Professor Richard Evans' sneering comments on Ernst Nolte
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Holocaust denial has nothing to do with reinterpretation. It is nothing more than a simple falsification of history, undertaken for political motives that have nothing to do with real historical investigation. -- Prof Richard Evans

his bookHow Evans evaluates Ernst Nolte


Website note: Richard Evans's turgid and almost unreadable book "In Defence of History" received much criticism from the historical community. As a result he publicly responded. His November 1999 attempted rebuttal of his opponents is available on the website of the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London at:

We reproduce below his response to the German historian, Professor Ernst Nolte, who reviewed the book in Die Welt ('Auschwitz als Argument in der Geschichtstheorie', in Die Welt, 2 January 1999). Readers can reach their own conclusions as to how fairly Evans treated Professor Nolte. The passage illustrates the polemical nature of Evans's defence.

skunkRichard Evans:


A somewhat different confusion appears in Ernst Nolte's review. Nolte agrees that '"Auschwitz"….is probably in reality the most effective argument that can be directed against the "postmodernists" and their concepts of "text", "invention" and "fictionality"'. However, he goes on, this does not mean that any challenge to the accepted historical representation of Auschwitz is tantamount to Holocaust denial.

Is it, he asks, a form of Holocaust denial to dispute the once-widespread claim that four million people were gassed in Auschwitz, or to note, as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen does, that the efficiency of the gas chambers has been exaggerated, or to concede that Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of an acclaimed eyewitness account of Auschwitz, was never actually in the camp at all? Auschwitz is not an invention, Nolte says, but it has constantly to be rediscovered and reinterpreted.

No generation has the right to close off research for the future by declaring we know all we can ever know. Auschwitz must be studied with the same historiographical tools of source-criticism and so on as any other subject. And it must constantly be compared with other genocides. Who knows whether, at some future time, its singularity will be compromised by some other case of mass murd er similar in scope and method? Historical relativization,

Nolte concludes, is not the same as moral relativization. Moreover, incorrect arguments are often beneficial to scholarship because they sharpen and improve better arguments. Nolte suggests that if I follow my own principles, I should agree with these points. He suspects I do not. But he is wrong. I do agree with them, at least, in the way that he puts them in his review.

Unfortunately, what he is really talking about here is not In Defence of History at all, but another book which I published ten years ago, In Hitler's Shadow, in which I dealt with (West) German views of Nazism and strongly criticized Nolte's own writings on the subject, particularly his claim that hard-line Holocaust deniers, people who allege that there was no Nazi policy of exterminating the Jews, that there were no gas chambers, that the number of Jews who were killed was far smaller than six million, were honourable people whose views should be taken seriously.

Judea declares war

In his book Der europäische Bürgerkrieg, indeed, Nolte even took over standard theses from the Holocaust deniers, including the (demonstrably false) allegation that the Jews declared war on Germany in 1939 and therefore Hitler was justified in 'interning' them in concentration camps. [See picture added by this website above].

The point here is that there is a difference between legitimate reinterpretation and deliberate invention and falsification; between debates over the significance of historical events and attempts to deny their existence altogether; bet ween the proper methods of historical scholarship such as source-criticism, and the distortion, manipulation and suppression of historical evidence by Holocaust deniers such as Arthur Butz and Paul Rassinier, whom Nolte defends in his book.

  • Of course it isn't a form of Holocaust denial to question the authenticity of Wilkomirski's memoirs.
  • Of course Goldhagen was not flirting with Holocaust denial when he made his remark about the efficiency of the gas chambers, because what he meant by this was that only a portion of Europe's Jews were killed by gassing; millions were killed by mass shootings, a fact he claims is too often forgotten in the literature on the Holocaust.
  • And of course it is not Holocaust denial to point out, as has been known at least since the postwar publication of the memoirs of Rudolf Höss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, that the best estimate for the number of victims of gassing there was slightly in excess of one million, not the four million that has sometimes been claimed.

All this has nothing to do with Holocaust denial, and I am not aware of anybody apart from Nolte who has ever claimed a connection. What Nolte seems to be suggesting is that my concept of historical objectivity rules out any dispute of any kind about Auschwitz. But it does not. Of course there is room for argument and debate. But only within the limits set by the evidence. A claim such as the familiar Holocaust denial assertion that nobody was gassed at all clearly steps beyond these bounds.

EvansNor do I think that Holocaust denial has performed any real service to genuine scholarship, because it has nothing to do with reinterpretation. It is nothing more than a simple falsification of history, undertaken for political motives that have nothing to do with real historical investigation. On the other hand, the work, say, of Goldhagen, though in my view demonstrably wrong on a number of accounts, has stimulated historians to think afresh about such issues as the reasons why ordinary men, or ordinary Germans, participated in the extermination of the Jews, the strength of anti-Jewish sentiment in Imperial Germany, the extent to which antisemitism was increasing during the Weimar Republic, and so on.

In other words, on the evidence of his review, Nolte and I are in broad agreement on all the issues he raises. On the evidence of my In Hitler's Shadow and his Der europäische Bürgerkrieg, however, we are still a long way apart.



Related items on this website:

David Irving answers requests of Cambridge University newspaper Varsity for comments on Evans
Index on Richard Evans
A learned reviewer suggests that Professor Richard Evans's book is unscholarly, ignorant, and sloppy
Richard Evans' response to other critics
Richard Evans was one of the expert witnesses hired by Prof Deborah Lipstadt for her defence of David Irving's libel action

Alphabetical site index (text)
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