links for 2009-11-22
In Which Dean Baker Is Unhappy with the New York Times's Edmund Andrews

Historians at Play

In the British Deborah Lipstadt-David Irving trial between the historian and the holocaust denier, an Irving victory would have meant, in Britain:

  • that Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin, would have had to pay substantial damages to Irving.
  • that the copies of Lipstadt's book in Britain would have been pulped and the sale oif the book in Britain would have been forbidden.

By contrast, a Lipstadt victory would have meant:

  • that Irving could continue to live his life, write his books, and give his speeches unmolested by the law.

Ari Kelman comes into this story at the end, reading Richard Evans's account of life as an expert witness in the case:

The banality of book reviews: [O]n page 240 of the American edition of Evans’s book, I found this odd tidbit:

If it was depressing that a historian of Erickson’s [author's note: Professor John Erickson] standing could leap into print without having actually considered the details of the trial and the judgment, then it was, if anything, more depressing that two other historians of the older generation, Sir John Keegan and Professor David Cameron Watt, actually testified on Irving’s behalf in court.

Wait, what? Keegan testified on Irving’s behalf? Well, okay. So what did he say?

Keegan: Like many who seek to shock, he [Irving] may not really believe what he says and probably feels astounded when taken seriously. He has, in short, many of the qualities of the most creative historians. He is certainly never dull. Prof. Lipstadt, by contrast, seems as dull as only the self-righteously politically correct can be. Few other historians had ever heard of her before this case. Most will not want to hear from her again. Mr. Irving, if he will only learn from this case, has much that is interesting to tell us...

And so, Keegan concludes, Irving should win, Lipstadt's books should be pulped, and she and Penguin should have to pay David Irving a huge amount of £££££££££.

Is it wrong to say that this astonishing lapse of judgment on Keegan's part should make one reassess every word he has ever written?

And Civil War historian James MacPherson piles on, saying of Keegan:

The American Civil War - A Military History: The analytical value of Keegan’s geostrategic framework is marred by numerous errors that will leave readers confused and misinformed. I note this with regret, for I have learned a great deal from Keegan’s writings.... “The Ohio and its big tributaries, the Cumberland and the Tennessee,” he writes, “form a line of moats protecting the central Upper South, while the Mississippi, with which they connect, denies the Union any hope of penetration.” The reality was exactly the contrary. These navigable rivers were highways for Union naval and army task forces that pierced the Confederate heartland, capturing Nashville, New Orleans, Memphis and other important cities along with large parts of Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas.... He confuses the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, seems to place the Confederate forts Henry and Donelson on the wrong rivers, has the Kanawha River join the Monongahela River at Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River (it is the Allegheny River that joins the Monongahela, while the Kanawha empties into the Ohio 150 miles southwest of Pittsburgh) and shifts the state of Tennessee northward....

The Confederates did not abandon their strong point on Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River; Union forces surrounded and captured it with its 5,000 defenders. Tunnel Hill at Chattanooga is not a feature of Lookout Mountain, and the battle of Cedar Mountain did not take place in the Blue Ridge.... [W]rong dates for a half-dozen battles on the map at the beginning of the book. North Carolina did not escape Union invasion until almost “the end of the war” (it was first invaded in February 1862); the old canard that some Union soldiers were bayoneted in their blankets at Shiloh is simply not true; at least 10 percent of United States soldiers in 1865 were black, not 3 percent; the British government recognized the Confederacy’s belligerent status under international law in May 1861, not 1863; and so on....

Keegan declares that Lincoln “never learnt the importance of visiting armies in the field, from which he might have discovered a great deal,” apparently unaware that Lincoln visited armies in the field 11 times, spending 42 days in their camps.... Keegan makes the astonishing claim that at the outbreak of the conflict “almost all” of [the U.S. Navy's] “antiquated” warships were sailing vessels and that “none had been launched later than 1822.” In fact, 57 of the Navy’s ships had been launched since 1822, and 23 of them were steamships.... And what is one to make of the statement by Keegan, a native Englishman, that the British prime minister during the American Civil War was Benjamin Disraeli? (It was Viscount Henry Palmerston.)...

“The genius” of the Gettysburg Address, [Keegan] writes, “lies less in his magnificent words than in his refusing to differentiate between the sacrifice of the North and the South.” This assertion could not be more wrong. The soldiers who “gave the last full measure of devotion” at Gettysburg so that the “nation might live” were Union soldiers. No Confederates were buried in the cemetery that Lincoln dedicated; they fought to break up the nation that the “brave men” whom Lincoln honored fought to preserve. Far from refusing to differentiate between the sacrifice of the North and the South, Lincoln made the most profound differentiation.

Let me note that this is not the first time Keegan has done this:

Things That Make You Go, "Hmmm...": So I was reading a book edited by Robert Cowley, What If? The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, when I came across the first "thing that made me go, 'Hmmm...'" I was reading an essay by John Keegan, British military historian, and came across the passage: "Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister... proposed that the Soviet Union... guarantee Bulgaria's frontiers, despite already having taken a large share of Bulgarian territory..." I stopped. I reread it. Bulgaria? The Soviet Union doesn't border on Bulgaria. The Soviet Union never bordered on Bulgaria. What slice of Bulgarian territory did Stalin snatch? What could Keegan possibly mean? And then it struck me: Romania. He means Romania. He has lost track of which Balkan country is which--forgotten that it is oil-rich Romania that borders on Russia and lost its northern Moldavian province to Stalin, and Bulgaria that is to the south and borders on Turkey.

