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In DenialHistorians, Communism and Espionage
By John Earl Haynes
Encounter BooksCopyright © 2005 John Earl Haynes
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRevising History
Studying historians and their methods is, for the most part, the stuff of boring graduate seminars. It means taking one step back from the actual events and people that make history interesting and dramatic. Generally it requires tedious discussion of sources and methods, among other technical issues, and carping about interpretations of documents or recondite epistemological questions. But historiographic debates can also be illuminating, and it is important that they be allowed to run their course.
In 2000, to take one prominent example, a historiographic argument moved out of the seminar and into a British court and the international public square when David Irving, a British writer, sued American historian Deborah Lipstadt. Irving charged that Lipstadt had libeled him by labeling him a Holocaust denier in a book devoted to that topic. A prodigious researcher and prolific writer, Irving did not deny that he had maintained in books, in speeches and on his website that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz and that most of Hitler's Jewish victims succumbed to disease instead of being murdered. Nor did he deny that he had claimed that the number of Jewish dead during World War II had been grossly inflated for political reasons and that the eyewitness testimony of most Holocaust survivors was worthless. Irving also maintained that Hitler had no plan to exterminate Jews; indeed, he claimed that Hitler actually tried to curb Nazi excesses. The trial, and Lipstadt's subsequent victory, drew worldwide attention to the bizarre intellectual netherworld where a cadre of so-called historians labored to "prove" that the Holocaust never happened in scholarly-looking books, complete with footnotes, scientific-sounding analyses and extensive interviews.
As a practical matter, Irving could not have sued in an American court. Under American law, with its tradition of maximizing free speech and debate, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff bringing the action. To get into an American court, Irving would have been required to demonstrate that Lipstadt's statements were false and were made with premeditated malice. Under British libel law, however, the burden of proof is on the defendant to show the complete accuracy of any statement resented by the plaintiff. If Lipstadt had failed to substantiate her description of Irving with ample evidence and expert analysis, her statements would have been held libelous, she would have faced crippling monetary damages, and her publisher would have had to withdraw her book from sale. It has long been common for historians facing a British libel action to withdraw controversial statements, even though they were confident of their factual accuracy, rather than risk financial ruin from an unsympathetic judge or jury. But Irving had misgauged his foe as well as ignoring the evidence she could bring into court.
With the military defeat of the Nazi regime in 1945, millions of documents became available to scholars. While many records were destroyed, notably those from many of the extermination camps, there were enough traces and trails in what had survived to make the story of Nazi crimes clear. There was, for example, the chilling "Wannsee Protocol" of a 1942 planning conference of Nazi regime officials, which began with the statement, "SS-Obergruppenfuehrer Heydrich gave information that the Reich Marshal had appointed him delegate for the preparations for the final solution of the Jewish problem in Europe and pointed out that this discussion had been called for the purpose of clarifying fundamental questions." More directly, the liberated concentration camps provided irrefutable proof of dreadful Nazi crimes: not only piles of corpses and mass graves, but surviving victims as well, pitiful half-starved creatures whose pictures shocked the civilized world.
Expert witnesses called by Lipstadt's defense team demolished the scholarly pretensions and claims to objectivity of the Holocaust revisionists and demonstrated, as the judge in the case noted, that Irving misquoted sources, mistranslated documents, wrenched material out of context, twisted the meaning of documents and used dubious sources. When eyewitnesses supported his thesis, Irving accepted their testimony; when they cast doubt on it, he belittled the value of eyewitness testimony. But unlike a merely incompetent historian, who might be expected to make errors in a random way, the judge found, Irving consistently misconstrued his material all in one direction: to exonerate Hitler and minimize the horrors of the Holocaust.
Holocaust revisionism has never established a beachhead within the historical profession-at least not yet. The challenge to the facts of the Holocaust came from cranks and amateurs who lacked training in historical methods and arguments. Some, like Irving himself, fancied themselves professional historians but had no graduate degrees in history or appointments in academic institutions. Those few professors who engaged in Holocaust revision were usually in disciplines far removed from history, like Arthur Butz, an engineering professor at Northwestern University, or Robert Faurisson, a prominent literary scholar in France whose Holocaust "investigations" were praised by MIT linguist Noam Chomsky.
