HISTORY AFTER IRVING
Now that holocaust denier David Irving has been discredited, what is the future of history? Michael Kustow talks to defence witness Richard Evans
ON the first day of his six-day cross-examination by David Irving, [Feb. 10, 2000] I watched Richard Evans, chief expert witness for the defence against Irving’s libel charge, bring the blustering falsificator to a momentary halt. He used a simple phrase. ‘The facts have a veto over what we can and cannot say.’ Evans, like Deborah Lipstadt, the defendant in Irving’s libel case, had hitherto refused to debate with Irving, ‘because I only debate with historians’.
Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge University, is a quietly-spoken Welshman with a frown of concentration, who made Irving look even more the flailing con-man that he now is in the judgment of the High Court.
May was the month when Irving was being held to account for the first installment of the defendants’ £2 million costs, when Sasha Baron Cohen (‘Ali G’) received anti-Semitic hate mail and was warned by the police to raise his personal security, when the commission on art works in British museums stolen by Nazis from German Jews started its work, and the Tories led the hunting pack against asylum-seekers with New Labour not far behind. In the month of after-echoes and reminders of the Holocaust, I went to Cambridge to talk to Evans about the Holocaust in British consciousness and about history after Irving.
Working with two research assistants over two years, Evans had produced a 740-page report, which took the historian’s scalpel to Irving’s malignant distortions and fantastical claims, the most brazen of which was that, because there are no signs of nozzles or apertures in the ruins of the gas-chambers, the Nazis never gassed the Jews. They just fumigated their corpses. The Jews had died from typhus and overwork, you see. Tragic business, as Irving perfunctorily said once or twice, but the fortunes of war and conquest, don’t you know.
Evans is not a ‘Holocaust historian’ but the leading British interpreter of German history in a series of gripping books about such history-from-below subjects as a cholera epidemic in Hamburg, capital punishment in Germany since the 17th century, and rethinking German history itself. They combine archival research, as assiduous as Irving’s, with a subtle reflection on the methods and goals of that craft. In his thrilling polemical book, In Defence of History, Evans takes on postmodernism in history, and knocks its reductionists out of the ring, with their claims that all the world’s a text, that history is nothing but disguised ideology and time merely a fictional construct.
Michael Kustow: Michael Kustow: One of Irving’s wiliest claims was that a verdict against him would be a verdict against free speech, because there would be no further questioning of the Holocaust, and a consensus about it would be confirmed. Has there ever been such a consensus, particularly in this country?
Richard Evans: Obviously his claim that he is acting on behalf of free speech is an exact reversal of the truth, worthy of [Nazis propagandist] Dr Goebbels. The fact is, it is Irving who brought the libel action. Bear in mind what would have happened had he won. First of all Deborah Lipstadt’s book would have been withdrawn, halted. She would have had to admit she was wrong and give an undertaking that she would not repeat the allegations. Even more seriously than that, other people would then not have been able to criticise Irving or anyone who shared his views. The trial was not about interpretations of the Holocaust, as some commentators seemed to think. There has always been a huge amount of debate about why the Nazis exterminated European Jews, how they reached that decision, who was responsible, what the mechanism was, when the decision was taken, what was the moral position of those involved, what freedom of action the perpetrators had, was there resistance and a whole host of problems which are the subject of impassioned debate among historians. Nothing in this trial is going to inhibit that.
However, what the trial has established is that debate among historians must continue on the basis of the evidence. Of course we do interpret the evidence in different ways, but what we don’t do as responsible historians is to doctor the evidence to suit our own arguments.
Michael Kustow: A key event during the period of the Irving trial has been the publication of US historian Robert Novick’s The Holocaust and Collective Memory, in which he traces how the Holocaust has been placed at the centre of American culture over the past half century. He intertwines US Cold War foreign policy, Israel’s defeats and victories, the shift from ‘integrationist’ views of what it is to be American to particularist celebrations of ethnicity and difference. It’s a deeply dialectical work about Jews in America, America and the Holocaust. Now Britain is going have a Holocaust Day, like Israel and America, and a Holocaust wing will open in June at the Imperial War Museum. Do you think the Holocaust is beginning to be used as a moral and political touchstone, as it has in America?
