History's elusive 'truth'

Holocaust denial vs. perspective

David Irving, the alleged Holocaust denier, is a hounded man. Reputable publishers decline to print his books, and stores refuse to stock them. He has been denied entry to Germany and Poland, and is thus cut off from the archives that are his lifeblood. Even his own brother has disowned him.

Cornered, Mr. Irving has hit back by conducting his own libel action in a British court against the American historian Deborah Lipstadt, author of "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory." He perceives her as a modern manifestation of the Zionist conspiracy whose alleged myths his books attempt to debunk.

Irving is a sad and confused man, but one whom it is folly to ignore.

He has repeatedly said he does not deny the Holocaust. But he has used his formidable research skill to suggest that death counts and the methods used to kill victims have been exaggerated. For example, he claims the crematoriums at the Nazis' Auschwitz concentration camp may not have been used as gas chambers because there were no openings to introduce gas, and that the facilities at the camps simply couldn't have handled the volume of victims supposed.

Irving has not always been a pariah. His first book, "The Destruction of Dresden," published in 1963, caused a storm of controversy, but even its detractors admitted that the research was impressive.

Each subsequent book has been equally well documented, though his political agenda has grown more obtrusive. His recent biography of Goebbels is based on the meticulous combing of diaries long neglected in Moscow archives. No other historian has made real use of them. The book is for the most part good history, though the author's warped obsessions often intrude.

But what is good history? Historians bring three skills to their craft.

The first is that of detective: the ability to search out evidence and to pursue it with dogged determination - even when access is blocked.

The second skill is that of judge: The able historian applies reason and good sense to evidence collected in order to draw rational judgments.

The third is that of writer: the ability to present evidence and argument in an understandable and compelling fashion.

On two counts, Irving is an excellent historian: a persistent detective and great writer. His books read better than most academic history. His writing ability in part explains his danger - the more articulate an argument the more convincing it's likely to be. The Sirens, remember, sang beautifully.

As a researcher, Irving has the nose of a bloodhound and the stubbornness of a mule. Critics who find his ideas abhorrent seldom fault his archival work. Because he is a good researcher, he still lands work advising producers of reputable historical documentaries. Lamancha Productions, the makers of the widely acclaimed PBS "Battlefield" series, relied extensively on Irving's knowledge of Nazi Germany, though they dared not advertise the fact.

Irving's judgment is, however, seriously flawed. His political beliefs intrude clumsily in his analysis. Though I doubt he has ever manufactured evidence, he has been unwise in his handling of it. In the case of the Holocaust, tiny shreds of evidence have, perhaps, been given undue prominence, while a cartload of documents that contradict his preconceived views are conveniently ignored.

But all historians manipulate evidence to some degree. Those who claim objectivity most deserve suspicion. All those who practice history do so from a particular perspective and carry with them preconceptions. There is no such thing as historical fact, but merely evidence collected, formed, and packaged by historians. That evidence is itself flawed, because it originates from human observation and is therefore prone to distortion. History is not the past, but merely interpretations of it.

The hardest thing for a teacher of history is to convince students that the truth cannot be discovered, and that books lie. Students read about how Nazi historians of the 1930s reconstructed the German past in order to glorify an Aryan culture and obliterate a Jewish one.

But they seem oblivious to the possibility that historians today might also fabricate the past. Each generation rewrites history because each has a different perspective on the past. Each perceives different lessons to be learned.

Millions of Jews were murdered in wartime Germany. But the term "Holocaust," as we know it today, is a later creation inseparable from the obsession with ethnicity that characterizes our generation. Reality and representation have become hopelessly blurred.

The redemptive and often kitschy reconstructions of concentration camps found in museums and films should not be made official doctrine. It should not be reprehensible to describe "Life is Beautiful" as a silly, manipulative film. Nor should absolute adherence to the figure of 6 million exterminated become a badge of rectitude.

The past is another country, but not one we can actually visit. Irving reminds us that history reveals as much about the world in which we live as the past we seek to discover. I have no doubt that his view of the Holocaust is inaccurate. But I also know that his detractors have their own perspective to peddle.

A British libel court is the last place on earth to look for truth. A bit of healthy skepticism toward all history is the best lesson we can learn.

*Gerard DeGroot, an American, is chairman of the department of modern history at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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