A primer for dealing with conceptual and methodological problems in history and presents classic historical problems as a way to examine what history is, what it means, and how it can be told and understood.
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About the Author
Carl R. Trueman(PhD, University of Aberdeen) is the Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary and pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Ambler, Pennsylvania. He was editor of Themelios for nine years, has authored or edited more than a dozen books, and has contributed to multiple publicationsincluding the Dictionary of Historical Theology and The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology.
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The Denial of History
One of the popular clichés of contemporary culture is that all truth is relative. As one pop song once expressed it, "This is my truth, now tell me yours." This relativism has manifested itself within the historical profession over recent decades in terms of a rising epistemological skepticism, if not nihilism, that has tended in the most extreme cases to make all narratives simply projections of the present-day circumstances and opinions of the historian. This has been fuelled in part by the impact of some trends in continental philosophy and literary theory, and also by an increasing realization that the historian's situatedness, choice of subject, selection of evidence, etc., all have an impact on the nature of the historical narrative that is being constructed. It is now generally accepted that no history is "neutral," in the sense that it just gives you the facts. Said facts are selected and then fitted together into a narrative by historians who have their own particular viewpoints and their own particular ways of doing things. For example, if I were to sit down and write the history of the French Revolution, various factors would shape the final product: my nationality; my particular approach (am I interested in economics, or literature, or politics?); perhaps even my own views on whether monarchies are a good idea — all of these things will impact how I write and what conclusions I draw. After all, history is not simply "the past" but is a representation of the past by someone in the present; and a history of the French Revolution is a representation of the events to which that term refers by someone who has a variety of commitments that impact the historical task. As John Lukacs defines history, it is "the remembered past," and as such is inevitably shaped by those who do the remembering.
In this context, claims to neutrality are vulnerable to the kind of criticism launched by Nietzsche in the nineteenth century, and which also resonates with the thought of those other great masters of modern suspicion, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx: the claim to neutrality is merely a specious means of privileging my point of view — disguised as the simple truth, so to speak — over that of everybody else. I have truth, pure and simple; they have spin, propaganda, hidden agendas, etc. And, even if we do not go all the way with the criticism of a Nietzsche or a Marx, we must acknowledge at the outset that history written without a standpoint is not simply practically impossible — it is also logically inconceivable.
But does this acknowledgment that no history is neutral therefore require that all histories are, ultimately, biased to such an extent that we must acknowledge the validity of all? Is the history that says that John Lennon died in 1980 as valid as the history that claims that he was kidnapped by the CIA and is being held prisoner in Guantanamo Bay? Our instinctive reaction is to say no, of course not. But then the question must be asked: can we justify that claim? Why do we hold that the former is true and the latter false? If no history is neutral, then why can I not resolve the differences in these two narratives by seeing them in terms of the viewpoints of the two historians?
It is in this context that an important distinction needs to be made: the distinction between neutrality and objectivity. Only when this distinction is understood can we begin to see how we can acknowledge the valid insights of much modern and postmodern critical thinking about the practice of history while yet avoid the kind of epistemological anarchy that some would wish to see wreak havoc.
Objectivity Is Not Neutrality
In a popular book on the Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern literature, Peter Enns asks the following question: "Is there really any such thing as a completely objective and unbiased recording of history, modern or premodern?" The question is posed rhetorically — after all, what fool would today answer in the affirmative? — and it seems, at first glance, to be a good one; but it also contains a huge assumption that is highly problematic. Perhaps it is unfair to expect a scholar of biblical languages to be familiar with debates from within the historical field, but the assumption that Enns makes is that objective and unbiased seem to be two words for the same thing; and, of course, on the grounds that nobody today would argue for the unbiased nature of any historical writing, the implication is that nobody can argue for the objective nature of historical writing either. Yet most historians would, I believe, both acknowledge the biased nature of the history they write and also maintain that they aspire to be objective in what they do. As we shall see below, the fact that Richard Evans and David Irving approach the Holocaust from specific viewpoints and perspectives does not mean that their respective histories are equally valid; there are ways and means of comparing them that indicate that nonneutrality does not equate to solipsistic subjectivity.
In an impressive study of the American historical profession, Robert Novick has shown that the search for objectivity has been the chimerical goal of the profession for over a century. His argument is interesting, not least because he does demonstrate how the ideal of objectivity itself has been transformed over the years. In the late nineteenth century, it is arguable that the notions of objectivity and neutrality were essentially the same thing, with the terms being virtually interchangeable. Over the years, however, a gap has opened up between them. In addition, as at least one significant reviewer pointed out, there is an interesting disjunction in the book between what Novick says and what he actually does. On the face of it, his argument is that the quest for objectivity is a fool's errand; yet this argument is made in a book which, for me as for numerous other historians, meets what we would regard as decent standards of objectivity. The book is surely not neutral, but its argument is testable by public criteria and demonstrates precisely the kind of method and approach to the evidence that could be described as objective. Sure, Novick has his biases; he is no more able to divest himself of his own prior commitments and opinions and analytical frameworks than anybody else. But he does not write gnostic history that only he and his followers can understand; his arguments are public ones that can be evaluated by others. In arguing against the possibility of objectivity, then, Novick has produced a first-class piece of objective scholarship, a point made pungently by one of his appreciative critics!
