Common Reading 2005 - 2006

Holocaust Deniers, Their Critics, & Oral History

By Timothy Coogan

By the very nature of doing research and oral history on the Holocaust, historians and other social scientists have to confront the horrific atrocities of that age of terror either intentionally or not, as they grapple with the larger metahistorical issues and problems of working with and writing on the various primary documents of the Holocaust.  Such philosophical and ethical considerations as writing "history from the bottom up" or coming to terms with the moral dilemmas/choices such searches for "truth" and the multiple dimensions of the peoples' voices present must be dealt with squarely and honestly by the interpreter of the past.  Consequently, there are numerous problems historians and social scientists must keep in mind when gathering data and "authentic voices" of the Holocaust, albeit, the "deniers" of the Holocaust altogether (e.g., as well as fake or uncorroborated evidence dealing with it.  Oral history alone, states the highly acclaimed oral historian and expert Philippe Joutard in a recent essay titled "The Challenges of Oral History," remains a huge problematic issue when it comes to memory and the retelling of the past.  Questions such as how does one evaluate the truthfulness of oral histories and testimonies as well as how significant the ordinary stories of the past are can not be lightly dismissed.  We should not forget, he notes, that "pure orality" in our modern society does not exist.  In fact,"Oral testimony is permeated with references to written sources" as well as the pervasive influence of television, "usually on a subconscious level." Importantly, Joutard emphatically insists, the "historian...cannot limit himself to using only oral sources; he must consult other documents, be they written or iconographic."

Oral history's strength, notes Joutard, "is that it gives the power of speech to those who do not usually have it, the forgotten ones, the outsiders," or as he suggests, "the world of the conquered."  Yet oral history also "sheds light on the world of the labourer and the peasant, that of the emigrant, of the minorities, or of the marginal or the dominated."  Above all, he argues, "we must extend this even further so as to give a voice to the illiterate and to the extremely poor...but beyond these, the worlds of the disabled and of children still remain to be examined."  Unlike memoirs or letters, however, the oral histories reveal "the indescribable," sequences of reality which appear rarely in written documents, either because they are considered to be "too insignificant"---being of the everyday world---or as being unadmittable or inexpressive in writing."  In short, we should note, "it is orally that one can seize most clearly the true reasons of a decision."  Oral history also provides a "direct and privileged access to anthropological history."

In France, the most complete history of the Holocaust, for instance, is "Shoah," Claude Lanzmann's documentary in which he refused to use written documents in the filming of the Holocaust which he composed entirely of oral testimony.  Is his choice one that others should follow?  Why, philosophically-speaking, is oral history, for example, in Joutard's words, "the means of choice used to understand the workings of the system of concentration camps or the traumas of the 20th century"?  As we all know the horrors then did not end with the collapse of Nazism or, for that matter, the fall of the Berlin Wall or other genocides which have been perpetuated as well as "many other forms of barbarism and oppression."  As one can see, it is vital that oral history be a witness and have the courage to maintain its historical stance in the face of devastated witnesses who feel that their recollections are unique and non-transmissible."  On the other hand, "the oral historian," concludes Joutard, "must give them total respect, his complete attention and maintain an historical approach."

If the oral historian does all these things properly and addresses the key moral questions then oral history will yield up valuable information that would otherwise remain unavailable.  At the same time, it is necessary to be reminded of the limits of this methodology.  We need to be cognizant of what the critics call the "weaknesses" of oral testimony---that of memory itself, its selectivity, its immense capacity to forget (often varying according to consequences of the day), its deformations and its errors, its tendency to interweave memories with legends and with myths."  Paradoxically, these very "weaknesses" can be seen as its greatest strength.  As he points out, "I am persuaded that omissions, involuntary or not, as are variants of the narration, and the legends and the myths thus conveyed, are as useful to the historian as what is generally accepted as factual information.  They bring us to the  heart of the representation that each of [us] makes of reality and are the proof that we act much more according to these representations of reality than to reality itself."  In fact, the greatest weakness of oral testimony allows us not only to better understand the "reality" of the witnesses, but to more fully grasp their motives and the outcomes of their actions."

