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Sunday Star * Times

New Zealand, 27 July 2003

Death threats and breakdowns - the Holocaust thesis destroyed my life

JOEL Hayward's controversial thesis about the Holocaust is in the spotlight again. In his first interview on the affair, the historian talks to Anthony Hubbard.

Joel Hayward's idol is Lord Nelson, the maimed hero of Trafalgar. Hayward's Palmerston North house has pictures of Nelson on its beige walls. There is even a portrait of Hardy, his loyal lieutenant, in the toilet.

Joel HaywardThe former Massey historian identifies with the British admiral, and not just because he has written a book about him.

Hayward believes he lost his job and his career because of the row over his notorious 1993 "revisionist" thesis about the Holocaust. When he quit Massey last year, "I felt a bit like Lord Nelson after he lost the sight of his eye and the use of his arm", he says, sitting in his lounge beneath an etching of Napoleon, Nelson's great rival.

"Nelson did some dumb things. He had to overcome some dumb decisions. He went through some very, very black and depressing periods in his life, and yet he overcame them and as a human I can relate to him . . . I've had the same life's roller coaster as he had."

Hayward's critics will have none of this. The historian may cast himself as a martyr in the cause of free speech. He may make unblushing comparisons between himself and the great naval leader. But, to them, Hayward has aided the cause of tyranny. As a student at Canterbury he not only wrote an MA thesis belittling key aspects of the Holocaust, they say, but he continued to associate with Holocaust revisionists and deniers long afterwards. He may have publicly recanted and disowned parts of the thesis - but they are not convinced.

No issue is more fraught or more explosive. Hayward is accused, in effect, of helping to whitewash genocide. His defenders say he merely raised genuine questions about limited aspects of it.

Last week historian Thomas Fudge resigned from Canterbury after the history department destroyed copies of a departmental journal in which Fudge defended Hayward.

Hayward is a short, slightly pudgy man in blue tracksuit pants. His dark hair bristles like a bottlebrush from above a smooth bland face. He sits with his head down and his shoulders slumped, a figure of dejection. Only towards the end of a long interview, and in response to his critics' claims, does he become animated.

Nobody doubts that Hayward has fallen into wretchedness. He lives on the dole and has been unable to find other work. Employers, he says, are spooked by his reputation. He has had to sell most of his beloved book collection in an attempt to provide for his wife Kathy and his daughters. He has suffered death threats and humiliation. He has twice suffered mental collapse.

But whether you sympathise with the man depends on how you view his history. If the young scholar merely blundered or overstated his case, as his defenders allege, then his downfall is a scandal. His enemies - the word is not too strong - have a different view.

Hayward emailed all members of the Canterbury history department after he heard about the burning of History Now, the journal containing Fudge's article.

"I warned them that regardless of the merits or demerits of that article, the destruction would be seen as book burning and New Zealanders aren't book burners."

Fudge says he wanted to draw attention to the fact that Hayward had been unjustly punished. Hayward says the department didn't like it

"because it makes clear for the first time that many members of the department believe I had been treated unfairly and the grade I received - an A-plus - was indeed appropriate".

If the article had been critical of him, he says, "they would have published it with no problems". Department members, he suggests,

"are scared. Well, I'm scared. I'm scared. I've had years of being scared so I understand they were scared to be supportive of a thesis that has been so roundly condemned by people who haven't read it I can understand that. But at what point does fear become more powerful than academic principle?"

Hayward says he left the university in mid-2002 because "I just broke down". Trouble began as soon as word leaked out in late 1999 about the thesis, which he had deposited in Canterbury University library under a six-year embargo. "There was an obvious change in my colleagues' attitude towards me," he says. "I felt they were believing the reports in the newspapers even though they knew I was a prolific, hardworking and popular colleague - and that hurt me.

"Slowly through 2000 fewer people would speak to me and the tearoom became a very uncomfortable place for me to go. The threats against me, my feeling of ruined collegiality and just the stress of the working party (Canterbury's inquiry team into the affair) drove me to the first breakdown of the two that I've had."

Sometimes colleagues would walk out of the room if he entered. More commonly, if it was "a choice of sitting down at the table with Joel Hayward or sitting at another table, they would sit at the other table". One day "a middle-aged man walked into my office - my door was always open, I had an open-door policy with the students - he walked in and said 'you'll get yours mate'. And I said Ooh really, what will I get?' And he passed me a live bullet and turned and walked out."

He got hate mail including death threats. 'Die, you evil scumbag, you don't deserve a long life and ain't going to have one'. That sort of thing. Sometimes, and I laughed about this with Kathy sometimes, I would get hate mail or death threats with the sender's name and address on the back.

"An anonymous caller rang Kathy and said 'well, where are your kids now? And she said 'they're at school'. And the person said 'well, how do you know they're there? And how do you know they're safe?' Click - and then hung up."