At the heart of the historian's task is this matter of verifiability and accountability by public criteria, and the criticism of Novick's approach is to the point: there is a lot of postmodern rhetoric around about the possibility of history and of representing the past, but the bottom line is that most historians do acknowledge in their procedures and methods that such public criteria do exist, and that it is practically possible to make a distinction between a history that asserts that Henry V defeated the French at Agincourt and a history that would even deny the very existence of Henry V. Thus, to demonstrate what is at stake, let us now turn to an extreme modern example of history that is really no history at all.
The Ultimate Test Case: The Holocaust
It is, of course, one thing to play academic games with notions of history, neutrality, and objectivity, but quite another to see where this can lead in its most extreme form. The most notorious example of this is the phenomenon of Holocaust Denial (HD), an approach to the history of the Nazi genocide in Europe between 1933 and 1945 that dramatically downplays the number of people killed and rejects the notion that there was any organized and state-sanctioned campaign of mass murder. To many it seems incredible that such arguments could ever be made with any plausibility; but if historical knowledge is impossible in any ultimate sense, then the Holocaust too, vast and well-documented as it would appear to be, is also negotiable as an object of our knowledge and narratives.
Before we look at how HD functions in terms of historical method, a few preliminary comments are in order. First, it is important to understand that those who argue for HD are generally not radical postmodernists who are skeptical of all claims to historical knowledge. They may deny the Holocaust, but they do not deny the possibility of historical knowledge. Far from it. In fact, the very opposite is the case: they want to argue that the accepted narratives of the Holocaust are wrong, demonstrably wrong, and that their alternative narratives are demonstrably true — or at least more true and coherent as interpretations of the evidence.
Second, the issue with HD is therefore not that its advocates propose a postmodern method; HD is rather a challenge to the mainstream historical guild and its flirtatious relationship with postmodern skepticism. This is where the postmodern question of the nature of knowledge comes in. We must all acknowledge that, as no history is neutral, so no history of the Holocaust can be neutral. But does that mean we have to concede that all accounts of it are equally valid or deserve a place at the table? Is HD a problem of historical method, or merely of taste? Can historians reject HD on the grounds that it represents flawed historical method that is demonstrably problematic by objective criteria? Or must we do it simply on the grounds that its results and implications are morally repugnant and distasteful by the ethical and aesthetic standards of the day? This is a pressing question. Whether King Alfred really burned the cakes is an interesting historical question, but its moral implications are minimal and of concern only to the lady whose cakes he was supposed to be watching; whether Jews really were gassed and cremated in Auschwitz has far more dramatic and perennial moral implications for everything from current international policies in the Middle East to how we understand the evil potential of human nature and technology.
Third, while we can all have suspicions as to why advocates of HD, from Paul Rassinier to Rousas J. Rushdoony to David Irving, think the way they do about the Holocaust, we need to remember that it is not a historian's motivation which renders his or her analysis invalid; it is improper use and interpretation of evidence which does so. Thus, the fact that Irving, for example, has spoken for extreme neo-Nazi-style groups does not necessarily mean that he is a bad historian, any more than, say, Eric Hobsbawm's or Christopher Hill's membership in the Communist Party necessarily renders all their historical contributions negligible or invalid.
We should also, at this point, comment briefly on mainstream Holocaust scholarship in order to understand in more detail the precise claims of HD. Although the Holocaust is, inevitably, a very sensitive area, the scholarship is not monolithic and does represent a diversity of viewpoints. For example, estimates of the number of those killed vary from around five million to above ten million. By its very nature, the evidence defies a precise and universally agreed figure, unlike, say, the evidence for the number of tickets sold to a sporting event. It is, however, clear that figures of, say, eight hundred thousand, are woefully inadequate as accounts of the numbers involved. Such a figure would, on established legal definitions, constitute HD.
More significantly, mainstream Holocaust historians can be divided into two basic camps: intentionalists and functionalists. Intentionalists argue that the program of genocide, with all of the organizational structures it involved, was the result of a clear plan from early in the Nazi regime. In other words, the death camps and the systematic and total annihilation of the European Jews had been the intention all along. All that happened in the thirties and early forties was part of a larger, coherent policy that aimed to rid Europe of the Jews by mass deportation and destruction.