We should also be aware that the gathering of large quantities of collective memory has its problems.  For one thing, many of the narratives of oral testimonies often combine folktales and legends and are nourished by strong and "numerous folk traditions."  In short, in order for us to better understand the depth of memory, we must be critical and objective, so as to "better note distortions in the realities of the past" as well as to better interpret them.   For example, one problem that arises is how to interpret both silence and forgetfulness.  In this instance, video recordings help us "to seize...gestures and expressions."

Good oral history fights against both "militant" oral history as well as "academic" oral history.  While the first kind "strives for a history from the bottom up and of the outsiders," the other kind produces ideological and epistemological conflicts.  In the former approach, it would be considered "practically a breach of trust or an illegitimate power-grab," to "intervene, interpret and distance oneself," as historians often do.  On the other hand, we should note, historians consider "the best way to do justice to these testimonies is to transform them into history." 

Other questions to ponder include, "what of the militants for an alternative history and the academic historians respectful of their informants but wanting to maintain a certain distance and construct a real historical dialogue?"  One thing is certain:  there are a myriad of oral testimonies that require our fullest attention to diversity and conflict of interpretation.  To conclude:  one should not expect the same results from an academic study following a determined problematic and methodological approach which is different from other ways of working with oral histories. 

Some other problems to think about as well as those discussed above were addressed at a recent Montreal Conference on this theme where one of the questions that came up was: "Up to what point does oral information lend itself to out of context use and in a way which was not intended by its creators?"  It should also be noted that the "use of documents taken out of scope and context has become, in contemporary historiography, a means to conquer the silence and to attain realities which are difficult to perceive."  At any rate, we must not forget that the collection of oral testimonies and other narrations "are of great methodological interest in the study of how memory works, of its evolution, and of its relation between the present and the past."  Oral tradition is a case in point.  We know from many studies that it is "a dynamic dialogue constantly in touch with the most contemporary activities, recreating itself and thus a complete product of history."  This "historicisation of the oral tradition is one of the more promising fields for years to come.

Oral histories and new technologies is yet another problem one needs to consider.  One question we can pose is:  "Is it necessary to bring up an historical fact?  The tape recorder suggests such a problem in terms of capturing the human voice and the "silences, the hesitations and the Freudian slips" that one can integrate into an analysis.  Also there is the matter of digitized images as in the case of the Spielberg project. "Its value is obvious, not only as concerns speech, but also as to body language, mimicry, expressions and gestures."  This method however has drawbacks, such as "the interviewer is more intrusive and his personality tends to direct the interview; as well, more sensitive informants may block up completely.  The difficulties of interpretation are greater too.

New technologies like these multiply types of oral documents that must also be taken account of.  Today there are audio-books and video-letters as well as many internet forums and Web pages.

A final challenge that needs to be understood is the connection, slim though it may be, between oral history and identity.  It is to be noted that "memory is an essential element of identity." This situation is all the more difficult to understand as groups begin to confront, cope with, and react to the processes of "globalization" and to "cultural uniformism."  Both have an effect on oral discourse and oral history.  One issue with identity should be reviewed more closely.  As one writer suggests, there are two kinds of identities:  open and closed.  As he put it, "we know that identity sometimes spontaneously shuts itself in and defends what is believed to be one's integrity."  Identity, Phiippe Joutard warns us, can cause groups to react against everything that "seems foreign, and in becoming exclusive, the dangers of xenophobia and racism are not far removed."  It is in the name of memory and of identity that mass groups in the 19th century killed each other for decades; the recent conflicts in former Yugoslavia with which we are all familiar with have similar origins.  For example, World War I "took place in the name of national identity, the first of the horrific slaughters of the 20th century."  Here oral history he argues "bears a heavy responsibility, for oral heritage can be updated and harnessed to comfort over-simplifying Manichean identities, which, in their exclusiveness, are the carriers of hate and death." 

The essay on "The Challenges of Oral History" by Philippe Joutard can be found at:

On the debates dealing with the "deniers" of the Holocaust, see earlier entries above but again these below:  ("Are 'Revisionists'Holocaust-deniers?")  Do they deny the Holocaust?

On the battle against the Holocaust denial, see personal account below:

 Deborah E. Lipstadt, History on Trial:  My Day in Court with David Irving.  (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2005)

On refuting the denial of Holocaust, see the following site:

Metahistorical Questions for MAUS Readers


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