By the end of 2001 "my nerves were broken, I felt physically and emotionally ill. I began making what I see now to be erratic decisions.

"And I felt the university ignored my health because I told them 'I can't cope'. I told one of my lecturers that I felt suicidal and I watched him write it in his desk diary. And his response was, 'look, you're just going to have to buck up and get past this'."

He resigned in early 2002, partly because he thought he had another job lecturing naval officers. But then the job fell through, apparently because the person who offered it was not authorised to do so. He asked to withdraw his resignation a week later but it was refused.

Massey, he believes, was glad to get rid of him because he was an embarrassment, despite the fact that he was a prolific author - writer of six books, including a critically-acclaimed book on Stalingrad. Whereas most scholars produced only one article a year in academic journals, he says, he averaged four. And he was popular with students. Some have publicly supported him in letters to the newspaper.

But he cannot even get shortlisted for jobs. In one case - he had a job at Fonterra - the job was withdrawn on his first day.

Hayward says his thesis contained "some errors of interpretation". But he points out that he wrote it before he did his master's papers - the reverse of the usual order. He had asked to do this because his baby daughter was sick and he wanted to work from home. But if he had followed the usual route by doing papers first - on historical research and methodology - he might have done a better thesis.

He is reluctant to blame his thesis supervisor, Canterbury historian Vincent Orange, now retired from the university. Orange also supervised his PhD on Stalingrad and became his friend. But Hayward does suggest the department let him down by allowing him to tackle too difficult a topic and by failing to see the political ramifications.

Orange, who until now has remained publicly silent, told the Sunday Star-Times:

"I'm not going to deny I made mistakes, several mistakes, in my supervision. I could have done, and should have done, a better job."

Hayward says he particularly regrets the part of his thesis casting doubt on the numbers of Jews killed in the Holocaust. He suggested that the number was more than one or two million, but much less than the symbolic figure of six million. He admits he had not properly investigated those figures in the body of his paper.

"It was dumb. It was dumb. That's the line I've regretted making in the thesis more than any other line. Now where were my supervisors when I made that? Hayward says he learned more about the Holocaust later and came to see that "perhaps I'd made - or been allowed to make - some booboo".

The working party into the affair decided the thesis was flawed and should have been resubmitted, but that it should not be revoked because Hayward had not acted dishonestly.


WAIKATO University political scientist Dov Bing, who first revealed the thesis to the world, has a different view. Hayward published an article in the Jewish Chronicle in 1990 denouncing British historian David Irving and other Holocaust deniers. But, a few months later, in his thesis, Hayward took the opposite view. "How could he possibly have changed his mind in such a short time?" asks Bing.

In 2001, a photograph appeared on a revisionist website showing Hayward shooting a handgun on the property in Alabama of Robert Countess, an activist revisionist. The photograph dates from 1994, Countess says in the German-language website. He refers to Hayward as "my friend". In 1998, Hayward published a defence on a website of David Irving as a military historian. And in 1999 he published an article about Hitler's campaign in the Crimea in a neo-Nazi magazine edited by a well-known Holocaust denier, says Bing.

The young Hayward had also claimed to be Jewish or of Jewish heritage when writing his thesis, but this claim now seemed doubtful. His mother's mother was Jewish, he says, "but I have never pretended to be Jewish, and I have never pretended to be not Jewish". His religion was a private matter between him and his creator. Hayward says Countess had invited him to meet the family of the great [Negro] athlete Jesse Owens, a long-time hero of his. Countess had heard that Hayward was studying on a fellowship at an Alabama airbase.

Hayward says he had known Countess was a revisionist, "but he was a nobody in the revisionist world. He wasn't like David Irving". After the visit to the Owens' family - "one of the greatest days of my life", says Hayward - he had fallen into a debate with Countess about handguns and accepted his invitation to fire the gun because as a defence specialist he was interested in such things.

Does he now regret it? "Of course I do. But all I thought I was going to do was meet the family of a great man." His public defence of David Irving concerned only his reputation as a military historian, not as a Holocaust denier. And he had not known that the magazine that published his 1999 article was a revisionist one. Its editor had used a pseudonym when inviting him to submit the article.

At the very least, all of this shows poor political judgement. But Hayward says he has been hoodwinked by neo-Nazis and revisionists desperate to use his academic good name to boost their cause. He had spent years trying to remove his thesis from neo-Nazi websites.

He is, he says, a liberal Labour voter - "I voted for Helen Clark twice before and I will do it again" - who loathes racism. "If I could go back in H G Wells' time machine," he says, "I would never do that thesis". It had been a catastrophe for him and his family, but once again he finds comfort in his hero. Nelson overcame his mistakes and his depressions, and so, he says, will he. After years of silence, he has resolved to come out and defend himself. "I refuse," he says, lifting his head from its habitual bowed position, "to be a victim."



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
© Focal Point 2003 e-mail:  write to David Irving