Posted: May 01, 2010 8:55 pm
by Calilasseia
I wrote this some time ago over at RDF, and it's worth posting again. The original post I saved under the heading The Fallibility Of Historians Is No Reason To Give Up. I shall now reproduce it in full.

EDIT: I wish to reassure everyone that I posted this in reply to Szymanowski, NOT because he was engaged in Holocaust denial, but because the point he made about the fallibility of human beings, and its potential effects upon rigorous historiography, was ruthlessly exploitable by Holocaust deniers, and I wanted to pre-empt such egregious abuse of his point. If Szymanowski is reading this, I re-posted the original post somewhat in haste, and out of the context of the original thread, the post might mislead people into thinking I was addressing a Holocaust denier. I wish to emphasise MOST strongly, that Szymanowski does NOT fall into that category, in order to dispel any ambiguity once and for all.

And with the above, I correct an oversight that I should not have made in the first place. :)


Szymanowski over at RDF wrote:No human historian can be impartial: that's history lesson 1.

In answer to this, I would have to say the following.

Part of the problem with history is that it does not merely cover events, it also covers the motivations of the humans responsible for those events. Elucidating this is always going to be fraught with difficulties, even when one has access to a wealth of material as is the case with modern figures of influence, because one can never completely eliminate the possibility that those figures were acting dishonestly when recording their thoughts. Of course, certain types of dishonesty are detectable, and one of the areas of research in the field of historiography that is currently fairly lively is the detection of various categories of dishonesty on the part of authors of various sources (e.g., personal diaries).

However, if a historian or historiographer allows personal bias to intrude too much into his work, then others will alight upon this and write revisions of his work. In extreme cases, that historian or historiographer will be discredited publicly - the classic case in point being David Irving, who allowed his fetish for Holocaust denial and his manifest apologetics for Hitler to ruin his reputation, as anyone reading the publicly available accounts of the 2000 libel trial will discover with ease. Indeed, I can claim a tiny part in that process, because when the trial was announced, in an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement back in 1999, it contained a statement of Irving's purported defence position in that forthcoming trial, and upon reading it, I was so amazed at his chutzpah that I contacted Deborah Lipstadt to pass on some relevant information, regarding a Channel 4 television documentary that would, on its own, blow his defence wide open. She graciously wrote back to me to thank me for my contribution, and informed me that her lawyers were already gleefully perusing the relevant material. Irving is now the classic lesson in what to avoid when erecting claims about historical events and personages, because his career is in ruins, and he owes something like £2 million in legal costs for his failed action. Indeed, a scathing review of Irving's entire approach to history, once he came under the spell of the hologram of Holocaust denial, was written in The Independent by the journalist James Dalrymple, and I think it's apposite to view that here, so I'll reproduce it in full below:

James Dalrymple, The Independent wrote:He Says Auschwitz Is A Myth,
But He Has Never Set Foot In The Place,
Never Seen The Evidence

By James Dalrymple

The Independent, Wednesday, 12th April, 2000

The vast, sprawling complex of stone and steel that was once created so lovingly by the cream of German architects and engineers is now an empty, silent mausoleum on the banks of a dark river in southern Poland. They have let the swamp grass grow high among the ruins and on a summer night when the soughing wind makes it sway, there are those who say that if you listen closely you can hear the foul breath of the beast himself.

Its very size is breathtaking. Standing on a ridge above the floodplain, as I did a few years ago, you cannot see where this Kingdom of Murder – the place to which we have always given the collective name of Auschwitz – begins and ends. It seems to stretch from horizon to horizon, filling an entire featureless plain between two meandering rivers – the Vistula and the Sola – outside the peaceful town of Oswiecim. Heinrich Himmler, who surveyed the site as he followed the all-conquering Wehrmacht, changed its name immediately to Auschwitz. At first the crazed little bureaucrat intended that it should be a barracks for thousands of slave labourers who would work at the factories being built by the chemical giant IG Farben in a futile attempt to turn coal into rubber and petrol. Not a single ounce of either was produced.

But later, as Himmler and Germany itself descended into the final madness, and the slaughter of Jews accelerated through 1943 and 1944, countless thousands of men, women, children and babies were turned into smoke and ashes. The modest Auschwitz main camp was extended out across the plain to become the gigantic Konzentrationslager known as Birkenau, a place the size of a small city that only had two kinds of buildings – wooden huts for the temporary storage of people, and five massive gas-chamber-crematoria complexes to dispose of them. It became, for nearly three years, the perfect industrialised killing machine.

