Neo-Nazis Christopher Cantwell and Matthew Heimbach on Wednesday seemed almost to forget for a moment that they were in a court of law and defendants in a civil case that could potentially bankrupt them and take down the white nationalist groups with which they’re associated.
“What’s your favorite Holocaust joke?” Cantwell, who is representing himself in court, asked Heimbach, who was called to the stand by the plaintiffs as a witness, during cross-examination.
“My favorite?” Heimbach replied, chuckling.
The strategy behind Cantwell’s line of questioning wasn’t immediately clear, and attorneys for the plaintiffs interjected before any jokes were uttered. But Cantwell, who had previously gone on bizarre courtroom tangents, and Heimbach spent nearly an hour talking about their adoration for Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler, the dictator’s book Mein Kampf, and their belief that the Holocaust was a hoax.
Hitler, Heimbach testified, “did nothing wrong” in murdering some 6 million Jews.
The exchange between the two neo-Nazis contrasted sharply with the testimony by Deborah Lipstadt, an acclaimed Holocaust scholar and professor of modern Jewish history at Emory University.
Lipstadt, who was nominated in July by President Joe Biden to serve as the US special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism — a State Department post with the rank of ambassador — was called as an expert witness by the plaintiffs. Before her testimony, she had prepared a 48-page report for the trial that focused on “the history, ideology, symbolism, and rhetoric of antisemitism and how those features were on display at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.”
On the stand, she was asked by Roberta Kaplan, a co–lead attorney for the plaintiffs, to elaborate on her report and define and parse some of the most popular, offensive, and violent terms used by the white supremacists who planned and executed the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in 2017.
“I don’t surprise easily. I’ve been writing about the Holocaust, one of the worst genocides in human history, many things don’t surprise me,” Lipstadt testified. But what she found in the words and symbols used in preparation for and during the deadly rally in Charlottesville four years ago represented a “great deal of overt antisemitism and adulation of the Third Reich.”
Lipstadt said that much of the messaging between some of the 24 defendants in the case constituted “Jew hatred.”
“You know they’re a Jew and you despise them and you want to do them harm,” she told the court, explaining what such hatred meant.
Asked to define the Holocaust, which many of the defendants have claimed to be a hoax, Lipstadt gave the court a brief history lesson. “A state-sponsored genocide by the Hitler regime, which took place between 1933–45. A systematic plan to annihilate all the Jews of Europe and actually beyond as well,” she said of the Holocaust. “It didn’t matter if the Jews lived inside German territory or outside. It didn’t matter if they were old or tiny babies. If you were a Jew, you were to be annihilated.”
Lipstadt also testified about the “great replacement theory,” a topic that has been pushed by Republicans, as well as media outlets and figures loyal to that party’s extremist right, such as Tucker Carlson of Fox News.
“Jews control other nonwhites to destroy society that have been predominately white, European,” Lipstadt said, describing the bogus theory. “If you feel the nonwhite and believe they are doing bad things, blame the Jews for it. The message is the Jews are at fault.”
She said the theory began to gain traction in the 1960s and '70s, and then again in the 1990s, when legislation focused on voting and civil rights were passed.
“There were some people who were disturbed by this, and they were convinced that the people of color couldn’t be doing this on their own,” she said. “There had to be someone behind the scene manipulating it, making it happen. People of color were the puppets, and Jews were the puppeteer.”
Lipstadt said she saw more evidence of the “great replacement theory” in the material she reviewed than she expected to see. “Certainly from the first night of events at the University of Virginia, with the chant ‘Jews will not replace us,’” she told the court.
Kaplan had Lipstadt read the social media post and messages of “Unite the Right” organizers from the days before the event. Lipstadt, responding to several of them read aloud to her in court, said they aimed to “scare” people and were unequivocally “a call to arms, a call to battle.”
The lawsuit, brought by civil rights nonprofit Integrity First for America on behalf of nine plaintiffs who were attacked by “Unite the Right” rallygoers on Aug. 11–12, 2017, alleges 24 white nationalists and their organizations conspired to commit racially motivated violence. The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified punitive damages. Lipstadt’s testimony could go a long way in convincing the jury that the language used by the defendants in the case amounted to planning for violence in advance of the rally.