It’s my conviction that a conscientious columnist should admit his own faults and flaws. When a reader accuses me of making “a rather big leap from a very small statement” in another reader’s comment, I check myself. In this specific case, the reader was right: I did jump into conclusions, which I shouldn’t have done. However, the conclusions I jumped into happened to be correct. Let me explain.
In my previous column I compared two concepts of war: a war aimed at disabling the armed forces of the enemy (my source was the Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th edition, quoted by Eric Hobsbawm in his On History, p.255), versus a war aimed at annihilating the enemy (Hitler’s words of 1939, quoted regrettably, I gave a wrong reference in Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell, p.23). The former definition is enlightened, the latter barbarian. My point was that Israel’s assassination of Sheik Yassin fell closer to the barbarian concept of war. As if to prove my point, Israel has now for “security considerations”, sure thing made the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) suspend the distribution of its emergency food aid to some 600,000 refugees in the Gaza Strip.
Bacque Buckets Along
A side track of my argument was to identify the German/Nazi side in WWII, in opposition to the Allies, with barbarism. Surprisingly, of all the reactions I received none had a single word to say on my main argument; it was this side track that aroused the fury of several readers. They based their claim on a book called Other Losses (1991) by one James Bacque, that claimed that about a million German POWs were killed in Allies’ camps following WWII. This “second Holocaust of WWII”, so the argument loosely went, puts the Allies on the same moral level as Hitler, if not slightly beneath.
My reaction was rather harsh; one reader mistook it for “hysteric”. I trusted my (Jewish) nose, that scented neo-Nazi revisionism, Holocaust denial and the like. I may be oversensitive as a son of a Holocaust survivor; I may have been over sensitised by reactions to previous columns, always from American readers, by the way, like: “I do not call myself a ‘Holocaust Denier’ others do. You cannot deny what did not occur” (reader’s letter, 30.12.2002). I never argue with Holocaust deniers they don’t deserve it. Bacque’s argument does not deny the Holocaust, which is why I did address it; I did smell some family resemblance with Holocaust denial, which is why I addressed it the way I did.
Why did my nose scent what it did? Pure intuition. I had never heard of Bacque nor of his argument; this was reason enough. I also noticed that while the number of German post-war victims started at “about a million”, it subsequently rose to 1.7 million and then further up to 9.3 to 13.7 million deaths. This reproductive capacity of the dead, unprecedented among the living, is typical of urban legends disguised as history. I also scented a strong political bias: though some of the readers mentioned the Allies’ bombing of German cities an atrocity indeed none bothered to mention the obvious crime of annihilating Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Again, my nose detected the smell of sorting victims by race.
Anyway, it took a short Google search to find Prof Stephen Ambrose’s assessment of Bacque’s work (New York Times Book Review, February 24, 1991):
“Mr. Bacque is wrong on every major charge and nearly all his minor ones. Eisenhower was not a Hitler, he did not run death camps, German prisoners did not die by the hundreds of thousands [ ].”
When I quoted this, the reply was that Ambrose was a discredited “court historian”. So here we have a professor of history, who taught all his life in the University of New Orleans, author of numerous books and articles, now “discredited” in a stroke; whereas a Canadian novelist(!), with no historical training whatsoever, is taken as an irrefutable source. Farewell to the historical method, developed for 200 years by numerous scholars, farewell to academic procedures: a single fiction writer is on par with the whole discipline of History.
We’ll return to this later. But first a final word on Bacque. It took a bit longer to find the following quote of Gerhard Weinberg, Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, author of the 1,200 page long A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (Cambridge University Press). In an article on “WWII Scholarship, Now and in the Future” (Journal of Military History, vol. 61:2, April 1997, p.338f.), Weinberg narrates:
“More dramatic [than the story of the fake Hitler diary] was the publication by a Canadian novelist of a book alleging that Eisenhower arranged for the murder of about a million German prisoners of war in 1945. This was one of those conspiracy fabrications which, once believed, could not be shaken. If there was no evidence, that proved how diabolically clever the conspiracy to commit this crime was; when evidence turned up that the alleged dead were mostly German militia (Volkssturm), boys and old men who had been released without formal processing as POWs, the true believers took it as proof that evidence had been fabricated at Eisenhower’s orders in 1945 to cover up the crime if it ever came to light in the future. The hundreds of thousands who vanished by the Canadian fiction writer’s calculations had neither relatives who would subsequently claim widows’ or orphans’ benefits or need death certificates to inherit or to remarry; they also failed to leave their bodies behind. These German soldiers evidently came from the moon; and their corpses must have been shipped back there by a process of levitation in the age before the Apollo landings.”
And even the “family resemblance” I scented did not escape Weinberg’s attention:
“Those who pretend that the Holocaust never happened, and that those murdered actually went into hiding with their children and grandchildren while neither leaving forwarding addresses nor ever contacting the relatives and friends who mourn them, belong in the same category of fakers.”
(Obviously, one could discredit Weinberg as well: one can argue that no human being is infallible, except for James Bacque. Spare me the letters: I rest my case.)
Pre-Reason Poor, Post-Reason Rich
As a counterpart to the barbarism of the Bushites, the Sharonites and other men in power, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union with its rewriters of history, our world is now haunted by a demon of epistemological fuzziness. In the underdeveloped countries it’s the result of poor education an excellent environment for frustration and incitement that makes millions in Afghanistan or Pakistan believe that thousands of Jews did not go to work in the Twin Towers on September 11th, and therefore that “the Jews” were behind 9/11.
Very similarly, in the rich countries, it is the slippery slope from multiculturalism (every culture is as legitimate) to radical epistemological scepticism (there is no unbiased truth, so every lie is just as good), inspired by some of the more corrupt forms of Postmodernism, that makes so many Americans adjust history to their malicious political needs, in the face of any contrary evidence.
True: no truth is final and holds forever; but that’s what science is all about: a methodical, verifiable search for truth. True: the Allies did commit terrible crimes in WWII; but Hitler’s Germany was a hideous, monstrous, criminal regime compared with the Allies. True: the nation state itself might be a bad idea, the source of much evil; but there are better and worse nation states. Barbarism is not just presenting evil as good, like Israel is doing in the occupied territories and the US in Iraq and elsewhere; barbarism is also blurring the conceptual demarcation between good and evil, between true and false, between historical research and fictitious propaganda.
In a very fundamental way, the Geneva Conventions and the Sciences are related: both are part of Man’s audacity to use Reason. Both have their flaws and deficiencies: both conventions and scientific knowledge may be wrong, or abused. Both are never-ending projects: international conventions in their search for a better world, science in its search for truth. Being of human origin, Reason is not a perfect baby; it may even suffer from serious illnesses. But the worst cure would be to throw it out with the bathwater.