film, Lipstadt was presented with the 2016 Alumni Achievement Award by University President Ronald Liebowitz.
Each year, the award is presented to an alum who “has made distinguished contributions to their professions or chosen fields of endeavor,” according to the Brandeis website.
At the film’s end, Lipstadt was invited back onto the stage alongside Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris.
Morris, who was awarded an honorary degree by the University in 2011, released the documentary “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.” in 1999, which also focuses on Holocaust denial.
In the course of discussion, the two grappled with the idea of deniers and what specifically causes people to deny the Holocaust. “Irving and many other deniers, certainly those at the heart of the denial movement, are motivated by anti-Semitism, an adjulation of Hitler, Nazism, and, in many cases — certainly in Irving’s case — a racism that makes them see the world in a very different way,” Lipstadt said.
Yet despite her interactions with adamant deniers, people like David Irving aren’t who Lipstadt worries about.
She instead is concerned about “the people who listen and say, ‘Hm, maybe there’s something to [what Irving says].’”
In fact, Lipstadt even warned Morris about these listeners before he began making the film “Mr. Death” Morris explained that Lipstadt approached him with “her not unreasonable fear that by giving attention to a Holocaust denier, I was aiding and abetting the denial of history.”
Yet he still felt the film was important to make.
In the course of his research, Morris visited the archives at Auschwitz; he reflected on this experience, recalling, “feeling ‘oh my God,’ all of this is real. Unimaginable, but real. So, for me, history is becoming reconnected in some way with the past.”
In the course of making “Mr. Death” Morris showed an unfinished version of the film to a class at Harvard University.
By the end, many students were confused and were either considering the possibility that the Holocaust didn’t happen or thought that Morris himself was a denier. “Now, both of these results were intolerable to me; totally unacceptable. So I had to completely modify the movie,” Morris explained.
But Morris’ struggles again posed an interesting question: “How do you fight the David Irvings … without building them up? How do you expose [deniers] without giving [them] the oxygen of PR?” Lipstadt asked.
While preparing for trial, Lipstadt recalled speaking with her solicitor, Anthony Julius, regarding her desire to win against Irving. Yet Julius replied that Irving wasn’t important. Instead, he claimed that Irving was “like the shit you step in on the street — it has no intrinsic importance unless you fail to clean it off your feet.”
Even so, to Lipstadt there is no question that deniers must be fought. “At this point, I think the job is to expose the lies and to call people on their lies and when they make things up, to challenge them,” Lipstadt said. And although Lipstadt successfully fought Irving in court, exposing his historical lies and anti-Semitic motives, she asserts that the trial was never something she expected. “It wasn’t what I did. It was what was done to me,” she concluded.