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Postmodernism and Holocaust denial

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As a part of my year 12 Extension history course, I was required to write an essay on a historiographical issue of my choosing. I thought some of you may be interested in it. An explanation of the selected topic is contained in the synopsis.


Mark T.

Has the Irving trial and Holocaust denial highlighted weaknesses in postmodernist thought about the nature of history?


The following essay analyses the effects of both the emergent phenomena of Holocaust denial, and the events of the Irving-Lipstadt libel trial, on postmodernist theories about the nature of history. The focus question was derived from a convergence of my two initial areas of research, explicitly postmodernist history and Holocaust denial. The Holocaust is an event that has found itself inextricably linked with the debate about the nature and purpose of history. This is a fact that can be attributed to both its horrendous nature, and the need to establish its truth and prevent its denial.

Contained in the essay is an examination of the views professed by the most vocal historians from each side of the debate, namely Richard Evans, Deborah Lipstadt, Keith Jenkins, and Robert Eaglestone. Primarily I have concentrated on what these historians have said specifically in relation to the impact of Holocaust denial on postmodernism, however their theories about the wider debate concerning the nature of historical research in general have, on occasion, been included for the sake of clarifying precisely where criticism of the opposing theories has originated from. Each of the historians’ interpretations will be accompanied by a personal assessment of their ideas.

Ultimately the essay argues in favour of the traditionalist side of the debate, that is to say that Holocaust denial and the Irving trial have indeed highlighted weaknesses in postmodernist thought about the nature of history by showing that history can and must be done with the objective of discovering the truth. There is no scholarly debate as to whether or not the Holocaust took place. The intention of the essay is thus to examine the most effective means of showing why this is the case, and why it must forever stay that way.


In her book, Denying the Holocaust, Deborah Lipstadt accused the infamous British Holocaust denier, David Irving, of being “An ardent admirer of the Nazi leader” and of “distorting evidence and manipulating documents to serve his own purposes.” Irving responded to these allegations by initiating a lawsuit against Lipstadt, claiming that her comments were both false and defamatory. The judge, who dismissed Irving’s case, reaffirmed Lipstadt’s accusations, stating that Irving, “for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence”2. This judgement served to fuel the already raging fires of the current debate regarding the nature of history and the once widely acknowledged, now fervently questioned, ability of historians to deliver an impersonal and objective account of past events. Adherents of the traditional objectivist mode of history jumped on the judgement as a vindication of their theories, citing such details as the fact that Irving’s version of the Holocaust was proven to be untrue by an objective analysis of the evidence. Postmodernists have thus been forced to defend their ideas, claiming that they have been widely misunderstood, and that it is in fact their theories that offer the most effective means of revealing the likes of Irving as the pseudo-historians that they are. Even before the Irving-Lipstadt libel trial, the phenomena of Holocaust denial had come into the centre of the debate concerning conventional historiography. The overwhelmingly horrific nature and contemporary significance of the Holocaust has made its denial something necessary for historians to combat, with both sides of the debate claiming that their theories present the most effectual means of doing so.

Postmodernism presents itself in many faces and many varieties, each of which have a different idea as to what precisely the central theories mean for practicing historians. The fundamental conception of postmodernism is the belief that historians are inevitably ‘ideologically positioned’, meaning that the social, political, economic and religious backgrounds of the historian will always determine from what position their histories are written. Ultimately this would make a fair-minded and objective account of historical events unachievable. On this all postmodernists would agree, but for the most part this is where the agreement ends. In it’s most extreme guise, postmodernism would take this basic concept to mean that the truth is unattainable, history is nothing more than stories historians tell about what they think happened in the past, and none of these stories is more or less valid than the other. It is this idea that has arguably given credence to Holocaust denial. The more moderate, more sensible, and seemingly more popular brand of postmodernism does not commonly preach equal worth for multiple contradictory views on issues of such significance as the Holocaust. But while this moderate postmodernist strain cannot be blamed for the growing presence of denial, the ineffectual ideas it has proposed to combat it have clearly highlighted weaknesses in its theories about the nature of history.

