Friday, 4 May 2012

The Holocaust. Getting to the bottom of things. (Part 1)

 What has baffled me lately is just how difficult it actually is to find primary sources relating to the Jewish Holocaust. Holocaust denier David Irving often remarked that most historians only quoted each other when it came to Hitler's alleged part in the extermination of the Jews 'For thirty years our knowledge of Hitler's part in the atrocity had rested on inter-historian incest.' (1) In his Telling Lies About Hitler, acclaimed historian Richard J. Evans responded to this complaint rather aptly by pointing out that there was nothing wrong with Historians relying on each other's work 'where the work relied on conformed to the accepted canons of scholarly research and rested on thorough, transparent and unbiased investigation of the primary sources. 

 'So vast was the material with which historians dealt, so numerous were the subjects they covered, so consuming of time, energy and financial resources was the whole process of historical research, that it would be completely impossible for new historical discoveries and insights to be generated if every historian had to go back to the original sources for everything he or she wanted to say' (2)

 I think Prof Evans has a good point here, and it is perfectly understandable how impractical it would be to demand every historian go back to the primary source for every claim they make, and it is precisely for this reason that we have a system of impartial review. Then again, it is in Evans' interest to defend such extensive reliance on the works of other historians. I looked through all the notes to his three volume history of the Third Reich and was amazed to see how much of it was simply quotations from other books! I can't give an exact figure because I was looking through as quick as I could, but I saw probably no more than three actual primary sources, (public records, diary entries etc).

 With this in mind, I still want to remark how difficult it is I have found it to come up with a solid figure for the amount of Jews systematically killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust. Out of pure intellectual curiosity, I sent emails to both Professor Evans and to Professor Richard Overy at Exeter University asking them to give me their current estimates.
Overy informed me that in Yad Vasham so far they have "still only got just over 3 million". This is something I will be interested to find more about in future. However, the figure of 3 million is vastly higher than the average Holocaust deniers care to admit, Nick Griffin and David Irving for instance often allowing for "hundreds of thousands" at most.
Evan's responses were a little more informative, and he recommended two books for me to check the footnotes to. One being Raul Hilberg's classic The Destruction of European Jews written in the sixties, the other being the new book by Peter Longerich; Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews. The unabridged versions of the former are available on for a whopping £113 as of today, which obviously makes it a little bit out of my price range. I also tried consulting my university library but not a single copy was available. Fortunately, the cheaper second book came with a greater recommendation from Evans as Hilberg's estimate was "on the low side" (5.1 million) according to him. Nevertheless, it would still be nice to see the the footnotes for both books, so linked at the bottom of this page is my paypal account where you can send me your generous donations so I that may purchase the book (just kidding). It would have been nice of Prof Evans to have consulted his own copy of the book and picked out a few of the footnotes he considered the most significant for me, but I suspect he is a busy man in his profession.

I'll be making a follow up to this once I've gathered more info and had time to do a little more research into the matter. That's all for now.

For more on Hilberg, his book, his low estimate of 5.1 million, as well as his attitude to Holocaust denial I suggest reading Prof Norman Finkelstein's 2007 memoir; Remembering Raul Hilberg available at his website

1. (1977) Irving. D. Hitler's War, pp.10.
2. (2002) Evans. R. Telling Lies About Hitler, pp.24.

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