Richard Evans on Truth, Objectivity, and the Boundaries of Reasonable Historical Interpretation

Over the past week I’ve been reading Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial by Richard J. Evans, a British historian noted for his scholarship on modern German history. The book is fantastic, a must-read for its discussions of Nazi history and the nature of historical research and interpretation.

Evans wrote the book after serving as chief historical adviser and witness for the defense team in a famous libel suit that took place in a British court in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The suit was brought on by David Irving, a now-largely discredited “historian” of World War II and Nazi history who was accused by author Deborah Lipstadt of being a Holocaust denier in a book she wrote about the topic. Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books UK, enlisted Evans’s help in determining whether or not Lipstadt’s claims about Irving were true and, if so, how Irving manipulated the historical record to exonerate Adolf Hitler and minimize the horrors of the Holocaust. These challenges were particularly difficult for the defense team because British libel laws assume that accusers/plaintiffs in these cases are acting in good faith, which in turn essentially throws the burden of proof on the defense instead of the plaintiff. Evans and several PhD candidates spent more than a year and half researching Irving’s works, primary source documents, and other relevant historiography, and Evans himself spent several days in the witness box during the trial.

While the case was primarily concerned with determining whether or not Irving had manipulated the historical record to promote his political agenda (and NOT whether or not the Holocaust had occurred in the first place), it proved to be an interesting one for the entire historical enterprise because it also raised important questions about truth, objectivity, and the boundaries of reasonable interpretation in historical scholarship. The entire profession, in a sense, was on trial. One journalist at the trial–responding to Irving’s claims that the memories of thousands of Holocaust survivors were subject to dismissal because of the victims’ delusional thinking and a vast conspiracy by the Jewish community to perpetuate falsehoods about the Holocaust–remarked that:

It is history itself which is on trial here, the whole business of drawing conclusions from evidence. If Irving is able to dismiss the testimony of tens of thousands of witnesses, where does that leave history? If we can’t know this, how can we know that Napoleon fought at Waterloo or that Henry VIII had six wives? How can we know anything? . . . If we start to doubt corroborated facts, how can we prevent ourselves being swallowed up in doubt, unable to trust anything we see? It might all be a conspiracy, a legend, a hoax. This the bizarre, never-never world inhabited by David Irving. Now the court has to decide: is this our world too? (195)

In the course of researching and testifying at the trial Evans uncovered instance after instance in which Irving intentionally manipulated historical evidence by selectively choosing, altering, and misquoting documents, falsified quantitative data, and relied on primary sources that were universally declared by trained historians to be forgeries and/or deliberate falsehoods. Evans presented substantial evidence suggesting that Irving had consistently argued in books, interviews, and talks that Hitler neither knew about or ordered violence against Jews during Kristallnacht or their total extermination during World War II; that gas chambers were never used to kill Jews during the war; that the figure of six million Jews killed was a deliberate exaggeration perpetuated in part by the Jewish community (Irving placed the number of Jews killed around 100,000, most of which he attributed to disease at the concentration camps); and that the bombing of Dresden by Allied forces in 1945 had actually killed upwards of 250,000 Germans instead of the roughly 25,000 that most contemporary officials reported at the time and most historians accept as an appropriate figure today. Downplaying the total number of Jews killed by the Nazis and playing up the total number of Germans killed at Dresden, of course, allowed Irving to argue that the conduct of Allied forces during the war towards Germany was harsher and more brutal than Nazi actions towards European Jews. Evans proves without a doubt in Lying About Hitler that all of these claims are absolute bunk.

The courts found in favor of Deborah Lipstadt and the defense team in 2000. She had not committed an act of libel when she claimed that Irving was a Holocaust denier, and it was determined that Irving had in fact manipulated the historical record to justify his antisemitic and racist views.

Evans neatly summarizes some of the central issues this case raised for the historical enterprise in the last chapter of Lying About Hitler. He asks two questions:

  • “What are the boundaries of legitimate disagreement among historians?”
  • “How far do historians’ interpretations depend on a selective reading of the evidence, and where does selectivity end and bias begin?”

Evans argues that while historians frame their questions from a range of perspectives and disciplinary approaches, they are obligated to read historical evidence “as fully and fairly as they can.” Using Joseph Goebbels’s diary as a case study, he asserts that it is useless to cherry-pick quotes from the diary to support an argument when another historian could pick other quotes and potentially refute your argument. “What a professional historian does,” Evans argues, “is to take the whole of the source in question into account, and check it against other relevant sources, to reach a reasoned conclusion that will withstand critical scrutiny by other historians who look at the same material . . . Argument between historians is limited by what the evidence allows them to say” (248-250). He then uses a metaphor that I find extremely convincing to reinforce his points:

Suppose we think of historians like figurative painters sitting at various places around a mountain. They will paint it in different styles, using different techniques and different materials, they will see it in a different light or from a different distance according to where they are, and they will view it from different angles. They may even disagree about some aspects of its appearance, or some of its features. But they will all be painting the same mountain. If one of them paints a fried egg, or a railway engine, we are entitled to say that she or he is wrong; whatever it is that the artist has painted, it is not the mountain. The possibilities of legitimate disagreement and variation are limited by the evidence in front of their eyes. An objective historian is simply one who works within these limits. They are limits that allow a wide latitude for differing interpretations of the same document or source, but they are limits all the same (250).

Hats off to Dr. Evans’s important work in this case, both for the victims of the Nazi Holocaust but also the historical enterprise as a whole.

Cheers

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4 responses

  1. I need to stop reading blogs like this. I am perpetually discovering books I need to buy and read … 😦

    Thanks much (I think.)

    1. So many books to read, so little time to actually read them 🙂

      Thanks, James!

    2. Right on – I have 200 something books in my “save for later” Amazon shopping chart!

  2. Excellent post, Nick. Thank you for writing about history and getting all of us to think. In seems too in ways that History is always “on trial.”

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