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.
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)
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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