David Irving picked on the wrong Jew. Before he sued the historian Deborah Lipstadt in the fall of 1996, Irving was widely regarded as an indefatigable researcher, a specialist on the history of the Second World War whose work, according to Stanford professor Gordon Craig, played “an indispensible part in the historical enterprise.” Sir John Keegan, the British military historian, wrote that Irving’s books were essential reading “to anyone seeking to understand the war in the round.”
There were always a few dissenters. As far back as 1981, Kai Bird noted the rank seam of anti-Semitism running through Uprising!, Irving’s account of the 1956 Hungarian revolt. The Scottish journalist Neal Ascherson called Irving “Jew-obsessed.” But Bird, now a distinguished historian, was a Nation editor at the time, while Irving was a fixture of the British press whose professed view that Auschwitz was merely, in Craig’s paraphrase, “a labor camp with an unfortunately high death rate” was treated as little more than an intellectual eccentricity.
As for Lipstadt, neither the solid scholarship of her first book, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, nor the dutiful debunking in Denying the Holocaust seemed likely to raise her profile beyond the well-upholstered ghetto of Jewish book festivals and speeches at synagogue luncheons. Yet while Irving’s views had little impact on his reputation, Lipstadt’s depiction of him as “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial” was beginning to cut into his American sales. Her second book also provided the ammunition for a campaign—ultimately successful—to persuade St. Martin’s Press, his American publisher, to cancel the contract for his biography of Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels.
Under American law, with its emphasis on protecting free speech, plaintiffs who sue for libel have to prove that what has been said or written about them is false. Anyone with Irving’s notoriety would also have to prove they’d been libeled “in reckless disregard” of the facts. British libel law is very different, valuing the defense of reputation more than unhindered comment, so the burden of proof is on the defendant. By suing Lipstadt in Britain, Irving forced her to actually prove that her description of him as “a Hitler partisan” who distorts evidence and twists historical data was accurate. It was precisely this stacked deck of British law, which had led so many previous defendants against Irving to settle—in the process providing the writer, who acted as his own lawyer, a nice second income. Indeed, Lipstadt herself was widely advised to settle—both by well-meaning American friends who couldn’t see the point of schlepping to London for a lengthy and expensive trial to prove something every sane person already knew. And by some British Jews who, aware of the law’s inherent bias and the capriciousness of juries, feared that the consequences of failure would go far beyond financial damage.