On Nick Terry’s argument that “deniers don’t do history”

Nick Terry has recently advanced the argument that holocaust revisionism is to be disregarded because it is not real history, by which he means that it does not advance a historical narrative and therefore lacks value for the study of history. After reviewing Terry’s assertions, we will compare them to earlier anti-revisionist contentions, and then assess what the implications of accepting Terry’s criteria would be for other cases of historical controversy.

Terry’s argument

In in the controversialist bloggers’ manifesto, Terry articulates the following test for historical evidence and argument:

The ultimate test for any piece of historical evidence, in our opinion, is whether it can be used to construct a historical narrative or historical explanation. A simple litmus test for any claim about the past (whether 9/11, the Cold War, the Nazis, Holocaust or anything else doesn’t matter) is whether the claim can be presented in narrative form, telling a coherent story which utilises as much of the available evidence as possible.

In this regard, MGK’s approach is a miserable failure, as none of their works are written in anything like conventional narrative form, and not infrequently violate simple chronological order in order to construct their attempt at a counternarrative.

Terry also questions the value of arguments not made in narrative form, noting that “arguments not told in narrative form often fail a simple bullshit test,” and criticises MGK for “using substitute weasel terms like ‘propaganda’” in place of the word ‘hoax’.

Terry has recently repeated his stance in a forum post, writing as follows:

no revisionist has ever actually done history since what they write isn’t history in any recognisable form; it doesn’t belong to the genre of history or the discipline of history. I’m not even referring to the conclusions here, I’m referring to the outward characteristics of what is written under the rubric of ‘Holocaust revisionism’.

This is very simply demonstrated; take a highly praised or even prize-winning history book on any other subject but the Holocaust, say on the Russian Revolution, Stalin or the Great Leap Forward, and compare it to a revisionist text, for example Rudolf’s own ‘Lectures on the Holocaust’. There are immediately striking differences, starting with the fact that the history book will be coherent, and have a beginning, middle and an end, either to a narrative or to an argument/explanation, whereas the revisionist text will not have any such coherence.

The fact that the prize-winning book on the Great Leap Forward might be written by a professor of history isn’t what makes it history; it’s the form and the approach – which can be learned by a non-historian or a non-academic, and practised and perfected, as quite a few bestselling authors have found. But revisionists have never practised this form or approach, and certainly haven’t perfected it.

Do anti-revisionists read their own literature?

Terry’s contentions are contradicted by earlier anti-revisionist writings. In 1982 the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales hosted a colloquium on the historiography of the holocaust, the proceedings of which were later published in English under the title Unanswered Questions. The Jewish anti-revisionist historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet contributed an article Theses on Revisionism, in which he stated wrote that revisionists, as represented by Butz and Staglich, were in fact advancing a historical narrative. (He does deny them credit for offering an explanation.) Given the immense progress revisionism has made over the past three decades, one can hardly argue that contemporary revisionism does less by way of offering historical narratives and explanations than did the the revisionism of Butz and Staglich.

Here is the relevant text from Vidal-Naquet. The second paragraph is included not because it is relevant here, but because it is rather astonishing in its own right.

Screenshot-28

A different translation occurs in Assassins of memory as reproduced at an anti-revisionist website:

In this order of thought, it must be admitted that two revisionist books, Arthur Butz’s The Hoax of the Twentieth Century and Wilhelm Stäglich’s Der Auschwitz Mythos, represent a rather remarkable success: that of the appearance of a historical narrative, better still, of a critical investigation, with all the external features defining a work of history, except for what makes it of any value: truth.

Recall that Nick Terry believes that

no revisionist has ever actually done history since what they write isn’t history in any recognisable form; it doesn’t belong to the genre of history or the discipline of history. I’m not even referring to the conclusions here, I’m referring to the outward characteristics of what is written under the rubric of ‘Holocaust revisionism’.

Vidal-Naquet evidently disagrees. It is characteristic of the development of the argument between revisionists and anti-revisionists that as the revisionists make great progress, the anti-revisionists make ever more extreme and hysterical arguments. Thus in the 1980s, when the exterminationist position was comparatively secure, Vidal-Naquet could concede that revisionists were writing history, and be content with asserting that their history happened to be wrong. Writing three decades later, at a time when the revisionist position has strengthened immensely, Nick Terry feels the need to head revisionists off at the pass by denying that they do history at all.

Michel de Böuard and Negativity

Terry and Vidal-Naquet are both eager to accuse revisionists of being merely negative (Terry with respect to historical narrative and explanation, Vidal-Naquet with respect to explanation alone). Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether this is true, we ask: does purely negative argument, pure criticism, have a role to play in the search for historical truth? It should be self evident to any person of intelligence that the answer is yes. The historian Michel de Böuard was honest enough to say as much in an interview:

Ouest-France: “You were president of the Association of Deportees of Calvados and you resigned. Why?”

Michel de Böuard: “I found myself torn between my conscience as a historian and the duties that entails, and my attachment to a group of comrades I love deeply but who don’t wish to recognize the necessity of treating the historical fact of the deportation in accordance with sound historical method.

“I’m haunted by the thought that in a hundred years, or even fifty, historians will submit the concentration camp system of the Second World War to investigation and by the thought of what they will discover. The file is rotten. On the one hand there is a vast amount of tall tales and inaccuracies, repeated obstinately, particularly on the numerical scale, of amalgamations, generalizations, and, on the other hand, there are very solid critical studies which demonstrate how ridiculous these exaggerations are. I fear that historians will say, finally, that the deportation itself must have been a myth. That’s the danger. This thought haunts me.”

