Confronting the extent of Holocaust denial proved an emotional journey for Jewish comedian David Baddiel. Gemma Dunn speaks to him about his challenging new documentary.
As any visitor to Auschwitz will tell you, it is that small pieces of evidence of the Holocaust that collectively prove the most shocking – from the thousands of shoes and suitcases belonging to those killed to the letters of camp administrators dealing in matter-of-fact language with chilling details such as how many prisoners could be transported to the site by train.
But despite a vast array of documentary evidence, 75 years on from the liberation of the camps, what is driving Holocaust denial back onto the political agenda?
This vital topic is explored in Confronting Holocaust Denial With David Baddiel, a timely and important film which will investigate the history and modern face of this phenomenon.
And according to Baddiel, the BBC Two special – part of a range of content marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – couldn’t come at a better time.
“I would say the primary [reason] is the sad fact that most of the survivors are dying; there’s no way to varnish that,” begins the Jewish comedian, 55. “I don’t know what the figures are but I know that there are fewer and fewer and so the living testimony is slipping away,” he says poignantly. And at the same time, culture is shifting in all sorts of ways...”
Baddiel adds: “What I grew up with, as a certainty, is the Holocaust happened and it’s a thing that we always have to remember and take seriously. So I think the film is trying to say, ‘OK, what marker can we place on that shifting sand?’”
Baddiel is talking at the end of an inevitably emotional screening – a 60-minute edit (cut down from 80-plus hours of footage, he says) that sees him not only talk to a survivor, but also academics, historians and even a denier.
The latter not being an easy decision to make. “The film exists at a time when there’s a lot of talk about the rights and wrongs of how you debate things that might be undebatable,” he reasons. “Not just the Holocaust, but climate change denial and that kind of thing.
“We’re at a period in history where untruths have a lot of power and so being charged with the process of talking about Holocaust denial, how do you do it? My position was always, ‘I’m not going to make a film which is just me with a bunch of Holocaust deniers, trying to convince them that they’re wrong. But it might seem somehow foolish, cowardly, not to do that at all.”
“But I should say I was incredibly discomforted by the idea of having to do that,” he confesses. “But how do you then take on Holocaust denial?”
The figure Baddiel goes on to meet is Dermot Mulqueen, a staunch Holocaust denier from Ireland, who has in excess of 7,000 followers across his social media platforms. It’s a meeting that’s initiated by an understandably uncomfortable handshake.
“I’m not nervous about doing things in my life, but I felt very nervous about that because it just touches on a very deep part of me,” he admits. “My mother was born in Nazi Germany, my grandparents just got out in 1939, so I’m only here by the skin of my teeth,” he continues. “And as I grow older, the reality of that becomes more clear to me.
“So I find a great sadness but also a rage in me when I think about people saying it didn’t happen, and I feel a little bit out of control about how I’m going to react to it, which is weird when you’re making a TV programme.”
Although he didn’t necessarily go in there trying to change opinions, he states.
“One of the things about conspiracy theorists is they will convert anything you say into their own truth,” notes Baddiel, who was advised not to meet Mulqueen by renowned historian
Deborah Lipstadt, who widely believes that to debate the subject is to denigrate the memory of the victims and the event.
“I also thought it was important for people to see the ludicrousness of his position, but as the film shows I did get drawn in, in a way that I don’t believe in,” he accepts. “But it’s really hard once someone is spouting facts at you, to try and not refute them and keep the discussion about, ‘Why are you doing this?’”
He follows: “There’s this thing on the internet which is, ‘Don’t feed the trolls’ – now I don’t agree with that to some extent because I think our culture is being shaped by the troll and ignoring them has not worked!
“It doesn’t mean that confronting them will work completely,” he’s quick to point out, the film also documenting a meeting Baddiel has with Facebook’s director of public policy, Richard Allen, in a bid to berate the platform for allowing posts promoting denial to be shared on its site.
“But it is a debate that we have to have, because we no longer live in a culture where what is spoken about and what truths are told and what lies are told are objective any more.
“So my personal feeling is you have to try and take them on, but I was trying to do that in a judicious way.”
Is he concerned that the film could fan the flames? “I got some traffic when the BBC mentioned it as part of the new season and I’m sure I will when it comes out,” says the father of two. “But when I say I’m concerned about that, what I mean is I need to express it – not that this is a reason not to make the film.”
“Hopefully finishing on the actual reality of what actually happened, you reach a place of resolution,” he says in reference to the final scenes, which include emotional first-hand testimony from survivor, Rachel. So if you watch the whole film, the one thing you won’t do is fan the flames.”
When it was announced that Baddiel was making the documentary as part of a series of BBC programmes to mark the 75th anniversary, a spokesman for the corporation said the programme would “shed light on a very 21st century malaise – the denial of historical fact. For many, even to explore the phenomenon of Holocaust Denial is to unlock a box marked ‘do not open’. But this film will suggest that exploring this archetype of lies, conspiracy theory and fake news could deepen our understanding of our post truth world.”
Baddiel has faith it will spread “awareness of the truth” and educate those – a reported one in six people – who don’t know about the Holocaust or don’t believe it happened the way in which it did. “It was very important to me that we understood Holocaust denial not to be just these strange men who say it didn’t happen,” he concludes. “The Nazis were involved, the British were involved, and there are different types of Holocaust denial all over the world... So I hope by bursting the bubble and saying, ‘We can talk about it, in a careful way’ – I mean, who knows if we got everything right? It’s so complex – will inform and defend the truth of the Holocaust.”
Confronting Holocaust Denial With David Baddiel will air on BBC Two on Monday, February 17.
Baddiel’s live tour coming to Yorkshire venues
In addition to his new television documentary, David Baddiel is currently touring his comedy show Trolls: Not Dolls.
The concept of the show sees him discussing his battles with internet trolls who abuse strangers and celebrities online and the “dark, terrible and hysterically absurd cyber-paths” that interacting with them has led him on.
A spokesman says it is a show intended to “say something about how we live now”.
The show is at Doncaster Cast tomorrow night, Hull City Hall on Friday, Harrogate Theatre on Saturday, Sheffield City Hall on February 28 and York Grand Opera House on April 5.
For more information, visit www.davidbaddiel.com/live.