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Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions – Anthony Julius in conversation with David Baddiel, Confronting Holocaust Denial

Posted on 10 June 2020

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

Deputy Chairman Anthony Julius, recently welcomed David Baddiel, British comedian, novelist and television presenter.

Earlier this year David's documentary 'Confronting Holocaust Denial' was shown on the BBC, which explores the multi-faceted nature of Holocaust denial - in both historical and contemporary terms. In this session, David and Anthony discuss the ideas explored in the film and the wider impact of the rise of Holocaust denial.

Anthony Julius

Let me just begin with my name, I am Anthony Julius, I am Deputy Chairman of Mishcon de Reya and I am your host today.  Today we are having a very interesting conversation I think, certainly our interviewee is a person of outstanding interest, let me introduce you all to David Baddiel, who is many things and has many accomplishments but the sharpest conjunction of those accomplishments would be in a sentence to say he is a comedian who has made a film about Holocaust Denial.  I mean let me ask you, just by way of an opening question – you have a family history which has a bearing on this subject and I am sure we will all be very interested to know so to speak, the personal before the intellectual and the political motive that led you to make this film?

David Baddiel

It’s the third film I’ve made for the BBC about Holocaust issues, gradually moving as it were away from the personal towards what you might say, the political.  My mother was born in Nazi Germany in 1939, her family, Ernst and Otti Fabian lived in Königsberg which was in East Prussia, they were from a family of industrialists, they owned a brick factory.  They lost all that and arrived here and my grandfather was interned on the Isle of Man.  My grandfather was in a concentration camp after kristallnacht and you know, most of his family was murdered and my mother I think was traumatised as a child in all sorts of ways from her experience but I think when I was young, I didn’t really understand how close that history was.  There was a greater danger now of the truth of the Holocaust getting muddied by the welter and availability of fake news, of untruth, of distortions of history.  The more I become aware of obviously the Holocaust in general but I would say my own families losses, my own families personal, spiritual, emotional, actual losses in it, the more I would want the truth of the Holocaust to be preserved and this felt to my like an important thing to do therefore.

Anthony Julius

Yes because I mean you touch on the paradox which is, which is the Holocaust is becoming indistinct to us both because it’s more distant but also because it’s being talked about a lot but in ways that are just false.

David Baddiel

Mmm.

Anthony Julius

And your contribution to, to reversing that is partly to talk about it but also to address the people who are talking about it in the wrong way, I mean that’s what drives, that’s what drove the documentary isn’t it?

David Baddiel

When we were arguing in your office and you were making a number of very valid points, I wasn’t clear myself as to what the end point of the film would be and exactly what the cogent argument against what you were saying which is essentially, leave these people alone, don’t give them any more air time or don’t give them a platform, I think it was important actually because (a) it made me challenge that within the documentary to put that conflict on the scheme but also the other reason why the Holocaust is becoming indistinct which I am sure everyone is aware of is that survivors themselves are dying and the most effective form of Holocaust denial in my opinion, of challenging Holocaust denial rather, is through listening to the stories told directly by survivors.  So for me the structure of that documentary became clear when I thought right we are going to end it with a testimony of a survivor and that will throw into relief everything that has gone before.  We will cover up all the more complicated forms, you know, we’ll go and talk about Holocaust denial in the Middle East.  We’ll go and talk to Facebook about why they allow it and then at the absolute end, absurdity, we’ll go and speak to this guy in Ireland who has all the idiot ideas about why he thinks it didn’t happen and then we’ll have the clear ringing truth of a survivor and for me if you watch the whole documentary, that’s how it works.  That’s how it brings home the truth of the Holocaust while looking at a subject that would deny it.

Anthony Julius

The difficulty I suppose is that, that the different lines into your subject are so many, I mean the engagement with the Facebook chap was extraordinary and I wanted more of that.

David Baddiel

Yeah.

Anthony Julius

The view with Ms Levy at the end was extraordinary and I wanted more of that.  The only thing that I didn’t want more of was the nitwit in Ireland and I just wondered why you kind of committed the time to his stupidity?

David Baddiel

Well there was a number of things to say about that.  As the documentary was going on we were contacted by numerous deniers who wanted me to come and talk to them and I was getting quite a lot of stuff from the production team and from the BBC saying you should meet some of these people.  I worry that if I didn’t meet any of them that there would be something a bit cowardly about the documentary that we hadn’t gone and actually seen the monster itself.  A number of people have said to me, oh why did you have that idiot, why didn’t you have someone more upstanding?  Because there are various people, somebody called Nick Kollerstrom for example who I think was at UCL.  He wrote to us, five times, to say come see me and he is in a suit and he is Professorial.  He was sacked by UCL for being a denier but nonetheless that is how he comes across right.  That clarified it to me to some extent is I don’t… why would I want someone like that?  Why would I want someone on this documentary who gives Holocaust denial some form of fake credibility?  Because I would rather have someone who demonstrates it for what it is, which is a mad phantasm that serves mainly their own psychological purposes.

Anthony Julius

There is a slight tension between wanting the Holocaust denier to expose his own stupidity by ventilating it and on the other hand the confrontation with the Facebook guy, the kind of burden of which was, why are you Facebook allowing this kind of stuff on your platform?  And I think anyone watching the documentary would share your own incredulity at the Facebook apologist when he says you know, this is not just hate speech, this is a political argument, historical arguments, we should allow it through and all the rest of it and yet it is in the same programme as an extended interview with the kind of person who would post that kind of material.

