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About astonkwok

A history teacher at a Christian girls' school.

The debate over the motives of Adolf Eichmann – reflection on the work of Bettina Stangeth

Bettina StangethIn recent weeks, there has been a lot of attention within the literary and academic worlds to the new book by Bettina Stangeth on the motivations of Adolf Eichmann.  (Well, “new” in the sense that it has been recently translated into English, because Stangeth wrote Eichmann before Jerusalem a few years ago already in German.)  It attracted a lot of attention, because it challenged a popular portrayal of Eichmann being a “banal” Nazi bureaucrat who took pride in the efficiency of his timetabling of trains of Jews being sent to death camps.  This latest trend in this debate over Eichmann raises a lot of poignant questions about the nature of History.

What is the debate?

Adolf EichmannAdolf Eichmann was a SS lieutenant colonel and one of the major organisers of the Holocaust. Eichmann was charged by Reinhard Heydrich with facilitating and managing the logistics of mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps. In 1960, he was captured in Argentina by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service. Following a widely publicised trial in Israel, he was found guilty of war crimes and hanged in 1962.

One of the observers in the trial was a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, Hannah Arendt.  Arendt noted that despite the monstrosity of his deeds, Eichmann came across as a very banal, functional, unthinking bureaucrat who lacked ideological motivation.  According to Arendt, Eichmann exhibited “neither guilt nor hatred”.  He took pride in being a good bureaucrat, who found creative solutions to ensure that the logistics of sending Jews to death camps was as efficient as possible.  Arendt coined the phrase, “banality of evil to describe this observed phenomenon of functionaries who unthinkingly participated in organised evil without any intrinsically evil motivations.

Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal(Arendt)

Hannah ArendtAt that time, Arendt attracted a lot of criticism for seemingly whitewashing Eichmann.  But those critics actually missed her point.  Arendt was in fact suggesting that we needed to expand our philosophical understanding of evil.  Evil people and deeds do not necessarily involve hatred or malevolent intention.  Evil can be systemic, and people who unquestionably accept the system can become perpetrators. Arendt was approaching a historical subject with philosophical interests about the nature of evil.

But supposing that Arendt made a very valid philosophical point about the nature of evil, was Eichmann an example of that “banality of evil” she so described?  Stangeth strongly disagrees.

Contexts of Bettina Stangeth

Stangeth is a German philosopher in political ethics.  She is currently a researcher and writer in the Hannah Arendt Institute.  She is an open admirer of Arendt’s work on political philosophy, and remains so today despite her obvious disagreement with Arendt over the motivation of Eichmann.

Aside from her profession as a philosopher, Stangeth is also a trained historian.  Like many German trained historians, she is well trained in archival research.  This is a key feature of the Rankian tradition, though it obviously has influenced other schools of historiography.

This led Stangeth to follow Eichmann’s trail to the previously unanalyzed collection of Eichmman’s documents, diaries and letters during his exile in Argentina from 1945 to 1961.  It is her close reading of Eichmann’s documents from 1945 to 1961 that led her to a very different characterization of Eichmann.

Stangeth’s argument – Eichmann was no banal bureaucrat!

At that time, many key Nazis and Nazi sympathisers formed exiled communities in Argentina.  Eichmann, as a former member of the Nazi echelon, was feted as a celebrity within that circle.  The documents were either written by him or by people who were communicating with him within that circle, or official correspondences.  Of particular importance was a set of manuscripts known as Argentina Papers.  Stangeth explained the importance in an interview with a Jewish online magazine, Forward (11 Sept., 2014):

The Argentinean Papers are the testimony of a large project conducted by a group of Nazis to bring the idea of National Socialism back to power. Eichmann was a part of this group, consulted because of his firsthand knowledge of the “Jewish question.” The alleged “Sassen Interview” is the protocol of their meetings. Members of the group wrote their own drafts for discussions, and Eichmann planned to publish his own book together with Willem Sassen, who was the conductor of this perverse historian’s club. So the Argentinean Papers shows us both the portrait of a radical Nazi group with incredible international connections, and Eichmann’s thoughts and eloquence outside the glass box in Jerusalem.

