Not one speech can be taken on trust
Richard Evans’s Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial is a fascinating book. And it’s highly relevant to the question of whether or not it’s a good idea to debate Irving. Holocaust Denial on Trial has Evans’s report for the trial; see for instance his General Conclusion.
Irving is a particularly dangerous spokesperson for Holocaust denial because over the years he has consistently portrayed himself as a scrupulous historian with an unrivalled knowledge of the archival sources and an unerring eye for forgeries and falsifications. As we saw in Part I, he has repeatedly claimed that he is waging a ‘campaign for real history’ against legend and myth, truth against falsehood. ‘Real history’, he says, is based on the archives, not on copying other historians’ work, which is how academic, university-based historians in his opinion proceed. Many reviewers, and still more journalists, have been at least partly taken in by this ceaselessly propagated self-promotion and have paid tribute to Irving’s skill and energy as a researcher.
That’s the thing about all this – people are taken in by what people say. If someone confidently and firmly asserts something, we’re likely to believe it unless we have some existing reason to be suspicious. That’s one very compelling reason not to debate Irving, even apart from all the other reasons.
Reputable and professional historians do not suppress parts of quotations from documents that go against their own case, but take them into account and if necessary amend their own case accordingly. They do not present as genuine documents which they know to be forged just because these forgeries happen to back up what they are saying. They do not invent ingenious but implausible and utterly unsupported reasons for distrusting genuine documents because these documents run counter to their arguments; again, they amend their arguments if this is the case, or indeed abandon them altogether. They do not consciously attribute their own conclusions to books and other sources which in fact, on closer inspection, actually say the opposite…At least, they do not do any of these things if they wish to retain any kind of reputable status as historian. Irving has done all of these things from the very beginning of his career. Not one of his books, speeches or articles, not one paragraph, not one sentence in any of them, can be taken on trust as an accurate representation of its historical subject. All of them are completely worthless as history, because Irving cannot be trusted anywhere, in any of them, to give a reliable account of what he is talking or writing about.
Well there you go. How could one debate him when not one of his speeches, not one paragraph, not one sentence in any of them can be taken on trust? How could one debate him when he cannot be trusted to give a reliable account of what he is talking or writing about? One couldn’t. It would be like doing a clog dance on thin ice.
[I]f we mean by historian someone who is concerned to discover the truth about the past, and to give as accurate a representation of it as possible, then Irving is not a historian. Those in the know, indeed, are accustomed to avoid the term altogether when referring to him and use some circumlocution such as ‘historical writer’ instead. Irving is essentially an ideologue who uses history for his own political purposes; he is not primarily concerned with discovering and interpreting what happened in the past, he is concerned merely to give a selective and tendentious account of it in order to further his own ideological ends in the present. The true historian’s primary concern, however, is with the past. That is why, in the end, Irving is not a historian.
I quoted that last part in the Talking Philosophy discussion on Saturday. That was one of the points I didn’t want to get lost.