GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Truth and Lies - ideas about navigating a world where facts seem to be up for debate, whether it's science or history or even a presidential election and why some people refuse to believe things that most of us would say are undeniable.
When you first heard this idea about Holocaust denial, what'd you think?
DEBORAH LIPSTADT: I laughed.
LIPSTADT: I laughed. I said, you know, those are like the flat-Earth people or the Elvis-is-alive people. It was just stupid.
RAZ: This is Deborah Lipstadt. She's a professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta where she focuses on the Holocaust. And she remembers hearing about Holocaust deniers back in the 1980s. And even though she thought the idea was absurd, she was curious about who these people were. So she started to look at their arguments.
LIPSTADT: Oh, they were saying things like gas chambers were an impossibility. They were saying that survivors were making this all up. And if there were Jews who were somehow persecuted, they deserved it for other reasons. And they did something else. They found a new name, revisionists, simply out to revise mistakes in history. I described them as wolves in sheep's clothing.
This was not a cognitive lapse. They came to this topic with an anti-Semitic view so that the prism through which their view of history, of this history, was refracted, was shaped, was bent, was a anti-Semitic, racist, pro-Nazi prism.
RAZ: But the deniers made themselves appear legitimate. They published a journal, they founded an institute, they used footnotes. And Deborah felt the best way to expose them was to write a book about them. And what happened next? Here's Deborah Lipstadt on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
LIPSTADT: I published my work. The book was published, "Denying The Holocaust: The Growing Assault On Truth And Memory," and I was done with those folks and ready to move on. Then came the letter from Penguin U.K. I opened the letter, and it informed me that David Irving was bringing a libel suit against me in the United Kingdom for calling him a Holocaust denier.
Who was David Irving? David Irving was a writer of historical works, most of them about World War II. And virtually all of those works took a position that the Nazis were really not so bad. And the Allies were really not so good. He knew the documents, he knew the facts, but he somehow twisted them to get this opinion. This was a man who not only was a Holocaust denier but seemed quite proud of it. Here was a man, and I quote, who said, "I'm going to sink the battleship Auschwitz."
Here was a man who pointed to the number tattooed on a survivor's arm and said, how much money have you made from having that number tattooed on your arm? This was not a man who seemed at all ashamed or reticent about being a Holocaust denier.
RAZ: What did the book say about him?
LIPSTADT: I was pretty harsh on him in the book. But if I devoted 300 words to him, that's a lot. You know, there were a couple of references, brief references. But I think he chose me - because other people had written very negative things about him, even more extreme than I had written.
But he waited until, I think, an American, someone from, as the Brits say, across the pond, wrote about him because to defend yourself against libel charges in the United Kingdom is very onerous and very expensive 'cause the burden of proof is on you to prove the truth of what you wrote, unlike in the United States where if David Irving had sued me here, he would have had to prove the falsehood.
RAZ: Why would he deny something so painfully and obviously true?
LIPSTADT: My sense was that he loves to be a contrarian. He loves to do the, quote, unquote, "outrageous." He was very enamored of Adolf Hitler. So I think there were a lot of things operating there, including a desire to take a contrary point of view because he knew that would get him a lot of attention.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
LIPSTADT: Now, lots of my academic colleagues counseled me, oh, Deborah, just ignore it. They said, who's going to believe him anyway? But here was the problem. If I didn't fight, he would win by default. And if he won by default, he could then legitimately say my David Irving version of the Holocaust is a legitimate version. And what is that version? There was no plan to murder the Jews.
There were no gas chambers. There were no mass shootings. Hitler had nothing to do with any suffering that went on. And the Jews have made this all up. I couldn't let that stand and ever face a survivor or a child of survivors. I couldn't let that stand and consider myself a responsible historian. So we fought. Spoiler alert, we won.
