Understanding Denialism

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by Neil Godfrey

What is a denialist?

I have heard the term used to describe Holocaust deniers, creationists (the young-earth kind), climate change sceptics, anti-vaxxers, and probably some others that don’t come to mind right now. (Oh yes, now I remember. Some people apply the term to those who are not convinced that Jesus was a historical figure.)

Do all of those groups share something in common that earns them the label “denialist”? What is it that each of those ideas has that sets them apart from intellectual positions that cannot be seen as “denialist”?

With this question in mind I had a closer look at Holocaust denial. I had accidentally come across a movie about the David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt trial and that led me to reading as a follow-up . . .

  • Evans, Richard J. 2002. Lying About Hitler. New York: Basic Books.
  • Lipstadt, Deborah E. 2006. History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier. New York: Harper Perennial.

I liked Richard Evans’ book on history as a discipline and the challenges it was facing with certain postmodernist inroads, In Defence of History (1997), so I was especially interested in his reflections on his experience as the specialist historian witness in the Irving trial. (I’ve addressed aspects of Evans’ In Defence of History several times on this blog.)

Some years back I was curious to understand what Irving’s arguments were about the Holocaust so I purchased second hand copies of Hitler’s War and The War Path and was bemused. I couldn’t see what people were complaining about. I failed to realize that all the fuss was about his second edition (1991) of those books. I had read the 1977 and 1978 works.

David Irving can be considered the “father” of Holocaust denial. So what is it about his work that makes it so? I select passages from Richard Evans’ conclusions about Irving as a historian. I highlight sections I find of special interest.

Yet as I began to plow through the reviews of Irving’s books written by a wide range of historians and journalists over the years, the case he made for his high reputation among academic reviewers began to crumble. Academic historians with a general knowledge of modem history had indeed mostly been quite generous to Irving, even where they had found reason to criticize him or disagree with his views. Paul Addison, for example, an expert on British history in the Second World War, had concluded that while Irving was “usually a Colossus of research, he is often a schoolboy in judgment.” Reviewing The War Path in 1978, R. Hinton Thomas, professor of German at Birmingham University, whose knowledge of the social and political context of twentieth-century German literature was both deep and broad, dismissed the book as “unoriginal” and its “claims to novelty” as “ill-based.” “Much of Irving’s argument,” wrote Sir Martin Gilbert, official biographer of Churchill, about Hitler’s War in 1977, “is based on speculation.” But he also praised the book as “a scholarly work, the fruit of a decade of wide researches.” The military historian Sir Michael Howard, subsequently Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, praised on the other hand the “very considerable merits” of The War Path, and declared that Irving was “at his best as a professional historian demanding documentary proof for popularly-held beliefs.”

. . . .

Yet even reviewers who had praised “the depth of Irving’s research and his intelligence” found “too many avoidable mistakes . . . passages quoted without attribution and important statements not tagged to the listed sources.” (Evans, 8f)

And again, the same point:

Few reviewers and critics of Irving’s books,” Lukács complained, not without some justification, “have bothered to examine them carefully enough.” Hitler’s War contained “many errors in names and dates; more important, unverifiable and unconvincing assertions abound.” There were references to archives “without dates, places, or file or page numbers.” “Many of the archival references in Irving’s footnotes … were inaccurate and did not prove or even refer to the pertinent statements in Irving’s text.” Lukács found many instances of Irving’s “manipulations, attributing at least false meanings to some documents or, in other instances, printing references to irrelevant ones.” Often “a single document, or fragment of a document, was enough for Irving to build a very questionable thesis on its contents or on the lack of such.” (Evans, 12)

Notice an interesting observation on how a historian can create a certain illusion about his worth:

Peter Hoffmann, the worlds leading authority on the conservative resistance to Hitler and the individuals and groups behind the bomb plot of 20 July 1944, and a profound student of the German archival record of the wartime years. . . . :

Mr. Irving’s constant references to archives, diaries and letters, and the overwhelming amount of detail in his work, suggest objectivity. In fact they put up a screen behind which a very different agenda is transacted…. Mr. Irving is a great obfuscator…. (Evans, 11)

Okay, so far we are learning that Irving is not a top-class historian. (And we get an interesting insight into the lack of seriousness of some academic reviewers.) But this is far from denialism at this point.