But David Irving claims almost all of this is untrue. He agrees that many did perish there. But he says that they died through disease, hunger and exhaustion, the victims of war, suffering the fate of countless refugees throughout history. There was no planned mass murder, he states categorically. And the numbers who died have been grossly exaggerated. Three million? Four million? Nonsense. Logistically impossible. Nor were there any gas chambers. Just fumigation areas where lice-ridden clothes were treated to prevent disease. And the big crematoria ovens? They were needed to get rid of corpses of people who had died for the reasons given above.

Day after day I watched him at the London Law Courts, doing what he likes doing most. Striding back and forth, letting his formidable imagination take over the control of his tongue, working an audience like a craftsman orator. The Law Courts have often been his stage and the atmosphere of a courtroom is like a drug to him and he loves it. But he is neither a fool nor a madman. He may be a show-off, an intellectual bully and a man capable of making facts fit his theories, but do not ever doubt his tenacity and his capacity to present an argument, backed by his version of the truth.

Mr Irving, unlike some of the other clowns, fantasists and wealthy anti-Semites who control the growing movement called Historical Revisionism, is – or was – a gifted historical investigator, but somewhere, at some point, he lost the plot. For whatever reason, he was swept into that dark netherworld of Holocaust denial, and he began to glory in the spurious fame it brought him, strutting about the world, claiming Hitler didn’t know about the death camps and that Auschwitz was a Polish tourist trap.

Like a magician producing rabbits from a hat, he produces questions that are disturbing, puzzling, confusing, even bewildering. Remorselessly, he plants tiny seeds of doubt in the minds of even intelligent and reasonable people. Why did the Germans build a fully equipped hospital in Auschwitz if they intended to kill everybody? Why did they not destroy the five huge crematoria when they ran before the Russian army? Why did they leave behind them thousands of living witnesses? Why were there no holes in the roofs of the “gas chambers” where the Zyklon B pellets were allegedly dropped? The buildings are still there, he roared at one point in his libel trial, and nobody can show me any holes.

On and on it goes. Find some tiny inconsistencies, discover some flaws in witness accounts, prevent logistical anomalies as Zionist lies – and soon the minds of those who were not even born during the Holocaust are filled with the possibilities that it could all be a lie.

Unlike many of our more celebrated historians of that period, Mr Irving could speak fluent German and didn’t spend his time behind a desk in academe. Instead he combed the archives of Europe and later, Russia, and produced a series of stunning – and thrillingly written – accounts of the Second World War. And he is clever in that he allows some of the horrors to remain. That is what makes him so dangerous. When the neo-Nazi rabble say these things they are easily dismissed. When Mr Irving talks, people begin to listen.

He once turned savagely on me when I suggested that he was part of the Holocaust denial movement. “I have never, never denied that acts of slaughter took place”, he roared. “Millions upon millions perished in the war. But we must be very careful to separate myth from truth. And Auschwitz is largely myth”.

But Mr Irving is always faced with one glaring truth. He has never, not once, set foot in the place. He has not seen, as thousands of pilgrims – including me – have, the clear evidence that still lies, ruined but intact, on the ground, exactly as it was when the Red Army arrived 55 years ago. And each of his trick questions are, like the crumbling stones of all crazed conspiracy theories, easily answered.

He is right in saying that four million did not die there. But well over a million did. He is lying when he says that there are no holes in the roofs of the cleansing areas. There were, and are. I have seen them. The hospital that he boasts about was built for the guards and staff. The crematoria where upwards of 900,000 perished were so large that they could not be destroyed, even with hundreds of tons of dynamite that were used. And in their panic, the Germans left behind thousands of mostly dying survivors. And most graphically of all, years of work by forensic scientists have shown that under the great pools of water at the northern end of Birkenau, is a 30ft layer of ash – the remains of thousands of corpses.

Finally, there is the written confessions of the killers themselves, men like Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, which make it clear that the complex was designed and built by some of the most illustrious industrial corporations of Germany as a complete apparatus for the daily murder of thousands of people.

But you could go on answering these absurd fantasies. And this is what the denial merchants want. For many years, the strategy of the authorities, particularly the Jewish authorities, was to ignore the denial movement, hoping it would simply go away. Now, that is no longer possible. Each year, it seems to grow in strength, like a virus attacking the heart of a great truth. Now the strategy is to meet it head on wherever and whenever it raises its head.

