It was disturbing to read at the weekend that one in 20 British adults do not accept the Holocaust happened and eight percent believe the scale of the genocide has been exaggerated.
This shocking survey came 40 years after Holocaust, a big-budget mini-series starring Meryl Streep, was shown around the world. It was criticised for being a melodramatic, ratings-driven exploitation of the Nazis’ unspeakable horrors. I remember watching it at the time and being deeply affected by its powerful depiction of a Jewish family’s journey from an ordinary, mundane, happy existence to the gas chambers.
I am Jewish myself and had read about the Shoah and watched documentaries like The World at War and The Nuremberg Trials. But neither of these factual films had as powerful an effect on me as the American “soap”.
The survey, conducted ironically on Holocaust Memorial Day, demonstrates why film-makers have a huge responsibility when it comes to depicting the past. One of the reasons for the appalling ignorance it exposed is the rise of fake history. Holocaust revisionism is becoming normalised on some social media platforms. Mad conspiracy theories are, in several circles, all the rage.
The good news is that no mainstream drama has, as yet, challenged the fact that more than six million Jews were systematically murdered by Hitler’s regime.
The bad news is that there appears to be a current trend towards re-inventing, or at least re-imagining, important historical events. The last two films I saw, The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots, were both hugely enjoyable period pieces. But the latter completely invented an encounter between Queen Elizabeth I and her Scottish rival – they famously never met – and the former was a sub-Blackadder romp which, although brilliantly acted, sexed up the shenanigans involving Queen Anne and her ladies-in-waiting. I am not sure Yorgos Lanthimos, director of The Favourite, should be proud of his admission that “some of the things in the film are accurate and a lot aren’t”.
As George Orwell wrote in 1984, “he who controls the present controls the past”. It is tempting to view the rewriting of history as a peculiarity of authoritarian regimes. Hungary’s nationalist prime minister Viktor Orbán praises Miklós Horthy, who cooperated with the Nazis, as an “exceptional statesman”. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan plays down Ataturk’s legacy and bigs up the Ottoman past. China bans any mention of the Tiananmen square massacre.
Yet there are worrying signs that this country is succumbing to the “charms” of fake history. Darkest Hour and The Crown played fast and loose with the truth. Channel 4’s Brexit: The Uncivil War was an unreliable account of the EU referendum campaign.
Played with his usual charm by Benedict Cumberbatch, Vote Leave strategist Dominic Cummings emerges as the unsung, visionary hero of Brexit. In a rare moment of self-doubt following the assassination of Jo Cox, Cummings worries about unleashing dangerous forces during a pub tete-a-tete with his Remain oppo Craig Oliver. Then he appears, more defiant than ever, in front of a parliamentary committee investigating his organisation’s questionable practices. Neither event, however, actually took place.
The Uncivil War’s author James Graham claims drama can “do what journalism cannot do”. In a sense he is right. The 1979 Meryl Streep TV series did a much better job than journalism in bringing the horrors of Nazi genocide into people’s living rooms. Watched by almost 20 million people, Holocaust triggered legislation which enabled Nazis to be tried for their participation in the Third Reich’s killing programmes. But drama can also distort history, promoting myths, half-truths and sometimes outright lies about past events. On my radar is Vice, a biopic of Dick Cheney. Christian Bale is a shoo-in to win an Oscar for his uncanny impersonation of George W Bush’s vice-president. The movie appears to be an unashamedly Leftist portrayal of an evil genius, a sinister figure who makes Trump look like Mary Poppins. I am a bit of a Leftist myself, but I think I’ll give it a miss.