The Chronicle Review

A Holocaust Historian’s Trial Hits the Big Screen

October 03, 2016

Liam Daniel, Bleecker Street
Deborah Lipstadt, a historian at Emory U. (right), joins the actress who plays her, Rachel Weisz, on the set of a new film, "Denial," about Ms. Lipstadt’s pitched legal battle with a Holocaust denier.
Deborah E. Lipstadt never imagined that Holocaust denial would come to play such a prominent role in her life. Ms. Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University, initially doubted whether the subject even merited a book. After she eventually published one, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (Free Press, 1993), she anticipated moving on to other projects.

Then David Irving, a prominent British Holocaust denier, sued Ms. Lipstadt and her publisher for libel. The celebrated case, which she won, led directly to a 2005 book, History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier (Ecco), and indirectly to her 2011 study, The Eichmann Trial (Schocken). Now the Irving saga has inspired a feature film, Denial, in which the historian is played by Rachel Weisz. I spoke with Ms. Lipstadt about the movie’s themes and scholarly fallout. What follows has been edited and condensed.

Q. I was trying to think if there are any movies starring historians as protagonists. I couldn’t think of one.

A. I can’t think of any. If someone said, Let’s make a movie about a historian, I’d say bo-ring.

Q. So how did this come about?

A. About a year or so after the book came out, one of the producers, whose son was getting ready to apply to colleges, was just looking around at different websites. He saw that Emory had raised $1 million to translate portions of my site [that archives material on the Irving case and Holocaust denial] into Arabic and Farsi. So the guy said, What? A professor was sued? He was very intrigued. So they read the book, and they approached me.

Q. What is the argument this movie makes about historical truth and interpretation?

A. There are not two sides to every story. Certain things happened. It goes against deconstructionism taken to its ridiculous end. There are those people who will say everything is changeable, interpretable. There is something for interpretation of documents. But if you carry that to its illogical conclusion, and then you add an overlay of prejudice, you end up in the world of denial. You open the doors to 9/11 conspiracy theories, to vaccines cause autism, to the claim that Sandy Hook was made up by the anti-gun people to get more anti-gun legislation. Sometimes, if your mind is too open — someone said this — your brains fall out.

Q. The movie feeds on tension between you and your attorneys, whose strategy kept you from testifying or giving press interviews while the case was underway. Was there similar tension entrusting your tale to film makers?

“This is about truth, and you've got to make it about truth.”
A. Absolutely. I said to them before I signed this: This is about truth, and you’ve got to make it about truth. And they promised me they would.

One day on the set, I said to Rachel Weisz, you know what, this is sort of like the trial. Everybody has a job. And the trial was about me, but everybody had a job, and I was to some degree a cipher. It’s the same thing here. I had to give up control. Most academics, we decide what we’re going to teach. We design our courses. We decide what we’re going to write on. We write alone in our studies. And suddenly I was with a team, entrusting to the team the protection of my story.

Q. You went into this thinking courts were not good places to judge history. But in recent years there have been some successful cases where history was on trial. Not just your victory, but also the 2011 reparations case over British atrocities during the Mau Mau rebellion, in Kenya, which was based on the research of the Harvard historian Caroline Elkins and transformed our knowledge of British colonial history.

A. That may be a movie. Who knows?

Q. And there was the testimony of Robert O. Paxton and other historians at the trial of Maurice Papon, a former Vichy official who was convicted in 1998 of complicity in Nazi crimes. How has the adjudication of history, and historians’ attitudes toward it, evolved over time?

“We shouldn't be depending on the courts to adjudicate history.”
A. If you asked most historians, they would still say, we shouldn’t be depending on the courts to adjudicate history. But you rightly point out a number of instances where the courtroom has worked. I’m not sure it always does. This case hewed so close to forensics, in the sense that he says the document says this, and the document didn’t say that. So we weren’t arguing about a version of history or whether the Holocaust was rooted in anti-Semitism or expansionism. It was the right case for the courtroom.

Q. What’s been the scholarly fallout from this case?

A. There are five or six books that came out of the trial. Robert Jan van Pelt has a book, The Case for Auschwitz. Richard Evans’s Lying About Hitler. My book. There was a book by D.D. Guttenplan. Peter Longerich, The Unwritten Order.

The research on the killing process, the research on how Auschwitz operated, the research on the deportations to the East — the detailed research was given a push by this.

Q. Could this movie galvanize historians, like Spotlight did for journalists? There’s so much anxiety in conversation about the humanities. In your field, there’s been lots of debate over The History Manifesto , which bemoaned historians’ retreat from the public sphere. Now here’s this inspiring movie about the victory of public history.

A. I never thought of it that way. I would hope that would be the case. I do know that during the trial, a number of students I knew ended up coming every day. And one walked out and he said, Ph.D. in history. And he did get it.

Marc Parry is a senior reporter who writes about ideas, focusing on research in the humanities and social sciences. Email him at marc.parry@chronicle.com, or follow him on Twitter @marcparry.