Denial and Denial in a World Whose Truth is Doubt
Scan Amazon.com and you will see that books continue to be published about who or what caused the Great Depression. Few ask if there was a Great Depression. Arguments continue to be made against the necessity of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. No one has ever denied that those cities were, in fact, bombed. Christian anti-Semitism has been blamed for paving the road to Auschwitz. So has a neopaganism wedded to the new “science” of eugenics. No one has ever said there was no Holocaust.
Denial, a brisk, smart, and important film starring Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz, is based on the true story of British author David Irving’s libel suit against American historian Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books. When we’re introduced to Lipstadt she is addressing an auditorium packed with spellbound students, one of whom wants to know why the author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory refuses to debate one of the deniers she calls out in her book. Lipstadt responds to the effect that debate would only give credibility to the literally incredible.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
Who should pop up in the audience but the Holocaust denier in question, David Irving, decrying Lipstadt’s attacks on his scholarly integrity (he is admittedly self-educated) and offering $1,000 cash to anyone who can prove that Adolf Hitler personally ordered the extermination of the Jews.
Shortly thereafter Lipstadt receives notice that Irving is suing her for libel in a British court. That it is a British court is important. As Lipstadt is stunned to learn, the bar for proving libel is much lower across the pond and the defendant is guilty until proven innocent.
Conflict between the British legal team and Lipstadt begins early when she is told she will not be allowed to testify on her own behalf, that she will not even be allowed to speak to the press. This is no small thing for a woman named for the biblical Deborah, that counselor, warrior, and judge, someone who interrupts her morning jog to acknowledge a statue of Boadicea, the British Celtic queen who led an uprising against the Romans.
Yet Lipstadt’s lawyers are convinced that the only way to mount a successful defense against libel is to prove the offending charge true. It must be demonstrated that Irving is in fact what Lipstadt calls him in her book, a Holocaust denier and Hitler apologist. The strategy is to keep the focus entirely on Irving — his written work, public pronouncements, even personal diaries — and not on Lipstadt, or anyone else.
This latter point is important because Lipstadt is approached by a Holocaust survivor and told she must allow eyewitnesses to testify, to give voice to the dead. The defense team, however, is insistent: survivors will not testify, because that is to put them on trial and to subject them to Irving’s mockery. Lipstadt acquiesces, showing that sometimes it takes extraordinary strength to surrender to experts, to trust in the good will and experience of others.
Irving’s Deliberate Falsifications
The parts of the trial that are dramatized consist mainly of Irving, who has forgone professional counsel, confronting the defense’s experts, challenging them to account for gaps in their reconstruction of the events at Auschwitz. The defense counters with videotapes of Irving’s speeches and a telling diary entry that make him out for the racist and anti-Semite he clearly is.
One of the keys to proving Irving’s deliberate falsification of the data, however, and therefore his bad faith, is a particular quote from Rudolf Hess, which Irving translated to suggest that the Jews were being ordered by Hitler to safety in 1944 and not to destruction. An expert witness demonstrates that this was a terrible mistranslation. But was it a mere mistake owing to a hasty reading of a freshly procured document, as Irving claims, or a deliberate falsification?
At one point we’re shown video of a historian quaking at the prospect of his work being called before the bar as Irving’s is. Whose work could stand up to that kind of penetrating public scrutiny? Can any scholar prove that bias has played no role in his or her exposition of historical data? Don’t even facts need interpreting?
It was not until 2000, four years after Lipstadt was served with legal papers, that the now world-famous “denial” trial came to an end with a 335-page written judgment by Justice Charles Gray. If I have a quibble with the film it is that at no time are we given so much as a hint as to why the judge needed so much paper to explain his decision or what difficulties he had to work through at such length. (If you have not seen the film I will leave it to you to do so or to consult Google to learn the verdict.)
A Tense Story
Director Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard) and screenwriter David Hare (The Reader) keep the pyrotechnics to a minimum. That does not mean the film lacks tension.
If you are unfamiliar with the testimony that makes up much of the court dialogue, you will be asking whether Irving will prove verbally dexterous enough to sow doubt in the judge’s mind as to whether there can be two legitimate points of view when interpreting the evidence. In fact, just when you think everything is trending in Lipstadt’s direction, the judge offers what appears to be a sympathetic view of Irving’s prejudices as, strangely, exculpatory.
Both Tom Wilkinson as the barrister and Andrew Scott as the stern solicitor with a reputation for “glory-seeking” are extremely effective as legal maestros fixated on conducting the case in a very narrow way. Timothy Spall as Irving is both compelling and repellant as the unctuous, exhibitionist, and, yes, even entertaining neofascist.
As for Denial’s star, Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz, hers is a thankless role. Even the stones cry out for justice for the dead, but she is compelled to remain silent through much of the litigation. Yet through force of personality, Weisz gives weight to Lipstadt’s principled stance and life to her frequent closed-door demurrals, without ever sounding desperate or weak or petulant.
