The Holocaust on Trial: A Legal Battle for Historical Truth
Updated: Jan 2
In the film “Denial,” based on a true story, college history professor and author Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) is sued for libel by notorious British Holocaust historian David Irving (Timothy Spall) for accusing him of being a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book, Denying The Holocaust. But the case turns into a battle for historical truth as the Holocaust itself is judged in a court of law.
In an early scene, Lipstadt is lecturing her class at Emory University about the four arguments of a denier: that the Holocaust was not a systematic genocide, that the number of Jews who died is exaggerated, that there were no extermination camps and, essentially, that the Holocaust is a myth. She asks her class: “How do we prove the Holocaust happened?” And she makes the compelling point that not one photograph exists of a Holocaust victim inside a gas chamber because the Nazis didn’t allow any such images to be taken. Irving’s decades old claim that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz is built from this lack of physical evidence (the Nazis detonated the Auschwitz crematorium before the end of the war).
As a stunt, Irving shows up at Lipstadt’s book reading event with an associate filming him while he heckles her, offering $1,000 in cash to anyone in the audience who can prove Hitler ordered the Holocaust. During this first encounter between the two, they have a heated exchange, captured on tape. Shortly afterward, Lipstadt receives a letter informing her that Irving is suing her for libel in a British court where, unlike the United States, there is no presumption of innocence so the burden of proof falls on her. Lipstadt must prove that she didn't libel him — in other words, she has to prove that the Holocaust happened, and that Irving deliberately falsified evidence to suggest that it didn't. While that might seem easy for her to achieve, it is anything but: the Nazis were careful to cover their tracks when it came to systematic genocide.
As Lipstadt raises funds to support her case, she gets pressure from British Jews to settle so not to give Irving, a Hitler sympathizer, a platform for his anti-Semitic views. After all, for decades they have watched his hateful writings and speeches stimulate right wing groups and Neo-Nazis as he essentially reinvents World War II without suffering consequences. Irving plays the underdog in court, defending himself, as Lipstadt hires a well-known British defamation expert Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) to run her legal defense. Although there are survivors who can testify to what they endured, Julius, along with Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), doesn’t want to put them on the stand. The two reason that the scheming Irving intends to grandstand, and they won’t even let Lipstadt testify. Restraint, they determine, is the key to winning the case. In a strategic move, they convince Irving the case should only go before the judge, rather than a jury. Later, in front of the lone decider of the verdict, Irving argues that by calling him a “denier,” Lipstadt has essentially placed on him a verbal “yellow star.”
Thinking about this symbol of Jewish persecution is especially poignant today, the anniversary of Kristallnacht ("The Night of Broken Glass,” November 9 and 10, 1938), when Nazis in Germany torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses, and killed close to one hundred Jews. On this violent night, shards of broken glass littered the streets after attacks that were planned and coordinated and aimed at the Jews. In the aftermath, some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps. It was after Kristallnacht that Jews were forced to wear identifying badges—yellow stars—as a way to isolate and dehumanized them, to mark them different and inferior to everyone else. And it led to the deportation and genocide that Irving says never existed.
At the end of the film, as the case concludes, Lipstadt can finally say to the survivors who were silent: You were remembered. The voice of suffering was heard.