Jonathan Freedland interview: "Holocaust could be forgotten by history"
What happens when there is no one left alive who witnessed horrific events in history such as the extermination of millions of Jews in Nazi death camps?
In his latest novel – under the pen name Sam Bourne – journalist Jonathan Freedland has imagined a future where there is no agreed historical record thanks to a combination of post-truth politics, changes in communication and powerful forces committed to a new denialism. It’s not just a great hook for a new thriller, but a distinct possibility according to Jonathan, who fears that historical evidence is more at risk than it has ever been.
“I always thought the power of the Holocaust was what actually happened. Now I am beginning to think its power partly comes from the fact that it was in living memory,” he says. “If a Holocaust survivor can’t bang the table and say ‘This happened to me’, I worry that eventually we will be in a world where people who are motivated to say terrible things didn’t happen because they want to let people off the hook. I worry about that tremendously.”
The build up to this possibility comes from several directions. First there is the vulnerability of digital records which could become obsolete – who uses VHS tapes now? And some things have already been lost to history due to technology failure. “I spoke to someone in the archive of the British Library and he was telling me that the early internet simply does not exist,” he says. “The first four or five years have gone forever. They were not stored and the domain names lapsed and they vanished.”
Then there is the potential to delete digitally-stored data and the fact no one write things on paper any more.
Jonathan says: “People communicate by WhatsApp or by text messages that are wiped and disappear. So at that basic level it will be harder for historians to know what happened in our era.”
But it is not just the accidental loss of documents that is worrying Jonathan. Technology that can create convincing fake footage of people is close to being perfected and could be used to make ‘evidence’ of things that did not happen.
“In 100 years how will they know that 100 people at a rally isn’t just created by a computer? It is odd how people greet this technology as progress but they worry me a lot.”
Similar technology is already being used in some porn films. “There is a genre of pornography where you get celebrity faces imposed on the bodies of porn performers. These are then presented as a video of, say, Natalie Portman or Emma Watson, and their faces have been grafted onto the bodies of other people. At the moment it has been done quite badly and you would think they were fake if you looked at them, but that technology is only getting better.
“The implications are you could put Barack Obama’s face on somebody who was at a pro Al Qaeda rally 20 years ago and say ‘Look, here is the video proof’.”
In his Sam Bourne novel, To Kill the Truth, someone is trying to destroy the evidence of history’s greatest crimes. Academics and Holocaust survivors are found dead in mysterious circumstances. Museums and libraries are burning. Digital records and irreplaceable proofs are lost for ever. His heroine, the former White House operative Maggie Costello, has sworn off politics. But when the governor of Virginia seeks her help to stop the lethal spiral of killings, she knows that this is bigger than any political game.
As Black Lives Matter protestors clash with slavery deniers, America is on a knife-edge and time is running out. This conspiracy could ignite a new civil war – and Maggie has to find out who stands to gain most from the chaos.
The thing that sparked the book was a feeling that Jonathan said hadn’t troubled him for almost 20 years, since when he covered the libel case brought by David Irving against academic Deborah Lipstadt for calling him a Holocaust denier. Irving argued he could not be
one because there was no Holocaust to deny.
He implied that Nazis could have been tortured for their confessions, that he didn’t believe the Nazi paperwork that showed what was happening in the death camps and that the gas chamber buildings were in a state of disrepair and so no one could be certain what they were
Jonathan said: “I came out of court and I had the most odd sensation of sea sickness. I literally felt queasy because it was as if the ground I was walking on was unsteady. That feeling you have when you are dizzy and you can’t tread on the ground in front of you because you are not sure it is there. I realised I was having a physical reaction to a world he was showing us, which was a world where you can’t know anything; where you can’t know that Henry VIII had six wives or the Earth is round, because everything is a lie.”
That was Irving’s method and in the end he lost the case – he was completely discredited and the judge called him a pro-Nazi polemicist who doctored the historical record.
“I thought ‘Good, we have knocked that on the head,’ but the oddest thing is 16 years later with Trump and the Brexit campaign I found myself feeling that same sea sickness because people were denying actual evidence that you can see with your own eyes. For instance, the head of the UK statistics authority says the £350 million figure on the side of the Brexit bus was wrong and provided the actual figure, but they just carried on anyway. And Trump talking about the crowds at his inauguration is a perfect example where you see the truth with your own eyes but he denies it anyway.
“This idea that they are just asking you to deny what you can see with your own eyes and this is to me even beyond the stuff I was saying about technology. This is a very deeply troubling turn because there is a ready audience there who are willing to be told that things are not true.”
He blames a loss of trust in authority figures since the Iraq war, the expenses scandal and the exposure of Jimmy Saville’s crimes. “That erosion of trust in all kinds of gatekeepers is very real,” says Jonathan. “Once your audience is prepared to believe there is an elite who are hostile, that can be quite an appealing narrative that life is tough for you because there is a mysterious elite who are designing things to be bad for you. That can be very powerful because it means you can never be wrong.”
He adds it will eventually be up to us as consumers of news and social media to use trusted media sources to get our information.
“People used to know how to do that. They knew the difference between a dodgy newsletter handed out in the pub and the BBC. Just as people are careful about the hygiene of their homes or the quality of water in their taps or the food they buy, people need to look at the quality of their information supply.”
Jonathan Freedland is the keynote speaker at the Wimpole History Festival on June 23 at 6pm. Tickets £12. Box office: wimpolehistoryfestival.com/whatson/jonathan-freedland.
More by this authorAlex Spencer