One of the greatest challenges facing academic historians is establishing and maintaining the credibility of historical interpretation. History, as we define the term, is not the past itself, but is, in fact, an individual’s reconstruction of the past. Therefore, it becomes imperative that works of academic history present truthful representations of the past, lest the entire field of scholarship be devalued as merely informed opinion, subject to the whims and biases of any given author.
Critical in this process is the vigilant application of the historical method. In Richard J. Evans’ book Lying About Hitler, the author uses the historical method to analyze the work of David Irving, a writer who has offered his versions of the history of the Second World War as the only truly objective account of Nazi Germany. Evans examines his research methods, treatment of primary resources and interpretation of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany in preparing to give testimony in an English court, stemming from a libel suit brought by Irving.
Examining Irving’s evidence for authenticity and credibility, Evans almost immediately begins to uncover problems. Properly presented evidence must be correctly cited and traceable, and in Irving’s work, it often is not. In the 1991 edition of Hitler’s War, Irving tells of Hitler disciplining a Nazi officer for having looted a Jewish delicatessen. This information is only vaguely cited as having been gleaned from testimony at Hitler’s 1924 trial for his part in the “Beer Hall Putsch.” This citation hardly qualifies as traceable, as anyone interested in finding the source would have to read the entire trial record, as Evans does, and in doing so discovers numerous inconsistencies with Irving’s account.
In another case, Irving cites detailed crime statistics as evidence, but fails to provide page numbers in his footnote, which might dissuade an investigator from attempting to check the accuracy of the information. Evans, however, is not dissuaded, and learns that the “crime statistics” are in reality nothing more than Nazi propaganda, which are easily refuted by contemporary Interpol figures. These statistics are presented by Irving as entirely authoritative, when no legitimate historian would consider them to be so.
Much of Irving’s technique centers around his research methods, which focuses on the discovery of unique and heretofore unexamined primary sources. By being the only person to have seen these records (and typically they require translation from the original German), Irving becomes their sole interpreter, forcing others to accept his testimony as to their meaning and credibility. Irving then bases his questionable conclusions on these obscure documents. According to historian John Lukacs, often “a single document, or fragment of a document, (are) enough for Irving to build a very questionable thesis on its contents or the lack of such.” Yet often the translations upon which Irving builds are inaccurate, and skewed to change the meaning of the text.
Irving’s translations of Joseph Goebbels’ diary in his book Goebbels: Mastermind of the ‘Third Reich’, reveals many errors, errors which usually lead the reader to a false conclusion as to their meaning. In other places, Irving intentionally suppresses information that is contrary to his thesis, which is consistent with his pattern of distorting primary evidence when it does not support his established viewpoint. According to Evans, “In Goebbels, he ignore(s) the information indicating a meeting between Hitler and Himmler, despite the fact that he (is) familiar with the sources suggesting it.” In another instance, Irving mistranslates remarks made by Hitler regarding the Jews in October 1941, making the comments seem less threatening then they actually are, leading to a more benign interpretation than is justified by the original German. Here the historical method is betrayed, as it requires that the historian expose and explain contrary evidence, which Irving persistently fails to do. Instead he chooses to distort, misconstrue and manipulate the sources until they fit his needs.
The inevitable result of this twisting of primary sources is an untenable interpretation of the Holocaust, Hitler’s involvement in it and Nazi Germany in general. Irving’s books repeatedly make the claim that Hitler instituted no program for the extermination of the Jews. This interpretation cannot be substantiated by an objective assessment of the available evidence, which is required by the historical method.
Consideration for existing historiography on the subject would also lead one away from this interpretation, but here again Irving fails the historical method. Irving treats professional historians dismissively, and disregards their work in the field, depriving himself and his readers of access to this important scholarship. He complains that academic historians rely too much on each other in the formation of their interpretations, not seeming to realize that this mutual dependency is completely in line with the conventions of scholarship, and that proper footnotes and other citations provide adequate safeguards against faulty research.
It is, however, through these very conventions (demonstrated by the application of the historical method) that Evans is able to expose the weakness of Irving’s work. As he examines the evidence, he uncovers its lack of credibility or relevance. Upon closer inspection, Evans finds that much of the evidence, properly deciphered, actually argues against Irving’s thesis. The historical method also demands that the historian’s rhetoric be fair, balanced and truthful; Irving’s work is none of these. Finally, the need for peer review is never met, primarily as a result of Irving’s contempt for scholarship. When historians do get a chance to closely examine Irving’s work, they almost universally deride his research and conclusions.
In Evans’ words, “The real test of a serious historian [is] the extent to which he or she [is] willing or able to subordinate political belief to the demands of historical research.” Irving turns that challenge around, subordinating his historical research to the demands of his political beliefs, and thus fails the test as a historian. Evans continues “…if we mean by historian (his italics) 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.” Evans says historians “have a duty to read the evidence as fully and fairly as they can. If it contradicts some of the assumptions they have brought to it, they have to jettison those assumptions...Selecting evidence to support a case is one of the worst sins a historian can commit.” Rather than sacrifice his bias, Irving repeatedly sacrifices the credibility of his research, betraying the historical method and his own claim to be a serious historian.
David Irving held himself up to the academic community as a serious historian, and many accepted him at his word, even praising him for his tireless dedication to uncovering new primary sources, with one going so far as to label him a “Colossus of research.” However, once Irving’s work was subjected to the scrutiny of the historical method, its scholarly weaknesses immediately became apparent, and its veil of legitimacy was pierced. His shoddy research, twisted evidence and shaky interpretations being exposed for the frauds they were, Irving’s position as an unabashed purveyor of ideological nonsense was obvious to all, even to the judge in the libel case in England, where libel is typically easy to prove.
But the real winner in this case is the historical method, and by extension the entire community of academic historians. Had Irving’s work not been identified for the propaganda it was, had Irving continued to be accepted as a legitimate historian with merely a different point of view, the reputations of all historians would have been tarnished and the study of history as scholarship denigrated. Jonathan Freedland, a writer for The Guardian, called the judgment “a victory for history, for historical truth and historical scholarship.” Austrian journalist Robert Treichler credited Irving’s repudiation to “historians who repelled an attack which aimed to defame historical truth.” What is clearly indicated by this case is that it is through the vigorous application of the historical method that historical truth is defended, the integrity of academic history preserved and the reputations of all historians advanced. May it always be so.