Since the mid-1970’s Holocaust denial has grown considerably both in popularity and legitimacy. This is a fact attributed by numerous advocates of the traditional empiricist mode of historiography to the emergence of postmodernist theories. It is the fundamental idea of postmodernist history that has come under attack, the idea that regardless of how impartial and free of crude bias the historian may attempt to be historical truth cannot be ascertained and that therefore no single history is closer to the truth than the next. This hyper-relativist attitude can be summed up no better than in comments made by Keith Jenkins in his book, Re-thinking history, “the past has gone and history is what historians make of it when they go to work”, “the past is a text to be read” and “history is interpretation” 3. Not only do such propositions make the refutation of Holocaust deniers’ version of the ‘truth’ unachievable, it serves to give them a legitimate place in intellectual discussions because their point of view is no more or less valid than the point of view of anyone else, even if they are motivated by anti-Semitism, as Irving was judged to be4, or other doctrines of hate. So it is not without justification that Lipstadt concludes that postmodernism has, “opened the doors of the academy, and of society at large, to an array of farfetched notions that could no longer be dismissed out of hand simply because they were absurd”5. These accusations are not aimed at “equating” postmodernists with Holocaust deniers, as Diane Purkiss seems to think 6, they are intended to show that attempts to establish an environment that undermines the role of truth has serious repercussions, that among them is the inability to perform the otherwise very simple task of revealing with truth the lies of Holocaust denial.

For adherents of the objectivist strain of history, the judgement passed down upon conclusion of the Irving trial was verification of their long held belief in the ability of historians to reach genuine insights about past events through the scrupulous and impartial use of historical sources. What ultimately drew the Judge to derive the conclusions that he did was an objective analysis of evidence by the Auschwitz expert, Robert Jan Van Pelt, which revealed that Irving’s version of events was wrong. Van Pelt’s presentation involved a convergence of oral, photographic and documentary evidence that, while, as the judge concluded, was not flawless, painted a picture of the Holocaust that overwhelmingly contradicted that of Irving’s. Of equal importance to this was the defense’s expert witness’, Richard J. Evans, exposure of the deliberate falsifications and misinterpretations contained in Irving’s historical works. An example of the distortions discovered by Evans was Irving’s addition of the word ‘All’ to a statement made by a Nuremberg Trial judge in response to a minor section of a survivors testimony that turned ‘this I doubt’ into ‘All this I doubt’, effectively making it appear that the judge didn’t believe any of the testimony at all.7 While postmodernists are, to a certain extent, correct in suggesting that the historians’ interpretations of the past are influenced by their own religious, economic, political and sexual backgrounds, they are wrong to assert that this renders all historical accounts of an equal validity. Irving’s account of the Holocaust was proven to be wrong because he did not have genuine evidence to substantiate it, whereas Van Pelt’s did. As Evans points out, “If we actually believed that documents could say anything we wanted them to then none of this would actually matter and it would not be possible to expose historical fraud for what it really is”8. In a postmodern world Irving’s falsified version of events would be of equal legitimacy to that of Van Pelt’s objective and impartial version of events, the occurrence of the Holocaust would be just as unlikely as likely, and the deaths of six million people would be little more than a sad story.

In response to the emergent onslaught on their theories over such a profound and provocative issue that is the near complete destruction of European Jewry by Nazi Germany9, postmodernists have gone on the defensive, proposing that the questions they ask of the nature of history are in fact the most effective means of rebutting Holocaust denial. Postmodernists maintain that history is a genre made up of certain generic conventions, first and foremost of these is the providing of reputable evidence to support the historians’ assertions. Robert Eaglestone, in his book Postmodernism and Holocaust Denial, contends that David Irving was not at fault because he failed to be objective, objectivity being something that he dismisses as a ‘myth’, but because he did not comply with the conventions of the genre of history, specifically he manipulated, misinterpreted and falsified historical documents, thus failing to provide adequate evidence. Furthermore, Eaglestone argues that if historians are to do “reasonable” history, they must have “reasonable” worldviews, of which the Nazi, fascist and anti-Semitic doctrines of Holocaust deniers are not. It is these factors that draw Eaglestone to conclude that Irving cannot be considered an historian, and Holocaust denial cannot be considered history, “Holocaust denial isn’t part of the genre of history, but another genre, the genre of politics, or hate speech”10. Postmodernism, Eaglestone continues, through its ideas of history as a genre and the inevitable ideological positioning of historians, serves to “strip the masks of ‘impartiality’ and ‘historical objectivity’ from deniers to reveal denial for what it really is…anti-Semitic race-hate thinly camouflaged”11.