Clearly Michel de Böuard, though not himself a revisionist, regarded the very solid critical studies of revisionists as playing a constructive role even in their negative arguments, because negative arguments clear away falsehood so that truth may grow. This rather obvious assertion suffices to overturn Terry’s argument, as it shows that even if Terry were correct that revisionists never offered a historical narrative, they would still have a crucial role to play in historical studies.

The Terry Test

Terry’s statements quoted above suggest a six-prong test for historical evidence, which I will dub the Terry test. It has three principal prongs which Terry clearly enunciates, and three prongs which he states in a more uncertain fashion. First, the three main prongs:

1. Can it be used to construct a historical narrative or historical explanation?

2. Can it be prevented in narrative form telling a coherent story?

3. Does the story mentioned in prong 2 use as much of the available evidence as possible?

The three secondary prongs are as follows:

4. All contributions to the study of history must be written in conventional narrative form, with a beginning, middle, and end.

5. All contributions to the study of history must follow chronological order.

6. The term “propaganda” is a “weasel term” which has no role in historical study. It is never admissible to discount the evidentiary value of a certain body of writings or testimonies on the grounds of their propagandistic character; doing so is the mark of the “conspiracy theorist”.

Is storytelling the best test of truth?

Terry emphasises that history is about stories, and that it should be told in chronological order. Of course, the connection of “history” with “story” ignores the ultimate derivation of the word “history” from the Greek historia, meaning “inquiry”. (To the extent that the word “history” has been historically connected with “story” in English, it has been without respect to truth, so that there could be true histories and false histories.) But is he correct that telling a story is the best way to determine the truth about the past?

Consider the arguments advanced by some that the third Reich was controlled by (or was in control of) occult forces. We have testimony to the effect that the young Hitler visited prominent occultists, and forged some type of occult connection. Let’s view the “occult Reich” thesis in light of Terry’s tests. Can it “be used to construct a historical narrative or historical explanation”? Absolutely yes. It fact, it has enormous explanatory power, particularly within the orthodox account of the history of the third Reich. Can it “be presented in narrative form, telling a coherent story which utilises as much of the available evidence as possible”? Again, the answer is yes. Just tell the standard story of the third Reich, and then add in the bit about Hitler using black magic / being controlled by dark powers. As there is evidence that this is true (witness accounts from the people allegedly involved), our narrative now utilizes even more evidence than before. Therefore according to Terry’s “ultimate test”, the story of the occult Reich is better history than the story of the Reich without the occult framing. Of course, this is wrong. It’s clear that something is wrong with Terry’s test, which has a strong bias in favor of credulity. Terry’s injunction to “tell a story using as much evidence as possible” has no place for scepticism, or for a critical attitude towards evidence, since such a critical attitude means using less evidence (or reclassifying what constitutes evidence, which Terry will not hear of in the case of the holocaust).

What happens if we apply the Terry test to other historical controversies?

Now, let us consider how these prongs might be applied to some examples. Let’s start with the Donation of Constantine. Can it be used to construct a historical narrative or historical explanation? Certainly. Can the denial of the authenticity of the donation be fit into narrative form? Well, at the end of the day anything can be made into a narrative, but the denial of the authenticity of the donation does not immediately fit into a narrative. One would not expect to start by telling the story of how the donation was forged and fit that into a coherent chronological story, but rather first establish that the donation is inauthentic by non-narrative means. Indeed, Lorenzo Valla did not write a chronologically arranged storybook as Terry would have liked, but a work much more reminiscent of the books by holocaust revisionists. This illustrates the flaws in Terry’s prongs 4 and 5.

Next, consider the example of witchcraft. Most modern people do not believe in witchcraft, yet there is a great body of evidence (testimonies, confessions, etc.) for its existence. According to Terry’s strictures, a writer who rejects the belief in witchcraft must write a comprehensive history of all cases of witchcraft and of all witchcraft trials, giving a coherent story explaining all of these events in chronological order using as much of the specific evidence as possible. But if you look at the actual works of historical writers sceptical of witchcraft, you’ll see that this is not what they do at all. While they argue against the belief in witchcraft, they do not do so primarily in narrative form, although their arguments do of course suggest a counternarrative, just as the books of holocaust revisionists do.

The story of the manufacture of human soap offers a nice demonstration of the inanity of Terry’s prong 6. It would be difficult to analyse the human soap story while avoiding speaking of propaganda; Terry’s prong 6 would reject books like Falsehood in Wartime. This example also illustrates yet again that contrary to Terry’s belief, the rejection of historical fact claims does not generally occur through storytelling. The human soap story was not rejected because someone told a story taking into account all reports of the manufacture of human soap, but for reasons that while compelling were not narrative driven.

The case of Immanuel Velikovsky offers another example of how effective storytelling is not the decisive test of truth, and rebutting a story need not be done by telling a different story accounting for the same evidence referred to in the first story. None of Velikovsky’s critics took the approach Terry suggests, which would be to take all Velikovsky’s sources and then try to work them (along with some additional sources, perhaps) into a coherent story contrary to Velikovsky’s story. In fact, Velikovsky’s critics often sound like holocaust revisionists, for instance in questioning whether the class of evidence Velikovsky likes to use can justify the kind of conclusions he draws, or arguing that on scientific grounds the way he describes things as happening is not possible, or appealing to forensic evidence (which in this case means ice core studies), or developing highly detailed attacks on Velikovsky’s use of specific sources.

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One Response to On Nick Terry’s argument that “deniers don’t do history”

  1. Pingback: Revisionism and History: response to Muehlenkamp’s regurgitation of Nick Terry | Holocaust History Channel

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