SO MANY innocents were killed in the 1945 British air raid on Dresden that the German authorities had to cremate the bodies on mass funeral pyres on the Altmarkt. Mr Irving was the first to publish these photographs in the west. When he produced one of them, enlarged to poster size, during the Lipstadt trial in the British High Court in 2000, Defence Counsel Richard Rampton QC sneered, "So what!" --
London, Monday, April 16, 2007
Robert Hanks: First rule of history - verify your references
Truth matters; and if we think it doesn't, the door is ajar for anybody with an agenda and no scruples.
MANY of the reports last week of Kurt Vonnegut's death mentioned his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse 5, and the events that inspired it. In February 1945, the city of Dresden was devastated by several nights of air raids by British and American forces; tens of thousands were killed in the firestorm that the bombing spawned. Vonnegut was one of many Allied prisoners of war put to work clearing the dead; Slaughterhouse 5, with its science-fiction plot-devices and air of childlike simplicity, was his response to scenes of horror that challenged rational description or moral sophistication.
Putting a precise number on the dead is impossible in such circumstances. The figure given in Slaughterhouse 5, several times, is 135,000 -- as the book says, much worse than Hiroshima. On Thursday morning, the day Vonnegut's death was reported, The Today Programme on Radio 4 replayed an interview with Vonnegut recorded in 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary of the raids: "The best guess I ever got about how many people were killed," he told James Naughtie, "is about 135,000. I don't know, you may have done research since ... That is between two and three per cent of the number of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust."
The same number was repeated shortly afterwards, in the news bulletin; it was also cited on the BBC website that morning, and in newspapers around the world -- the obituary in the Independent. But the number is wrong: the true total of those killed at Dresden was almost certainly no more than 35,000.
In an important sense, this doesn't matter: the arguments that have raged for 60 years over the morality of bombing Dresden -- a beautiful medieval city, and a target of minimal strategic significance -- aren't much affected by the information that "only" 35,000 died. But consider where Vonnegut got his numbers from: a 1963 book entitled The Bombing of Dresden, by a young British author called David Irving [Website comment: The book was called The Destruction of Dresden. Verify your references, Mr Hanks.]
above (click to enlarge)
For many years, it was widely held that while Irving might be unreliable on Nazi genocide, his earlier work on Dresden was sound. But when Irving sued Penguin Books and the historian Deborah Lipstadt over claims that he had falsified records, the defendants retained the Cambridge historian Richard Evans to scrutinise Irving's published work and its sources.
In his instructive, entertaining and chilling book called Telling Lies about Hitler (2002) Professor Evans demolishes Irving's claims to historical authority, devoting a whole chapter to Dresden. Here he shows how Irving preferred an unsubstantiated estimate of 135,000 dead to lower but far better founded estimates.
WHAT gives pause here is seeing how easily a "fact" becomes detached from its source, and can persist even when the source is discredited. The phenomenon is not uncommon. Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hizbollah, has been widely quoted as saying "if they [the Jews] all gather in Israel it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide" and "they [Jews] are a cancer which is liable to spread at any moment" -- indeed, I think I have cited the first comment myself, in a discussion with a friend.
In the letters column of the London Review of Books for 4 January this year, the journalist Charles Glass provided grounds for thinking that he may never have said any such thing; whether his grounds were conclusive enough to justify his remarks about "disinformation" is another matter.
On Any Questions? on Radio 4 on 6 April, Tony Benn, responding to a question about Iran, said: "In 1980 to '88 there was a war between Iran and Iraq and we armed Saddam Hussein in attacking Iran. They never mention that."
Well, I've heard that mentioned plenty of times; but it isn't true. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, between 1973 and 2002 Saddam obtained 57 per cent of his imported weapons from the Soviet Union, 13 per cent from France, and 12 per cent from China. The US sold him about 0.5 per cent of his armaments, and Britain managed a pathetic one-fifth of one per cent.
As with Dresden, changing our minds about the facts doesn't necessarily change our sense of the morality. Nobody much doubts that Nasrallah doesn't look kindly on Jews; and it's not as if Britain can take the moral high ground over not selling arms to Saddam -- we just weren't very good at it. But it matters because truth matters; and if we start to think that it doesn't, we leave the door ajar for the Irvings, the Holocaust deniers, anybody with an agenda and no scruples.
The theologian Dr Martin Routh, president of Magdalen College, Oxford, in the 19th century, was asked in his nineties whether in his long career as a scholar he had formulated any particularly useful axiom. He came up with a piece of advice I'm coming to think is one of the most profound pieces of wisdom I have heard: "Always to verify your references." The story is in the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes -- paperback edition, 1987, pp 125-6. Just in case you wanted to check.