The central premise of Robert Eaglestone, and likeminded postmodernists, that Irving’s fault was that he breached the generic conventions of the genre of history, eludes the insurmountably important role that evidence played in the trial, and the denial debate as a whole. What was at stake was something much more fundamental than what postmodernists have proposed, it was the question as to whether or not to the massacre of some six million Jews through machine gunning and gassing in Nazi extermination camps ever took place. An objective analysis of the evidence is what ultimately proved that it unfortunately did, and, therefore, that Irving was wrong. Thus, Irving’s account of the Holocaust is not history, not because he failed to comply with the conventions currently agreed upon by historians, as Eaglestone suggests, but because any analysis of the evidence relating to the Holocaust, done with even the remotest semblance of objectivity, overwhelmingly falsifies the claim that it never occurred. If we were to accept the postmodernist position, then in the event that the conventions of historiography change so as evidence is no longer required, Irving could not, by any means, be established as the fraud he is.

This is not the only flaw in the postmodernist argument. Perhaps of even greater significance is the suggestion that Irving and his ilk can be considered wrong simply because they hold, what Eaglestone terms, “unreasonable” worldviews. We can indeed morally and politically label Nazism, fascism and anti-Semitism as unreasonable, even barbaric, abhorrent, hateful, evil, detestable, malevolent or any other negative term, as many times as we like but much more needs to be done to refute them than simply categorising like that, for they, as Evans points out, “can just put forward opposing moral and political arguments of their own in response, and in the end there are no objective criteria by which we can choose between the two positions”.12 What needs to be done is what the Irving trial demonstrated that we could do, put aside prevailing theories about the past and deliver an impersonal account of events without distorting or falsifying evidence while at the same time revealing that this is exactly what deniers don’t do. This is the only means at our disposal of indisputably revealing Holocaust denial, and the ideologies of hate that it is inseparably interwoven with, as “unreasonable”.

Postmodernism in all its forms has been dealt a serious blow to its credibility by the rise in the phenomena of Holocaust denial and the events of the Irving-Lipstadt libel trial. Not only has it given Holocaust deniers a legitimacy that they don’t, under any circumstances, deserve, it has been able to offer only exceedingly ineffectual means of engaging in the pivotal role of combating them. It is events such as the Holocaust that, for many reasons, make the search for truth in history essential. While preserving the memories of the victims of the ‘Final Solution’ from anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers is one of these, the most significant reason for remembrance is the issues relevance in contemporary society. If deniers are successful in their attempts to establish the Holocaust as a myth, the neo-fascist doctrines they adhere to will appear a lot more appealing to many people, and more respectable to society as a whole. What should be of equal importance to this is the idea of studying the past to ensure the mistakes of previous generations are not repeated. But, although no event such as the Holocaust has been repeated in the western world itself, we have been largely indifferent towards similar acts that have taken place beyond our own borders. The near complete lack of concern on the part of western governments, and in turn western people, during such atrocities as Operation Anfal in Iraq and the Rwandan genocide is unfortunate confirmation of this. Nonetheless, it is for these reasons, the potential re-emergence of fascism in particular, that the truth behind the Holocaust must be upheld; something postmodernist theory, by robbing us of the very ability to unearth the truth, is incapable of doing.

Aside from incontrovertibly exposing the weaknesses in postmodernist theories, the Irving trial and Holocaust denial have served to vindicate the traditional objectivist mode of historiography. The trial showed that it is possible to wash away enough of ones personal biases to deliver an impartial account of an objective reality through the critical examination of the evidence, and that it is also possible to reveal cases where this is not done. It showed that if we do not have truth, we have nothing but legitimacy for lies.

1 Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The growing assault on truth and memory, Penguin, 1994, pg. 161

2 Judgement handed down on 11th April 2000 by the Hon. Mr. Justice Gray, obtained at http://www.holocaustdenialontrial.org/ieindex.html, Judgment 13.167

3 Keith Jenkins, Rethinking History, Routledge Classics, 2003, pg. 8, 41, 42

4 Judgement, 13.167

5 Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The growing assault on truth and memory, Penguin, 1994, pg. 18

6 Diane Purkiss, A response to Richard J Evans, January 2003, obtained at http://www.history.ac.uk/projects/d...se/dianne1.html

7 Richard J Evans, Telling lies about Hitler: The Holocaust, History and the David Irving Trial, 2002, pg. 227

8 Richard J Evans’ contribution to the ‘Great Debate on History and Postmodernism’, University of Sydney, Australia, HTANSW, 2003

9 Apart from Jews, the Nazis also targeted Slavs, homosexuals, communists and gypsies [etc] for extermination.

10 Robert Eaglestone, Postmodernism and Holocaust Denial, Icon, 2001, pg. 50

11 Ibid., 8, 66

12 Richard J Evans’ contribution to the ‘Great Debate on History and Postmodernism’, University of Sydney, Australia, 27 July 2002

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