LIPSTADT: The judge found David Irving to be a racist, an anti-Semite, he lied, he distorted. And most importantly, he did it deliberately. We showed a pattern in over 25 different major instances, not small things. Many of us in this audience write books. We always make mistakes. That's why we're glad to have second editions. But these always moved in the same direction - blame the Jews, exonerate the Nazis. What we did is follow his footnotes back to his sources.
And what did we find? Not in most cases and not in the preponderance of cases but in every single instance where he made some reference to the Holocaust, that his supposed evidence was distorted, half-truth, date changed, sequence changed. We didn't prove what happened. We proved that what he said happened - and by extension, all deniers, because he either quotes them or they get their arguments from him - is not true. They don't have the evidence to prove it.
RAZ: Deborah, during that period of time, which I guess was, like, six years of your life going back and forth to London and facing this man in court, was it hard for you? I mean, did it take an emotional toll on you?
LIPSTADT: It was very difficult because every day, there'd be survivors in the courtroom. But it wasn't just from survivors. One day, David Irving was in court. And what deniers like to do - because they have to explain how when the Allies got to the concentration camps, how come they found people there who looked more like cadavers than like real people? So what deniers say, David Irving amongst them, is that, oh, they were being very well taken care of by the Germans.
But then the Allies bombed the pharmaceutical factories, the food factories, the roads leading to the camp. And the Germans couldn't take care of them, so that's why they looked so terrible. While he was making that claim and Richard Evans was on the stand, our lead historical witness, and challenging him very strongly on it, I happened to look at the gallery.
And there was an elderly gentleman. I would say he was in his late 70s. And he looked very distressed. I didn't know what it was about, and I didn't pay it too much mind. And at the end of that session, I saw that he was standing there. He came over to me and he said, Madam, I was part of the British army that liberated the camps. And, Madam, it galls me to hear that man say that what we found in the camps was because the Germans couldn't take care of these people, he said.
Then he paused, he said, Madam, get the bastard, Madam. And he walked off. And that was very powerful too. It just gave me a sense that there were a lot of people who felt a lot was riding on this case.
RAZ: When you think about the outcome of that trial, was that it? Was it done? Was it - at that point, were you able to sort of breathe out and say, OK, Holocaust denial is - has just been quashed?
LIPSTADT: No. I'm smart enough and I'm - sorrily, I have, you know, the wisdom of experience to know that it hadn't been totally quashed. I knew it wasn't over. I didn't think we would see the prejudice, the anti-Semitism resurrected, come to life again the way we're seeing it now.
RAZ: What are you seeing now?
LIPSTADT: Look, we're not seeing anything that compares to a Holocaust. We're not seeing anything that compares to the anti-Semitism of decades past. But we're seeing a, what I call, soft-core denial, the not denying the facts but rewriting the facts. And what deniers are trying to do - and it's not just deniers. It's other groups as well. It's white supremacists.
It's people who make all sorts of extreme claims about vaccines, about climate or whatever - to take totally unfounded statements, which we might call lies, dress them up as edgy, extreme opinions. And once they become part of the conversation, then they encroach upon the facts. And it is a modus operandi that I saw amongst deniers and little did I ever imagine I would see it in so many other arenas as well.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
LIPSTADT: So why is my story more than just the story of a quirky, long, six-year difficult lawsuit, an American professor being dragged into a courtroom? What message does it have? I think in the context of the question of truth, it has a very significant message because today, we live in an age where truth is on the defensive. We must go on the offensive.
When someone makes an outrageous claim even though they may hold one of the highest offices in the land, if not the world, we must say to them, where's the proof? Where's the evidence? We must hold their feet to the fire. We must not treat it as if their lies are the same as the facts. Truth and fact are under assault. The job ahead of us is great. The time to fight is short. We must act now. Thank you very much.
RAZ: Professor Deborah Lipstadt. She teaches history at Emory University. By the way, there's a movie about the trial. It's called "Denial." You can find Deborah's full talk at ted.com. On the show today, Truth and Lies, ideas about living in a world where facts seem to be up for debate. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
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