‘The Detail Which Moves You Is The Same Detail That Lets You Know It’s True’
As David Baddiel says in his recent documentary, what happened to the Jews under the Nazis is unbelievable in the sense that it’s difficult to grasp that people actually carried it out. Millions of Jews, along with Slavs, Roma, disabled people and gay men, were murdered by the Nazi regime during the Second World War. Despite the overwhelming evidence, some people think that this is literally unbelievable, a mindset which Confronting Holocaust Denial With David Baddiel (BBC2) explores.
Baddiel’s Jewish mother and grandparents escaped Germany in 1939, but his extended family who couldn’t get away were killed. He says that through them, he feels the history of what happened deeply and personally. His documentary starts by looking at the origins of Holocaust denial in actions taken during the war. The Nazis destroyed some evidence of the death camps, not just documents but also victims’ bodies, which were callously broken down with acids before the bones were ground up for fertiliser. Baddiel is understandably shocked to hear this, and also unsure why the Nazis tried to cover up something they thought was ‘glorious’. Some idiots have latched onto gaps in evidence as ‘proof’ that the atrocities didn’t take place. The British state’s actions also helped subsequent deniers. The Ministry of Information withheld details about what was happening, as shown in a 1941 memo to propagandists which claimed that people would be more likely to support the war if the Nazis were known to be targeting ‘indisputably innocent victims’. Jewish people weren’t seen as innocent enough by the state, and so their deaths were downplayed. This shows a deep-rooted anti-Semitism, as it implies Jews aren’t worth as much as other people and that they brought it on themselves. Ignoring that Jews were the main targets continued to the end of the war. When the camps were liberated in 1945, many British newsreels didn’t mention that most of the victims were Jewish. Later, when West Germany became an ally against the USSR during the Cold War, what had happened became an embarrassment. Baddiel says ‘an eerie silence fell over the memory of the Holocaust’.
It wasn’t until the 1960s when awareness of the slaughter spread wider, with news reports of Nazis on trial and published accounts from survivors. Baddiel visits Rachel Levy, now aged 89, and who was a teenager living in Czechoslovakia when she and her family were taken to Auschwitz. She was separated from her mother and siblings, who she never saw again, and was later marched to Belsen, where she found her aunt dying. It’s hard to comprehend something so appalling as what Rachel Levy lived through. But, as Baddiel tells us, ‘the detail which moves you is the same detail that lets you know it’s true. And therefore to say that it’s not true is obscene’.
Paradoxically, as awareness of what happened grew, so did its denial. This came through twisted pamphlets and books produced by ‘revisionist historians’ like Ernst Zündel and David Irving, both of whom ended up in court. Zündel was jailed several times in Canada for publishing literature likely to incite hatred, while Irving filed a libel suit against historian Deborah Lipstadt, who refuted his views in her 1993 book Denying The Holocaust: The Growing Assault On Truth And Memory.
As the case was filed in Britain, where the law places the burden of proof on the defendant, Lipstadt was in the odd position of having to prove it happened in order to counter Irving’s warped argument that he can’t be a Holocaust- denier if it didn’t take place. He was defeated and landed with a £2 million bill. When deniers’ views aren’t resting on fake history they use ‘nerdy, geeky science’ to focus on specifics such as the ventilation of gas chambers to claim that they couldn’t have worked. These days, pamphlets and books have largely been replaced by websites and social media as the deniers’ main outlets.
Baddiel accepts that to understand Holocaust-denial he should meet a denier, so he travels to Ireland to visit Dermot Mulqueen. His pathetic reasons for rejecting that the mass murders took place include saying that nothing sinister could have happened in Auschwitz because it had a swimming pool and that there couldn’t have been enough ovens to burn everyone as an oven can only fit one person. He even comes out with a song, out of tune and out of tune with reality. Misfits like Mulqueen shouldn’t be dismissed as irrelevant, though, as Holocaust denial is on a trajectory which led to the killings in America at Charlottesville in Virginia, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C and the Pittsburgh synagogue, among others.
Worryingly, as many as one in six people worldwide believe that what happened has been exaggerated or never happened. In the UK, six per cent of people have these views, while the proportion is as high as 82 per cent in the West Bank and Gaza. There, this is largely because of beliefs that Jews have overstated what happened in order to win Israel and reparations. Elsewhere, Holocaust-denial comes about for different reasons. In Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism and far-right views in general are part of nationalists’ attempts to distance themselves from previous Soviet influence. In Western Europe and America, anti-Semitism is often linked with conspiracy theories that Jews secretly run the world, although how they have managed this if they’re ‘subhuman’ is another of those logic-defying examples of doublethink which anti-Semites manage.
Basic rational arguments, along with photographs, film footage or interviews with survivors should be enough to silence Holocaust deniers, but this doesn’t seem to work. Their minds can somehow shut out evidence and accommodate what to anyone else are obvious contradictions. Deniers can’t think clearly because they have been stunted by a narrow, exclusionary view of identity. Anti-Semitism, nationalism, racism, homophobia and any other kind of prejudice comes from creating and emphasising differences between people which ignore our common humanity. It’s not easy, though, to extend common humanity to include Nazis or Holocaust deniers…