Last month, Irving gave a lecture at the Landmark Diner in Buckhead. C-Span cameras were on hand. The network wanted to air his talk back-to-back with one given at Harvard by Lipstadt, who's been on the lecture circuit recently promoting her book, History on Trial, which recounts her courtroom battle with Irving.
Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory, is 58. She was born in Manhattan and, as she writes in her book, quickly gained a reputation as being "feisty and combative." At her Jewish day school, her mother often had to be called in to defend her daughter to the principal. Over five decades, Lipstadt's independent spirit has not weakened, as C-Span soon learned when she withdrew her permission for her Harvard lecture to be taped.
Her decision was no surprise. For years, Lipstadt has consistently refused to debate Holocaust deniers.
"Where's the debate?" she says. "A debate is on two perspectives on an issue. A debate is not between complete truth and complete falsehood."
Lipstadt viewed C-Span's quest for "balance" as little more than a canard, a convenient label that justified giving Irving a forum for his discredited views.
"They would never ask Henry Louis Gates to go on with someone who said slavery never happened," Lipstadt says from her office on the Emory campus, where a photo of a sign that says "No sniveling" sits on her desk as a warning to whining students.
By last week, Lipstadt's decision had been endorsed by almost 600 historians, who signed a petition urging C-Span to cancel its broadcast of the Irving lecture.
"Falsifiers of history cannot 'balance' historians. Falsehoods cannot 'balance' the truth," the petition reads. "C-Span should not broadcast statements that it knows to be false. ... If C-Span broadcasts a lecture by David Irving, it will provide publicity and legitimacy to Holocaust-denial, which is nothing more than a mask for anti-Jewish bigotry."
"If you think about it for a nanosecond, if you think about the case and who the parties were, the idea of balance is absolutely nuts," says Ken Stern, a specialist on anti-Semitism for the American Jewish Committee. "The concept that you have to balance somebody who prevailed in a case against somebody who was exposed as a neo-Nazi polemicist is to me a bizarre take on it, and a really bad journalistic enterprise."
To Stern, C-Span's decision to "balance" the accepted history of the Holocaust with a talk by Irving is like airing an interview with the author of a book on child-rearing by inviting Michael Jackson or Jeffrey Dahmer to offer an alternative view.
"It's just nuts."
Stern first met Lipstadt in the early 1990s, when both were working on books about Holocaust deniers. Lipstadt was initially skeptical about the project, wondering "why study the historical equivalent of flat-Earth theorists?" But her research soon revealed that deniers weren't just skinheads frothing at the mouth. Many deniers had adopted, as she writes, "sophisticated camouflage tactics," such as the Institute for Historical Review, a scholarly sounding organization whose raison d'être is to argue that the Nazi extermination of Jews is a myth.One of the recurring characters in the resulting book, Denying the Holocaust, was David Irving. In the 1960s, Irving was considered a bit of a wunderkind, having written a book on the bombing of Dresden when he was just 25. In the 1970s, another book, Hitler's War, garnered positive reviews from many historians. Both the Hitler and Dresden works were seen as somewhat revisionist, in that they questioned conventional wisdom about their subjects and, in many cases, attacked the actions of the Allies while defending those of the Third Reich.
"He was somebody who was trying to keep a foot in two different worlds, and trying to balance them," Stern says. One world was among scholarly historians, the other the seamy culture of neo-Nazism and white supremacy.
Irving prided himself on relying on primary sources for his research, and disdained historians who he said merely regurgitated each other's work.
Over time, Irving's sympathies toward the Third Reich became more overt. In Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt detailed Irving's claims that, among other things, the gas chambers at Auschwitz were a myth and that Hitler knew nothing about the Final Solution. Her conclusions about Irving were blunt.
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