Denial – A Movie Review Part I
Last evening, I did not attend the community memorial to Shimon Peres. I intended to do so. But I went to an afternoon movie to see the film, Denial. Directed by Mick Jackson, using a script by the British playwright David Hare, the film was based, in turn, on a 2005 book called History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier by Deborah E. Lipstadt. That volume recounted Lipstadt’s legal defence against three charges of libel allegedly contained in her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust. The Growing Assault on History and Memory.
The suit was brought against her by David Irving, the so-called English military historian and Nazi sympathizer whom Lipstadt had described in her 1993 book as one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial. In his statement of claim against Lipstadt (as well as the publisher, Penguin Books), Irving cited Lipstadt’s descriptions of Holocaust deniers as those who, “misstate, misquote, falsify statistics, and falsely attribute conclusions to reliable sources. They rely on books that directly contradict their arguments, quoting in a manner that completely distorts the authors’ objectives. Deniers count on the fact that the vast majority of readers will not have access to the documentation or make the effort to determine how they have falsified or misconstrued information” (p. 111)
On p. 161, Lipstadt cited other scholarly descriptions of David Irving, specifically. “Scholars have described Irving as a ‘Hitler partisan wearing blinkers’ and have accused him of distorting evidence and manipulating documents to serve his own purposes. He is best known for his thesis that Hitler did not know about the Final Solution, an idea that scholars have dismissed. The prominent British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper depicted Irving as a man who ‘seizes on a small and dubious part particle of’ evidence using it to dismiss far-more-substantial evidence that may not support his thesis. His work has n described as ‘closer to theology or mythology than to history,’ and he has been accused of skewing documents and misrepresenting data in order to reach historically untenable conclusions, particularly those that exonerate Hitler. (Sunday Times, 12 July 1977)”
“An ardent admirer of the Nazi leader, Irving placed a self-portrait of Hitler over his desk, described his visit to Hitler’s mountaintop retreat as a spiritual experience, (Harris, 1986) and declared that Hitler repeatedly reached out to help the Jews. (Canadian Jewish News, 16 March 1989) In 1981 Irving, a self-described “moderate fascist,” established his own right-wing political party, founded on his belief that he was meant to be a future leader of Britain. (London Jewish Chronicle, 27 May 1983) He is an ultra-nationalist who believes that Britain has been on a steady path of decline accelerated by its misguided decision to launch a war against Nazi Germany. He has advocated that Rudolf Hess should have received the Nobel Prize for his efforts to try to stop war between Britain and Germany.10 On some level Irving seems to conceive himself as carrying on Hitler’s legacy.”
Canada played a role in the trial. I am not referring to the fact that Lipstadt, like Donald Trump, was born in Queens, but her father was Canadian, a possibly important element in the conflict between truth and lies. Lipstadt in her 1993 volume locates David Irving’s conversion into an outright Holocaust denier to his attendance at the trial of Ernst Zundel for hate speech where he testified for Zundel and, most importantly, was introduced to the Boston engineer of execution machines, Fred A. Leuchter, who had claimed that the chemicals used in the so-called gas chambers were intended to kill the lice on the corpses of Jews who had died from typhoid.
“In his foreward to his publication of the Leuchter Report, Irving wrote that there was no doubt as to Leuchter’s ‘integrity’ and ‘scrupulous methods.’ He made no mention of Leuchter’s lack of technical expertise or of the many holes that had been poked in his findings. Most important, Irving wrote, ‘Nobody likes to be swindled, still less where considerable sums of money are involved.’ Irving identified Israel as the swindler, claiming that West Germany had given it more than ninety billion deutsche marks in voluntary reparations, ‘essentially in atonement for the ‘gas chambers of Auschwitz.’ According to Irving the problem was that the latter was a myth that would ‘not die easily.’”
None of these quotes are cited in the movie that I can recall. However, the Leuchter argument introduced at the trial of Ernest Zundel in Toronto plays a crucial role in the movie, it is simplified and summarized when Lipstadt argues that the amount of cyanide needed to kill humans would be 20X the amount needed to kill lice. Further, as Tom Wilkinson in the role of Richard Rampton pointed out in court, why would one want to sanitize bodies that were to be burnt in a crematorium? And why would you build a shelter for Nazis 2.5 miles from their barracks?
After watching the movie, I lost my motivation to attend the homage to the late Shimon Peres, a man I admired greatly. I was in attendance at the Jerusalem auditorium when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on 20 November 1977 paid his historic visit to Israel and turned politics in the Middle East upside down forever. The visit, his talk and the subsequent negotiations led to the Camp David Accords and the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. In 1978, Sadat would justly win a Nobel peace prize for what he had set in motion. As he had said in his speech the previous day in the Knesset, “Let us put an end to wars, let us reshape life on the solid basis of equity and truth. And it is this call, which reflected the will of the Egyptian people, of the great majority of the Arab and Israeli peoples, and indeed of millions of men, women, and children around the world that you are today honoring. And these hundreds of millions will judge to what extent every responsible leader in the Middle East has responded to the hopes of mankind.”
