In early 1993, American historian and professor Deborah Lipstadt published a book about Holocaust denial titled Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Through her work, she sought to expose the lies, distortions, and political agendas that drove the ever-present belief system that the Holocaust was exaggerated, or, in fact, did not happen at all. In her book she discussed a specific number of deniers, including a British author named David Irving, whom she called a "dangerous spokesperson" for Holocaust denial. Little did she know that Irving would go on to sue her for libel in the case now famously known as Irving v Penguin Books and Lipstadt.
Deborah Esther Lipstadt was born in New York City on March 18, 1947 to a Canadian mother, Miriam, and a German father, Erwin. Her parents met at their neighborhood synagogue. Deborah is the middle of three children, with an older sister, Helen, and a younger brother, Nathaniel.
Deborah and her siblings grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens, and attended the Hebrew Institute of Long Island. From a young age, Deborah was very intent on reaching aliyah (a "calling up" to the Torah), studying at Temple Shaaray Tefila with Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, to whom she traces her activism. She also spent summers at Camp Massad, a Zionist Jewish summer camp, which inspired her to go to Israel. She subsequently spent her junior year of college as an exchange student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her studies were marred by The Six-Day War, a conflict between Israel and neighboring countries Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, that occurred between June 5 and 10, 1967.
She eventually completed her undergraduate work in American History through City College of New York, graduating in June 1969. She immediately enrolled at Brandeis University, where she received her Masters and then a Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies in 1976. She then began teaching history and religion at the University of Washington, and became the first person to teach Jewish studies there. In 1979, she began teaching Near Eastern studies at the University of California in Los Angeles, but left the department in 1985. Her first book Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933–1945 was published the following year. The book was an evaluation of journalism on the Holocaust and an exploration of what Americans knew about the Nazi extermination of European Jews.
Over the next several years, Deborah became a notable member in the growing community of Jewish innovators, activists, scholars, and intellectuals in Los Angeles. During this time, she contributed to Susannah Heschel's anthology On Being a Jewish Feminist, directed the independent Jewish educational organization the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, and even wrote a wrote a monthly column for The Jewish Spectator. She accepted a research fellowship from the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism and Holocaust denial at the Hebrew University. This is where Denying the Holocaust was born.
In January 1993, Deborah moved to Atlanta to work as Associate Professor of Religion at Emory University. In June 1993, she published Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory with the British publisher Penguin Books. The book received widespread critical acclaim, receiving the 1994 National Jewish Book Honor Award. Deborah was also thriving professionally — she was promoted to Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory, and was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, a position she held for two years.
Despite the myriad accolades and triumphs borne out of the book, there were also many obstacles. On September 5, 1996, British author and historian David Irving sued Deborah and Penguin Books for libel for calling him a Holocaust denier, and "defaming his reputation as a historian."
Unlike in the United States, the burden of proof lay on the defendant rather than the plaintiff. “In England, I had to prove that what I wrote was not libel,” Lipstadt wrote in her 2005 book History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving. “I wanted a trial that proved [I] was right when [I] called David Irving a denier.”
Born March 24, 1938 in Hutton, near Brentwood, Essex in England, David Irving has written various works on the military and political history of World War II, with a focus on Nazi Germany. Many of his books explore the Third Reich, including The Destruction of Dresden, Hitler's War, Churchill's War, and Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich. Although his works weren't particularly celebrated for their accuracy, Irving became known for his unparallelled knowledge of Nazi Germany and his ability to unearth historic documents. But he soon gained notoriety when, based on his support of the pseudoscientific Leuchter report, he began to advocate for the Holocaust denial movement.
In the trial Irving v Penguin Books and Lipstadt., it was up to Deborah and her defense team, which was led by Anthony Julius of the law firm Mishcon de Reya, to demonstrate the accuracy of what she had written in Denying the Holocaust. The expert witnesses for the defense included Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans, Christopher Browning, Robert Jan van Pelt, and Peter Longerich.
Over the course of the five-year trial, approximately 3,000 pages of testimony were submitted by Deborah's attorneys. The case was regarded as so important that the Israeli government even delivered a copy of notable Nazi SS colonel Adolf Eichmann's journals to Deborah's legal defense team.
On April 11, 2000 the British Royal High Court of Justice ruled in favor of Deborah and Penguin Books. The judge presiding over the case, Justice Charles Gray, produced a written judgment 334 pages long, and concluded his verdict by declaring that “Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist and that he associates with right wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.” In 2001, the courts rejected Irving's appeal.
Irving was eventually sentenced to three years in prison in Austria for two speeches he made in 1989, in which he claimed there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. At the time, minimizing the crimes of the Nazi regime was a crime punishable of up to 10 years. Despite her bitter history with the proven Holocaust denier, Deborah spoke out against this judgment, saying, "I am uncomfortable with imprisoning people for speech. Let [Irving] go and let him fade from everyone's radar screens... Generally, I don't think Holocaust denial should be a crime. I am a free speech person, I am against censorship."
In February 2005, Deborah published History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving, chronicling her five-year ordeal.