Sir Richard J. Evans spoke at Jesus College on 10th May regarding his role as an expert witness in a high-profile libel case on Holocaust denial in 2000.
An alumnus of Jesus College, Evans is a prominent historian of Germany in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, having held positions at numerous institutions including the University of Cambridge. His three-volume series on the Third Reich was called a “masterpiece of historical scholarship” by The Times.
While at Jesus College, he was president of the J. R. Green Society, the college’s history society.
Evans received public attention from 1997 to 2000 as an expert witness for the defence in the Irving v Penguin Books and Lipstadt libel case. In the case, Deborah Lipstadt, an American historian, was sued by English author David Irving in 1996 for referring to him as a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust.
Evans was originally told that the work would last close to six months but it ended up lasting three years, although he had no regrets about participating. Evans viewed the case as educational for both Britain and the world regarding Holocaust denial, and the importance of upholding the truth in historical practice.
In his talk, Evans highlighted his respect for the lawyers involved in the case, particularly Richard Rampton, who learned German so he could read the case files in their original language.
Evans also spoke of his amazement at Rampton’s reconstruction of his report on Irving to make it focused on Irving’s falsifications of evidence, remarking that Rampton’s success during the trial was a result of him essentially making the plaintiff into the defendant through aggressive cross-examination.
The trial was unconventional because Irving, unable to trust a barrister, represented himself. Rampton also made the case a bench trial with no jury by appealing to his vanity, suggesting that potential damage to Irving’s reputation was an idea that would go over a jury member’s head.
Evans described the trial, which lasted three months, as “long tedium interrupted by bursts of high drama”.
One such moment came when Rampton questioned Irving over a newly-discovered historical source: the appointments of Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS and main architect of the Holocaust.
Evans believed that people were interested in Irving’s books because he managed to get access to previously unpublished evidence, such as the diaries of Hitler’s doctor, but these new materials proved to be his undoing. It later became clear that Irving had falsified evidence related to Himmler in his books, most notably a phone call between Himmler and Hitler in which Hitler supposedly stopped the extermination of Jewish people.
After the defence won the trial, it received intense media attention, largely because many newspapers were afraid of receiving libel suits themselves if they published articles attacking Irving before the verdict.
Despite initial difficulty in publishing an account due to the threat of libel, Telling Lies About Hitler was published by Verso Books after lawyer Anthony Julius promised to represent the publisher pro bono if Irving brought a libel suit.
However, it was only when Lipstadt published her own account of the experience, History on Trial, that a clear focus for a film adaptation revealed itself. 2016’s Denial, written by Sir David Hare and directed by Mick Jackson, was centred on Lipstadt’s perspective.
Evans stated that the movie was “okay” and although it was “true to the letter and the spirit of the case”, some events were dramatised. Evans particularly disliked how he and his research assistants were depicted as out to get Irving from the beginning.
This trial had significant implications for freedom of speech and Holocaust denial. Had Irving won, Penguin would have had to destroy all copies of Lipstadt’s book and likely not risk publishing material that questioned Holocaust deniers in the future.
Evans attributed his success in disproving Irving’s claims of libel to the similarity in approach shared by historians and barristers, which is that nothing matters except the cold hard evidence. When Irving was presented with that evidence, it was clear that he was fighting a losing battle.