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The National Business Review

New Zealand, August 8, 2003

Media watch: Open minds, empty minds and the Holocaust

by David Cohen

DON 'T believe the guy who once said the problem with history is that there's no future in it. The dust has been disturbed yet again in the long-buried case of Joel Hayward and the University of Canterbury.

Joel HaywardAnother scholar is seeking to still or confirm the question of whether Dr Hayward was the victim of an academic witch-hunt on account of the revisionist views he once took but has since repudiated on the subject of the Holocaust. Do we need this?

Apparently so. Already the opening of this old casket has got a number of local media outlets loudly sneezing, such is their passion for unfettered historical investigation, as they claim to understand it.

Their general position has found support this past fortnight, with a raft of press interviews given by Dr Hayward to mark his colleague's relitigation of the original scandal.

The work, you'll recall, argued that far fewer than six million Jews, perhaps fewer than one million, perished in concentration camps during the time of Nazi rule across most of Europe.

It speculated that the idea of gas chambers being used against the innocent during World War II might have been a propaganda invented by the UK, the US and Jewish lobbyists in the thrall of Zionist forces. It postulated that Hitler could not be held personally responsible for the situation. And so on.

As somebody who was involved in reporting on the situation at the time, I have no personal judgment to make on Dr Hayward, who has said he now wishes only to concentrate on his new career as a freelance scholar. But the latest surge of coverage isn't only about the acknowledged "mistakes" a 29-year-old student made a decade ago. It's about the way in which a confused local media irrigates the past.

This has not been our finest hour. With only three lonely, impressive and, it has to be said, left-leaning exceptions &endash; stand up, Anthony Hubbard of the Sunday Star-Times, New Zealand Herald columnist Diana Wichtel and the Listener's Philip Matthews &endash; the tendency on the journalistic front has been far more toward what the American columnist George F Will once tactfully characterised as historical amnesia, fumigated by gassy notions of "tolerance" that cannot distinguish between an open mind and an empty mind when it comes to the critical world events of the past century.

Peculiarly uninformed when it comes to the collective fate that befell European Jewry during World War II, the emptyheads have clucked on about little else other than the need to maintain the air of scepticism Dr Hayward attempted to cast over the topic in his ill-starred master's thesis.

As an editorial in the New Zealand Herald put it, "All of history has to be open to constant reappraisal of events, their causes and consequences and the light they throw on the past and present."

Much the same point was made, implicitly and somewhat less elegantly, in an impromptu apologia written by Diana McCurdy in the Dominion-Post, which included the fatuous warning of "a possible backlash against the Jewish community" if they or others were to ever again make known their displeasure at their history being so reappraised.

On first blush the stance may appear high-minded, even impressively sophisticated; it could also be described as pernicious and kind of creepy.

To be sure, history is about open-ended questions. So is journalism. As Mr Will asks, speaking on behalf of those who practise the other craft, what kind of student of history makes a career out of denying the reality of an almost contemporary event that has been recorded graphically, documented bureaucratically and described in vast detail by victims, bystanders and perpetrators?

More than three years have passed since Canterbury was forced to ask itself the same question after first apologising to the country's tiny Jewish community for the unwarranted distress caused by its conferral of a master's degree for the 360-page dissertation The Fate of Jews in German Hands: An Historical Inquiry into the Development and Significance of Holocaust Revisionism.

An independent inquiry convened by the university later found the work to be seriously flawed and its central conclusions unjustified. They acknowledged that the affair had been deeply embarrassing to one of the country's most respected institutions of higher learning, a university that has long had a special claim to know better than most on questions of bogus history.

Canterbury, after all, is the same institution that provided the setting for two of last century's most seminal philosophical works, The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism, both of them exegesis on the pseudoscientific ideas about "history" put forward by Plato, Hegel and Marx, which were completed there in the 1940s by the Jewish-Austrian émigré Sir Karl Popper.

Like many others here from a similar background, the culturally assimilated Sir Karl arrived looking for shelter from the cataclysmic events opening up at the time in Europe, whose reality has been academically contested at the master's level of study in just one country during the past 60 years.

In awarding the Hayward degree with honours, Sir Karl's old institution achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the only accredited institution of higher learning in the world ever known to have conferred an MA on the basis of a historical "inquiry" of this type.

The good news is that the work's author has since apologised and indicated his willingness to move on. So has the university. Isn't it about time the epistemologically challenged in the forthright estate followed suit?



Our dossier on the Joel Hayward case
July 2003, NZ Herald: "Holocaust thesis ruined my life says historian"
Report of the Working Party established by University of Canterbury to Inquire into Hayward Case | summary
Holocaust scholar at heart of 'book burning' row | 'Book-burners' feared libel suit
Joel Hayward thesis: 'The Fate of Jews in German Hands' (zip file)
The Fate of Joel Hayward in New Zealand Hands: From Holocaust Historian to Holocaust? Part I | Part II
Death threats and breakdowns - the Holocaust thesis destroyed my life
© Focal Point 2003 e-mail:  write to David Irving