The functionalists, however, see the program of genocide as evolving over time, and the result, if not exactly an accident, was not part of the original Nazi intention. In other words, the death camps developed out of the ongoing anti-Semitic program and were not the original end goal. The concept of Auschwitz and the other death camps was not something in the mind of the leading Nazis when they were swept to power in 1933; rather, the development of the mechanisms of totalitarianism, the increasingly organized and violent anti-Semitic policies of the state, the hostile expansion to the east, the development of technology, and the failure of other schemes (such as Adolf Eichmann's hare-brained scheme to send all the Jews to Madagascar), little by little led the Nazis down a path that culminated in the Final Solution as agreed upon at the infamous Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, when the policy of highly organized and technologically executed genocide was approved.
The existence of intentionalists and functionalists is significant because it highlights a couple of things. First, it indicates that there are matters upon which the evidence is open to a variety of legitimate but different interpretations. Some documents point to longstanding intention; others seem to imply a more ad hoc program. It is perhaps not exactly "you pay your money and take your choice," but there is room here for historians to disagree about exactly what the documents seem to be saying.
This leads us to the second point: there are areas of evidence where, quite frankly, there is no legitimate room for disagreement, and it is this notion of legitimate versus illegitimate interpretations that will most upset the consistent radical relativists of the postmodern historical guild. They may, to one degree or another, accept that there are morally legitimate and illegitimate interpretations (though it is arguable that even this category might itself be merely a bid for power), but to delimit the range of meanings of a text or an artifact by notions of historical meaning is counter to the excesses of the postmodern historical mindset. The questions addressed by this are crucial: were most Holocaust deaths the result of the winter cold in the east? Were there gas chambers at Auschwitz? Did Eichmann mastermind the logistics of transporting Jews from across Europe to camps created specifically to murder them? Did the Wannsee Conference take place and set the final stage for the systematic genocide on a massive scale? If these points cannot be established on the base of the massive documentary and artifactual evidence we have, then realistically speaking there can be no historical knowledge of anything and we are now living in the ultimate Cartesian nightmare where the only thing I can (probably!) be certain of is my own existence. Thankfully, on the answers to these matters, there is no meaningful, competent, and coherent dissent, any more than there is on whether the moon is made of green cheese.
Thus, to summarize: setting aside postmodern relativist rhetoric, and also questions about how the Holocaust is and is not used in contemporary political discourse, there is a hard core of public material that historians agree is pertinent evidence for understanding the Holocaust, and while this evidence is open to a variety of interpretations, it is not open to an infinite range of interpretations. This needs to be held in mind as we move to discuss the details of HD.
A Brief Introduction to the World of Holocaust Denial
There are a number of very good accounts of the history and culture of Holocaust Denial. The most famous is Deborah Lipstadt's Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Lipstadt, herself Jewish, was catapulted to fame when David Irving, named in the book as an advocate of HD, sued her in a British court in 2000. The trial transcripts are conveniently available online, with a host of other relevant material, at Emory University's "Holocaust Denial on Trial'site, but two other books emerged from the legal proceedings that make exciting reads. The first is History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, Lipstadt's own account of her experience, which reads like a good courtroom thriller; and Richard J. Evans, Lying about Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial. Evans is Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, a specialist on Nazi Germany, and the key expert witness at the Irving trial. He is also a historian who has spent time reflecting on the nature of the discipline, and his account of the trial is as much an exposition and demonstration of the applicability of his own method as it is a story of legal proceedings. I regularly recommend it to postgraduate students who want to be provoked to think about the nature of historical objectivity and meaning.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Histories and Fallacies"
Copyright © 2010 Carl R. Trueman.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. The Denial of History, 25,
2. Grand Schemes and Misdemeanors, 69,
3. The Past Is a Foreign Country, 109,
4. A Fistful of Fallacies, 141,
Concluding Historical Postscript, 169,
Appendix: The Reception of Calvin: Historical Considerations, 183,
What People are Saying About This
“This is a very good book, full of historiographical wisdom. I recommend it strongly as a sure and encouraging guide to budding historians befuddled by the so-called ‘history wars,’ and to anyone who is interested in the challenges attending those who represent the history of Christian thought.”
Douglas A. Sweeney,Distinguished Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought; Director, Jonathan Edwards Center, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
“Carl Trueman’s cogent and engaging approach to historiography provides significant examples of problems faced by historians and the kinds of fallacies frequently encountered in historical argumentation. Trueman steers a clear path between problematic and overdrawn conclusions on the one hand and claims of utter objectivity on the other. His illustrations, covering several centuries of Western history, are telling. He offers a combination of careful historical analysis coupled with an understanding of the logical and argumentative pitfalls to which historians are liable that is a service to the field and should provide a useful guide to beginning researchers. A must for courses on research methodology.”
Richard A. Muller, P. J. Zondervan Professor of Historical Theology, Calvin Theological Seminary
“Because the past shapes the present, a just understanding of the past is important for any individual, society, or church. Here is wise and practical advice for those wanting to write history for others about how to do it well. Follow this guidance and avoid the pitfalls!”
David Bebbington, Professor of History, University of Stirling
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