Richard Evans: I don’t think it is in this country. Take attitudes towards the Second World War and the Germans: in America these are associated very much with the Holocaust. In this country they are not. People’s memories in this country are about the Blitz, the Western Front, Rommel. The current wave of anti-Germanism in this country, which does not distinguish Germans and Nazis, associates them with conquest and a grand territorial militarism, not really with the Holocaust. Irving has been putting an essentially political argument. As the judge said, he is essentially a racist and anti-Semite who is using history for his own political purposes. This means that he, in common with other holocaust deniers, regards the concept of the Holocaust as a political device in order to shore up Israel and give power to Jews.
But saying that there is overwhelming evidence that 5 million to 6 million Jews were killed in the Second World War, that this was systematic, that Hitler knew about it, that gassing was one of the principal means used, through purpose-built gas chambers — saying all that does not commit one to any particular position on Israel, the position of Jews in society or anything else.
Michael Kustow: Do you think that history is a truth-telling?
Richard Evans: That is one part of it. I think that historians can at least approach the truth. History is nothing if it is not about trying to find out the truth about the past. What you do with that and how you interpret it are other questions.
Michael Kustow: What kind of compass do you take on this search?
Richard Evans: Of course you set out with all sorts of assumptions, you set up the reasons why you study something in the first place. Then you go into the archives with a set of these ideas, derived partly from your reading of the secondary work, and then what happens to the genuine historians is that you start reading through the files and you come across stuff that completely undermines your hypotheses — not necessarily all of them, you hope. The historian Fernand Braudel has a wonderful image. He says that theory for historians is like a boat that you send back down the river of time. Eventually it will flounder on the rocks of evidence, but you see how far you can send it. That is an image that I always take with me. As an historian, you have to have this curious faculty of self-criticism. You have to be prepared to back all your ideas, and also you have to provide other historians with the means of disproving what you say. You have to have footnotes which will allow your critics to go and check out what you are saying, and say, ‘Look this is not a legitimate interpretation’.
Irving bragged about how open he was with his archive discoveries. He is open where he wants to be, but elsewhere he makes it difficult to check things out. Some of his footnotes are very vague, very opaque. He has no faculty of self-criticism, so that he really does go into the archives with a view to proving his fanatically-held belief that Hitler was a friend of the Jews. If the evidence doesn’t fit, so deep-rooted are his beliefs that he will doctor the evidence to make it fit, or suppress or ignore it.
Michael Kustow: Is Irving finished?
Richard Evans: Well it depends what you mean. His freedom of speech has not been repressed in any way. He may be annoyed that he can no longer publish with respectable publishers like Penguin or Macmillan. But this has been the case since he became a hard line Holocaust denier in 1988. It didn’t take people very long to realise that the quality of his work had become even worse after 1988 than it was before. However, he continues to publish his own books, seemingly without great difficulty. He distributes them himself, he has outlets mainly in the USA. His books have now for some time all been typeset in America, and use American spelling. He has his own enormous and very professional website.
Michael Kustow: Don’t you think publishing on the website, especially after such exposure as Irving has had, gives whatever he puts there a kind of paranoid power? You know, ‘the truth they were too scared to publish’? The medium itself, its ‘outlaw’ quality, can appeal to people at the extremes.
Richard Evans: I don’t think that is really the case. It is simply another form of publication. In the course of preparing my report I had to surf around a lot of anti-Semitic websites, and there are some really nauseating ones, quite extraordinary and extreme; but I doubt whether they have a great deal of influence. Anti-Semitism is essentially still a fringe phenomenon and the fact is that in normal times, aside from this trial, Irving’s website will also have only fringe power.
