When Is History Not History?

freespechcarelesstalkAre there limits to the intellectual inquiries historians may make? Our knee-jerk reaction to this, of course, would usually be – should usually be – ‘no’. I wrote a few months ago about Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s recent Silence: A Christian History (Allen Lane, 2013). In that book, he writes of history as “a subversive discipline” which should aim to have “potentially transforming effects on the present: comfortable expectations are disrupted” by historians at work. We should be not just suspicious but actively testing of the wisdom of the crowd. Can this kind of freedom be abused, however?

The most obvious example of an area of historical study open to abuse, of course, is that of the Holocaust: certainly, it’s one in which historians have been imprisoned for perverting the spirit of intellectual inquiry into a form of denial which pretends to the qualities of free-thinking. Before his imprisonment in Austria, the Holocaust denier David Irving sued the historian Deborah Lipstadt over her book Denying The Holocaust (Penguin, 1993). Lipstadt wrote: “[Holocaust denial] constitutes abuse of the survivors. It is intimately connected to a neofascist political agenda. […] What has shocked me is the success deniers have in convincing good-hearted people that Holocaust denial is an “other side” of history – ugly, reprehensible, and extremist – but an other side nonetheless.”

In other words, Lipstadt was shocked that, in posing as a form of intellectual freedom, a speech so free that it challenges even the most commonly accepted of historical shibboleths, Holocaust deniers have succeeded in framing their dangerous and extreme doctrines as a form of historical study. As the court agreed (it found no merit in Irving’s case), it is not: Holocaust denial is a form of hate speech, and as such we can begin to see that history and the work of historians does indeed, and should indeed, have limits (as Waldron argues freedom of speech itself should have). As another historian involved in the Irving libel trial, Richard J Evans, wrote in his Telling Lies About Hitler (Verso, 2002), Irving was accused of “the falsification and manipulation of the historical record” [pg. 2] in order to ‘prove’ his thesis: that is, it isn’t history if it’s driven by hate and, quite literally, by partiality.

The limit to intellectual inquiry is the evidence: critical judgement is the best enemy of what Lipstadt calls a “purely ideological exercise”. As historians, with a unique responsibility for the remembrance of the past Waldron acknowledges is so important, we should both champion and enforce those standards of scholarly – and respectful – inquiry.


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