What A Film About Holocaust Denial Can Teach Us About Electing The Next President

Truth can be terrifying. And the strategic denial of truth can be equally so.

At a recent film screening, I had the uncanny feeling I was watching something with critical relevance to the presidential race ― though it had nothing to do with politics.

The film ― aptly titled “Denial” ― explores the repercussions of the Holocaust and specifically, those who deny its historical truth.

“Denial” tells the true story of American historian Deborah E. Lipstadt, played by Rachel Weisz, who published a book in 1993 called “Denying the Holocaust.” In the book, Lipstadt made references to British Holocaust denier David Irving ― who later sued Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, for libel.

Lipstadt decided to fight Irving in court. The trial would be held in England, where the burden of proof rests with the accused. Lipstadt and her lawyers had to prove that Irving was, in fact, a Holocaust denier ― which, in this sad and crazy world of ours, meant they had to essentially prove there was a Holocaust to deny in the first place.

There are people alive today who witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust with their own eyes. If that isn’t enough, there’s also ample historical and scientific evidence to prove the massacre occurred.

But Irving drew “evidence” to disprove the Holocaust from the Leuchter Report, a pseudoscientific document published in 1988 that claimed the gas chambers were used only for the purposes of disinfection and fumigation.

All of this was on the table during the trial with Lipstadt and her lawyers, who were tasked with proving to the judge that Irving was an anti-Semitic pseudo-historian who bent history to suit his own racist beliefs.

Much was at stake. As Lipstadt worries in the film, the trial’s outcome could determine whether or not going forward it would be socially acceptable to believe the Holocaust didn’t happen.

“We live in a time when truth doesn’t hold the kind of weight we’re taught it does as kids.”

I won’t spoil the ending for you (though this is a historical film after all, so the trial’s outcome is a Google search away.) But suffice it to say that the Holocaust is rightly accepted as fact by all the characters in the film, except for Irving.

And honestly, I’d expect nothing less. Imagine if David Irving were just one of many truthers out there, casually believing Elvis is still alive, the world is flat and, oh yeah, the Holocaust never happened.

The scary thing is, that is the world we live in.

We live in a time when truth doesn’t hold the kind of weight we’re taught it does as kids. We live in a time when people can fashion their own personal realities out of bias and bigotry, and it’s not only acceptable to do so, but actually celebrated.

Case in point, the country is facing a first-rate liar and conspiracy theorist as a presidential candidate. The man who could become the next president of the United States is right at home with half-truths and worse ― and his supporters seem equally so.

Yep, this guy.
Yep, this guy.
Ethan Miller via Getty Images

At a screening of “Denial” in Los Angeles, director Mick Jackson joked that the eerie similarities between Irving’s and Trump’s brands of deceit might make it seem the film was thrown together in the last few months. He has a point.

Just last month a poll released by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found that a majority of Republicans ― 54 percent ― believe President Obama to be Muslim. Forty-four percent don’t think he was born in the U.S.

This is a delusion Trump himself espoused for months before finally putting the issue to rest in late September in time for the first presidential debate. President Obama, for what it’s worth, provided a long-form birth certificate in 2011 to placate hateful rhetoric surrounding his citizenship.

In a similar vein, David Irving has been known issue public challenges to anyone who could come up with a document proving him wrong. He wouldn’t believe the Holocaust happened unless he could see with his own eyes a paper ordering the execution of millions of Jews, signed by Hitler himself. (Irving later admitted that the Holocaust happened, but maintains that Hitler knew nothing about it.)

The real David Irving, holding the Polish-language version of his book "Hitler's War." Irving is brilliantly portrayed by actor Timothy Spall in "Denial."
The real David Irving, holding the Polish-language version of his book "Hitler's War." Irving is brilliantly portrayed by actor Timothy Spall in "Denial."
Kacper Pempel / Reuters

Evidence is always important when it comes to shaping our understandings of history and truth. But what motivates our pursuit of truth can make all the difference between fanning the flames of conspiracy and helping society evolve with greater wisdom.

David Irving ― who, by the way, was sent to jail in 2006 in Austria, where Holocaust denial is illegal ― operates from a foundation of bigotry. In evidence Lipstadt’s lawyers presented during the trial depicted in “Denial,” Irving was shown to have written out a children’s ditty in his journal that went: “I am a Baby Aryan/ Not Jewish or Sectarian/ I have no plans to marry/ an Ape or Rastafarian.”

Trump’s entire campaign is equally steeped in bigotry. More broadly, he operates from a place of fear, or as Vice President Joe Biden characterizes it, cynicism. Ultimately Trump believes that all systems are broken (except the ones from which he directly benefits,) and Americans are ready to hand over their power in exchange for some perceived safety.

“Come November, we will all be on trial to determine where the moral heart of the heart of the country lies.”

Had Irving won his case against Lipstadt, the world might be all the more accommodating of not only Holocaust denial, but the larger racist re-envisioning of history Irving puts into practice.

Likewise, imagine what a Trump presidency would do to legitimize the politics of racism, misogyny and cynicism worldwide?

Both Irving and Trump want us to believe we’ve been duped. Not by the white, Christian men who’ve primarily controlled western politics and society for centuries, but by Jews, Muslims, liberals, gays, African Americans, women and a host of other so-called “agendas.”

Come November, we will all be on trial to determine where the moral heart of the heart of the country lies. Will we choose denial and elect the Trumps and Irvings of the world to represent us? Or will we learn from history ― real history ― and reject isolationism in favor of promoting our collective strength?

I can only hope history will reflect the latter.

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

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