C-span's "Book TV" has become a highly coveted venue for authors. The network, along with Oprah, has had a huge and positive impact on literacy in this country, an entire weekend - 48 consecutive hours - devoted to discussion of nonfiction books. The audience is book loving, reading, and, not to be dismissed, buying audience. I was delighted when C-span asked to broadcast a speech I was giving about my new book, "History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving."
The book chronicles how David Irving, a Holocaust denier, sued me for libel in a British courtroom for calling him a denier. Irving had called the Holocaust a "legend" and had declared that he removed all mention of the Holocaust from one of his books, because "if something did not happen you don't even dignify it with a footnote." He had counseled his followers that the Holocaust must be treated with, not just "ridicule," but tasteless analogies. He instructed them to say things "like more women died on the back seat of Senator Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz." His statement was greeted with laughter and applause. Given this record, I did not think that describing him as a denier was controversial.
I was wrong. He brought a libel suit against me in the United Kingdom demanding that I apologize, pay damages, and withdraw my book from circulation. In Britain, the onus is on the defendant to prove the truth of her words and not on the plaintiff to prove the falsehood. I could not, therefore, just walk away from the fight. Had I done so, the court would have found me guilty and, by so doing, legitimized his "definition" of the Holocaust. According to Mr. Irving, there was no German plan to kill the Jews. There were Jews who were killed, but as a result of rogue actions, not a coordinated program administered by the Third Reich. Moreover, Mr. Irving contends, Hitler was "the best friend the Jews had in Germany," and tried to prevent their persecution. One of the main claims in Mr. Irving's arsenal is that there were no gas chambers and that the survivors who contend otherwise are either psychopaths, liars, or in it for the money. He once asked a survivor how much money she made from having a number tattooed on her arm.
This legal battle lasted for over six years. The Royal High Court of Justice dismissed Mr. Irving's suit and, in a 355-page judgment, declared that in his writings about the Holocaust, he "perverts," "distorts," "mislead[s]," and does so "deliberate[ly]." His renditions of events were, the judge noted, a "travesty of the evidence" and were "reprehensible." Four different appeal court judges subsequently concurred.
My book was a personal account of the experience of having to defend the truth of what I wrote. The opportunity to have an hour to discuss it on C-span was something I looked forward to, until I learned that they were intending to juxtapose my talk with one by Mr. Irving. In essence, they were planning to create the debate between us, a debate I have long refused to have. I consider debating Holocaust deniers to be the equivalent of asking NASA scientists to debate those who argue that the moon landing actually happened on a sound stage in Nevada. There are many things to debate about the Holocaust, e.g. precisely when did the Nazis decide to murder European Jewry. Whether it happened is not one of them.
When I protested to C-span, they insisted that they broadcast all opinions [Holocaust denial is an "opinion"?] and that they broadcast liars all the time, after all, a C-span producer told me, "they put on members of Congress," - thus equating the U.S. Congress with bigoted liars. I cannot imagine them "balancing" an appearance by a specialist on African-American history with someone who says slavery was a pleasant experience. Or for that matter, "balancing" an appearance of a civil rights leader with a member of the Ku Klux Klan to discuss theories of black inferiority.
I told the C-span producer that, if they insisted on broadcasting me back to back with Irving, I would not allow them to cover my talk at Harvard. Then I added, almost as an afterthought, that I assumed that they would not broadcast Mr. Irving. "No," the producer assured me, "we plan to broadcast him in any case." I was too flabbergasted to ask the obvious: "Where's the balance in that?" I then learned that Mr. Irving had previously appeared on C-span; though no scholar had been asked to balance his presentations.
Holocaust deniers and, for that matter, most prejudiced people are wretched types who are no more important than the dirt we step in on the street. We must, however, clean it off our feet before we drag it into our homes. This time, however, my "adversary" was a network that many people look to as a source of calm, clear and, generally, insightful discussion.
Four years after my trial in a London court, I find myself far more disturbed by C-span's moral blindness than by pathetic characters such as Holocaust deniers.
Professor Lipstadt teaches Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University and the author of "History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving" (Ecco, 2005).