Evans sets out Irving’s own view of professional historians. (Recall that Irving was himself an independent historian: I quoted Richard Evans’ discussion of his non-academic status and its relevance in a comment on another historian without formal qualifications in history.) Expressing Irving’s opinion, Evans writes

Historians were inveterately lazy. “A lot of us, when we see something in handwriting, well, we hurriedly flip to another folder where its all neatly typed out. … But I’ve trained myself to take the line of most resistance and I go for the handwriting.” Most historians, he averred, only quoted each other when it came to Hitler’s alleged part in the extermination of the Jews. “For thirty years our knowledge of Hitler’s part in the atrocity had rested on inter-historian incest.” Thus Irving contemptuously almost never cited, discussed, or used the work of other historians in his own books. Irving was evidently very proud of his personal collection of thousands of documents and index cards on the history of the Third Reich. (16)

Oops. Irving said the same thing I’ve quoted another historian as saying (Lazy historians and their ancient sources), so what is important is context and the larger picture. But that part I highlighted is surely of real significance. In other words, Irving was not engaging with the scholarship of his peers (as in the sense of fellow-historians). That’s worth placing on a sticky note and keeping it in a prominent place for future reference.

Richard Evans

Evans further observes that Irving’s studied distance from other historians was partly sustained by an attitude of superiority borne of ignorance of how those other historians actually worked.

Moreover, perhaps because he had not gone through such training himself, Irving seemed not to realize that the training of a professional historian in Germany, Britain, the United States, and elsewhere had long been based on the Ph.D., which required proof of mastery of all the necessary techniques of archival research and historical investigation based on original documents. From the 1960s onwards, generations of Ph.D. students from many countries had descended upon the German archives and the microfilmed editions of captured German documents available in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the Imperial War Museum, and elsewhere, and produced a mass of published research into the history of Germany under Nazism and during the Second World War that, four decades later, was almost overwhelming. The techniques of documentary investigation in which Irving presented himself as the master were in fact a normal part of the stock-in-trade of every trainee professional historian. Of course, Irving had discovered new documents and obtained new evidence, for example, by interviewing surviving eyewitnesses of the time. But this was true of a vast number of other historians too. The difference was that professional historians did not make such a fetish of it. Irving’s attitude toward new sources seemed more like that of a journalist pulling off a scoop than a professional historian just doing his job. New discoveries in this field were quite normal. Such was the vastness of the documentary legacy left by Nazi Germany—-twelve years in the life of a major, modern industrial state—that much of the archival record still remained to be worked through at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Historians also had to rely on each others work. There was nothing wrong with this, where the work relied on conformed to the accepted canons of scholarly research and rested on thorough, transparent, and unbiased investigation of the primary sources. So vast was the material with which historians dealt, so numerous were the subjects they covered, so consuming of time, energy, and financial resources was the whole process of historical research, that it would be completely impossible for new historical discoveries and insights to be generated if every historian had to go back to the original sources for everything he or she wanted to say. This need to rely on each other’s work had nothing to do with copying or plagiarism: on the contrary, the conventions of scholarship ensured that footnotes and other references were used in scholarly historical work to pinpoint precisely where the historian had obtained information, and to allow the reader to check up on this if so desired.

Irving’s refusal to consult the work of other historians was disturbing, therefore. (Evans, 18f)

This detachment from the reality of the work of academic historians led to the following howler:

Irving actually was saying that in crucial respects all other versions of the history of the Second World War apart from his own were wrong, because they were not based on “what we find in the archives.” Only ‘Real History’, history as he practiced it, was correct. (Evans, 22)

Evans as an expert witness at the trial was obliged to study Irving’s work as no other scholar had done.

