As I stated in my review of “Barry” on Counterpunch, this is the time I begin to receive those middle-brow films that Hollywood studios submit for consideration to members of New York Film Critics Online for our annual awards meeting in early December. Like “Barry”, “Denial” is just one of those films—a holocaust movie that is inevitably greeted as an object of reverence. It deals with the Deborah Lipstadt-David Irving trial that took place in England twenty years ago and that was now a blur in my mind even if I certainly understood that the film would depict holocaust denier David Irving as a villain. I also understood that he would get his comeuppance in the film just as happened in the actual trial.
My aversion to holocaust movies was like that of British playwright David Hare who once wrote:
I have no taste for Holocaust movies. It seems both offensive and clumsy to add an extra layer of fiction to suffering which demands no gratuitous intervention. It jars. Faced with the immensity of what happened, sober reportage and direct testimony have nearly always been the most powerful approach.
As it happens, David Hare wrote the screenplay for “Denial”. As I will explain, his decision flowed from some very unusual aspects of the trial but before that I should give you some background. Since you are probably aware that Europe has some very stringent laws against holocaust denial, including a three-year prison term that Irving once received in Austria in 1992 (he was released after serving one year), you might assume that it was Irving who was on trial. However, in this instance Lipstadt was the defendant. Irving was suing her and Penguin publishers for libel. Lipstadt’s 1993 “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory” was a scorching rebuttal of Irving and other deniers, including Robert Faurisson who Noam Chomsky defended on a free speech basis.
After Faurisson was relieved of his duties at the University of Lyon, Chomsky signed a petition on his behalf. He argued that if MIT scientists could conduct research even if it was used to “massacre and destroy”, why would the right of a professor to earn a living be denied even if he was guilty of nothing except of defending such practices in his spare time. Going beyond the free speech criterion, Chomsky’s added: “I have nothing to say here about the work of Robert Faurisson or his critics, of which I know very little, or about the topics they address, concerning which I have no special knowledge” raised hackles, as did his characterization of Faurisson as “a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort”.
This led French Marxist antiquities scholar Pierre Vidal-Naquet to write a pointed reply to Chomsky. Even on free speech grounds, he found the petition dubious. It stated that Faurisson had been prevented from conducting research in public libraries and archives, an allegation that Vidal-Naquet found baseless. Furthermore, Faurisson’s books on the holocaust have been published without interference and he has given interviews on two occasions to Le Monde. Addressing Chomsky in sorrow just as much as anger, Vidal-Naquet writes in “Assassins of Memory”:
The simple truth, Noam Chomsky, is that you were unable to abide by the ethical maxim that you had imposed. You had the right to say: my worst enemy has the right to be free, on condition that he not ask for my death or that of my brothers. You did not have the right to say: my worst enemy is a comrade, or a “relatively apolitical sort of liberal.” You did not have the right to take a falsifier of history and to recast him in the colors of truth.
Even though Lipstadt was on trial, she was never called as a witness. Since she was probably the world’s leading expert on holocaust denial, why not call on her expertise? In “Denial”, a book timed to the release of the film that reprises her 2006 “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” with new material, Hare explains her absence from the witness stand and what challenge that posed to his screenplay. Her lawyers had decided that if she was a witness, Irving would have the license to force her to dredge up rebuttals to every detail of his own toxic take on concentration camp history. Despite her absence from the witness stand, her chief counsel Richard Rampson (played ably by Tom Wilkinson) shredded Irving’s credibility with an obvious mastery of the facts.
For Hare, the facts of the case made it difficult for Rachel Weisz, who was playing Lipstadt, to make a bravura performance in the final scene as we have become accustomed to in courtroom dramas such as Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia” or Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Her character—to be honest—was written and directed as if she were an annoying and intrusive presence getting in the way of the defense attorney’s winning strategy. It was also a directorial mistake to have her speak in a grating Queens accent that New Yorkers will be all too familiar with, even if that is the way the real Deborah Lipstadt speaks.
In addition to Rampson, Lipstadt relied on the pro bono services of Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who had written “T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form”, a book based on his PhD dissertation. Julius’s degree was in literary theory even though it was pursued more as an avocation than anything else. Played by Andrew Scott as a somewhat imperious figure, he not only opposed Lipstadt taking the stand but having holocaust survivors testify as well. He thought they would be traumatized by Irving’s aggressive and hectoring style.
Irving himself is played against type by Timothy Spall, a British character actor generally assigned likable roles such as the wizard Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films. It reminded me of Patrick Stewart playing the neo-Nazi gang leader in Jeremy Saulnier’s “The Green Room”. As is generally the case with Spall, his performance was outstanding. He captured Irving’s reptilian character as if he came out of a crocodile’s egg.
I recommend “Denial” without qualifications both for its intrinsic interest as a sober and informed account of a deep-seated malaise that will find fertile ground now that ultraright tendencies are given full rein. It is also a first-rate film benefitting from David Hare’s artistic and political assets. Along with Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill, Hare is a voice of the British left theater. In 1983 I saw a performance of his “Plenty” on Broadway about the disillusionment of a woman who had worked for the French Resistance in WWII and who had never adjusted to bourgeois society once returning to civilian life. It is the greatest play I ever had the pleasure of seeing on Broadway.
A Guardian review of his lecture collection titled “Obedience, Struggle and Revolt” notes:
The title of the volume comes from a Balzac quotation, listing the three paths in life available to the young. Obedience, he said, is dull, revolt is impossible and struggle is hazardous. Of those outcomes, it is clear that Hare fears dullness the most. He grew up in the 1950s, an era ‘stupefyingly uninteresting and conformist’. Hare’s commitment to forging social change, while fed by left-wing doctrine along the way, was clearly born of revulsion at the torpor of postwar Britain. Nothing is more dangerous in his eyes than the ease with which our society slips back to a default position of supine deference to the establishment.
Notwithstanding Marine Le Pen’s banishing her father from the National Front for holocaust denial and other anti-Semitic affronts that undermine her ambitions to rule France, such views are still promoted by Jobbik in Hungary. The UKIP in Great Britain has formed a bloc with Polish holocaust deniers to secure seats in the European Parliament.
Despite Putin’s reaching out to groups like Jobbik and UKIP, he has criminalized holocaust denial in Russia. His close ally Boris Spiegel introduced the bill that became law in 2013. One might consider Spiegel’s understanding of genocide as flawed based on his accusing Georgia of this crime during the 2008 South Ossetia War, another one of those flare-ups in which the Kremlin reasserts its imperial privileges.
As for Trump, who is America’s version of UKIP’s Nigel Farage, he never tweeted anything in this vein as far as I know but his foreign policy adviser Joseph Schmitz has a thing about Jews. McClatchy reported that he bragged about forcing Jews to leave the Pentagon when he was Inspector General between 2002 and 2005. He also claimed that concentration camp ovens were too small to kill 6 million Jews, per John Crane, a Pentagon official who worked with Schmitz. (The ovens were used for getting rid of corpses, not as a way of creating them.)
Probably the worst offender was Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who convened a conference on the holocaust in 2006 with invited “experts” such as David Duke and Robert Faurisson. Long before Iran intervened on behalf of Bashar al-Assad, this act was sufficient to force me to break ranks with the Islamic Republic that was being lauded as “more socialist” than Venezuela by MRZine’s Yoshie Furuhashi.
Speaking of socialism and holocaust denial, I ran into an appalling defense of David Irving on the alt.politics.socialism.trotsky (APST) newsgroup in 1998 when it was well on the way to having nothing to do with Trotskyism. A character named Neil Gardner, who claimed to support Trotsky’s Marxism, was using APST to defend Irving, Leuchter, Faurisson et al:
All dangerous authoritarian tendencies are imposed from the top down. We live in a chaotic world in which it is all too easy to misjudge events and media accounts. Degenerate tendencies within society are merely manipulated by those in power to further their ends. Neo-Nazism is a dead duck because the US and German ruling classes have for the last 50 years collaborated. Maybe we should be criticising the Germans for being too apologetic of US foreign policy. Racism and interethnic tensions remain a real threat, although we would be foolish to ignore the transformation of Western European and North American societies since the 1950’s. We are all human beings. Today the racism exhibited by our ruling class is no longer based on the colour of one’s skin (though most Blacks and Asians in the world are still significantly poorer than most Whites) but on cultural superiority. All is forgiven if one accepts American ways and believes the mainstream US media.
As the ruling class approaches a crisis of values, advocating free market economics and relentless growth and prosperity for all with obvious contradictions, fringe rightwing sects of the disillusioned millionaires begin to fill gaps but will never be embraced by international capitalism until it breaks down into warring gangs. The likes of the ADL and B-naith have everything in common with rightwing white supremacists. Their methods are the same.
In this entangled web, we should cherish free speech and open debate on all subjects. Religious fervour should be used to uphold poltically motivated propaganda. Not for the first time, the ruling classes cloak their devious actions with pseudo-progressive actions. Bombs on Afghanistan are justified by the repression of women by the Taleban. Bombs on Sudan are justified by the repression of Christian Sudanese.
Whether Fred Leuchter is a qualified bio-chemist or not, is not the issue. His thesis has not been conclusively refuted and no irrefutable evidence of the alleged gas chambers have been provided.
Before rendering my own opinion on holocaust denial, it is worth clarifying Lipstadt’s views on holocaust denial. To start with, she is opposed to all bans on its advocacy and argues that it is necessary to combat the ideas rather than making them illegal. And even more importantly, she has lashed out at Israel for using the holocaust as a justification for its persecution of the Palestinians.
Speaking to a synagogue in London in 2014, Lipstadt told the audience uncomfortable truths as reported in the Camden New Journal:
IF there is one thing the eminent world Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt isn’t – she isn’t a dry-as-dust academic.
She is not afraid of causing waves as she showed in the last few minutes of a question-and-answer session at the packed Hampstead Synagogue in West Hampstead, on Thursday when she criticised Israel over its conduct of its war on Gaza.
The professor told the more than 300 guests – among them many leading members of the Jewish community, including survivors of the Holocaust – that the Israel government had “cheapened” the memory of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews by using it to justify the war on the Palestinians. She also seemed to liken the war as an act of “genocide” against the Palestinians.
Although I believe it is important to challenge holocaust deniers as I did on APST, there is little reason to believe that people such as David Irving constitute an existential threat to Jews. Unlike the 1930s, it is the Arab and the Muslim who will be scapegoated by the ultraright as the forces of reaction grow stronger.
Last Tuesday Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a key member of Trump’s transition team who helped write racist immigration laws in Arizona and elsewhere, stated that they had discussed creating a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries.
Meanwhile Carl Higbie, a former spokesman for a major super PAC backing Donald Trump said on the following day that the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was a “precedent” for the president-elect’s plans to create a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries.
This led Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), to denounce the Trump proposal: “I pledge to you that because I am committed to the fight against anti-Semitism that if one day Muslim-Americans are forced to register their identities, that is the day this proud Jew will register as Muslim. Making powerful enemies is the price one must pay, at times, for speaking truth to power.”
This led Morton A. Klein, the leader of the Zionist Organization of America, to defend Trump as a friend of Israel and to take exception to Greenblatt’s attack on Steve Bannon as an anti-Semite and implicitly his opposition to the idea of registering Muslim immigrants:
It is painful to see Anti-Defamation League (ADL) president Jonathan Greenblatt engaging in character assassination against President-elect Trump’s appointee Stephen Bannon and Mr. Bannon’s company, Breitbart media. ADL/Greenblatt essentially accused Mr. Bannon and his media company of “anti-Semitism” and Israel hatred, when Jonathan Greenblatt/ADL tweeted that Bannon “presided over the premier website of the ‘alt right’ – a loose-knit group of white nationalists and anti-Semites.”
As someone who has been critical of the ADL, particularly when Abraham Foxman was running the group, I am willing to let bygones be bygones if Greenblatt continues his attack on the alt-right administration that while not likely to repeat the Third Reich despite its worst intentions still promises to be the most reactionary gang running the government in American history.
In the next four years, the assaults on democratic rights and the rights of minorities to live without fear from an out-of-control government will bring together many individuals and groups that have never had anything in common before. It will be incumbent on the left to think creatively about the kind of united front that eventually forced the USA to pull out of Vietnam—of course in common with the resistance itself. The Trump gang is utterly counter-revolutionary and it is up to us to forge a united revolutionary front that can stop it in its tracks.