The history of denial: the truth is out there

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In Tony Taylor’s 2008 work Denial: History Betrayed, the often baffling story of historical denial is investigated. History editor Dr Glenn Davies reviews.

The debate between states as to what the new 'Australian Curriculum: History' will look like continues to be a thorny issue. But all would agree the misuse and abuse of history has become a common point of discussion in classrooms these days. No longer is the teaching of history seen as a non-problematic narrative leading inevitably towards a glorious present. Now, we have multiple narratives, evidence-based interpretations and a more sceptical approach to the relationship between political authority and historical explanation. Tony Taylor’s Denial: History Betrayed explores for the first time the psychology of the historical denial genre and has produced a book that can help to protect teachers from the assaults of the more wacky and loopy promoters of history and is an excellent support to the development of a genuine understanding of history.

 Professor Tony Taylor

In 2003, Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, granddaughter of historian Manning Clark, documented the history wars of the 1990s. This was a decade when there had been attacks and defences on what history was taught in schools and universities and the way in which it was taught. This “use and abuse of history” was not occurring only in Australia, but also in Britain, Canada and in the United States.

In Tony Taylor’s 2008 work Denial: History Betrayed, he investigates the baffling spectacle known as historical denial. An Associate Professor from Monash University, Tony Taylor shows how historical denial aims to obliterate authentic accounts of the past to distract us from genuine historical understanding. In doing so, it betrays the people who inhabited the past, the work of genuine historians and the audience of history.

Denial is a very normal, human response. As a defence mechanism it can help us to deal with all sorts of difficult circumstances, until we're ready to deal with things head on. Denial might even be a useful form of self-deception in the short term. But as history shows, denial can be a very powerful and destructive political tool when it's used by one group of people against another. In South Africa, when Thabo Mbeki and his government claimed that HIV-AIDS was not a serious issue but rather an illness that could be cured by ‘garlic, beetroot and lemons’ a large number of that country’s population were negatively affected through denial. Other examples of governmental denial include George W Bush’s rejection of the growing evidence of his administration’s intelligence failures and setting out on a war strategy, and Deng Xiao-Peng’s denial of the scale and character of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. However, these contemporary examples of political denial are in contrast to the historical denial of ‘a more fully known and explored past’.

Denial is the first book to draw together the ideological and psychological elements involved in historical denial and prove that while each denial-provoking case may vary in character, the nature of historical denial itself remains relatively consistent. At a time when most debates seem to accept the arguments of the deniers at face value, Taylor focuses on the pathology of denial as an abuse of history through wilful distortion of events and eager self-deception. He analyses the techniques of revisionist denial including ‘hyper-criticism’ which is really a form of fantasising, an obsession with insignificant and suspect details which ties up genuine debate, a wilful ignorance of broader contexts and the purveying of assumptions as conclusions. Many of those involved in debates about denial take the view that it is a legitimate alternative set of opinions about the past, rather than a politically and, or racially, motivated distortion of events. Or, they believe that, notwithstanding the loopy parts, deniers have something valuable to say. Tony Taylor’s Denial challenges that view.

Taylor’s probing analysis examines six fascinating case studies from modern history in denialism: Turkish denial of genocidal behaviour towards Armenians; Holocaust denial; Japanese denial of wartime atrocities; British communist denial of Stalinist crimes against humanity; Serbian and Marxist denial of genocide in Bosnia; and Australian denial of the maltreatment of Indigenous Australians.

In the first chapter Taylor explores the way in which the aggressor Turkey has been able to perpetuate the placing of the blame for the genocide of Armenia with the victims. Before and during the beginning of World War 1, Ottoman troops and irregulars killed approximately 50,000 Armenian Christians. In 1915, a campaign of subjugation against the Armenians led to the deportation of an estimated 1.75 million Armenians. Between 600,000 and 1 million Armenians were killed or died during the 1915 campaign. The Turkish authorities have difficulty to this day in accepting commonly held non-Turkish views of these events.In the second chapter, Taylor focuses on the notorious 2000 British libel case brought by David Irving, a notorious Holocaust denier and revisionist writer, against Deborah Lipstadt, a less-than-famous US historian, who had condemned Irving as a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book. Richard Evans, Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge was a star witness against Irving. Irving lost the case at a very heavy financial cost, was labelled by the judge an anti-Semitic racist, and Deborah Lipstadt became a well-known US historian. In 2002, Evans published an excellent book Telling Lies about Hitler. Over the years Irving has lost a fortune in court costs and is barred from countries such as Australia and New Zealand. His jaded view of history is illegal in ten European countries where any denial of the Holocaust or aspects of it could land him or his fellow travellers in prison.

