Why Truth Does Matter

From Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, Continuum 2006, pp. 18-20.

But does it really matter? Is it worth bothering about? Academic fashions come and go. Dons and professors are always coming up with some New Big Thing, and then getting old and doddering off to the great library in the sky, while new dons and professors hatch new big things, some more and some less silly than others. Casaubon had his key to all mythologies, Derrida had his, someone will have a new one tomorrow; what of it.

Yes, is our answer; it does matter. It matters for various pragmatic, instrumental reasons. Meera Nanda discusses in Prophets Facing Backward the way Hindu fundamentalists in India have drawn on postmodernist scepticism and hostility to science in “Hinduising” Indian science, education, textbooks and the like. Richard Evans argues in his book In Defense of History that postmodernist scepticism about historical evidence and truth, along with valuable insights, also has dangerous implications.

Nazi Germany seemed to postmodernism’s critics to be the point at which an end to hyperrelativism was called for…There is in fact a massive, carefully empirical literature on the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Clearly, to regard it as fictional, or unreal, or no nearer to historical reality than, say, the work of the ‘revisionists’ who deny that Auschwitz ever happened at all is simply wrong. Here is an issue where evidence really counts, and can be used to establish the essential facts. Auschwitz was not a discourse. It trivializes mass murder to see it as a text. The gas chambers were not a piece of rhetoric. Auschwitz was indeed inherently a tragedy and cannot be seen as either a comedy or a farce. And if this is true of Auschwitz, then it must be true at least to some degree of other past happenings, events, institutions as well.[1]

That passage is in a book published in 1997. Three years later Evans saw his point enacted in a court of law.

In the David Irving libel trial held two years ago, in which I served as an expert witness for the High Court in London, Irving was suing Penguin Books and their author Deborah Lipstadt for calling him a Holocaust denier and a falsifier of history. It was not difficult to show that Irving had claimed on many occasions that no Jews were killed in gas chambers at the Auschwitz concentration camp. He argued in the courtroom, however, that his claim was supported by the historical evidence. The defence therefore brought forward the world’s leading expert on Auschwitz, Robert Jan Van Pelt, to present the evidence that showed that hundreds of thousands of Jews were in fact killed in this way. Van Pelt examined eyewitness testimony from camp officials and inmates, he looked at photographic evidence of the physical remains of the camp, and he studied contemporary documents such as plans, blueprints, letters, equipment orders, architectural designs, reports and so on. Each of these three kinds of evidence, as the judge concluded, had its flaws and its problems. But all three converged along the same lines, creating an overwhelming probability that Irving was wrong.

Just as important as this was the fact that it was possible to demonstrate that Irving’s historical works deliberately falsified the documentary evidence in order to lend plausibility to his preconceived arguments, principally his belief that Hitler was, as he said on one occasion, “probably the best friend the Jews ever had in the Third Reich”. Falsifying documents involved not just leaving words out from quotes but even putting extra words in to change the meaning. For example, quoting an order from Himmler that a “Jew-transport from Berlin” to the East should not be annihilated as if it were a general order that no Jews at all, anywhere, were to be killed, by the simple expedients of adding an “e” to the German word Transport, making it plural, and omitting the words “from Berlin”, and hoping that other researchers wouldn’t trouble to check the source, or if they did, wouldn’t be able to read the handwriting (which is actually very clear and unambiguous). Or by adding the word “All” to the note of a judge at the Nuremberg Trial in 1946 on the testimony of an Auschwitz survivor which actually said “this I do not believe”, after a small part of her testimony, to make it look as if he did not believe any of it. 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.[2]


[1] Richard Evans, In Defense of History, W.W. Norton and Company 1999 pp. 106-7

[2] Richard Evans, Contribution to the ‘Great Debate on History and Postmodernism’, University of Sydney, Australia, 27 July 2002, published as “Postmodernism and History” at Butterflies and Wheels, October 22, 2002.

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