Defense of Nazi mass murder is not acceptable in the scholarly world and shouldn't be. But another species of historical revisionism, one that is equally repugnant, is practiced with impunity in the academy. The number of apologists for the former Soviet Union and its mass murders dwarfs the handful of aberrant pro-Nazi academics in America. Sympathy for the Communist project and distaste for attacking it are today fully accepted in American higher education.
It was not always this way. From the 1930s onward the temper of the academic world had been liberal but not sympathetic to communism. The "Popular Front" variety of liberalism, in covert alliance with the Communist Party, gained some popularity among liberals in the late 1930s, but the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 soured many on that relationship. The 1942-45 wartime alliance of the United States and the USSR briefly resurrected Popular Front liberalism, but that died quickly when the Cold War flamed up from the ashes of the Nazi defeat. By the late 1940s, 1950s and into the 1960s the political tone of academic life was set by an anticommunist liberalism that defined itself as equally hostile to fascism and communism, both seen as varieties of totalitarianism.
But in the 1970s, the American academic world began to change. The anticommunist consensus that had dominated American culture since the late 1940s broke down in the scholarly world, although not among most Americans. The unpopularity of the Vietnam War, and the conviction that anticommunism had led America into it, was likely the largest factor in discrediting opposition to communism. Contributing as well, however, was a belated backlash against the excesses of McCarthyism, a moment when some conservatives had used anticommunism to bludgeon not just Communists and their sympathizers, but liberals, leftists, the Democratic Party and the New Deal heritage as well. More to the point, many younger scholars entering the academic world had been activists in the militant "New Left" of the late 1960s and early 1970s or sympathetic with its radical goals. This new generation of radical scholars regarded the United States, not the USSR, as the chief menace in the world.
These radical academics thoroughly changed the ideological atmosphere of the scholarly world. In particular, their hostility toward anticommunism affected two fields: the history of Soviet communism and the history of domestic American communism.
Revising the Histor y of Stalinism
The Soviet regime was a tyranny from its origins. It took power in 1917 in an armed coup and dispersed at gunpoint the freely elected Constituent Assembly in 1918 when a majority refused to support Bolshevik rule. The Soviet state not only suppressed democratic liberties; it engaged in mass murder from its very beginnings. But Lenin's "Red Terror" was only a prelude to Stalin's reign, with its use of violence and deliberate starvation to collectivize agriculture and break the peasantry, followed by ideological show trials and the "Great Terror" of the 1930s. In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev acknowledged some of the mass murder in a famous speech to a Soviet Communist Party congress, putting the blame on one man, Joseph Stalin, and his "cult of personality." Khrushchev allowed a highly restricted opening of the record, releasing only material that indicted Stalin (while Lenin went unmentioned), but even this partial opening, which proceeded with fits and starts, came to an end when Khrushchev was displaced as Soviet supreme leader in 1964. Decades of stonewalling, closed archives, dishonest official history and repression followed the brief period of de-Stalinization. In contrast to the ready availability of seized Nazi records, most of the sensitive material that might embarrass the Soviet regime or expose the crimes of the Lenin and Stalin eras remained hidden in archives that tightly controlled not only who was given access but which files they were allowed to see. Particularly sensitive material-including documentation on covert funding of foreign Communist parties, subsidies to foreign terrorist organizations and crimes against humanity such as the Katyn Forest massacre of prisoners of war-was pulled out of ordinary archives and secreted in special repositories.
