Similar to legal inquiry, The Historical Method provides a framework upon which to build a case based on rigorous interrogation of the evidence. The process has emerged through hundreds of years of practice, trial and error. It is not infallible, but having a set of standards and procedures is the difference between opinion and valid historical narrative. It opens up the given topic to further investigation, giving historians the knowledge that the foundations their cases are built on are solid. So, it goes without saying that historical topics of import to our community, such as the Holocaust and Nazi war crimes, need to be investigated through The Historical Method.
When we think of scholars of this period, we are likely to call to mind the likes of Dr Ian Kershaw or the late venerable Dr David Cesarani. Both are prolific, original and rigorous scholars, and both have published detailed, and thoroughly researched, fully cited works and articles. The importance is that they adhere to the standards required of historians, and as such, their analyses can form the basis of future debate.
Enter the Col. Richard Kemp, and his writing partner John Weigold. On Saturday 6th May, the two men published an article claiming to present to the world, new and original historical research regarding the Holocaust on the Channel Island of Alderney; in the Daily Mail under the headline:
“Hitler’s British death island: Astonishing story of how the Nazis murdered 40,000 people in Channel Island concentration camps — and planned to blitz the South Coast with chemical weapons”
The article (an exciting two-parter sensation), emphasising the pair’s military expertise, goes on to make a number of assertions regarding the possible use of a bunker on the island, complete with illustrations and maps. They contend that the bunker was a chemical weapons facility. Saturday’s article ends with the teaser, “They died horrible deaths in huge numbers — much higher than have ever been contemplated before, as we will reveal in the next chapter of this chilling story in Monday’s Mail.”
I am on tenterhooks.
While I don’t claim that they are necessarily wrong, I am incredibly concerned that they do not directly reference any sources apart from themselves and there is no sense of collaboration with any historians whatsoever. The article is presented with the self-assurance of ‘fact’ and attempts to shroud its narrative in persuasive journalistic prose. To all intents and purposes, it is pure conjecture.
Aside from the sensationalism of the article (using the possible deaths of up to 40,000 slave labourers in order to sell a newspaper) and its clear appeal to self-promotion, why should we be worried?
The study of the Holocaust has been subject to many controversies, for example, that of the notorious David Irving case, in which he was found to have fabricated elements of his holocaust-denying narrative. The importance of scholarship and rigour goes beyond a mere compulsion to present an interesting story. In the case of Irving, it became apparent, and indeed was proven in court, that he had not appropriately followed the standards set out for historians. Facts and figures matter. Conjecture, on the other hand, opens the door to all sorts of challenge, some of which might well turn out to be correct.
In addition, if we are to add to our knowledge and understanding of that period, it is essential that we can be objective. When new information is presented, it is necessary that access to source materials is made as easy as possible and that any calculations you make are clearly defined and replicable. It is important that every opportunity is given to test and contest your novel conclusions.
I won’t attempt to discern the reason Kemp and Weigold decided to publish their thoughts in the Daily Mail, or publish them in the way that they did. Either way, however, I am somewhat dismayed by their lack of intellectual integrity and the complete disrespect they demonstrate for the subject they are attempting to shed light on. They might argue that they have indeed given the subject due respect. However, I would point out that, in the age in which “we don’t like experts”, they are doing great damage to history.