Day By Day

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Irving Affair and the AHA -- Should Historiography be Criminalized?

Jesse Lemisch over at the History News Network notes that the American Historical Association has been more than a bit hypocritical in the past in discussing the Holocaust. The organization has issued strong denunciations of revisionist views on the Holocaust while refusing to take a position on other instances of genocide like Turkey's Armenian extermination program. This "privileging" of the Holocaust makes it difficult for the profession to respond effectively to Austria's horrific action in sentencing historian David Irving to prison as a "Holocaust denier." He writes:

Of course the AHA is in no direct sense responsible for an Austrian court's jailing of Irving. But by privileging the Holocaust, the AHA has contributed to an atmosphere in which the "wrong" view of the Holocaust has been criminalized, which of course brings us pretty close to the jailhouse door. Historians have a special responsibility in this situation. We, and our organizations, will be complicit in a bad episode if we can't bring ourselves to speak up.

He calls upon the association to issue the strongest possible denunciation of the Austrian court's actions.

He then makes an interesting admission.
I have long been puzzled as to where I stand on restrictions on expression in Europe after the Holocaust, but I have thought, well, they have a special history, it's understandable. But now, seeing such restrictions take concrete form in imprisonment of a (bad) historian, I feel professionally obliged to oppose this....
Read the whole thing here.

I give professor Lemisch credit for finally articulating what all of us have known for some time, that the AHA has long been hypocritical and highly selective in its expressions of outrage. The Holocaust is by no means the only "privileged" subject. Many groups have advanced, and had accepted, claims to a "special history." And with privilege came constraints on freedom of expression.

The resulting constrained arena for discourse is one of the reasons for the AHA's accelerating irrelevance [does anyone, even in the profession, care what the AHA's official position is on much of anything?] and why I dropped my membership and ceased attending its meetings decades ago.

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