Before we started work, few historians had actually gone to the trouble of subjecting any of Irving’s publications to a detailed analysis by taking his historical statements and claims and tracing them back to the original and other sources on which he claimed they rest. Doing so was an extremely time-consuming exercise, and most historians had better things to do with their time. Historians assumed that the work of fellow historians, or those who purported to be fellow-historians, was reliable in its footnoting, in its translations and summaries of documents, and in its treatment of the evidence at a basic level. They might make mistakes and errors of fact, but they did not generally deliberately manipulate and distort documents, suppress evidence that ran counter to their interpretations, wilfully mistranslate documents in a foreign language, consciously use unreliable or discredited testimony when it suited their purpose, falsify historical statistics, or apply one standard of criticism to sources that undermined their views and another to those that supported them. (Evans, 33)

Now we are coming closer to something that is surely at the root of denialism.

What was required was more than the discover of errors, though. Denialism is surely an attitude, a mind-set that goes beyond the fact of errors in a work.

In particular, even if we identified numerous factual errors in his work, deciding whether these were the result of mere carelessness, on the one hand, or deliberate falsification on the other, was obviously going to be no easy matter. For how exactly could you prove that someone had deliberately falsified the historical record? Wasn’t it all a matter of interpretation anyway? (Evans, 35)

Here’s where it might seem to become particularly difficult. It would be a dull historian who never evinced her own values at some point:

Certainly there were many historians who had strong views on a variety of political issues. It was not realistic to demand that they keep their politics out of their work. The real test of a serious historian was the extent to which he or she was willing or able to subordinate political belief to the demands of historical research. Documents and other kinds of historical evidence often threw up things that fitted uncomfortably with ones political beliefs. Both Lipstadt and Irving insisted that they were objective historians. Discovering whether or not Lipstadt s accusation that Irving falsified the record in the interests of his political beliefs became a test case of whether it was possible to pinpoint someone actually doing this and show with chapter and verse how such distortion occurred. (Evans, 35)

Deliberate falsification of the evidence was proved. To do so required a painstaking scouring of all of Irving’s works and recorded statements back years and demonstrating tendentious inconsistencies and contradictions in his work.

Irving did not lose his lawsuit because of his opinions, but because he was found to have deliberately falsified the evidence (Evans, 239)

Justice Gray

Here was the final judgment on Irving in Evans’ words:

The judge began by sugaring the pill for Irving by accepting that as a military historian he had much to commend in him. He possessed an “unparalleled” knowledge of World War II and a “remarkable” command of the documents. He was capable and intelligent and had discovered much new material. Judge Gray rejected as “too sweeping” my assessment that Irving was not a historian at all. But, he went on, the case was not about Irving as a military historian, but about his treatment of Hitler and the Jews. Here, he concluded, the criticisms of Irving advanced by the defense were “almost invariably well-founded.” In nineteen separate instances, the defense had proved that Irving had misrepresented the evidence.

Those nineteen instances can be read in the online record of the judgement: Scroll down to paragraphs 13.7 to 13.51.

The judgment had a good deal to say about what an objective historian should do. “Whilst I accept that an historian is entitled to speculate,” wrote Judge Gray, “he must spell out clearly to the reader when he is speculating rather than reciting established facts.” Irving had not done this. “An objective historian,” continued the judge, “is obliged to be even handed in his approach to historical evidence: he cannot pick and choose without adequate reason.” Irving was not even-handed. Objective historians had to take account of the circumstances surrounding the production of a document, and Irving had not. “I accept,” wrote the judge, “that historians are bound by the constraints of space to edit quotations. But there is an obligation on them not to give the reader a distorted impression by selective quotation.” Irving had not fulfilled this obligation. In sum, “Irving treated the historical evidence in a manner which fell far short of the standard to be expected of a conscientious historian.” He “misrepresented and distorted the evidence which was available to him.” It was also “incontrovertible” that “Irving qualifies as a Holocaust denier.” His denial of the gas chambers and of the systematic and centrally directed nature of the mass shootings of Jews was “contrary to the evidence.”

