Justin Taylor interviews Sir Richard J. Evans, a historian and expert witness in David Irving v. Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt, which is the subject of a new movie called Denial. The trial dealt with a lawsuit by the British Hitler apologist David Irving against American historian Deborah Lipstadt and her UK publisher. In her book and public speaking, Lipstadt said Irving had manipulated evidence and misrepresented facts in favor of the Third Reich. She believed he was the most dangerous Holocaust denier in the world, because he had some level of respect among historians at that time.
Evans has written on European history, and perhaps more to the point, he has written on the concept of historical knowledge. The trial could easily have been framed as an issue of freedom of speech. Could anyone say or claim anything? Is it actually possible to establish historical facts?
Even though it was Irving who sued Lipstadt, some people defended Irving’s right for free speech as if he were the victim or the one on trial. How could the public have been so confused about the nature of this well-publicized case?
This is because the defence’s tactic was to focus on Irving, repeat Lipstadt’s accusations at much greater length, and back them up with overwhelming evidence.
Had he won, the freedom of speech would have been seriously damaged in the UK. Even though he lost, I still had major problems publishing my book on the case because publishers were afraid he would sue them. The movie makes it clear what was at stake.
A similarly skewed perspective of history appears to be on display today at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, where you can learn that Anita Hill was a major figure in the twentieth century and Justice Clarence Thomas was an also ran. But maybe, looking on the bright side, the museum plans a major exhibit on Thomas next year.