Also holocaust denier David Irving's other historian friend, D.C. Watt:

Things That Make You Go, "Hmmm...": Archive Entry From Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: nd then there was D. Cameron Watt's How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War. At one point Watt writes of how the German offensive against Poland was planned to be a "... great encircling manoeuvre... on the model of a Zulu impi or the Roman armies against Carthage at Cannae..." Now I realize that the purpose of Watt's similes is not to inform the typical reader--few, very few, readers know in any detail the military organization established by Shaka Zulu, or have received a classical education. These similes are not there to help the reader by comparing what the author is describing to something the reader already knows well. These similes are there to impress readers with the breadth of Watt's mind and the depth of his scholarship. But if Watts wants us to be impressed, shouldn't his scholarship and learning be deep enough for him to get the winner of Cannae correct? Shouldn't he remember that the Romans under the command of the consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Caius Terrentius Varro did not encircle and destroy the Carthaginians at Cannae, but were themselves encircled and destroyed by the Carthaginian army commanded by Hannibal?

Ari Kelman wonders if there is a connection between thes two episodes:

James McPherson savages Keegan’s efforts as terribly sloppy.... [J]ust last week Eric and I taught Richard Evans’s Lying About Hitler in our graduate seminar. As I starting reading the Evans, I kept thinking about McPherson’s review and about the responsibilities historians have when it comes time to consider deeply flawed work produced by people they admire. It seems to me that reviews often are nowhere near as harsh — with “harsh” here meaning analytically rather than personally acute — as they should be. I’ve typically assumed this arises out of misplaced professional courtesy.... [M]uch of Evans’s book is about historians who, after notorious Holocaust denier David Irving dragged Deborah Lipstadt into court for having called him a liar... were forced to take off the gloves and assess, in public and for the record, how their colleagues went about doing history: both their methods and the final products they produced. It’s a fascinating and somewhat distressing story.... [W]hat, I wondered, had caused McPherson to train his guns on Keegan?... McPherson... is renowned for his intellectual generosity and his personal decency...

Keegan is not himself a Nazi sympathizer... [rather] a proud member of an old boy’s club that has more room on its rolls for Holocaust deniers than for women who expose them.... I have no idea if McPherson knew about this episode. But I’m guessing that he did. And I have no idea if that knowledge about Sir John’s past liberated McPherson from the shackles of polite scholarly discourse. But I’m guessing that it did...

I would put it somewhat differently. Hitler and his followers liked to kill people. They liked to order people to kill people. They preferred to kill unarmed men, and women and children--killing armed men, after all, is dangerous. Hitler and his followers killed a lot of people: 35 million or so, 6 million of them Jews, about 25 million Slavs. For John Keegan and D.C. Watt, these are not terribly important or interesting features of the Nazi regime, and histories of the 1930s and 1940s should not overstress them.

UPDATE: D.C. Watt's defense of Irving is even more loathsome than Keegan's. I talked about this before:

After Irving lost the trial, diplomatic historian Donald Cameron Watt believed that Irving's work had been subject to excessive scrutiny and held to an excessively high standard: "five historians with two research assistants... querying and checking every document cited in Irving's books." "Show me one historian," Watt demanded, "...who has not broken into a cold sweat at the thought of undergoing similar treatment." On the witness stand Watt asserted that "there are other senior historical figures... whose work would [not] stand up to this kind of examination" (see Evans, 2000, pp. 245-6). Watt argued that the active shaping of one's views and interpretations of the past by one's present politics did not keep one from being a historian, and even a great historian: "Edward Gibbon's caricatures of early Christianity... A.J.P. Taylor," and others clearly "allowed their political agenda... to influence their professional practice," like Irving. In Watt's view, "only those who identify with the victims of the Holocaust disagree" with the proposition that Irving is a reputable historian. And, in Watt's view, Irving's critics are not primarily concerned with pointing out flaws in his historical writings but with stoning a heretic: "[f]or them Irving's views are blasphemous and put him on the same level of sin as advocates of paedophilia" (Evans, 2000, pp. 244-6).

Cnsider the example raised by Donald Cameron Watt: A.J.P. Taylor. A.J.P. Taylor set out to write the Origins of the Second World War as if Hitler were an eighteenth-century king who aimed at reversing the (limited) results of the last (limited) war: a portrait of Hitler as, as John Lukacs phrased it, like the Empress Maria Theresa maneuvering to recover the lost province of Silesia. All evidence that Hitler was something else is thrown overboard, or ignored completely. Now Taylor's history is not history as it really happened. All you have to do is glance an inch beyond the frame of Taylor's picture--at Nazi domestic policy and the Night of Broken Glass, or at Hitler's conduct of World War II--and you find events grossly and totally inconsistent with Taylor's portrait of an opportunist looking for diplomatic victories on the cheap.

And yes, Mr. Watt. It may be the case that only historians who identify with the victims of the Holocaust believe that Irving is not a reputable historian. But all moral men and women, given a choice between Nazis and victims, identify with the victims. Those who do not and who either identify with Nazis or hold themselves in suspense between the two are as far from the moral universe of the rest of us as, well, are advocates of paedophilia.

Me, I think that all historians should to some extent identify with the victims--even if the victims are Jews.

And I think historians should not tell lies about what kinds of people their historical subjects were.

But then Keegan and Watt probably dismiss me too as "politically correct."