'Denial' brings Emory professor's battle for historical truth to the big screen

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Oct. 3, 2016

Emory professor Deborah E. Lipstadt and Russ Krasnoff, producer of "Denial," discuss the importance of individuals and institutions standing up for historical truth. "Denial," opening Oct. 7 in Atlanta, is based on Lipstadt’s book “History on Trial," which examines her victory in an internationally publicized legal battle against a Holocaust denier. Emory Photo/Video

It would have been easier to say nothing, to simply ignore a preposterous assertion.

But in the face of public claims by British Holocaust denier David Irving that the atrocities never happened, Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt knew she couldn’t stay silent.

As a leading scholar of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies, Lipstadt instead chose to challenge what she considered a deep distortion of an unassailable historical truth.

“You can't fight every battle, but there are certain battles you cannot turn away from,” says Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies. “You can't let hatred and prejudice go unchallenged.”

In her book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory” (1993), Lipstadt took an unwavering stand, identifying Irving as a Holocaust denier who had misrepresented data in order “to reach historically untenable conclusions.”

In 1996, Irving filed a libel suit against Lipstadt and her publisher, sparking an internationally publicized battle in the British court system in which she was compelled to prove her innocence.

While Lipstadt is not one to back away from injustice, the experience would test her in many ways. But as a scholar, she felt a particular responsibility to stand up for historical accuracy.

“You can have an opinion, but if it's based on a lie, expect to be challenged,” she says.

Fight for historical truth

Two decades later, Lipstadt’s landmark fight for historical truth is being revisited in “Denial,” a major feature film by Bleecker Street that documents her experience.

The film, which opens Oct. 7 in Atlanta, is based upon Lipstadt’s acclaimed account “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” (2005), with a script that was drawn directly from court transcripts. It stars Academy Award-winning actor Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt, two-time Academy Award-nominee Tom Wilkinson as her British barrister and Timothy Spall as Holocaust denier David Irving.

During a recent campus interview — wedged within a busy schedule of movie premieres and press conferences surrounding the film — Lipstadt admits that she was surprised that even after all this time, the fundamental issues the film raises remain sharply on target.

“This is something none of us expected,” Lipstadt explains. “We were making a film about Holocaust denial, which we thought was important because it's about truth and lies. But we never thought it would have the contemporary punch that it does.”

Yet the need to discern truth from lies and fact from opinion remains a salient issue both in and out of the classroom, and is perhaps more relevant than ever, she says.

From outliers who claim the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings never happened to the birther movement that questions President Obama's citizenship, the Internet and social media have made it easier than ever for conspiracy theorists to gather public followings, Lipstadt says.

And often, their claims are rooted in racism, sexism or anti-Semitism, rising from disaffected people who find they can suddenly join forces and find an audience, she notes.

“They may be a small group, but because of nimble use of social media they can get a very large voice,” she says. “We see that in many things, whether it's about vaccines, whether it's about climate change, whether it's in America's 2016 presidential election, whether it's over Brexit.”

In the classroom, Lipstadt strives to help students learn how to discern what is true and factual, as opposed to opinions based on lies and distortion.

“One of the most important things is to get students to think critically, and part of thinking critically is looking at evidence,” she maintains.

“We’re all entitled to our opinions, but an opinion is different from a fact,” she explains. “You can debate whether there could have been an end to slavery without the Civil War, without so many people dying and being maimed, but you can’t debate whether there was a Civil War."

rachel weisz and deborah lipstadt

Actor Rachel Weisz and Emory professor Deborah Lipstadt on the set of "Denial." Photo by Liam Daniel/Bleecker Street.

Support from Emory

From the beginning, truth was at the epicenter of the movie, says Lipstadt, who worked closely with filmmakers as a consultant to ensure historical accuracy.

She recalls advising them that, “this is a story about truth and you can’t fictionalize a story about truth.”

“It was an act of trust, during the case itself, to trust my lawyers and an act of trust to trust the producers, but I think in both cases … my trust was fulfilled, and that was very important to me,” Lipstadt says.

During the trial, her lawyers urged Lipstadt not to comment on the case, so as not to feed publicity. For a public scholar and longtime advocate of open expression, maintaining her silence — she would not be called to testify, either — was perhaps her greatest challenge, she admits.

Reflecting on that time, Lipstadt acknowledges the experience would have been much more difficult without the support provided by Emory in her quest to defend the truth about the Holocaust.

Not only did administrators reduce her course load and allow her time for frequent trips to England for both legal preparations and the trial, they established a fund to support her expenses, which were considerable.

In her memoir, Lipstadt acknowledged the support of Emory's former President Bill Chace, colleagues, staff and students throughout the ordeal. Following the trial, Emory established a website, Holocaust Denial on Trial, to ensure that a documentary record of the trial would be available for research and scholarship. The website has just been redesigned and relaunched to coincide with the movie's opening.

“Emory was the height of integrity and support,” she says. “I couldn’t have asked for better.”

That support was also important “for the message it transmitted to students that the University believed in what I was doing and believed I was doing the right thing,” she adds.

“Maybe most important, it was a tremendous boost to my emotions to know that I had my University behind me, that they believed in what I was doing. That was of incalculable value.”

Doing what is right

In the end, Lipstadt and her legal team would win the case, proving that her accusations against Irving were substantially true, therefore not libelous.

But while the legal battle concluded in 2000, the experience continues to shape her life as a public scholar — work that takes her around the world to discuss matters of religious freedom, religious persecution and Holocaust history.

Despite the urging of friends and colleagues at the time to walk away from the case, Lipstadt knew that legally and morally, she couldn’t.

“Many people thought I was doing the exact right thing, but I was hearing from academics who thought I was wasting my time, who thought I should be doing my work,” she says. “That was difficult.”

When asked how the trial changed her, Lipstadt smiles. She is still a feisty defender of historical truth, still deeply engaged in her scholarship, still drives “the same beat-up old car,” still lives in the same house.

“What has changed is people listen to me more,” she says. “That's impacted me because when people pay more attention to what you have to say, you're more careful about what you say. It's made me much more conscious of my role as a public scholar.”

deborah lipstadt with students on quad during filming of movie

Professor Deborah Lipstadt talks with Emory students serving as extras in scenes for "Denial" filmed on the Quad in February. Emory Photo/Video