A Comedian Confronts Holocaust Denial. Seriously

David Baddiel offers a timely glimpse into a truly troubling phenomenon

David Baddiel at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.
BBC/Wall to Wall Media Ltd/Laurence Turnbull

David Baddiel is many things. He is a writer, comedian and television presenter, who is well on his way to becoming a British institution. And he is, as his one-word Twitter biography informs us, a Jew. What he is not – or, at least, had previously shown no signs of being – is a documentarian.

So, when the BBC announced that Baddiel – much of whose extended family was wiped out in the Holocaust – would be fronting an hour-long documentary on Holocaust denial, eyebrows were raised.

Could a comedian – albeit one who uses witheringly sarcastic humor to respond to anyone who attacks him on social media platforms with anti-Semitic tropes or worse – produce a serious documentary about one of the most pernicious phenomena of the age? True, Baddiel is currently touring a one-man show, “Trolls: Not the Dolls,” in which he talks to audiences about his experiences of Jew-hatred on Twitter and Facebook. But could he translate what is essentially a lecture – admittedly a funny and engaging one – into a watchable television program?

The answer, in the best Jewish tradition, is “Yes and no.”

Baddiel starts by setting out what he hopes to achieve. He wants an answer to a question that troubles many: Why do so many people – as many as one in six worldwide, according to polls – either outright deny that the Holocaust took place or see it as an event that has been overstated?

His journey to answer that question takes him from the Chełmno extermination camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, where he discovers the lengths that the Nazis went to in a belated effort to cover up their crimes, to North London, where he meets one of Britain’s last-remaining survivors.

He also has an obligatory meeting with Deborah Lipstadt, considered by many to be the most preeminent scholar of the Holocaust, Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. Famously, of course, Lipstadt was sued by David Irving, the self-described ‘Holocaust revisionist,’ for calling him a Holocaust denier. She won her case, which was subsequently turned into a movie starring Rachel Weisz.

In tracing the origins and spread of Holocaust denial, Baddiel inevitably ends up in the offices of Facebook, where Holocaust denial is rampant and which has highly controversial guidelines for removing hate speech. Meeting with Facebook’s director of public policy, former British parliamentarian Richard Allen, Baddiel berates the platform for allowing anti-Semitic tropes to remain online.

Allen explains that “making a wrong statement about the facts of the Holocaust” may be allowed on Facebook. Baddiel counters that “no-one denies the Holocaust just because they’re wrong. It’s a direct way of saying Jews are liars, Jews have tricked the world for their own gain. It is hate speech. There’s no other conclusion.”

In one of the most interesting and underdeveloped sections of the documentary, Baddiel also sits down with Prof. Gilbert Achcar of the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, who explains to him the difference between European and Middle Eastern Holocaust denial. According to Achcar, one cannot, “without some degree of pathology, be a Holocaust denier in Europe. But you can be perfectly sane and be a Holocaust denier in the Middle East.”

Another form of Holocaust denial that Baddiel examines, almost in passing, is the state-sponsored rewriting of historical facts to downplay their own complicity in Nazi atrocities. The recent spat between Moscow and Warsaw is a prime example of how some Eastern European countries, three-quarters of a century after the end of World War II, are trying to alter perceptions of their roles in the Holocaust. Baddiel visits Lithuania, where the controversy over national hero Jonas Noreika’s collaboration with the Nazis has been raging.

Throughout the program, Baddiel deliberates over whether to meet an actual Holocaust denier. Understandably so. The dangers of giving airtime – or column inches – to people like that are manifest. Their views are so abhorrent that they must surely override the sine qua non of functioning societies: free speech. But, Baddiel reasons, ignoring deniers will not make them go away and, to understand them and their motivation, we must hear what they have to say.

So Baddiel goes to Ireland to visit Dermot Mulqueen, a Twitter user who responded to the BBC’s announcement of the show by asking Baddiel whether he has read “The Myth of German Villainy,” in which Benton Bradberry argues that “Holocaust propaganda” was invented to demonize the German people. The book, incidentally, is freely available on Amazon and has 104 five-star reviews.

Unfortunately, Mulqueen turns out to be something of a crackpot. Rather than presenting the coherent, pseudo—logical and therefore more-difficult-to-refute genre of Holocaust denial, Baddiel honed in on a semi-articulate ideological sponge, who has soaked up various misguided opinions and spouts them in a confused and confusing deluge. Mulqueen focuses on the technical ‘impossibility’ that, say, Jews were killed in gas chambers at Auschwitz, regurgitating semi—scienctific arguments which have been widely and resolutely debunked.

Baddiel freely admits that he is not a documentarian in the mold of Louis Theroux. He tells his viewers that he doubts he will be able to smile and nod when a denier tells him that the Holocaust is a hoax. To his credit, he does remain relatively calm, does allow Mulqueen to have his say and, most importantly, does not engage in a debate that would give credence to Holocaust denial.

“Confronting Holocaust Denial” scratches the surface of a hugely important, relevant and topical issue. Perhaps, given the enormity of the subject matter, the BBC should have allowed Baddiel more than an hour-long show to explore an issue that is very personal not only to Baddiel but to all Jews. Certainly, as an Israeli viewer, I felt that the idea of Holocaust denial as a political tool could have been expanded on.

There was room, clearly, for a deeper delve into Holocaust denial. The two minutes that Baddiel spent with Prof. Achcar were woefully inadequate. A less rushed documentary could, for example, have asked Achcar about “The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism,” by Mahmoud Abbas, in which the Palestinian president argues that the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust, as agreed upon by mainstream historians, is a “fantastic lie.”

Despite its slightness, “Confronting Holocaust Denial” is an important, timely and well-made glimpse into a truly troubling phenomenon. The fact that it was written and presented by a much-loved comedian will help to ensure that it reaches as broad an audience as possible.