Despite the unavailability of documentation, however, there was a public record that could be sifted by scholars and there were witnesses: people who had escaped from the USSR in the 1930s and 1940s, Gulag prisoners rehabilitated after Stalin's death, and Soviet defectors. The Soviet regime also permitted large numbers of Jews and ethnic Germans to emigrate to the West in the 1970s. Soviet dissidents gathered bits and pieces of evidence and interviewed survivors. Using this evidence on the broad issue of the Soviet regime's character, Adam Ulam, Richard Pipes, Martin Malia and other scholars emphasized the totalitarian nature of Stalinism and the centrality of Stalin in shaping the lethal brutality of the Soviet state. But no book did more to publicize the crimes of communism than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's monumental Gulag Archipelago, smuggled out of the Soviet Union in the early 1970s, which constructed a history of the Gulag prison labor system based on underground literature and survivors' memoirs. Within the scholarly world, Robert Conquest's The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties (1968), Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps (1978) and The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986) provided a similar portrait of the Stalinist nightmare, in which millions starved to death in the collectivization drive of the late 1920s and early 1930s, were executed in the Great Terror or died in the Gulag, or survived but were imprisoned or forcefully exiled to remote parts of the USSR. Allowing that the lack of access to Soviet archives required extrapolation from incomplete data, Conquest estimated the total of those killed from the collectivization campaign, the state-induced Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 and the "Great Terror" of 1937-38 at more than twenty million.
From the late 1970s onward, however, a determined group of younger American scholars began an effort to "normalize" the Stalinist regime by minimizing the number of victims of the Terror and the Gulag. Attacking the reigning view of Soviet history, they argued that responsibility for the Terror lay not so much with Joseph Stalin and the Communist system as with a bureaucratic process that got out of control. These Soviet history revisionists had fewer obstacles to overcome in their effort to rehabilitate Stalin or Lenin than the Holocaust revisionists had faced. Until 1991 the Soviet regime remained in power and zealous in presenting a totally favorable view of its history. There were no photos of the KGB's mass burial sites and no liberating armies freeing Gulag labor camp prisoners. Soviet archives were largely closed to Western research, and Soviet authorities vetted what was open to insure that nothing damaging to the regime was accessible.
Under these circumstances, revisionists reinterpreted the limited and sometimes ambiguous documentary record to present a benign view of Stalinism. They belittled testimony by survivors of the Gulag as the biased complaints of anticommunists or embittered exiles. Solzhenitsyn, for example, was widely derided as a "reactionary, chauvinistic, messianic Russian nationalist" and smeared as anti-Semitic to boot. Whereas Conquest had estimated the number of deaths from Stalin's Great Terror in the late 1930s as being in the millions, pioneering revisionist Jerry F. Hough (Duke University) in 1979 wrote that "a figure in the low hundreds of thousands seems much more probable than one in the high hundreds" and that a lower figure of only "tens of thousands" was "even probable." Another leading revisionist, Professor Sheila Fitzpatrick of the University of Chicago, also placed the maximum number executed in the "low hundreds of thousands." Robert Thurston (Miami University of Ohio) devoted an entire essay in Slavic Review to assailing Conquest's work, and J. Arch Getty (University of California, Riverside) included an attack on Conquest's research in his influential Origins of the Great Purges. Getty avoided providing a numerical estimate of Stalin's victims but insisted that the totals were very low, not in the millions or even hundreds of thousands. All he would concede was that "many thousands of innocent people were arrested, imprisoned and sent to labor camps. Thousands were executed." Getty absolved Stalin of responsibility for planning mass murder, depicting him as a moderate unable to control an intrabureaucratic struggle that regrettably got out of hand. A widely used textbook written by the University of Pennsylvania and Central European University's Alfred Rieber, A Study of the USSR and Communism, was equally dismissive of the claims about millions of victims, saying that "estimates place the total arrests in the hundreds of thousands and the total executions in the tens of thousands."
Minimizing the numbers murdered in Stalin's terror was not merely a perverse pastime, it was a cornerstone in the larger revisionist project to discredit the view that Soviet communism was a species of totalitarianism or even especially oppressive. The chief goal was to depict the Soviet Union as not so very different from societies in the West and, consequently, nothing to fear and even something to admire.
Excerpted from In Denial by John Earl Haynes Copyright © 2005 by John Earl Haynes. Excerpted by permission.
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