It’s called “in defense of history,” not “in defense of the historical profession.”

December 20, 2011, 1:11 pm

I’ve taught the introductory historiography and methods seminar to incoming graduate students three times, and each time I’ve assigned Richard Evans’s Telling Lies About Hitler. Originally, the point in assigning it was to draw a line beyond which respectable historians must not go; together with Ari I had picked a number of other books that showed acceptable, even laudable, creativity in interpreting and extrapolating from sources – Return of Martin Guerre, Unredeemed Captive, others – and I wanted one that showed an unarguably inexcusable abuse of sources, so that we might know the difference. And what better choice than a tale about Holocaust denial?

Yet the book’s ending has always slightly bothered me, and, because I’m slow, it’s taken three readings and discussions for me finally to know why. Evans casts the story as a victory for historical scholarship, but if so it’s a victory for an idealized, almost impossible form of historical scholarhip.

The tale in brief: David Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt for calling him a Holocaust denier. Lipstadt’s side retained Evans to comb through Irving’s work and the evidence for the Holocaust to show that Irving did in fact, in a meaningful sense, deny the truth of the Holocaust. The court found in Lipstadt’s favor, that “Irving qualifies as a Holocaust denier”.

Throughout the book, Evans argues proper historical methods of interpreting the evidence on Nazi Germany show that Irving was wrong about major matters, and he says that careful scholarship shows Irving’s misinterpretation of the sources cannot be merely error (as in the case of David Abraham).

Yet Evans also shows that the ordinary course of scholarly activity was never going to reach these conclusions about Irving. Both before and after the trial, historians generally criticized Irving lightly when they criticized him at all. Perhaps they bought into Irving’s own description of himself as an archive-hound; perhaps they were afraid of Irving’s reputation for belligerence and litigation; perhaps they felt, let him who is without sin cast the first stone. It took the pressure of the trial and the resources brought to bear, together with Evans’s tirelessness and single-mindedness (aided by research assistants) to prove the point to a court’s satisfaction. Had Irving never sued Lipstadt, the historical profession would not have stopped him flourishing as a scholar of Hitler’s Germany. Indeed even after the suit, as Evans points out, distinguished historians including John Keegan and Donald Cameron Watt maintained that what had happened to Irving resulted from political correctness and an investigation of sources no historian could withstand, rather than from the proper operation of scholarship.1

It’s hard therefore to echo Evans’s saying, “The trial demonstrated triumphantly the ability of historical scholarship to reach reasoned conclusions about the Nazi extermination of the Jews on the basis of a careful examination of the written evidence.” At least, I can’t echo it without wanting to add, the trial demonstrated the ability of historical scholarship to do this only when massively well funded and under enormous pressure. Ordinary historical scholarship proved itself incapable of doing any such thing. I suspect Evans would himself agree; his In Defense of History was largely a defense of his ideal of historical scholarship against actually-existing historical scholarship. And the Irving book is an extended “I told you so”; when Evans gets to practice his ideal version of historical scholarship under the brightest possible spotlight, he wins. But hardly ever does Evans, or anyone, get to do history under such circumstances. So how well defended is history really, then; how triumphant is historical scholarship?

1Other people had critiqued Irving before the trial. But inasmuch as professional historians seemed inclined to let Irving go his way even after the trial, it seems to me that those critiques would have remained without force absent the trial.

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