David Baddiel

You can’t stop the posting of the fake material.  What you can do is say that it isn’t true, so it is better to challenge it and show it for what it is than to pretend it isn’t happening or whatever.

Anthony Julius

Do you think trips to concentration camps should be essential, required for school children and would that go some way to ensuring that future generations can see that denial is simply absurd?

David Baddiel

My son who is now 15, but when he was 14 I think or maybe even 13, went with his school to Auschwitz and it made a big difference.  You know, the work the Holocaust Educational Trust does is all about that, it is all about trying to get kids who are just coming in to a deeper understanding of how the world works to understand the Holocaust as a very important awful chapter.  I mean my own sense is that going to Auschwitz is the best way to feel the emotional impact of the Holocaust.  One thing I did do on that documentary as well which you may remember, is I started it actually at Chelmno.  One thing that the emphasis on Auschwitz does is it is almost a form of denial in its own way.  It is a denial of the other places and the other people and the enormous amount of people who died at Chelmno or Sobibor or Belichick or Treblinka, they get a little forgotten and we just have to bear that in mind that the memory of those other places is not forgotten but to answer the question, yes I think it’s a good thing.

Anthony Julius

What was your sense at the end of the documentary about how it had affected your general orientation towards the subject?  Is it possible do you think to immerse yourself in this crap and come out of it so to speak, clean?

David Baddiel

I felt that the documentary did a good thing, I think.  Overall it re-affirmed the truth of the Holocaust through an unusual path and I think people have seen the straight path, let’s just show you the awful stuff and look sad and this was an unusual path and it was a good thing in that sense that I think it drew people in with this contentious subject and they ended up more believing in the absolute truth of the Holocaust than otherwise.  So that was good and I felt good about it but what I would say I don’t feel good about is the ways in which things that are not true can move and I think the documentary made me more despairing about that rather than less.

Anthony Julius

In the context of the continued systemic racism in the United States, do you feel that there is some overlap between the psychology of the Holocaust denier and the typical racist?

David Baddiel

One of the things about the history of white supremacism in the United States, I mean the history of white supremacism and fascism everywhere but it is very prevalent in the United States at the moment is it is actually very anti-Semitic.  For example, at Charlottesville whenever it was, two years ago, there were a bunch of white supremacists marching with torches chanting ‘Jews shall not replace us’.  It’s not actually about Jews coming in and taking them over exactly, it is an idea called the Great Replacement Theory which is that it is a conspiracy theory which believes that Jews are masterminding the whole thing and one thing that I think is very important in terms of anti-Jewish racism, is identity politics on the left have always been confused about Jewishness, they have always been confused about anti-Semitism.  A lot of people who have spent a lot of time now being very concerned about aggressions against other minorities don’t really offer the same protections against those aggressions to Jews and that is because Jews are seen as white and it is part of my contention that Jews need to be understood as not white.  The only reason for talking about racism is to understand this is what the dangers are.  This is what the racists think and the racists do not think Jews are white.  Racists are saying ‘Jews will not replace us, the white people’ and as such they very much position Jews outside of the sphere of white people.  To answer the question, I think that our experience of racism which is different from people of colour’s experience, it’s different but we need to understand how it shares the same world for the racists, for the white supremacists.

Anthony Julius

I don’t think in the west at any rate there is a country where it is better in terms of exposure to persecution to be a black person than a Jew and so to speak going in the other direction, there isn’t, there isn’t this systemic denial of history in relation to the black experience that there is in relation to the Jewish and the history of the Holocaust.

?  Have there been any specific family law considerations as a result of Covid-19?

David Baddiel

Yeah.

Anthony Julius

And that’s a curious, that’s a curious combination of circumstances that Jews in relation to blacks are relatively advantaged but in relation to history and the kind of acknowledgement of the, of the historical reality of Jewish experience, Jews are disadvantaged.

David Baddiel

I would agree with you that whilst, you know, racism towards people of colour is kind of more straight forward and obvious and more apparent than it is for Jews.  I think that that’s not necessarily a useful way to talk about it because what I think is mainly, is that all racisms are terrible but they have differences in the way that they operate and those differences need to be understood rather than looking at a sort of league table of who suffers most because that always leads it, if anything, to the splitting of the people who offer racism when really they should be sharing their experiences against the racists.  Progressives tend to own that idea of like what is historically more important whereas racists tend to be the ones creating the other thing you talked about which is, how dangerous it is to be you know, a person of colour rather than maybe a Jew just as you walk about now in, certainly in cities in America or wherever.

Anthony Julius

I wrote a couple of books about anti-Semitism and then thinking about why I spent so much time writing about the subject, I actually felt a little embarrassed, I thought it was… I mean I do feel that something slightly ignominious about committing so much of one’s life, one’s thinking time and directing so much of one’s energies towards something so degraded as, as Jew hatred.

David Baddiel

What you have just said is intensely Jewish.  You would never hear a black campaigner against anti-black racism say such a thing.  I have a certain militancy which I find is quite unusual.  I mean it’s got… as I have been doing it and I have been doing it for the last 10 – 15 years, I have become more militant about being a Jew, I mean this is all without being in any way religious as you may know, I am a total atheist but as a Jew ethnically, partly because of the growth of anti-Semitism I become more and more militant about it, more and more out as a Jew.  Being Jewish, just as being black or being whatever is not something that people who aren’t Jewish don’t have to listen to.

Anthony Julius

Thank you so much for giving your time, I really appreciate it.

David Baddiel

It’s a pleasure, thank you Anthony, lovely to speak to you all, stay safe.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.

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