Holocaust denial and professional history-writing
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The purpose of this thesis is to examine Holocaust denial and professional historiography. Although much has been written about both subjects, the issue of distinguishing between them seems to have been largely ignored. They are, however, linked because of the way deniers conduct their business: in the attempt to make credible the claim that the Holocaust never happened, deniers mimic the styles and conventions traditionally employed by professional historians. Using footnotes and writing in the third person, deniers hope to get the surface right and make their readers believe their work. But appearances are deceiving, for deniers do not do history and are not historians. Theirs is a claim that defies morality and any sense of historical reality. Professional historians, while undoubtedly recognizing the moral bankruptcy of deniers and certainly not accepting their work as historical writing, have failed to make evident enough that deniers are not historians. Moreover, those who have attempted to refute deniers – and not often have these been professional historians – have usually done so on the basis of evidence: they have gone back to the data and shown how deniers have falsified or misrepresented it. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with that method, my own tack is different. At the same time as I take for granted the fact that deniers are not historians, what I aim to do is show how that is the case. Thus, this is partly a way beyond factual analysis, and partly the framework for factual refutation should it ever become necessary. Until deniers do history, however, evidence-based refutation is not necessary, and this very recognition should be implicit and explicit in any examination of Holocaust denial. My hope is to make this clear in three distinct but nevertheless related chapters. The first is about the evolution of Holocaust denial and how deniers have, especially in recent years, attempted to convey the appearance of legitimate scholarship. In the second, I focus on competing narratives as part of my effort to show that the appearance of denial literature is just part of deniers’ mode of deception. There is a major difference between competing narratives that are compatible – historical narratives vs. historical narratives – and between competing narratives that are incompatible – historical narratives vs. denial literature. Drawing comparisons between the two should make more evident the genre-specific characteristics of history-writing and Holocaust denial. They are not, and can never be, the same, no matter how much deniers may try to convince us otherwise. But what to do about this dichotomy? That question is largely the basis for my third chapter. It is my contention that turning to the evidence cannot be the only method by which to distinguish between history and denial. More is required to convince others of the falsity of deniers’ claims, and for me this is a larger issue, one that must take into account not just how but also why we write about the past. Lost is the sense that there is an ethical component to history-writing, specifically as this relates to events like the Holocaust, the issues surrounding which seem to require no less than a general notion of right-wrong. Judging between accounts thereby takes on a more meaningful role in the sense that focusing solely on issues of true-false tends to minimize the importance of the Holocaust as lesson. So, too, I think, does this lend itself rather easily to the disconcerting placement of post-modernism/relativism and Holocaust denial under the same sign. That is, Holocaust denial is untrue, and because post-modernists are often condemned precisely because they question the very notions of truth and objectivity in historical writing, deniers and post-modernists are often linked. However, such a narrow focus risks missing the forest for the trees. Instead of looking solely at how post-modernism threatens “the truth,” history would be better served through the use of post-modern concepts in order to make more evident the ethical component of the discipline of history. In fact, this is what a number of scholars from other disciplines have suggested, for it is in the meaning of the Holocaust – the Holocaust as lesson – that we have the best prevention against denial. Our discipline, after all, is comprised of much more than facts. The more effectively we impart this to students and readers, the better the chance they will understand who historians really are, what they really do, and why it is important. This alone should make clearer the idea that deniers are not historians, and that what they say is wrong on much more than just a factual level.
DegreeMaster of Arts (M.A.)
SupervisorKent, Christopher A.
CommitteeMatheson, Terry; Korinek, Valerie J.; Fairbairn, Brett
Copyright DateAugust 2005
Institute for Historical Review