Tuesday, March 31

Lies, damned lies and history

Cover by Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi, illustration by Attilio Mussino, 1934 © Bridgeman Images.

Truth-based policies and the way they transform the public pose an existential threat to past studies.

On January 27, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation from Auschwitz. The existence of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps, and in particular the campaign to eradicate the Jewish people, is one of the best documented events in history. But five months before the anniversary, director Ken Loach was asked on tape: "There was a discussion about the Holocaust – did it happen or not?" And he replied: "I think history is there for all of us to discuss , “History is a discursive topic, but when asked about the denial of the Holocaust, Loach's answer was at best an ambiguity that said the fact of the Holocaust was up for debate. A few days later, Loach wrote a letter to the Guardian to "clarify" that his "words have been twisted" and "the Holocaust is as real as the Second World War itself and not to be questioned".

Before the anniversary, there were several new books on Auschwitz and other camps. The volunteer: The real story of the resistance hero who infiltrated Auschwitz by Jack Fairweather, who received the Costa Biography Award, was one of my books from 2019 because it told the story of Polish resistance fighter Witold Pilecki, who decided to travel to Auschwitz and witness his horrors. Its great strength lies in research: it is based on around 3,000 reports from Auschwitz and does not dare to go beyond what these reports can tell us. Fairweather wanted to be guided by Pilecki's own rule: "Nothing should be" exaggerated ": Even the smallest book would profane the memory of the fine people who lost their lives there." But there were other books that had it all Another approach to their research material: they fictionalized, took liberties and failed to critically examine their sources. They were full of little rags. The urge to write compelling narrative history – writing history that reads like a novel – can, in the wrong hands, lead to a story written like a novel.

The context of Loach's remarks and the publication of these books is a world in which the way we deal with the truth has changed. During the 2019 election campaign, British politics seemed to have followed America's path in 2016: lies, "alternative facts" and misinformation, as well as avoiding accountability or control – all without apparent consequence. Is it a coincidence that claims that anti-Semitism has been properly treated are false?

Politicians certainly lied as long as they existed, but there was something new here: liars no longer crouch in the face of the truth. False claims were boldly repeated, despite evidence to the contrary.

Postmodernity tells us that objective truth is difficult to achieve. that facts exist but are not accessible. But now even the idea that truth can be found is being eroded. In the run-up to the elections, this became clear in everyday political discourse when intelligent people said things like, "It's hard to know who to believe," "I don't believe anyone anymore," and "I can't believe it" when I do haven't seen with my own eyes. “Subjectivity is everything.

This is deeply problematic for historians. Our understanding of the truth may be flawed and imperfect – after all, we are human beings – but the possibility of ruling out what happened – at least giving up the full truth – is deeply nihilistic. We live in a sea of ​​misinformation, half-truths and ultimately indifference and narcissism. If everything we believe is what we experience, then what we experience is everything that appeals.

But our current environment offers another twist on the knife. A world after truth is a world in which objective standards of truth disappear. where a lie does not collapse in the face of evidence to the contrary and people become indifferent to the facts. Here the objective historical truth either does not exist or does not matter if it does. Studying the past has no meaning. And the consequences are terrible: if there is no truth, then there are no lies. The burning red lie of the Holocaust denial stops being wrong. And then we should be very scared, because "those who deny Auschwitz would be willing to redesign it" (Primo Levi).

Suzannah Lipscomb is Professor of History at the University of Roehampton and author of The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex and Marriage in Languedoc in the Early Modern Period (Oxford, 2019).

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