The Objectivity of Historians -- Or Else!
In Defense of History, by Richard J. Evans New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999
By Ernest Sommers
Evans begins by recapping the traditional values of academic historical scholarship, articulated over a century and a half ago by the German historian Leopold von Ranke: to try and tell the past as it actually happened ("wie es eigentlich gewesen"); to respect each period on its own terms; to rely on "primary sources," that is, letters, documents, and so forth, rather than the "secondary" materials of memoirs, memory, or even other scholars; and to vet all sources with a skeptical and critical eye. The end result of these methods should be, if not the past as it actually was, at least an intuitive approximation to how it must have been.
Against these strictures, Evans sets up the inexactitude of postmodernism, which in his usage means simply the trend of relativism that has affected the social sciences in the past 30 or 40 years. Prominent in his discussion is the work of Hayden White, not really a structuralist or postmodernist at all, but rather a medievalist who observed in his Metahistory of 1973 that while the various "master narratives" found in 19th- century bourgeois histories were mutually exclusive, they were nonetheless each "true" within the confines of the ideas, values, and literary aesthetics of their creators. As a result he concluded that there were many ways for a historian to tell the same story, each of them equally valid.
Hayden White's somewhat laid-back tolerance had no real ties with what was happening in literary theory in the '70's, which has now infected history faculties throughout the Euro-American cultural sphere. The basic root of postmodernist history is not tolerance but rather intolerance: that is, intolerance of conventional interpretations, which, the postmoderns insist, are muddled by nationalist, bourgeois, racist, or, more recently, sexist or homophobic concerns which distort the representation of reality.
The practical effect of postmodernism in history has been to create a kind of historiography that is remorselessly self-referential (Evans cites one feminist historiette who uses the personal pronoun “I” eighty-eight times in the first four pages), so heavily laden with jargon as to be virtually incomprehensible, and light years away from any engagement with the facts of history as such. But the institutional challenge of postmodernism has been to accuse the professorial elites of being incapable of objectivity, and thus being de facto apologists for the dominant culture. Hence, Evans couches his argument as an attempt to retrieve objectivity and certainty about the past for his profession.
It is clear, however, that what is being defended here is not merely the ability of historians to be objective with regard to the facts, but also the proposition that there are some aspects of history that are absolute and may not be questioned. As it happens, Evans cites only one such "history" which is distinctly off limits: the Holocaust.
Evans links Holocaust revisionism to the variability of postmodernist discourse in more than one instance. First, he describes how Hayden White was criticized for his relativism, and argues that White's method would be inappropriate to the Holocaust:
There is in fact a massive, carefully empirical literature on the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Clearly, to regard it as fictional, or unreal, or no nearer to historical reality than, say, the work of the "revisionists" who deny that Auschwitz ever happened at all is simply wrong. Here is an issue where evidence really counts, and can be used to establish the essential facts. Auschwitz was not a discourse. It trivializes mass murder to see it as a text. The gas chambers were not a piece of rhetoric. Auschwitz was indeed inherently a tragedy and cannot be seen as either a comedy or a farce. 
Evans continues on in this highly emotive and literary manner before noting, clearly with approval, that Hayden White has lately "retreated" from his "hyperrelativist" stance and conceded that the facts of the Holocaust exclude the possibility of certain types of "emplotment", which sounds an awful lot like saying that there is only one correct way to tell the Holocaust story.
The second case involves nothing less than the accusation that postmodernism is responsible for Holocaust revisionism, in which Evans quotes Deborah Lipstadt extensively, as in the following passage from his book:
The increase in the scope and intensity of the Holocaust deniers' activities since the mid-1970's has among other things reflected the postmodern intellectual climate, above all in the United States, in which scholars have increasingly denied that texts have any fixed meaning, and have argued instead that meaning is supplied by the reader, and in which attacks on the Western rationalist tradition have become fashionable. Coupled with the denial that the notion of truth has any validity at all, this has, in Lipstadt's view, "created an atmosphere of permissiveness toward questioning the meaning of historical events" and made it difficult "to assert that there was anything “off-limits”.... A sentiment had been generated in society -- not just on campus -- that made it difficult to say: 'this has nothing to do with ideas. This is bigotry.” This sentiment, argues Lipstadt, "fosters deconstructionist history at its worst. No fact, no event, and no aspect of history has any fixed meaning or content. Any truth can be retold. Any fact can be recast. There is no ultimate historical reality.” [208-209]
Of course there are two major problems with this kind of argument. The first is that much of the variability that Lipstadt complains about involves not questions of fact, but questions of interpretation: facts do not have "meaning"; to "question the meaning of historical events" is not to deny they occurred — these are categories which are imposed on facts, and such interpretations are bound to change, if not from class to class or gender to gender, then absolutely with the passage of time.
To argue otherwise, as Lipstadt does, is to suggest not only that one may not question any of the facts of the Holocaust, but also that one cannot even question the vaunted authority which that event has acquired in our culture. Here Lipstadt's foot stamping seems less like a tantrum than the attempt to dictate an imposed religion. The second problem, which Evans ignores or seems not to understand, is that revisionism is only partly about revising interpretations, but very much about testing the validity of the facts presented, something which postmodernists, in their solipsism, almost never do. In this respect, revisionists have never asked, "Did Auschwitz happen?:" rather they have persistently asked, "What happened at Auschwitz?" and in pursuit of that question revisionists have followed through on all of the dictates of traditional historical study. Far from being postmodernists, revisionists are the veritable last paladins of Rankean historiography.
A further irony arises from the fact that Evans clearly aspires to Ranke's general aim of approaching objectivity in history writing. Yet the traditional Holocaust narrative that receives Evans' implicit endorsement violates all of Ranke's dicta in this area, and not just occasionally, but all the time. Primary versus secondary sources? The Holocaust narrative is constructed almost entirely out of postwar testimonies and affidavits, secondary by nature, and suspect because of the conditions in which they were generated. Source criticism? Never—no academic historian has ever even attempted such a project: to do so would be to engage in "Denial." Documents requiring a larger context for interpretation? Again, never. The ambiguous documents usually offered as evidence in a Holocaust narrative are almost always orphaned documents, and are rarely put together with what came before or after. Part of the reason for this state of affairs is no one knows where the preceding or following documentation is, since the prosecution at Nuremberg was looking for incriminating documents and not for a larger, more truthful, but less incriminating context. Initiatives to sort these matters out have come almost solely from the revisionist side.
There are some curious omissions in Evans' book, particularly when one realizes that the author is a specialist in German history. His description of postmodernism leans heavily on the usual "French connection" from Saussure through Foucault and Derrida. There is very little about the German hermeneutic tradition, or Neo-Kantianism, or even Wilhelm Dilthey, whose conceptions of empathy and evidence-orientation are still very apt antidotes to excessive theorizing. Nor does Evans note the intersections of German sociological thought through Weber and Mannheim, whose influence on perspectivism in history has probably been even greater than that of the more celebrated French authors.
On the other hand, Evans is to be commended for generally mastering a difficult field, whose main issues he recapitulates clearly and well; if we exclude his vacuous pronouncements about revisionism, we might justly praise the author for writing a book that here and there eloquently affirms the reactionary posture of Deborah Lipstadt. Perhaps it was for this reason that Evans was selected as an expert witness in Deborah Lipstadt's defense against David Irving's libel suit, due to take place in January, 2000.
Installed: 07/27/98, 1: 00 AM, PST