However, the judge went on, this was still not sufficient to justify the defense’s case. The defense had to “establish that the misrepresentation by Irving of the historical record was deliberate in the sense that Irving was motivated by a desire borne of his own ideological beliefs to present Hitler in a favourable light.” “Historians are human,” the judge noted. “They make mistakes, misread and misconstrue documents and overlook material evidence.” But in all the instances in which Irving had done these things, the effect was to cast Hitler in a favorable light. There were no instances in which his errors worked in the opposite direction. His mistakes were thus “unlikely to have been innocent.” His explanations for such errors in his work as he did concede were “unconvincing.” Moreover, the judge declared: “In the course of these proceedings Irving challenged the authenticity of certain documents, not because there was any substantial reason for doubting their genuineness but because they did not fit in with his thesis.” “His attitude to these documents was in stark contrast to his treatment of other documents which were more obviously open to question.” There was “a comparable lack of even-handedness when it comes to Irving’s treatment of eye-witnesses.”’

The judge considered that Irving’s change of stance on a number of issues during the trial when he was confronted with the documents showed his earlier “willingness to make assertions about the Nazi era which, as he must appreciate, are irreconcilable with the available evidence.” Moreover, the fact that Irving withdrew some of these concessions indicated to the judge his “determination to adhere to his preferred version of history, even if the evidence does not support it.”

The judge explained with great clarity and force why he considered that Irving had departed from the normal standards of objective historical research and writing. It was clear from what he had said and written that “Irving is anti-semitic. His words are directed against Jews, either individually or collectively, in the sense that they are by turns hostile, critical, offensive and derisory in their references to Semitic people, their characteristics and appearances.” He was also a racist, and he had associated with militant neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists. Over the past one and a half decades, he had become more active politically:

The content of his speeches and interviews often displays a distinctly pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish bias. He makes surprising and often unfounded assertions about the Nazi regime which tend to exonerate the Nazis for the appalling atrocities which they inflicted on the Jews. He is content to mix with neo-fascists and appears to share many of their racist and anti-semitic prejudices. The picture of Irving which emerges from the evidence of his extra-curricular activities reveals him to be a right-wing pro-Nazi polemicist. In my view the Defendants have established that Irving has a political agenda. It is one which, it is legitimate to infer, disposes him, where he deems it necessary, to manipulate the historical record in order to make it conform with his political beliefs.

The inevitable inference was that this manipulation was deliberate. Thus the defense had proved its case. (Evans, 226ff)

So what is a denialist? So far it would appear that a denialist is one who fails to engage with the existing scholarship and research while at the same time selecting and manipulating evidence to promote a political or ideological agenda.

Evans, Richard J. 2002. Lying About Hitler. New York: Basic Books.

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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on “Understanding Denialism”

  1. Thanks Neil for another well thought out post. You pick up on some very sensitive issues such as the holocaust. Dare one say that Hitler had cause to hate Jews ? We just have to be careful and accurate in our meanings and definitions and anticipate how others may misinterpret us. I understand that Hitler hated Jews because powerful businessmen colluded to boycott German products after the German government criticised Zionists for their role in WW1 where Jewish leaders in the US and Germany colluded to bring the US into WW1 in exchange for the Balfour Declaration granting assistance to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Just because I sympathise with Hitler’s dilema in that respect, while still regarding him as a psychpath, doesn’t make me holocaust denier. And just because I don’t believe in the human causation for climate change doesn’t make me a climate change denier or an activist against pollution and non-sustainable resource abuse. And just because I believe Jesus probably didn’t exist, doesn’t make me an atheist. And just because I don’t believe that Sadam Hussein had anything to do with 911 doesn’t make me a denier that he was a psychopath. And just because I don’t believe Bin Laden had anything to do with 911 doesn’t make me a denier that religious extremists exist. I totally agree with you that scholarship and research must prevail and we must be as introspective as we can, ready to have our biases and prejudices pointed out to us.

  2. @Neil
    Thanks for this interesting POV on Irving.

    One small quibble: The link to the “online record of the judgement” does not work: “Server not found.”

    In case there is not just a typo in the URL, I also found the judgement on Wikisource:
    XIII. Findings on Justification:

  3. Another excellent thought-provoking article, Neil. Thanks.

    “So what is a denialist? So far it would appear that a denialist is one who fails to engage with the existing scholarship and research while at the same time selecting and manipulating evidence to promote a political or ideological agenda.”