What emerged from these documents was an ideologically motivated Nazi who was committed to the “resolution of the Jewish question”.  Eichmann was also plotting along with his fellow Nazis to return Germany back to National Socialism.  He had tasted power, and the idea of living out the rest of his life quietly in exile was not appealing.

If this was true, then the image of a banal bureaucrat of death was a lie, a lie perpetuated by Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem and accepted by many who observed the trial, including Arendt.  Eichmann was convinced that if he successfully portrayed himself as a functional banal bureaucrat, he could escape the death penalty, even in an Israeli court.  Thus far this interpretation has been overwhelmingly accepted by historians, and seen as the “definitive” interpretation of Eichmann’s motives.

Were her sources more important than contexts and purposes?

For students of historiography, this latest chapter in the Eichmann debate provides some interesting food for thought.  It is, for instance, very difficult to see how Stangeth’s contexts played a major role in influencing her interpretation.  She admired Arendt, and thinks that her overall philosophical point about the nature of evil remains valid.  Like Arendt, Stangeth had initially approached Eichmann with the mindset of a philosopher.  Her purpose was to further explore the philosophical problem of evil.  However, it was the chance discovery of the Argentine Paper that led her to adopt the approach of a historian.  Eichmann, in the end, turned out not to be a philosophical problem but a historical problem.  It was the evidence that turned out to be far more influential than her initial purposes for research or the large-than-life intellectual influence of Hannah Arendt.

This leads to a few more questions.  Firstly, has Stangeth reached that definitive interpretation of Eichmann’s motives, an objective view of the past, that “holy grail”?  A number of reviewers certainly seem to think so.  However, this is still early days, and it will not be surprising if subsequent historians will find problems with how she approached her sources, or read the sources differently due to differences in cultural contexts and temporal contexts.  Nonetheless, Stangeth’s interpretation of Eichmann’s motives does look unassailable.  It is backed by very careful and thorough reading of primary sources, and she came to that conclusion despite her affinity with Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy and despite that the fact that she initially assumed Eichmann to be the prime example of “banal evil”.

This leads to another question.  Does the volume of sources help one’s search for historical understanding?  Common sense would suggest yes.  As EH Carr pointed out, historians of ancient history typically suffer from a lack of evidence. Therefore, their views of the past often tell you a lot more about their contexts.[1] According to Stangeth, there are now more primary sources on Eichmann than on Hitler!  However, according to E.H. Carr, large amount  of primary sources can also create problems for historians (often modern) who get lost in their sources.  The largeness of the JFK archive, including recently declassified Soviet archives did not end the seemingly endless debate about JFK’s role in Vietnam conflict escalation, or the role he played during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War.

Certainly, Stangeth was lucky.  Not only did she chance upon the Argentine Papers, the new sources seem to give pretty clear directions.  Furthermore, though the discovered sources were voluminous, they were nowhere near the size of JFK archives, nor did they suffer from the problems associated with the Stressemann archives (see Carr, chapter 1).

Not many historians are that lucky.

A question of presentation

It seems the sensations caused by Stangeth’s work are due entirely to the nature of her claims about Eichmann’s motives and the apparent strength of her research, rather than the popularity of her work.  While some have described as impeccably organised and well researched, others have criticized it as “dense” and “unreadable”.  This might be a result of the translation as well as cultural differences between historical cultures in the English-speaking world and the German-speaking world.  But Stangeth clearly had her academic peers in mind as audience for her book.  Stangeth’s educational context as an academic philosopher and historian might not have impacted her conclusion, but it clearly impacted on how she presented her work.

But Stangeth is a creature of the 21st century.  She understands that academic work can only reach a limited audience and she has a professional responsibility to communicate with the general audience.  Therefore, Stangeth has been doing online magazine interviews and radio interviews.  (E.g. ABC, Deutsche Welle)  In that sense, her circumstances are in fact comparable to recent historians with “celebrity” status like Jared Diamond and (heaven forbid, but here it comes) Niall Ferguson, in the sense that they all understand historians have a responsibility to communicate to the public and engage the public in discussions about the past.  This creates obvious tensions between the historians’ academic roles versus their public roles, a tension that historians cannot avoid, and must balance thoughtfully and responsibly[2].


Stangeth’s latest work raises some interesting historiographical issues.  It would appear that Stangeth had arrived at her conclusions despite her intellectual contexts and philosophical bias, rather than because of them.  Her past training in historical research would have helped, but her original intention was to research Eichmann as a philosophical problem about the nature of evil rather than as a historical problem.  It was historical evidence that turned her to the conclusions.  This makes you wonder if the spirit of Ranke is not yet dead and buried.  But perhaps this begs us to re-read the last paragraph of the first chapter of Carr’s work, and reflect on Carr’s argument that sources and contexts live in a dynamic relationship.  It is not a deterministic relationship.

However, there is no question that Stangeth’s contexts affected the way she presented her work.  She is an academic historian and philosopher who live and breathe in the 21st century.  Like her peers, she understands her dual role as an academic historian committed to researching the past in as truthful and as balanced manner as possible, and her role as a public historian to communicate the substance of her research to the public in a way that engages them.


[1] This can be seen in the debates over the motives about Tiberius Gracchus, pitting historians of left-wing sympathies versus those with more conservative sympathies, as well as debates over the characterization of Cleopatra, which pits feminist historians versus those read the sources more plainly.

[2] In this sense, one must question the extent to which Niall Ferguson has fulfilled his responsibility as a public historian, in the sense that he openly views “history as a business”.


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John Hope Franklin on the role of a historian in confronting social injustice

ProfessorJohn Hope FranklinA highly respected African-American historian, John Hope Franklin passed away in 2009. His life and work is very thought-provoking as to the debate over what roles historians should play in public life.

John Hope Franklin, Scholar and Witness‘ (New York Times, 29 March 2009)

Notable extracts (bold emphasis are mine):

Dr. Franklin was first and foremost a major historian, whose landmark book, “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans,” first published in 1947, was a comprehensive survey that sold more than three million copies. The book also permanently altered the ways in which the American narrative was studied. “What distinguishes his history or historiography is that he, like few other historians, wrote a book that transformed the way we understand a major social phenomenon,” said David Levering Lewis, the New York University historian, who like Dr. Franklin studied under Theodore Currier at Fisk University in Nashville.

What makes good history?  What makes a good historian?  According to Rankian paradigm, a historian should approach his sources without any preconceived assumptions, or any preconceived bias.  One can delineate from that there should be a clear separation between the professional responsibilities of a historian and his/her personal politics.  Furthermore, the role of a historian should, in the words of Ranke, be to present the past as it was.  Many historians seem to delineate from that a good history then is this authoritative, well-researched book filled with facts.  Cold, dry facts.  Yet, as historians like John Hope Franklin seems to show, a great historian needs to do more.  A good historian must take the pain to communicate with the public.  And where one’s research topic (e.g slavery) has direct bearings on contemporary politics (e.g. civil rights), then a great historian must help to transform public understanding of the past to effect changes in the public.

I also find what Andrew Yarrow (New York Times Correspondent) said very illuminating.  Again, emphasis are mine.

Dr. Franklin often argued that historians had an important role in shaping policy, and no example was more personally salient than his experience with Thurgood Marshall’s team of lawyers as they worked to strike down segregation in the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education. As he recalled in a 1974 lecture, “Using the findings of the historians, the lawyers argued that the history of segregation laws reveals that their main purpose was to organize the community upon the basis of a superior white and an inferior Negro caste.”

Students of the history war debate in Australia between Henry Reynolds and Keith Windschuttle should see parallels between Franklin and Reynolds.  Both are, in their own right, excellent empiricist historian.  But both envisioned their responsibilities beyond the confines of the university lecture theatres.  Both saw important connections between past and present that need to be engaged.  This connection is echoed by E.H. Carr, who describes a neverending dialogue between the past and present.

Other notable quotes from John Hope Franklin.

On being an historian and an activist (bold emphasis are mine):

The writing of history reflects the interests, predilections, and even prejudices of a given generation. This means that at the present time there is an urgent need to re-examine our past in terms of our present outlook.” African-American Biography, Vol. 2

“One might argue the historian is the conscience of the nation, if honesty and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.” Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988

“I think knowing one’s history leads one to act in a more enlightened fashion. I can not imagine how knowing one’s history would not urge one to be an activist.” Emerge March 1994

“I want to be out there on the firing line, helping, directing or doing something to try to make this a better world, a better place to live.” Associated Press, October 2005

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‘Historians reassesses the battle of Agincourt’ (New York Times, 24 October 2009)

The article concerns changing interpretation of one of the most famous battles in medieval history between the English King Henry V and the French.

Historians reassesses the battle of Agincourt‘ (New York Times, 24 October 2009)

For centuries, the battle of Agincourt has been portrayed as a heroic battle in which the English longbow archers, led by their gallant king Henry V, vanquished their numerically superior French enemies.  It was a battle memorialised in paintings (see below), and celebrated by playwright like Shakespeare as the ‘band of brothers’.


It has formed a part of the English self-identity as the ones who could triumph against overwhelming odds.  The view has even filtered down to a recent computer game called ‘Medieval: Total War’.  (See below)


However, this view has recently been challenged by both English and French modern historians.

But Agincourt’s status as perhaps the greatest victory against overwhelming odds in military history — and a keystone of the English self-image — has been called into doubt by a group of historians in Britain and France who have painstakingly combed an array of military and tax records from that time and now take a skeptical view of the figures handed down by medieval chroniclers.

The historians have concluded that the English could not have been outnumbered by more than about two to one. And depending on how the math is carried out, Henry may well have faced something closer to an even fight, said Anne Curry, a professor at the University of Southampton who is leading the study.

This revisionist approach comes from a group of modern historians well versed in modern military science.  They read the primary sources more skeptically, and are more attuned to the “political, cultural and technological factors” as well as “the experience of the common soldier“.  They generally either have military backgrounds or are connected to people with strong military background.  In this case, academic historians have worked in close collaboration with the General David Petraeus in the writing of the Counter-Insurgency Field Manual, which is now recommended reading for commanders fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With regards to the Battle of Agincourt, Dr. Anne Curry has done what many historians have not done in the past.  She consulted a wide range of sources, including quantitative, statistical records.  These included

military pay records, muster rolls, ships’ logs, published rosters of the wounded and dead, wartime tax levies and other surviving documents.

Based on her calculation, she was able to work out the likely number of troops available to both sides.  She was also able to work out the background of the soldiers who served at the Battle of Agincourt.

…an extraordinary online database listing around a quarter-million names of men who served in the Hundred Years’ War, compiled by Ms. Curry and her collaborators at the universities in Southampton and Reading, shows that whatever the numbers, Henry’s army really was a band of brothers: many of the soldiers were veterans who had served on multiple campaigns together.

This is the first point I would like to make about this.  Ranke would like to imagine historians to be objective interpreters of primary evidence with no a prioriassumptions.  However, as this article has shown, the background of a historian matters.  Because Dr Anne Curry has keen understanding of military science, it influences her research team in deciding what evidence to focus on.  It is almost like what E H Carr said, the fisherman’s bait that determines the kind of fish one catches.

My second point is that.  Re-interpretation of the past quite often happens because different historians have different background.  These divergences background influences how one interprets evidence from the past, what evidence to focus on, and what questions to ask.

Also, re-interpretation does involve ‘tackling’ the dominant version of the past, because sometimes they become so entrenched in a community’s self-identity.  The English have centuries have celebrated and memorialised the Battle of Agincourt.  For Dr. Anne Curry, to challenge this ‘myth’ means to tackle the popular ‘memory’ of a community, a nation, head on.

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A Questionnaire about History … without ends

study historyI have come up with a list of questionnaire style questions for my students to ponder upon. I will post some of my responses in the next few posts, but the important thing to keep in mind is develop your own opinions.


  1. What is History?
  2. What should be the role(s) of a historian?
  3. Do historian always represent the past in the image of the present?
  4. Hayden White once suggests that historians are ultimately doing nothing more than writing fictions based on traces of evidence from the past. Would you agree with that?
  5. How have approaches towards the presentation of history changed over time?
  6. Do you thin ancient historians face different set of challenges in comparison with modern historians?
  7. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of these kind of ‘history’?
    1. Films
    2. Theatre and plays
    3. Documentary
    4. Historical fictions
    5. Games based on historical scenarios
    6. Biographies
    7. Autobiographies
    8. Annals
    9. Analytical histories
    10. Paintings
    11. Oral history
  8. What is meant by the ‘democratisation of history’? (Marnie-Hughes Warrington)
  9. Is the ‘noble dream’ ever possible?
  10. Do historians have ethical and social responsibilities?
  11. How are historians influenced by their backgrounds? Can this be a positive thing?
  12. Do academic historians have a more authoritative voice over the past than, say, non-academic historians?
  13. Why do historians see to disagree all the time?
  14. ‘History is like science.’ (J Bury)  What might Bury mean by this statement?  What do you think are the problems with this kind of approach to history?
  15. What makes a good historian?
  16. ‘The past is a foreign country.’  Explain this statement.  What ethical dilemma might this present to historians?

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What does Tacitus’ portrayal of Agrippina really reveal about Tacitus as a historian?

I shall write without indignation or partisanship; in my case the customary incentives to these are lacking. (Annals, 1.1.)

It seems to me a historians’ foremost duty is to ensure that merit is recorded, and to confront evil words and deeds with the fear of posterity’s denunciations. (Annals, 3.65)

The Annals, by Tacitus

The Annals, by Tacitus

The purpose of this short blog post is not to go over Tacitus’ portrayals of Agrippina.  These can be easily covered by the HSC study notes.  Instead I want to deal with Tacitus’ purpose behind the Annals, thus providing a richer perspective than the usual one-dimensional ‘Tacitus is biased against Agrippina’ argument.

For all the usual complaints against Tacitus, it is important to appreciate that as far as he was concerned, he was writing from a non-partisan perspective.  He claimed to hold no grudges.  However, as the second excerpt clearly illustrates, Tacitus is in fact driven by a strong sense of moral indignation about what he perceived to be the excesses of the imperial system.  He was nostalgic about what he saw as the virtues of republican Rome, and despised how it has fallen to the dictates of the power of an emperor.  He was disgusted with how the Senate had become sycophantic, powerless and corrupt over time.  For Tacitus, dictatorship and moral decline goes hand in hand.  This is how historian Michael Grant explains it,

… when state is unified under an omnipotent ruler, human happiness hangs by a thread.  When the emperor is a bad man, and rules badly, there is misery.  Oppressive rule causes – and is caused by –  moral degeneracy. (Grant, M., Tacitus: The Annals of Rome. Penguin, Harondsworth, 1997.)

It is important to appreciate this point when you examine Tacitus’ portrayal of Agrippina.  For Tacitus, the deeds of Agrippina are merely one of the symbols of the moral degeneracy of the empire.  So regardless of how ‘biased’ Tacitus might be against powerful women or not, Agrippina’s deeds as a power-driven woman was always going to be judged negatively by Tacitus.  For Tacitus, virtuous women are the bonds that held the old republic together, and Agrippina was anything but that.

This leads me to my next point.  Tacitus was a gifted writer, but he tended to cast characters into stagnate molds whose nature remain unchanged.  For instance, Nero was always a violent and morally depraved man whose vices were only held in check when his mother had some degrees of control over him.  Once he came out of her shadows, Nero’s vices knew no bound.  Agrippina was a power-driven woman who would murder and seduce to gain imperial power.  She made up her mind to kill Claudius even before they married.  Character development was not Tacitus’ strong point.

I hope this short blog post has shown there is more than one way to read Tacitus as commonly taught in many high school classes.  Yes, it is true that like many ancient writers, Tacitus came from a patriarchal world and there is no doubt that feminist historians have done much to deconstruct Tactius’ portrayals of the women of imperial Rome.  However, you should also be able to step away from the usual one-dimensional critique of Tacitus and see it from the perspective of the author’s purpose and style.

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Reflection on the relationship between history, fictions, films and games

As a history teacher with strong sympathy for the Rankean tradition, I tend to see a clear demarcation between history and fiction.  History should be an accurate representation of the past whereas fiction makes no such claim.  History is concerned with ‘truth’ that is solidly based on evidence.  Fiction is bounded by no such convention.  It is in its claim to historical truth that history derives its authority.  And even if scientific objectivity is impossible in the practice of history, good historical practice should still be characterised by open-mindedness, fair-mindness and balance.  Again, fiction is bounded by no such convention.  If anything, good fiction is characterised by passionate subjectivity.

Armed with this authority, historians like Richard Evans have been able to defend history from its abusers like David Irving during the Holocaust denial trial.  As Eric Hobsbawn said (remember the trial HSC exam?), in order to defend the past, one must assume the attitude that there is a clear distinction between history and fiction.

The First Man in Rome, by Colleen McCullough

Where does 'fiction' end and 'history' begin?

Yet when you look around a bit more, the line between history and fiction really is not as clear as it first seems.  The first thing that comes to my mind is a series of historical novels by a popular Australian novelist and scholar, Colleen McCullough.  She is famous for her Masters of Rome novel series.  The novel series cover the political turmoil in Rome during the last few years of the late Roman republic.

What is interesting about her historical fictions is the amount of historical research that actually went into her work.  While her work is a collection of ‘what-might-have-been’, her speculations are in fact based on solid research of available historical evidence.  When you also consider the fact that some famous ancient historical works from ancient Rome are really a mix of facts, speculations and rumours (Suetonious anyone?), all of a sudden the lines between history and history fictions is not so obvious.

I can think of two reasons why historians should not ignore ‘fictions’.  Like it or hate it, more people engages with history through the ‘fiction’ genre than the non-fiction genres.  This is especially so when you include genres like films, plays and historically themed computer games.  Dr Marnie Hugh-Warrington pointed out that statistically more people in America engage with history through films and documentaries than they do through academic books.  It is probably similar in Australia.  This type of popular engagement with history through fictions, films and games shape public history. If historians do not ‘engage’ with how history is portrayed through these popular mediums, historians might become irrelevant.

Another good reason why historians should not ignore fictions and films is that films and fictions have strengths that academic historical work often lacks.  This is the power of fictions and drama to enable the audience to ‘feel’ history, to ‘re-imagine’ the past vividly.  A good example to illustrate this is the recent two part television drama series on HBO called ‘Rome’.

Rome, HBO

Caesar's triumph. A scene from 'Rome' (HBO).

In an interview about the drama series, the film director openly stated that he did not aim for historical accuracy but he aimed for historical authenticity.  For example, in the drama series there was only one Battle of Philippi, yet historically there were two battles.  However, the director was very careful in making sure he accurately portrayed the relationships and attitudes of the time, such as relationship between men and women, masters and slaves, Romans and Greeks and Jews, plebians and patricians, and the role of public and private religions in Roman society.  (See this clip on how the director and historical consultant have approached the portrayal of women in HBO:Rome.)  The director also paid careful attention in reconstructing Roman army tactics.  (See this clip on portrayal of the Battle of Philippi.)  One can say that the usual sin of historical anachronism is remarkably absent in this television series.  HBO:Rome shows the potential strengths of historical drama series in engaging the public with history.

Yet what does it mean for historians to ‘engage’ with these popular mediums?  There is no absolute right answer to this very important question.  Should historians be the arbiter of public ‘history’, pointing the rights and wrongs of how history is portrayed in films, drama and fictions?  This is a position that many Rankean historians are very comfortable with, because it reflects the authoritative nature of history.  A good example was the debate generated by the film ‘Troy’.  (See Mark Rose, ‘Troy Fallen’, Archaeology 14 May 2004.)  Historians nitpicked the many errors in the film, including the use of coins in funerals in the film, which did not exist in late Bronze Age, and the unhistorical focus on the worship of Apollo among the Trojans in the film.

But this kind of ‘engagement’ is quite limited, and it does not take historians beyond the proverbial ivory tower.  How else can historians engage with the popular mediums?  I think some of the more successful attempts like the work of Colleen McCullough and HBO:Rome points to some possibilities.  First of all, historians should not be afraid to get involved.  This might involve actually producing the work (e.g. McCullough) or be directly involved in the production process of the work (e.g. HBO:Rome).

Secondly, Historians should be sensitive to the fact that genres like fictions, drama and films have very different conventions from academic history.  Often compromises have been made.  Fictions and films are ultimately public forms of entertainment.  Academic historical works are usually not thought of as entertainment, unless you’re a historical nerd like me.  However, what historians can offer to fictions and films is ‘historical authenticity’.  This is the ability to re-imagine the past through the thoughts and attitudes of the past.

Thirdly, historians need to be continually reflective on the mediums through which the past is communicated.

Engagement with public mediums of history is fraught with dangers from a Rankean perspective, but is necessary to ensure the relevance of the discipline.


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Historiographical lessons from Holocaust denial trial – Part 1

Warsaw ghetto liquidation, WW2In 2000, a libel case was fought in the British court that had direct relevancy to historiography.  This was the lawsuit issued by British holocaust denier David Irving against Penguin Books Publishing and Jewish-American historian Deborah Lipstadt.


David Irving was long regarded as a self-taught historian with specialisation in the history of Nazi leaders.  His notable books included Hitler’s War (1977), in which he portrayed Hitler as a rational statesman who has limited war aims.  Another one of his notable work was Churchill’s War (1984), in which he portrayed Churchill as a drunkard who lost the British Empire.  His note of fame was his book, The Destruction of Dresden(1963), in which he highlighted the destruction of civilians in Dresden by allied bombing during World War Two, and gave his estimates of civilian deaths at between 100,000 and 250,000.  This book became a bestseller, although during the Holocaust denial trial, his estimates were shown to be highly inflated and based on witnesses with limited credibility.  Throughout his student and professional career, he was dogged by controversies surrounding his close links with extreme right wing politics in Britain and Germany, as well as his anti-Semitism.

Irving decided to bring a libel lawsuit against Professor Deborah Lipstadt, an American historian at Emory University, who portrayed David Irving as one of the most dangerous holocaust deniers.  Among Irving’s controversial claims was that most European Jews did not die in gas chambers or crimes against humanity during the Second World War, but from diseases.  He also argued that the number of Jews who died was more like a few thousand rather than six million.  According to Lipstadt, one of the reasons why Irving decided to sue her in an English court rather than an American court was that in English courts, the burden of proof in a libel suit lies with the defendants, while in American courts, the burden of proof in a libel suit lies with the plaintiffs.  I.e., Lipstadt and her co-defendants, Penguin Books Publishing, had to prove that they did not unfairly damage Irving’s professional reputation and that Lipstadt was correct in labelling Irving as a racist and manipulative liar who twisted evidence to fit his slanted interpretations.

To do that, Lipstadt needed to delve into historiography, and she enlisted several notable historians to assist her, including Professor Richard Evans (Cambridge University) and Professor Christopher Browning (University of North Carolina).  Aside from serving as expert witnesses, they also helped Lipstadt in collating evidence and re-examining Iriving’s works.  Of particular importance was Evans’ careful cross-checking of the footnotes in Irving’s works.  Evans’ research and expert testimony would prove crucial in Irving’s downfall in this lawsuit.

Lesson 1: What is history?

Historians who are strong influenced by the Rankian school have seen this lawsuit as a watershed, because it seems to illustrate that you can prove history based on careful and objective examination of evidence.  Lipstadt noted in her book, History on trial (2005), that her case was based entirely on documentary evidence, and that not a single oral testimony from survivors and veterans was used in the trial.  This suggests that within limits, it is possible to construct historical account based on careful and fair analysis of documentary evidence and eyewitness accounts. In other words, the postmodernists have been wrong all along.  Richard Evans was most aware of this when he wrote his book, In Defence of History, in which he argued that postmodernists would have been unable to defend history in the face of onslaught by deniers of holocaust and other genocides, since they do not see a clear distinction between history and fiction.

There was the inevitable letter in the Guardian from a postmodernist who said this is all nonsense because we invent history, or words to that effect. But I think the trial did vindicate the possibility of obtaining accurate historical knowledge approaching the truth about the past, about past events, and did make it very clear where the line can be drawn. (Richard Evans, In Defence of History)

Even E.H. Carr made a similar point when he argued in his book, What Is History? that extreme relativism would lead to a morally dubious situation in which historians are unable to defend history from the deniers of genocide and war crimes.

Some legal scholars have been pointed out that the trial did not really resolve the debate between the Rankians and the postmodernists.  In a civil lawsuit, a judge need to decide between the plaintiffs and the defendants on a balance of probabilities.  Hence the best that a judge can do, in legal theory, is to decide that one side was most probably right.  Also, some legal scholars have also argued that in this case, Justice Gray was mainly concerned with whether Irving’s reputation was unjustly damaged, not with whether the Holocaust really occurred.  That question was beyond the professional mandate of the judge.

However, one might counter with two arguments.  First of all, the burden of proof in this case was with the defendants (Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Publishing), so they had to summon a very detailed case to prove their point.  Secondly, in order to prove their case, they had to prove that the historical evidence for the death of six million Jews in World War two was solid and irrefutable.

Lesson 2: Roles and responsibilities of historian

The second lesson that can be drawn from this case is that historians cannot sit in the ivory tower of academia and focus on their work alone.  They must engage with the public to communicate their research, and defend fair and responsible representations of the past from popular and political abuse of the past.

On this point, postmodernist historians would appear to be unable to fulfill that responsibilities.  In order to label a piece of work as an ‘abuse’ of the past, it implies that some works are fair and reasonably accurate representations of the past.  This would run against the grain of postmodernism, which is ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ and skepticism towards any pretension of academic authority.  (Lyotard)

If one accepts that historians have a moral responsibility to defend the past, and the Irving v Lipstadt trial certainly appears to illustrate that point, then an extreme relativist approach to the past is impossible.

This means that historians need to play a balancing act.  On the one hand, they must focus on the main task of separating facts from myths and fictions, and arriving at an interpretation that is as fair and accurate as possible.  As French historian Claude Mazauric stated,

History, as a means towards knowledge, has no other purpose than to establish the truth of past events by repositioning them in the network in which the historian finds them and to give them at least clarity, if not an explanation. That is why history is, indissolubly, establishment of facts and interpretation of recontextualised movement of which facts, in their singularity, are the materialisation.  (Claude Mazauric, ‘The role of historians is not the validation of social values’, L’Humanite, 15 January 2006)

Mazauric is only partly right, because on the other hand historians must be effective communicators to the public.  They must make effective contribution to the public debate about the past, and at times gave passionate defense of history.

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