David Irving no longer says that the Holocaust – the murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis during World War II – did not happen. Rather he questions technical aspects of the episode. However, in 2006 all the Holocaust denial caught up with Irving when he was jailed for three years by a court in Vienna for denying the Holocaust during a speaking tour of Austria seventeen years before. The Austrians are so sensitive about the Holocaust that as the rest of the civilised world criticised the court decision to jail David Irving on grounds of freedom of speech, prosecutors in Vienna lodged an appeal for a tougher sentence. For the nation that spawned Adolf Hitler there would be no half measures. Any Holocaust deniers, or even sceptics such as Australia’s Lady Michele Renouf, are not welcome to ply their brand of history in the small European nation. On 1 October 2008, the Australian citizen Frederik Toben was detained at Heathrow airport on a charge of denying the Holocaust. He is due to face an extradition hearing to Germany on 17 October 2008. Toben faces up to five years in jail and, although most prisoners in Germany serve a third to half of their sentences, the stubborn refusal of long-term Holocaust revisionists to recant their views means they usually fail to win parole.

By the third chapter, Taylor explores the politics of remembrance and denial in modern Japan. From December 1937 until March 1938 approximately 360,000 Chinese civilians and prisoners of war in Nanking were murdered by Japanese troops. An estimated 20,000 women and girls were raped, mutilated, and/or killed. Former Japanese Justice Minister Shiegto Nagano denied that the massacre had taken place and described it as a Chinese fabrication. The ‘Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform’ is a group founded in 1996 to promote a revised view of Japanese history. The group was responsible for authoring a textbook which was heavily criticised by China and South Korea for not including full accounts of, or downplaying, the wartime activities of Imperial Japan during World War II, such as reference to the Nanjing Massacre as ‘Nanjing Incident’. In 2001, a Japanese film on World War II portrayed Japanese troops as selfless liberators of their fellow Asians. Merdeka, which means independence in Malay, challenged the conventional view of the Japanese as brutal aggressors and credited them with freeing Indonesia from Dutch colonial rule. In 2002, a series of eight Japanese school textbooks was published that sanitised Japan’s role in World War II. The clear message the books give is an unapologetic interpretation of the past. The society stated that there was no evidence the Japanese used ‘comfort women’ and that the scale of the 1937 Nanking massacre was open to conjecture.

In Denial, Tony Taylor discusses how denial is also now a major online industry: hate/denial/conspiracy sites have proliferated in the past ten years, a development complicated by new technological developments such as blogging, the strategic diversion of readers from apparently legitimate sites to racist sites, and the jamming of mainstream sites with denial messages. Conspiracy theories continue to flourish in the information age, to multiply, as explanations for events as diverse as the bombing of Pearl Harbour (choreographed by the Americans), and the deaths of politicians such as John F. Kennedy and celebrities such as Princess Diana (whacked by the royal family), the moon landings (faked in a Hollywood studio) and the disappearance of the electric car (suppressed by petrol-guzzlers). There is no shortage of similar theories in Australia, where some still insist that Harold Holt did not drown but was whisked off in a Chinese submarine, that Gough Whitlam was dismissed on the instructions of the United States intelligence operatives and even that the Port Arthur massacre was staged by politicians pressing for gun controls. It might be imagined that such ‘conspiracy theorists’ would be increasingly drowned out by the information generated by the internet, which would support the view that disturbing, unsettling, complicated events may feature conspirators, but are more likely to be explained by the incompetence of known individual agents rather than via shadowy Da Vinci Code-like organisations. Quite the reverse, says Tony Taylor. The internet, through its reach, through its ability to create communities of interests, provides an ideal incubation box for wacky theories, especially at times of uncertainty, when people are understandably more distrustful of their masters and, of course, their media.

So, what to do, who to believe? “The truth”, runs the motto at the beginning of every episode of The X-Files, “is out there”. The X-Files was a supremely brilliant and convincing distillation of paranoia. Its central premise was a belief that, out there, there is a truth to be revealed. Number Six, the hero of British show The Prisoner, was in rebellion against the government and uncertain as to who – his own people or the enemy – was keeping him in The Village. Fox Mulder, the hero of the American X-Files, is also in rebellion against the government, and he is convinced that aliens and the paranormal are essential but concealed constituents of our world. The fierce, driven intensity of both Mulder and Six stems from their clear conviction that the truth is not only out there, but that it is also intensely interesting — a matter, in fact, of life and death. The paranoid faith that drives both shows is the same: there is a pattern, a logic in the world that is systematically being concealed by a malign conspiracy. In the thriller or whodunit the detective hero seeks out the pattern that the surface facts conceal. Above all, he believes in the existence of that pattern, in the concealed truth, and that belief makes him virtuous. Everybody likes to think that one more piece will complete the jigsaw, that one day it will all fall into place. Area 51, a place more imaginatively ‘real’ than most of the locations that appear on the nightly news, is the place where truth is imagined to be held prisoner. In George Orwell’s 1984, the central character is Winston Smith, a middle-class drone, who rewrites history for the Minitrue (Ministry of Truth) to accommodate frequent changes in policy by the ruling elite. In a world ruled by three competing totalitarian mega-states (Eurasia, Eastasia, and Oceania), everything is controlled by all-seeing and all-powerful governments that use brutal means to keep their respective populations in line. Even history is erased and rewritten to fit the current political climate, making memories criminal. Using a pared-down and modified English called Newspeak, he invents lies to fill new official publications and destroys the lies that filled the old ones. All of this is a salutary warning for history teachers to keep a clear eye open for those that purport to know the truth, or ‘the answer’, to complicated historical questions.

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