    The problem is the state of the existing scholarship and research. In some areas, it may be quite poor. During the time of the witch-hunts against Day-care Workers in the 1980s and 1990s, the scholarship regarding child sexual abuse was quite poor. It was easy for a few writers with financial interests to misrepresent the state of knowledge to suggest that satanic cults existed within daycare centers. Over 900 innocent daycare workers were arrested, tried, convicted and sent to jail. The numbers do not include the thousands of other people whose lives were deeply affected in a negative way by such accusations. These people include Michael Jackson, whose deep and compassionate love of children made him a target of witch-hunts in 1994, 2004, and now in 2019, ten years after his death.

    I believe the Dunning–Kruger effect, a cognitive bias, explains the nature of the people who spread malicious nonsense, although they believe they are competent in a field when they really aren’t.

  4. “he must spell out clearly to the reader when he is speculating rather than reciting established facts.”

    Reminds me of a book by a leading Scholar of his field using the material from ‘Q’ , Special Matthew and Special Luke as evidence for a conclusion, without informing the reader these documents were mere speculation.

  5. Your last sentence gives an admirable definition of a denialist. I would add to it that a denialist is usually someone who takes an extremely cynical attitude toward the opposing opinion, regardless of how well-supported and how well-received it is. An industry propagandist who denies climate change does not acknowledge the legitimacy of existing scientific consensus, but instead attributes the science to a socialist motive to undermine capitalist economies. An apologist for the Warren Commission assigns no weight to U.S. or world opinion and ignores the overwhelming evidence against his or her orthodoxy. It is all coming from weak minds, this person will say. A New Testament scholar dismisses a legitimate argument about the paucity of evidence about the HJ on grounds of lack of authority or on the claim that dissenters are people with atheist agendas (whatever those are). In each case, the messenger is attacked as a lunatic.

    1. A subtext in my mind asks: Who is it that ignores or distorts the opposing arguments while at the same time ignoring the methods of mainstream historians and concocting idiosyncratic methods that fortuitously justify the ideological assumptions of the Jesus figure?

  6. • I always thought that “The Holocaust” was item “(c)” given bellow, however it appears to have multiple strands, as does “mythicism”.

    Wikipedia, citing Michael Gray (2015), gives three definitions for “The Holocaust”:

    (a) “the persecution and murder of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945”, which views the events of Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938 as an early phase of the Holocaust;

    (b) “the systematic mass murder of the Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1941 and 1945”, which acknowledges the shift in German policy in 1941 toward the extermination of the Jewish people in Europe;

    (c) “the persecution and murder of various groups by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945”, which includes all the Nazis’ victims.

    Cf. “The Holocaust”. Wikipedia.

    There are three strands of mythicism,

    • including the view that there may have been a historical Jesus, who lived in a dimly remembered past, and was fused with the mythological Christ of Paul.

    • A second stance is that there was never a historical Jesus, only a mythological character, later historicized in the Gospels.

    • A third view is that no conclusion can be made about a historical Jesus, and if there was one, nothing can be known about him.

    Cf. “Christ myth theory”. Wikipedia.

      1. In the popular context of “Denialism” —you must be cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs to disregard the overwhelming evidence that is contra to your assertion(s).

        Allowing multiple definitions of something, e.g. “The Holocaust”, also allows the denialist to portray their theory as a misunderstood heresy attempting to add +1 more definition.

  7. Applying labels like this is always a bit difficult. I think that the “mythicist” perspective gives one a different view of academics and evidence. Certainly we recognize that from the majority perspective, “mythicsits” are “denialists”, which is why I am uncomfortable with just labels (I don’t even like the label mythcisit for that matter! :p )

    Anyway, I think probably my main piece that addresses this issue is my article on Darwin, which also happens to be the article Steven Pinker cited in Enlightenment Now.

    The Mis-portrayal of Darwin As a Racist: http://www.rationalrevolution.net/articles/darwin_nazism.htm

    The article is largely in reaction to ‘From Darwin to Hitler, Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics and Racism in Germany’ by Dr. Richard Weikart, which went largely unchallenged by the academic community, so I decided to take it on. I’d say it exhibits many of the same traits as Irving’s work.