As the film wraps up, Lipstadt holds a press conference in which she contends that free speech has not been threatened because of the trial, but neither does it protect a liar from having his fabrications challenged. After all, there aren’t two sides to every issue. Some things just are, she argues: the Holocaust happened, slavery happened, the Earth is round, Elvis is dead — and the ice caps are melting.
The Equivalent of a Denier
That last declaration will no doubt send shivers down the spine of some, given that anyone who doubts that anthropocentric climate change is real or catastrophic is now being equated with a Holocaust denier. Irving claims in court that the epithet “denier” is the equivalent of a “verbal yellow star.” As inappropriate as his use of that imagery is, you get the point.
But is catastrophic, human-induced climate change as undeniable as the Holocaust? For that matter, what about the Darwinian mechanism? Are proponents of intelligent design “science deniers”? How about those who deny the scientific consensus regarding fetal viability? Some say science cannot determine when life begins. Others beg to differ.
What about the claim of “mythicists,” those professional atheists who insist Jesus of Nazareth never existed but is a patchwork of Old Testament prototypes and wishful thinking? Christian scholars roll their eyes at that one, and not only Christian scholars.
Can we agree that every generation should not have to prove that the earth is a sphere and revolves around the sun? But how about proving the safety of vaccines, which have eradicated such horrors as polio and mumps? Jill Stein, Green Party candidate for president, is being accused of “vaccine denial,” especially by those solidly on the left.
The Ottoman Turks killed 1 to 1.5 million Armenian Christians. Turkey denies this, arguing that the number of dead has been greatly exaggerated, and any way, the Ottomans were justified because of an alleged Armenian-Russian alliance. Western leaders generally avoid the g word, lest they antagonize a NATO ally. Yet Germany has declared it will recognize the slaughter as genocide, and France recently saw legislation introduced into its parliament that makes “Armenian genocide denial” a crime.
So what is history and what is politics? What is settled science and what is just big business or propaganda?
What About the Present?
And if the past can be hauled before the bar of justice, what about the present?
Statues and portraits are being removed from college campuses because they celebrate men who held “racist” views. At what point does the eradication of racism and patriarchy mean the eradication of the past that gave rise to them? Should all history be rewritten so as not to give offense to aggrieved pressure groups? Should the achievements of men who held opinions typical of their era but considered hateful or vile today be bowdlerized, or effaced altogether?
And what of the protesters themselves? Activists denounce the shooting of unarmed suspects today, but in fifty years will such outrages be dismissed as politically motivated fictions, products of media-manipulated hysteria, if those “experts” have a different point of view or agenda?
In short, to deny the very existence of discrete events in the past because of their political implications is to make vulnerable controversial events in the present. Without a recoverable past, we have no reason to rely on the present or trust what we are seeing with our own eyes.
Doubt and Despair
There is a branch of philosophy dedicated to “the study of knowledge and justified belief.” But from Descartes to Pascal to Kant, philosophers have quarreled over the limits of what can be known, and whether truth is discovered or merely constructed as if it were just another ideology. If the latter is the case, then the scientific method itself is threatened.
“Doubt is the truth of our times,” one writer has said. But the Irvings of the world are not even doubters. They are conspiracy mongers, certain that everyone else is wrong not because of what they can prove, as Irving certainly could not, but because of whom they hate.
The Holocaust is historical fact. We have tens of thousands of witnesses, the Nazi’s meticulously kept records, the death camps themselves, the proceedings of the Nuremberg trials. The Holocaust denier has to make a very contorted argument to explain away all this evidence.
It’s not hard to see what the Holocaust denier is doing. But not every issue can deliver living witnesses to its cause and not every one of us has the time or expertise to study highly technical evidence to come to our own conclusions. So sometimes we must acknowledge the consensus among those much-derided elites and trust in the scientific method. And sometimes there is reason to withhold judgment. We don’t have to have an opinion on everything.
So how do we make the distinction between a conspiratorially minded “denialism” and a prudent withholding of judgment? Evidence gives its own kind of confidence, and like confidence it builds with time. What is opaque or ambiguous slowly yields to clarity. There is power also in multiple attestations, which give texture and dimension and gravity to what might otherwise be dismissed as a lone subjectivity or mere indoctrination.
Early in Denial there is a haunting scene that takes place at Auschwitz, where Lipstadt and members of her legal team examine evidence for the systematic gassing of Jews from 1941 to 1945. Appalled at the clinical detachment of those in her party, and in a moment of spontaneous devotion, the academic Lipstadt recites the traditional memorial prayer “El malei rachamim.” She must be reminded, however, that the trip “isn’t about memorializing” but about forensics. In other words, fighting for the truth is no mere act of piety, but a matter of fact.