Holocaust Memorial Day and Denial: Auschwitz in a post-truth age?

In January 2000 the libel trial David Irving vs Penguin Books and Professor Deborah Lipstadt began in London. In April Mr Justice Gray delivered his judgement: Irving had ‘deliberately falsified and distorted the historical evidence because he was an apologist for and a partisan of Hitler and on that account is intent on exonerating him.’ Shortly after the trial started the government announced that from 2001, 27 January (the date of the liberation of Auschwitz) would be Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Day.

This year I attended Holocaust Memorial Day’s national Commemorative Ceremony to honour refugees and survivors at which speakers alluded to the ongoing refugee crisis and recent US election. The Archbishop of Canterbury emphasised the need to welcome and provide a new ‘home’ for refugees fleeing persecution, while the Chief Rabbi stressed the importance of actions not just words.

The film Denial was released in the UK on Holocaust Memorial Day. While the Commemorative Ceremony focused on memory and giving survivors a voice, the film suggests the judgment against Irving resulted from a defence strategy that relied exclusively on ‘expert witnesses’ electing not to call survivors or Lipstadt as witnesses. The audience is invited to consider the cost to both of this enforced silencing.

The heart of the film is arguably a pre-trial visit to Auschwitz juxtaposing the reactions of Lipstadt and Richard Rampton, her QC. Her response is to pray as she identifies with and mourns the victims, whereas he approaches Auschwitz as a crime scene. Lipstadt is shown recoiling from what she considers Rampton ‘disrespecting’ the site, as he asks questions, takes notes, smokes, intent on making sense of the physical layout of the camp, the where and how, seemingly unmoved by the horror.

Despite suggesting ‘victory’ was secured precisely because this defence strategy proved so effective, the film tries to avoid ending in celebration or on a triumphant note. Irving is shown as undaunted, and we are left with a silent image of the ruins of the gas chambers in Auschwitz, as the light fades, perhaps to suggest the unspeakability of horror, and/or what was and is at stake.

The following day I read a statement by President Trump. In three short paragraphs paying tribute to ‘victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust’, pledging ‘to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good’, he did not mention Jews or any specific victim group by name.

Lipstadt condemned the text as a form of ‘soft’ Holocaust denial. In interviews in the run-up to the UK release of Denial she suggested we now live in an age of ‘alternative facts’ where opinion = fact and the ‘truth’ that is heard is the voice that shouts loudest. Within 48 hours concerns over this statement were drowned out, lost in the maelstrom of reactions to Trump’s Executive Order Concerning Extreme Vetting, which brings us back to the Chief Rabbi’s warning that while words do matter, and matter very much, it is how we act that ultimately counts.

 Dr Isabel Wollaston

Senior Lecturer in Jewish and Holocaust Studies, Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham