Confronting Holocaust denial: “History is more of a battleground now than ever” says David Baddiel

As many as one in six people worldwide either deny the Holocaust happened or believe that it has been exaggerated. Here, David Baddiel tells HistoryExtra about his new BBC documentary which explores Holocaust denial and considers how the internet is providing fresh ground for this historical battle…

Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel (Image by Wall to Wall Media/Laurence Turnbull)

This year marks 75 years since the Allies liberated the death camps of the Second World War. Vast amounts of evidence exists to show how the Nazis systematically targeted Jewish people. So why do so many people – as many as one in six worldwide – either outright deny the Holocaust took place or see it as an event that has been overstated? How has the picture of the past become so skewed? And how much does it matter?

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These are questions that David Baddiel addresses in a one-off documentary, Confronting Holocaust Denial With David Baddiel (BBC Two, 17 February 9pm). The programme sees the comedian and presenter exploring Holocaust denial – both its history and its contemporary manifestations. Along the way, as well as meeting those promoting better understanding of the past, Baddiel meets a Holocaust denier. Here, he tells us about the programme…

(Image by Wall to Wall Media/Laurence Turnbull)
“Holocaust denial won’t go away if we ignore it,” says David Baddiel. (Image by Wall to Wall Media/Laurence Turnbull)

Jonathan Wright: What initially drew you to this subject?

David Baddiel: I was asked to do [the programme] by the BBC, and was initially uncertain, the primary issue being whether or not a documentary such as this gives deniers a platform and legitimacy. But when dealing with difficult and complex subjects, my approach has always been to explore rather than ignore. And we are at a particular moment in history when it’s sort of impossible to ignore various discourses and ideas that we – by we, I mean, those who believe in some kind of objective historical truth – might prefer to.

So my feeling – and indeed the empirical fact – is that Holocaust denial won’t go away if we ignore it and therefore it’s better to confront it, and at some level try to understand it. That was my mission in this film.

I also felt that if we’re commemorating 75 years since the end of the Holocaust that the most important thing is to keep the truth and the memory of that alive, and actually, this was a way of doing that which was energetic and spiky, in a good way.

The most important thing is to keep the truth and the memory of the Holocaust alive

How much did researching your own family history have an influence?

Well, without doubt one reason why denial speaks to me – in a negative way, I mean, as something I want to fight – is because of the truth of my own family, which I’ve lived with all my life. It’s not just the fact that my German grandparents lost everything and, with my mother, only just escaped with their lives, but the fact, which I understood more from my own research and from doing Who Do You Think You Are?, that so many other family members didn’t make it.

Zyklon-B gas containers
Zyklon-B gas containers, used to kill Jews, at Auschwitz’s museum. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

How much does the deaths of those with first-hand memories of the Holocaust play in here? These accounts carry a power that is being lost.

I think it’s very important. There are fewer and fewer survivors alive to tell the story every year, and with the death of living testimony comes the spectre of untruth having more power. That is why we actually end the documentary with an extraordinary interview with Rachel Levy, who was in Auschwitz and Belsen.

David Baddiel and Rachel Levy, a Holocaust survivor
David Baddiel and Rachel Levy, a Holocaust survivor. (Image by Wall to Wall Media/Laurence Turnbull)

Is Holocaust denial about something more than anti-Semitism?

I think it’s a way of providing identity, often for somewhat insecure men. Holocaust deniers – whether besuited and professorial like David Irving, or the modern offensive meme-posting ones on the internet – want to feel that they are bravely anti-consensual, that they can say “Aha! I know something you don’t, I haven’t had the wool pulled over my eyes like the rest of you!”

Holocaust deniers want to feel that they are bravely anti-consensual

For some, the bolstering of identity comes with the mere fact of causing offence, in a kind of immature punk way. For others, it’s a faux-intellectualism. I have long said that conspiracy theory is how idiots get to feel like intellectuals, and Holocaust denial, with its endless fake literature of tables and gas concentrations and titrations and crematorium architecture provides an archetypal form of that.

 

At the risk of ranking the degree of Holocaust denial, is Holocaust denial primarily a problem of the so-called Anglosphere? Or is it more dangerous and widespread elsewhere, in an Eastern Europe turning right, for example?

It has different elements depending on where it is. I’m not quite sure where the Anglosphere is, but European and American deniers tend to be now a mix of the old-style faux-historians like Irving with the newer internet trolls, so that the websites – which obviously count much more than books now – will be a weird mix of fake history and calculated-to-offend memes. In Eastern Europe it’s about one form of what [historian] Deborah Lipstadt calls ‘soft denial’, which is not a denial that the Holocaust happened but a shifting of the history to suit a present political national-building purpose.

In my documentary I go to Lithuania and examine how that is happening presently around Jonas Noreika, an anti-Soviet partisan hero much admired by Lithuanian nationalists but who was also a Nazi collaborator. Meanwhile in the Middle East it’s also different, and I speak to Gilbert Achcar – a Lebanese political scientist and writer of the book Arabs And The Holocaust – about that, about how in that part of the world it’s much less of a fake history and more of a political cry.

The interpretation of history is always a battleground but, reflecting on the documentary, what are your thoughts on just how much of a battleground?

I think it’s more of a battleground now than ever. History is always a story that we tell ourselves, and so obviously it’s always been influenced – by the winners, we know, but also by trends and new interpretations, etc. It is dynamic, and not fixed. And that’s good. But now, that fluidity has become something else, as history becomes something which can be manipulated technologically, and thus something as deeply and radically true as the Holocaust can be made into ‘fake news’. So, the battle is more difficult, and less about interpretation and more about truth versus lies, I think.

Do we need to think of Holocaust denial as somehow different from anti–Semitism of earlier ages?

In some ways, but not in others. I’d say the key thing about anti-Semitism is that Jews are the only objects of racism who are imagined by the racists in a double-status way. That is, Jews –like all other objects of racism – will be considered by the racists as low, as vermin, as thieves, as liars, etc. But they will also – and this is I think unique to Jews – be thought of as high, as in control of the world, as privileged, as powerful, as secret puppet-masters etc.

That dichotomy was behind all anti-Semitism down the ages and culminated in the Holocaust. Holocaust denial actually says the same thing; it says the Jews are liars, they are scum, but also, they perpetrated on the entire world this massive con trick, which would have required immense power, deviousness and control. So it perpetuates the basic dichotomy in a new form.

Confronting Holocaust Denial With David Baddiel airs on BBC Two at 9pm on 17 February 2020.

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Jonathan Wright writes the TV and radio previews for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed.