Trust, but verify: David Irving and the writing of history
David Irving, historian/Holocaust denier (although if anything should be an oxymoron, that would be it), is facing trial in Austria soon for violating a law against Holocaust denial (or, to be technical for "minimizing the crimes of the Third Reich").
I've been doing some research lately on the despicable Irving. I've developed ideas for a number of posts related to him, some of which I may actually get around to writing some day.
But right now I'm going to deal with only one aspect of Irving's tale. (All the information and quotes in the following post that are not otherwise linked come from the extraordinarily excellent book Lying About Hitler by historian Richard J. Evans, which I'm now in the process of reading).
I only vaguely followed Irving's sensational trial in 2000, in which he sued Deborah Lipstadt for allegedly libeling him in her book Denying the Holocaust. In it, she wrote that Irving was "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial," whose practice was to:
...misstate, misquote, falsify statistics, and falsely attribute conclusions to reliable sources.
British libel laws are notoriously skewed in favor of the plaintiff, and Irving fully expected to win or to force Lipstadt to settle for a tidy sum. But Lipstadt's publisher Penguin, to its everlasting credit, decided to spare no expense to defend her, and itself.
Historian Richard J. Evans was hired by Penguin as a consultant, and became the star witness for the defense, which was ultimately victorious. They mounted the risky strategy of asserting that everything Lipstadt said about Irving was in fact true, which meant that the burden of proof was on them to prove it to be so. And yet they succeeded, and a verdict was rendered that stated unequivocally that Irving was indeed everything Lipstadt had alleged, and more (or, one might say, less).
Irving was ordered to pay millions, but so far has cannily avoided doing so, as well as somehow managing to keep up his pace of speaking engagements--that is, until he made the mistake of entering Austria, a country from which he'd been banned many years ago and where he knew if he set foot he ran the risk of being arrested. And arrested he was.
Even Lipstadt, however, has defended his right to freedom of speech, (ironic, since he tried so hard to trample on hers), saying Irving should not face imprisonment. Many agree, and I am among them, although I certainly would like to see him pay the money he owes from the British trial.
All of this is mere background, however, to my main topic, which is: how is it that Irving got away for so long with the lies and distortions in his books? After all, is there no fact-checking for historians?
In a certain sense, Irving hadn't gotten away with it; some criticized him from the start for playing fast and loose with the facts. but only in a general way. No one had taken the time and expended the effort to do a systematic study of his research methods. So when Richard Evans was hired by the defense in the Lipstadt trial he had only a vague familiarity with Irving's controversial works, and he sat down to a monumental task: to evaluate whether in fact Irving had consistently misrepresented his sources as Lipstadt alleged.
Irving, a university dropout who had never received formal training as a historian and who therefore stood outside the usual professorial system of networking and collegiality, had received mixed reviews from historians but universal praise for his ability to do original research: to dig deep into archival sources, diaries, and arcane papers. He spoke fluent German, and was acknowledged as a tireless worker who ferreted out information no one else could find.
Irving's specialty was debunking the work of other historians. Irving alleged that other historians (unlike him) were lazy; that they relied on each other's work far too much, something he referred to contemptuously as "inter-historian incest." He turned his lack of academic credentials into a point of pride rather than embarrassment, superiority rather than inferiority. According to Evans:
Irving contemptuously almost never cited, discussed, or used the work of other historians in his books. Irving was evidently very proud of his personal collection of thousands of documents and index cards on the history of the Third Reich.
So Irving was a maverick right from the start, a sort of Indiana Jones of the history trade, going his own swashbuckling way. He burst on the scene as a very young man in his twenties, and had a great deal of success early on. But as time passed and his views became more strident, eccentric, and clearly Nazi-philic, and he lost a libel suit in the 70s, his reputation began to suffer greatly. It tanked when he became a Holocaust-denier. But he continued to write, and often to be read.
But still, by the time of the Lipstadt trial, it is a remarkable fact that no one seems to have actually done an in-depth study of Irving's sources and methods, not even Lipstadt. It seems that history, like many other academic disciplines (research science comes to mind), is an endeavor based at least partially on trust. There is a sort of tacit gentleman's agreement (forgive the sexism, I'm using it in the metaphoric sense) that we're all playing by the same rules here.
But with Irving, it turns out it would have been far better to trust, but verify. Because it wasn't until the lawyers for the defense obtained access to the bulk of Irving's notes and papers through the liberal British discovery process, and Evans was paid to use his knowledge of German to take the time to do an in-depth study of how Irving's original sources matched up with Irving's depiction of them in his writing, that the truly colossal magnitude of Irving's deception was revealed, as well as the depth of his anti-Semitism.
It's one of those stories that is very satisfying in its denouement: it turns out that Irving's own desire to silence his critics started a process in motion that ended up discrediting him in a comprehensive way that most likely would never have occurred had he not started the lawsuit. The wheels of historical justice grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine.
The larger fact is, however, as Evans writes in his book:
Historians...had to rely on each other's works. There was noting wrong with this, where the work relied on conformed to the accepted canons of scholarly research and rested on thorough, transparent, and unbiased investigation of the primary sources. So vast was the material with which historians dealt, so numerous were the subjects they covered, so consuming of time, energy, and financial resources was the whole process of historical research, that it would be completely impossible for new historical discoveries and insights to be generated if every historian had to go back to the original sources for everything he or she wanted to say. The need to rely on each other's work had nothing to do with copywriting or plagarism: on the contrary, the conventions of scholarship ensured that footnotes and other references were used in scholarly historical work to pinpoint precisely where the historian had obtained information, and to allow the reader to check up on this if so desired.
All those conventions of scholarship (that bored most of us to tears back in college), the careful and rigorous footnoting and sourcing, are designed to ensure that errors will not happen and that, if they occur, they will be discovered. But the entire edifice nevertheless rests on trust, because it is difficult if not impossible to check every footnote--and Irving cleverly made sure his were extra-impossible to check.
Not only was Irving in disagreement with other historians, but his footnotes were also unconventional, which should have been a tipoff. Many referred to private papers, and those that didn't were often lacking crucially important information such as page numbers. In fact, according to Evans's description, my guess is that if Irving had actually written his books in pursuit of a doctorate, his slipshod methods would probably have led to the degree being denied.
But Irving wasn't going for a doctorate; he didn't need one. He became successful without one. And, in fact, part of his stated motive for writing his books appears to have been his desire to show up the more regularly-credentialed historians--at the same time he was relying on their gentlemanly (and gentlewomanly) trust that he was following the same rules they were.
It turns out that he was not following those rules, but it took Evans's remarkable scholarship and persistence to uncover it, and the peculiar circumstances of the libel trial to prove it. As Evans writes, historians do not ordinarily commit the following offenses, or imagine that other historians have committed them:
...manipulate and distort documents, suppress evidence that ran counter to their interpretations, wilfully mistranslate documents in a foreign language, consciously use unreliable or discredited testimony when it suited their purpose, falsify historical statistics, or apply one standard of criticism to sources that undermined their views and another to those that supported them.
But Evans was able to prove that Irving had consistently done just that.
Historians face a dilemma: they must rely on trust, as Evans says, or otherwise spend all their time checking each others' work and re-inventing the wheel. And although one of the mottos of the blogosphere is, "we fact-check your ass," even the internet would have been of no assistance at all in uncovering Irving's game, unfortunately. He had an almost perfect m.o.: he choose arcane and difficult-to-find sources, and quoted them in ways that made them doubly difficult to trace. He became suspect, but no one had the actual goods on him until classic hubris drove Irving to push the envelope and sue someone who was accusing him of doing exactly what he was in fact doing.
Irving was arrogant enough to believe he would get away with it. Fortunately, he hasn't. But his tale tells us how very fragile truth can be, if one is determined to falsity it, especially if one adopts the guise of historian (or perhaps, for that matter, journalist).