On the stage of the Jerusalem Theatre the next day in addition to Anwar Sadat were Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Labour Party Chair, Shimon Peres. I was in Jerusalem that year as a Lady Davis Visiting Scholar at Hebrew University. The Jerusalem Theatre occasion was an opportunity to address the world press and I managed to get accredited as a journalist to get into the theatre. If you listened to the three speeches, they echoed much of what had been said the day before in the Knesset. I have not been able to locate their speeches given at the Jerusalem Theatre that day. But my recollection is very vivid – the day was so extraordinary for me.
Sadat’s speech was dramatic and very moving. The words I remember best came near the end: “Love justice and do right.” [I hope I remembered correctly and I cannot recall whether he went on to the echo the psalm and ask that right and justice be allowed to kiss.] In order for that to happen, you had to be straightforward and honest. Truth was not an end in itself, but a prerequisite to a just and peaceful world. I recall how Sadat’s speech exemplified those values.
Sadat did not try to hide the truth about the bitter enmity between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. It was not a manipulative speech, but one addressed to all Arabs and Jews as well as the rest of the people in the world to come together and win together, to win a peace instead of a war. It was also poetic as he addressed the sorrowing mothers, widows, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters for whom the ghosts of their loved ones fill the air like the raindrops in a London downpour. Use that memory, he urged, to fill your hearts with the aspiration for peace where hope transforms the world to create a new reality in which lives can blossom. For Sadat, an international agreement was not the prelude to peace, but the culmination of a radical change in attitude which requires a struggle against both the whim of indifference and egocentric personal ambition.
Sadat had chosen not to dwell on the past, not to rehearse the struggle for Arab independence from colonial rule and the perception that the Balfour Declaration and subsequent events were understood by Arabs as a continuation of colonialism that led to a history of warfare between the Arabs and Jews, between Israel and Egypt, But, while recognizing the need for Israel to be guaranteed the right to live in safety and security, he did challenge Israel to recognize the injustice to the Palestinians, to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, to withdraw from East Jerusalem and to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination. He called on Israelis and Arabs together to make Jerusalem a free and open city for people of all faiths.
How did Begin and Peres respond to this prophet of peace? Like Sadat, Begin stressed a belief in right rather than might. However, in contrast, to Sadat’s speech, Begin focused on the past. He began with the Arab rejection of Israel’s offers to live in peace with her Arab neighbours from the very beginning of the founding of the state, only to receive the response of a military attack from three sides of the many against the few. He did not carry the history forward but went back to the history of Jews expelled from their land and sent into exile. Jews never forgot their land, even for a single day, but instead longed for and prayed for return. And they never forgot Jerusalem. But also never forgot the obligation of all religions to maintain and visit their holy sites, something that had not been allowed during the nineteen years of Arab control of the city. Then he dwelled on the Holocaust. For before Sadat addressed the Knesset the previous day, Begin had accompanied him to Yad Vashem. Never again! Israel had been built on the pledge, “Never again.”
Peres took a different course than either Sadat or Begin. Though he too believed in hope rather than cynicism, though he too knew that the past had to be recalled lest it be repeated, though he, like Begin, reiterated the commitment of all Israelis to peace, he stressed that a common past bound Arabs and Jews together and so would the aspirations for a great future, but Peres, ever the pragmatist, focused on the present. He began by recognizing Sadat’s courage in an Arab world hostile to Israel to travel to Israel and, specifically, to Jerusalem. He insisted that, in seeking peace and entering into negotiations, Israelis would accept this as a new beginning, a new start, where it would be necessary for Israelis to free themselves from pre-conceived notions.
On the other hand, Peres was brutally frank. He said that he disagreed, not with the aspirations for peace, but with much of the substance of Sadat’s opening position. But negotiations start with differences and only proceed if each party listens to the other and tries to forge a compromise. Sadat’s courage in coming to Jerusalem was proof that negotiations could now proceed on a new foundation so that with patience, a peace agreement might be forged. He then went on as a total realist, without circumlocution or deceit, to outline Israel’s opening position and then to list the actual steps that would have to be taken to achieve peace.
In the movie, Denial, the theme is not about how enemies can come together to forge peace, but how allies have to come together and make compromises in a peaceful way in order to expand the realm of peace and justice. That is where the dramatic tension is, not between the liar and falsifier versus those concerned with truth. In that case, there is no room for compromise, but one side must win.
With the help of Alex Zisman