    1. I think this misses the point. There is such a thing as denialism and it can be defined. Those who use the term have a responsibility to validly justify its use. It is not simply disagreement with the majority or even with everyone else.

      Repulsive views do not make a denialist, either. Evans compares Irving as a historian with Hobsbawm. The latter was deemed unconscionable for his views of the Soviet Union but he could never be faulted on his historical method, so could never be bracketed as a denialist.

  8. Holocaust deniers, young-earth creationists, anti-vaxxers, and climate change sceptics are denying facts.

    To label ‘those-who-are-not-convinced-that-Jesus-was-a-historical-figure’ as denialists is false equivalence and a combined ‘strawman, red-herring’. It’s an attempt to shift the burden of proof and to muddy the waters.

    1. There clearly is a resort to popular propaganda by associating mythicism with denialism.

      IMO, there are two definitions for the term “Denialism”:

      • Scholarly —a systematic falsification of the historical record.

      • Popular —you must be cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs to disregard the overwhelming evidence that is contra to your assertion(s).

      Historicity proponents asserting the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum, appear to be engaging in falsification of the historical record. The only reason they may not be called denialist, is that the remaining historical record is so sparse and ambiguous, that systematic falsification can not be established.

  9. I think your article is thinly researched and unfair on Irving. Your main sources are Evans and Lipstadt – mortal foes of Irving.

    You also refer to a movie which was a ridiculous and biased presentation of Irving’s record.

    Casting Timothy Spall as a dribbling buffoon and the beautiful Rachel Weisz as the asexual Lipstadt added to the unrealism and distortion.

    You also conveniently (like the stupid film) omit the positive references to Irving in the Judge’s verdict: “My assessment is that, as a military historian, Irving has much to commend him. For his works of military history Irving has undertaken thorough and painstaking research into the archives. He has discovered and disclosed to historians and others many documents which, but for his efforts, might have remained unnoticed for years. It was plain from the way in which he conducted his case and dealt with a sustained and penetrating cross-examination that his knowledge of World War 2 is unparalleled. His mastery of the detail of the historical documents is remarkable. He is beyond question able and intelligent. He was invariably quick to spot the significance of documents which he had not previously seen. Moreover he writes his military history in a clear and vivid style. I accept the favourable assessment by Professor Watt and Sir John Keegan of the calibre of Irving’s military history (mentioned in paragraph 3.4 above) and reject as too sweeping the negative assessment of Evans (quoted in paragraph 3.5).”

    Irving has made several mistakes in his career and as a military historian he has not heeded ancient advice on warfare – namely, fight battles only when the circumstances favour you and don’t get entrapped by enemies who outnumber and outgun you.

    Irving faced a generously funded legal team and was torn apart. (Interestingly, one of the brains behind this assault was the same academic who denounced T S Eliot as an anti-semite!)

    For open-minded skeptics who refuse to rush to judgement, I would recommend reading chapters of Irving autobiography available online. His legacy may well outlive the rather dull writings of his enemies.

    1. Beyond “the positive references to Irving in the Judge’s verdict” you cite, did the Judge have anything to say about Irving’s recounts of the Holocaust?

      1. Irvings Hitler’s War (later editions) and his biography of Goering were criticised, as well as the earlier book on Dresden.
        However, Evans and his two researchers were not able to discredit the bulk of Irving’s output (most of it published in the 1960s and 1970s) – for example Trail of the Fox, the Rommel biography. They stayed clear of this material and were quite duplicitous when they claimed they had objectively sampled his published output.

        Perhaps Irving is racist in the weaker sense that Thatcher’s daughter was supposedly racist for using the term golliwog.

        In terms of a more traditional hardcore definition of racist , Irving is certainly not of this category.
        Even the Judge had to concede that “He (Irving) has certainly not condoned or excused racist violence or thuggery.”

        Another time I will give an example of how Irving uncovered an astonishing anecdote about Rommel and the fall of Tobruk.
        And this revelation is backed up by the German archives.

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