In 1992 a group of Jewish socialists came together to write an Anti Nazi league pamphlet, “Holocaust Denial: The New Nazi Lie”, in response to the rise of Holocaust deniers, and in particular the British Nazi, David Irving.
The emergence of Holocaust Denial in the 1990s was not a coincidence. The British National Party (BNP) was making advances, as were Nazis elsewhere in Europe.
In 1993 the BNP won a council by-election in the Isle of Dogs, east London, and in the same year black teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered near the BNP HQ in Welling, south London.
The ANL mobilised to picket and demonstrate at every talk and meeting Irving held and tens of thousands marched on the BNP’s Welling headquarters.
By the mid-1990s the Nazis were on the retreat. The BNP lost their seat in the Isle of Dogs and their Welling HQ was shut down.
Then in 1996 David Irving launched a libel action against the American Holocaust scholar, professor Deborah Lipstadt.
In her book, Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt rightly labelled Irving as a Nazi apologist who perverted facts and manipulated evidence to support claims that the Holocaust did not take place.
Denial, with Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt and Timothy Spall as Irving, is the film of the trial and the controversy surrounding it. It will be released on Holocaust Memorial Day, 27 January.
It is a film to see.
First, for those not versed in the trial, all the courtroom scenes that form the centrepiece of the film are scripted verbatim from the trial transcripts.
The trial scenes are compelling. Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkinson as Lipstadt’s barrister Richard Rampton, play their parts with real effect.
However, the real drama of the courtroom flows from the legal strategy the defence team pursue.
Irving’s contempt for survivors and determination to humiliate them is clear at the opening. Heckling Lipstadt at her press launch he declares: “I say to you quite tastelessly, that more women died in the back seat of senator Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz.”
Rampton argues with Lipstadt, “This case is happening to you, but it is not about you.” He was right. Irving wanted to rehabilitate Hitler in order to rescue a contemporary Nazi project. Lipstadt was just the vehicle.
The defence team refused to let Lipstadt or the survivors stand to testify. This too was a political question.
Irving’s intention was to turn the trial into a farce with Lipstadt and the survivors as comic extras. As Lipstadt declares in the opening scene, there is no historical debate to be had with deniers of history. Lipstadt rejected pressure by some Jewish leaders to settle.
With overpowering effect, the legal team turn the libel action by Irving into a trial of Irving himself.
The trial was a close run thing. If Irving had won, it would have been a major political victory for the Nazis.
The trial and the Anti Nazi League mobilisations ran in parallel (in the film ANL demonstrators are pictured briefly outside the court).
The fact that the Nazi label was firmly fixed on Irving and his supporters by the ANL provides an important backdrop to how Irving is identified as a Nazi apologist inside the courtroom.
Perhaps some of the scenes outside the courtroom sit a bit awkwardly, but this would be a quibble. This is a film that provides a powerful reminder of the real source of anti-Semitism and where the real enemy lies.