Evans evaluates Ernst Nolte
Website note: Richard Evans's
turgid and almost unreadable book "In Defence of History"
received much criticism from the historical community. As
a result he publicly responded. His November 1999
attempted rebuttal of his opponents is available on the
website of the Institute of Historical Research, School
of Advanced Study, University of London at:
We reproduce below his response
to the German historian, Professor Ernst Nolte, who
reviewed the book in Die Welt ('Auschwitz als Argument in
der Geschichtstheorie', in Die Welt, 2 January 1999).
Readers can reach their own conclusions as to how fairly
Evans treated Professor Nolte. The passage illustrates
the polemical nature of Evans's defence.
A somewhat different confusion appears in Ernst
Nolte's review. Nolte agrees that
.is probably in reality the most
effective argument that can be directed against the
"postmodernists" and their concepts of "text",
"invention" and "fictionality"'. However, he goes on,
this does not mean that any challenge to the accepted
historical representation of Auschwitz is tantamount to
Is it, he asks, a form of Holocaust denial to dispute
the once-widespread claim that four million people were
gassed in Auschwitz, or to note, as Daniel
Jonah Goldhagen does, that the efficiency of the
gas chambers has been exaggerated, or to concede that
Wilkomirski, author of an acclaimed eyewitness
account of Auschwitz, was never actually in the camp at
all? Auschwitz is not an invention, Nolte says, but it
has constantly to be rediscovered and reinterpreted.
No generation has the right to close off research for
the future by declaring we know all we can ever know.
Auschwitz must be studied with the same historiographical
tools of source-criticism and so on as any other subject.
And it must constantly be compared with other genocides.
Who knows whether, at some future time, its singularity
will be compromised by some other case of mass murd er
similar in scope and method? Historical
Nolte concludes, is not the same as moral
relativization. Moreover, incorrect arguments are often
beneficial to scholarship because they sharpen and
improve better arguments. Nolte suggests that if I follow
my own principles, I should agree with these points. He
suspects I do not. But he is wrong. I do agree with them,
at least, in the way that he puts them in his review.
Unfortunately, what he is really talking about here is
not In Defence of History at
all, but another book which I published ten years ago,
In Hitler's Shadow, in which
I dealt with (West) German views of Nazism and strongly
criticized Nolte's own writings on the subject,
particularly his claim that hard-line Holocaust deniers,
people who allege that there was no Nazi policy of
exterminating the Jews, that there were no gas chambers,
that the number of Jews who were killed was far smaller
than six million, were honourable people whose views
should be taken seriously.
In his book Der europäische
Bürgerkrieg, indeed, Nolte even took over
standard theses from the Holocaust deniers, including the
(demonstrably false) allegation that the Jews declared
war on Germany in 1939 and therefore Hitler was justified
in 'interning' them in concentration camps.
[See picture added by this
The point here is that there is a difference between
legitimate reinterpretation and deliberate invention and
falsification; between debates over the significance of
historical events and attempts to deny their existence
altogether; bet ween the proper methods of historical
scholarship such as source-criticism, and the distortion,
manipulation and suppression of historical evidence by
Holocaust deniers such as Arthur Butz and Paul
Rassinier, whom Nolte defends in his book.
- Of course it isn't a form of Holocaust denial to
question the authenticity of Wilkomirski's
- Of course Goldhagen was not flirting with
Holocaust denial when he made his remark about the
efficiency of the gas chambers, because what he meant
by this was that only a portion of Europe's Jews were
killed by gassing; millions were killed by mass
shootings, a fact he claims is too often forgotten in
the literature on the Holocaust.
- And of course it is not Holocaust denial to point
out, as has been known at least since the postwar
publication of the memoirs of Rudolf Höss, the
Commandant of Auschwitz, that the best estimate for
the number of victims of gassing there was slightly in
excess of one million, not the four million that has
sometimes been claimed.
All this has nothing to do with Holocaust denial, and
I am not aware of anybody apart from Nolte who has ever
claimed a connection. What Nolte seems to be suggesting
is that my concept of historical objectivity rules out
any dispute of any kind about Auschwitz. But it does not.
Of course there is room for argument and debate. But only
within the limits set by the evidence. A claim such as
the familiar Holocaust denial assertion that nobody was
gassed at all clearly steps beyond these bounds.
do I think that Holocaust denial has performed any real
service to genuine scholarship, because it has nothing to
do with reinterpretation. It is nothing more than a
simple falsification of history, undertaken for political
motives that have nothing to do with real historical
investigation. On the other hand, the work, say, of
Goldhagen, though in my view demonstrably wrong on a
number of accounts, has stimulated historians to think
afresh about such issues as the reasons why ordinary men,
or ordinary Germans, participated in the extermination of
the Jews, the strength of anti-Jewish sentiment in
Imperial Germany, the extent to which antisemitism was
increasing during the Weimar Republic, and so on.
In other words, on the evidence of his review, Nolte
and I are in broad agreement on all the issues he raises.
On the evidence of my In Hitler's Shadow and his Der
europäische Bürgerkrieg, however, we are still
a long way apart.