To some, the Irving libel trial was seen as the opening of Pandora’s Box. The fear was that for the first time in Britain, in a major public arena, the monstrous poison of revisionism had finally been allowed to fly up into the air, perhaps to flourish and grow in the media as the minutiae of the Holocaust is argued by pundits from both sides. And listening to it all – bewildered and confused by the enticing theories of a powerful dealer in fantasy retold as history – a new generation may have been lured into thinking that it was perhaps not as bad as they had been taught. Were there actually no gas chambers? Was Auschwitz largely a myth, not allowed to be challenged? Were six million really murdered, or did they die as victims of war, just like the other 50 million who perished from the shores of France to the steppes of Russia?

Or has something of value emerged from these long weeks in Room 73 of the old law courts in The Strand? The systematic slaughter of an entire generation of people who were neither combatants or even enemies, known as the Holocaust and perpetrated by one of the most civilised nations on Earth, is unique in our history. There have been many acts of genocidal violence, before and since, but they did not involve the transport of millions to industrial complexes built and staffed by ordinary German men and women for the single purpose of mass murder over a period of years. It is something that must not only be remembered. It must be studied endlessly, by each new generation as they try to answer the unanswerable.

And again, uniquely, the final flowering of this catastrophe is still in existence. The ghastly ruined abomination of Auschwitz-Birkenau still exists today, silent and forbidding in the open plains of Upper Silesia. It is only a couple of hours away from Heathrow Airport. It is a place to which we should perhaps take all our young men and women, when they are old enough to cope with the unique horror of it, so they may pass their memories to their own children.

The Holocaust libel action, in all its absurdity, has turned a great spotlight on this terrible place. And as he slinks away like a thief in the night into the oblivion he deserves, the lies of David Irving may have done history a kind of favour.

I went to the trouble of reproducing that lengthy article in full because, whilst history and historiography deal by definition with material that is much, much more open to interpretation than scientific data, and which correspondingly requires even more care in handling, there are people out there determined to exercise that care. There are people determined to see that history is approached with due care and attention with respect to intellectual rigour, that inferences drawn from the data are robustly derived, and that when speculations are erected, they are presented honestly and explicitly as speculations.

Of course, humans are fallible, and historians will be only too happy, if they are true to their calling, to admit this. But, they will also point to the data they have examined, point to the statements they have made with respect to the matter of seeking to draw conclusions in a robust fashion from that data, and say in response, "if you have a defensible alternative hypothesis, then present it".

You may think I'm giving historians too much credit, and point to my own example of Irving above as evidence to support your case. I provided lengthy material on Irving specifically to demonstrate that, to use a popular colloquialism, when historians go bad, they do so big time. The line between controversial but defensible thesis, and fringe lunacy, in the world of the academic historian, is a dangerously fine one, but academic historians are by and large aware of this. It's one of the reasons that proper, critically robust historical accounts take decades to materialise, because the potential for the generation of intellectual chaff is considerable, and all too often realised in certain controversial areas of historical study.

For example, one section of history arising from World War II, namely the rise to power of Ante Pavelic and the Ustashe in Croatia, is likely to remain problematic even for the best historians that our academic institutions can produce, not only because seething ideological tensions were rampant during the period in question, but also played a significant part in the years immediately following, during which the Yugoslavia of Tito tried and executed several of the key figures. Additionally, passions are raised even today in the Balkans with respect to this episode, passions that were inflamed by much more recent events familiar to television viewers, and I suspect that the business of determining the actual facts with respect to this period, and winnowing out the ideological embellishments erected by individuals with manifest agendas, will take a prodigious amount of effort.

But should we simply throw up our hands and wail that it cannot be done? I say no. I say that we should strive to exercise that effort, and strive assiduously to be true to human history, especially during those dark eras when our far-distant reptilian inheritance (see Carl Sagan for more on this) rose to the fore, and for reasons either of territorial conquest or blind adherence to ideology, some of our species saw fit to kill many others of our species in gruesome and hideously cruel ways. We owe it to those unfortunate corpses to be diligent here, all the better to equip us to strive to avoid repeating the same mistakes, all the better to steer us away from actions that add to the contents of those mass graves. The dangers of not exercising this diligent effort are, in some respects, even greater than the dangers of not defending valid scientific theories against duplicitous attack from ideological stormtroopers for doctrine. We forget the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Armenian genocide, the horrors of trench warfare, the Holocaust, Tuol Sleng and Srebrenica at our peril, and we had better make damn sure that the lessons we learn from these festering canker sores on the body politic deliver to our species the kick up the backside it sorely needs.