History on Trial

A film that missed the radars of the Academy Award’s jury this year, was ‘Denial’, starring Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall. The movie is based on the famous libel trial Irving vs Penguin Books. The defendant Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University, was charged with defaming David Irving, a self-taught historian and a self-professed expert on Third-Reich. In her book ‘Denying the Holocaust’ prof. Deborah labelled Mr Irving as one of the ‘most dangerous spokespersons for holocaust denial’.

Holocaust denial or holocaust revisionism (the preferred term by denialist) is the tendency of the certain dubious historians, anti-Semitic intellectuals and neo-nazi outfits that claim that the holocaust never happened. The denialists question the accuracy of the figure of ‘six million’ jews that faced extermination. They also exploit the absence of a direct written order from Hitler, instructing such extermination of jews. The problem is further coupled by attempts of retreating Nazis to destroy evidence of holocaust, such as the destruction of Auschwitz – II gas chambers. There is, however, plenty of alternate evidence to prove the barbarity and existence of holocaust, such as the survivor testimonies, the Posen speeches, Wannsee conference documentation etc.

Against this backdrop, the case filed by David Irving in England to exploit the plaintiff-friendly libel laws. The judgement was given in the favour of Prof. Lipstadt, discrediting Irving’s reputation as a historian and resulted in awarding of damages of more than £3 million.

English Law on Libel

The trial was brought in England because of the plaintiff-friendly libels laws. In England, the plaintiff has to establish a prima facie case of libel and the burden of proof shifts towards the defendant to refute the allegation. The high court of England also enjoys the jurisdiction to hear libel claims against any work published in England. In order to establish a prima facie case the defendant has to establish that the statements published were defamatory, the statements refer to the plaintiff, and that it was published by the defendant.

The defence can argue that their works have been misinterpreted, or that the offending words aren’t of the gravity necessitating a trial, justification, however, stands as an absolute defence to the allegation of defamation. The defendant should be able to prove his statements despite being defamatory are justified or substantially true.

The Trial

Deborah Lipstadt’s lawyers had to no option to choose the justification as the defence because any compensation to David Irving would have given leverage to his denial of the holocaust. Therefore, they had to prove not only that Irving’s work was riddled with errors, but also that he deliberately misstated facts and distorted historical evidence to advance his political and ideological views.

During the trial, numerous historians were deposed on to verify the works of Irving, including the noted historian Robert J. Evans. They were successfully able to establish that there was deliberate distortion by Irving to present a twisted sense of history. For example – Irving’s claims that when Hitler got to know about Kristallnacht (night of the broken glasses) pogroms, he was “livid with rage” and ordered propaganda minister Goebbels to stop it. It was shown, however, that the diary of Goebbels revealed that he was euphoric about its progress and reviewed the pogrom with Hitler, without ever receiving any orders from Hitler of halting it.


The Auschwitz camp remains the main focal point in contesting the claims of the holocaust. Not only because the site witnessed the maximum amount of ruthless extermination in which at least 1.5 million jews died (allowing the convenient questioning of the figure) but also because it was initially only meant to be a labor camp only, later to be converted as a gas chamber.

Irving argued the absence of wire-mesh in Morgue 1 of Crematorium 2 through which Zyklon B (Cyanide capsules) could be administered. He acknowledged one gas chamber that was present but, argued that was used for delousing the cadavers from typhus causing lice. He pointed towards insufficiency of fuel to burn such large number of bodies.

It was, however, refuted by Professor Van Pelt, who showed the survivor testimonies operating in the chambers for the purpose of carrying the Zyklon-B pellets to the chimneys through which they were then poured in. The aerial reconnaissance photographs of allied forces have also photographed these chimney (four of them) holes, consistent with the testimonies. Van Pelt stated that less fuel could be used in a crematorium if several bodies were burned simultaneously.

Dr Peter Longerich, a specialist in the Nazi era, and Christopher Browning, a Professor of History at Pacific Lutheran University, testified proving that Nazi Germany undertook a policy of systematic extermination and murdering of Jews. It was established after 1941; Himmler (second in command after Hitler) undertook a vicious campaign of creating gas chambers and exposing million of Jews to deportation, starvation, and ultimately extermination.

Coupled with this were Irving’s association with Neo-Nazi outfits, his personal diaries containing entries with racist overtones, and openly anti-Semitic opinions. Justice Gray, therefore, held that no serious, fair-minded and objective historian could doubt the presence of gas chambers at Auschwitz were hundreds and thousands of Jews died. He also commented that Irving deliberately distorted facts to manipulate history. The justification therefore succeeded.

Denial the movie

The movie managed to capture the emotional upheaval caused in the Jewish community of Holocaust survivors due to the trial. Particularly moving are solemn scenes filmed at the Auschwitz concentration camps, reminding us the depravity of denying any such human atrocity. Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott gave powerful performances as attorneys preserving the linguistic precision and realism attached with the lawyers of the case. Timothy spall managed to look as vicious, refined and cunning as David Irving, delivering a powerful performance. A single animated flashback during the trial awakens us to the gravity of inhumanity behind the regime and its apologists. Denial is an essential watch for law students and historians alike.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons – Sonderkommando Photographs

Anuj Aggarwal


    1. Read yoour piece on the taboo against questioning Holocaust. Most of questions you raised have been answered and are easily accessible. David Irving himself admits that the number is around 4 million Jews at least. I am either german nor Jewish so I don’t know where you get the bais part from. He lost the trial the questioning sort of ends there.

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