I think it is very important to keep this whole thing in proportion. While I think that Lipstadt’s book is a solid piece of work, welI researched, I don’ t agree with her on one crucial point: she says that Holocaust denial is becoming more dangerous because the last generation of Holocaust survivors are dying off. I simply don’t agree with that. At this trial, no Holocaust survivors were called to give evidence. That was a deliberate decision. At one point Irving was going to call various Nazis to testify. There was an argument in the defence that ‘the other side’ should be called, but we did not want to subject them to Irving’s kind of bullying. He was saying that all Holocaust survivors are suffering from a form of mass hysteria or mass delusion; we didn’t want that. Also, these are elderly people whose memories are not always intact.
The trial was done entirely on the basis of historical evidence, as if there were no survivors around. That was part of its importance. It was the first trial to deal with the Holocaust in that way. It was about historians’ techniques, and it resulted in a vindication of historians, in the technical ability and competence of the real historians who want to establish some kind of objective factual account of what went on. One does encounter among students sometimes the cynical view that historians just assemble the evidence that supports their own thesis. I think the judgment in the trial struck a major blow against that kind of facile cynicism. I think that ought to reassure people that what Lipstadt says is a bit alarmist.
Michael Kustow: Where now does history of your kind exist and how does it reach the widest possible public? Is it through books, is it through movies, television or fiction sometimes?
Richard Evans: I think that the history written by historians has always reached only a minority. Most people in a preliterate age got their history from ballads and folk tales and popular memory so it is not new that there is a popular culture that purveys a view of history. What is new is that it is now an electronic popular culture. There I think that historians should do as much as they can to take part and to try and shape it, and media people have to be willing to take the advice of historians on board.
There was an argument in the defence that ‘the other side’ should be called, but we did not want to subject them to Irving’s kind of bullying. He was saying that all Holocaust survivors are suffering from a form of mass hysteria or mass delusion; we didn’t want that. Also, these are elderly people whose memories are not always intact.
Michael Kustow: Television series are seen by a comparatively small audiences. What do you think about movies that reach millions of people? Did Schindler’ s List serve history?
Richard Evans: Yes and no. Yes, it did give you some idea of conditions in occupied Eastern Europe, the camps. Obviously [director Steven] Spielberg always has to have a happy ending, whereas in fact the story itself did not have a happy ending. It had to make Schindler into a more reforming character, which clearly in Thomas Keneally’s novel he was not. It had many problems with its images — well-fed Hollywood actors playing people who in life would have been extremely sick. In one review somebody said that Schindler’s List was extremely insignificant compared with Hitler’s list.
There has been a tendency in the past 20 years or so for historians to bury ourselves in technicalities and obscure journals, and I think historians ought to come out more. I think we do have a public role to play, particularly now when there is such increasing interest in history.
Michael Kustow: Your own statement in the trial — ‘the facts put a veto on what we can and cannot say’ — is not only a dismissal of the Irvings of this world, but a rebuke to the radical scepticism of the post-modernists.
Richard Evans: Their ‘de-centering’ has opened the way for Holocaust deniers. But, after 30 years as an intellectual style, I sense that it’s running out of steam. The debate around Irving shows that people want to get to what happened, not treat history as ‘a parade of signifiers masquerading as a collection of facts,’ to quote one of post-modernism’s pioneers, Roland Barthes.
Michael Kustow: Do you think that either New Labour or the left has enough of an awareness of history?
Richard Evans: I think it is in a very problematical situation at the moment. The old kind of Labour history, building on celebrating Labour traditions, has more or less gone. I don’t see that there has been any great replacement for it.
I think New Labour is a sort of a historical phenomenon, which lives very much in the present and takes its clues from the social sciences. I think that there is a need for the left to look for new ways of making the past into a source of inspiration.
Michael Kustow’s new book, Theatre@risk, is published this month by Methuen
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