Nature of Historical Writing

The article by Champion points out that history is basically a set of stories we tell ourselves about what our collective past was like.  Thus, to a large degree, the most effective historians are those who are most effective at telling stories. The problem is that those listening to those stories are at the mercy of the ones telling it.  If the speaker of the stories deliberately distorts the truth, or withholds it, or in other ways disguises reality, the listeners (or readers) have very little recourse. Without that assumption of underlying truth, history becomes nothing more than a fantasy—or a political polemic. 

In the case of David Irving, the “facts” of the Holocaust presented by him to his audiences were complete distortions of what actually occurred, as was repeated proved in courts of law (Irving, 10 Feb. 2011).  As noted by Champion, he twisted, distorted, and maligned reality over and over; he simply lied (Champion, 2008, pp. 181-182) .  Yet to a reader (or listener) who lacked knowledge of that set of events, Irving’s lies were plausible.  Even a few historians noted that the sheer volume of research Irving did was “impressive” (p. 181).

The implications are vitally important. The claim to historical authenticity—especially if accompanied by a door-stop sized text with hundreds of academic-looking footnotes—is so powerful that naïve or uneducated listeners can easily be taken in by polemics disguised as truth. Thus, not only do historians have an obligation to tell the truth as objectively as they can manage, given that their human perceptions and biases will always color their reports, but listeners and readers have an obligation to learn about the past so they are better able to evaluate the stories they hear.  An audience who is educated about the past is far less vulnerable to deliberate distortions than one who simply takes what they hear and read on faith, based on the personal charisma of the speaker.