Yesterday afternoon I came across a reference to a film called Denial, drawing links between it’s subject and contemporary attitudes and events. The film, the Facebook post said, was about a historian who tried to deny the holocaust, but the post attempted to draw a parallel between it and Trumps attempt to rewrite history over the size of his inauguration crowd. Intrigued, I decided to look the film up, and I found what I saw very interesting indeed.
When I say interesting, in this case, I do not wish to imply the film is not troubling: what Denial deals with – the deliberate rewriting of history for political purposes – is obviously very troubling indeed. It is a BBC film from 2016, directed by Mick Jackson, which concerns a court case between Deborah Lipstadt, an American holocaust scholar, and David Irving, an arrogant holocaust denier who has built a career trying to rewrite history. Irving is suing Lipstadt for libel, accusing her of defaming him as an academic. Because the burden of proof lies with the accused in the UK, it is up to Lipstadt and her team to demonstrate that irving knowingly lied about the holocaust.
Back in my third undergraduate year at university, our cultural studies course was on Heimat, a german television series which dealt with the cultural fallout of the holocaust. Some of the background reading we needed to do touched upon the historiography of the holocaust, and the philosophy of history as a discourse. Ever since then I have been rather interested in what history actually is and how we know what happened in the past actually happened. It isn’t as certain as one at first assumes. All one has to go on are contemporary records and accounts, accounts which, of course, are invariably subjective and open to scrutiny. Rather than being fixed, then, history is open to revision and change.
When it comes to highly emotive, political issues like the holocaust, however, you can see how that can become very problematic. Bigots like irving who want to redraw figures like Hitler claim that documents confirming the holocaust were somehow falsified by the allies; they seek to let the Nazis off the historical hook. Some claim it is a jewish conspiracy made up in order to justify the creation of Israel. It then falls to people like Lipstadt to show they are actively and dishonestly trying to deceive us. History is always going to be subjective; the danger comes when people try to use that subjectivity for their own political advantage. The murder of six million jews must never be forgotten to history, but there are people who want it erased from the historical discourse in order to justify their own views. It falls to the rest of us to remain true to the overwhelming evidence and see that the past is not rewritten.
I think I can see what the post I initially came across on Facebook was getting at. Of course, holocaust denial and the size of Trumps inauguration crowd are two entirely different kettles of fish; but in both cases we find powerful forces trying to reshape and redraw what we think happened in the past, for their own ends. While you can go too far in trying to liken Trump to a Nazi, he nonetheless seems to want to dispute what the rest of us know to be fact: we all know that his inauguration crowd was nowhere near the biggest in history, and there are photographs confirming that. Like people like Irving, he would have us believe something other than what we know to be true.
In the film, David Irving is played excellently by Timothy Spall as a smarmy, obnoxious arrogant arsehole. He has a massively overinflated ego, and thinks he is far more important than he actually is. The world seems saturated with people like that at the moment, Trump, Farage and Rees-Mogg being just three. They are full of their own importance, and seem to demand a respect they are by no means owed. Thus, while it was set around twenty years ago, Denial seems to speak to the contemporary political world, about men who think they have the power and the right to reshape our perception of reality. Just as Irving was set on portraying himself as a great historian trying to rewrite history, a david against the Goliath of the political elite, twats like Farage and Trump like to depict themselves as political underdogs up against a so called liberal elite. The irony is, they are highly privileged white men out to maintain their inherited social and political dominance. Thus in irving we see a forerunner of what we see now: smarmy white male liars trying to distort reality for their own ends.
The frightening thing is, Trump and co seem to be succeeding where Irving failed. People are falling for their rewriting of history, believing what they are told rather than going back to the evidence. Hence in some areas, Trump has succeeded in rewriting history: some people believe his outrageous claims, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, just because it was Trump who said it. This strikes me as very dangerous indeed. It implies a personality cult the type of which we haven’t seen in years. Just as people like Irving go to great lengths to exonerate Hitler, so people perform astonishing acts of self delusion to believe the bullshit Trump spouts.
I daresay that may be part of what Jackson was trying to point out in making this film three years ago: the human capacity for self delusion is staggering. Yet in spite of the fact that access to information has never been so easy, now more than ever people are willing to believe what they are told against all contrary evidence, simply because they favour the person telling it. Thus the fragility of the historical discourse and the notion of historiography have never been so relevant. Certain people seem to think their gender, ethnicity and wealth means whatever they say should hold more authority than any other contribution to the discourse, historical or political. People like Irving, Trump and Farage would bend history to their own ends, perverting people’s perceptions simply to add to their own power; it is up to the rest of us to see that they don’t succeed.