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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

HISTORIANS AND HISTORY

VIRGINIA L. CLOSE

MICHIKO KAKUTANI, writing in the Critics Notebook in The New York Times, used the projected opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington to discuss history and the Holocaust. She noted that the Roper Organization reported that "22 percent of the adults it polled said it seemed possible that the Holocaust had never happened; an additional 12 percent said they did not know if it was possible." Kakutani goes on to write that "these startling statistics underscore a disturbing phenomenon that has gained momentum in recent years in both America and Europe: a growing ignorance about the Holocaust on the part of ordinary citizens, and the growing visibility of 'revisionist historians,' who are trying to whitewash, even erase from memory, the Nazi atrocities of World War II."1

She writes about factors that she sees as being involved in this. Fifty years have gone by and Holocaust survivors who could witness to what happened are becoming fewer and fewer in number. She notes that "prejudice and anti-Semitism remain realities in contemporary America," and that "there is the simple problem of the ignorance that has become rampant among young people here," referring to a survey of Ivy League colleges in which seventy-five percent of those queried could not identify Abraham Lincoln as author, in the Gettysburg Address, of the words "government of the people, by the people and for the people." Neither could they identify their two senators. There are other points that she makes; among them are that "many of these young people, like many of their elders, get their history from movies and television, media that are taking increasing liberties with the truth, routinely blurring fact and fiction, and distorting real events to make dramatic or ideological points." The remainder of the article speaks about The Issue of Fairness wherein political correctness is discussed; Interpreting Reality, in which Kakutani says that "even well-intentioned students might be tempted to confuse differing interpretations of the past with what the Holocaust deniers are engaged in doing: namely, assailing the actuality of the past." The final section is on The Deconstructionists.2

This article really needs to be read in its entirety. It brings a number of different aspects together and there are too many points in it to quote or characterize briefly. Five books on the Holocaust are mentioned by Kakutani. They are all either in the Baker collections or on order.3

The Holocaust deniers would seem to be in a class by themselves -- "assailing the actuality of the past." History -- what happened and what historians have said happened -- has regularly been examined and reexamined by historians and others, sometimes as new facts and new information came to light, or as they set out new and different interpretations and points of view.

For the student who is intrigued by the investigation of history from the perspective of the history of historical writing as well as by the theoretical and methodological aspects of it, there are a variety of starting points. One might take only American history and look at two volumes edited by Gerald N. Grob and George Athan Billias. Volume I of Interpretations of American History: Patterns and Perspectives covers the period to 1877, while Volume 2 brings the coverage through the 1980s. They contain an identical introduction and each has ten chapters. The chapter titles give an idea of what to expect: "The Puritans: Bigots or Builders?" "The Constitution: Conflict or Consensus?" "American Slavery: Benign or Malignant?" "The American Businessman: Industrial Innovator or Robber Baron?" "Women in History: Mainstream or Minority?" "The Coming of World War II: Avoidable or Inevitable?" The introductions to the volumes discuss American historiography from the beginning through the 1980s. In addition, each chapter has an explanation of the historiography related to its subject.4

From these survey volumes a student can go on to more specific topics. For example, of interest might be the changing picture of John Fitzgerald Kennedy over the past thirty years. It is described in Thomas Brown's JFK, History of an Image.5 For anyone wanting to read more widely in the area of American historiography, the principal introduction and the chapter introductions in the Grob and Billias volumes offer many references. There are several bibliographies of historiography in general. They include references to United States history. Historiography: An Annotated Bibliography of Journal Articles, Books, and Dissertations, edited by Susan K. Kinnell, cites publications issued from 1970 to 1985.6 It can be updated, and earlier references found as well, by consulting the standard reference sources Historical Abstracts and America: History and Life. Lester D. Stephens's Historiography: A Bibliography will provide earlier references.7


1. "When History is a Casualty," The New York Times, 30 April 1993, sec. C, p. 1.

2. Kakutani, "History is a Casualty," p. 31.

3. Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Assassins of Memory: Essays on the Denial of the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992); Robert Hughes, Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Deborah E. Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (New York: The Free Press, 1993); Forever in the Shadow of Hitler? Original Documents of the Historikerstreit, the Controversy Concerning the Singularity of the Holocaust, trans. James Knowlton and Truett Cates (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1993); David Lehman, Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (New York: Poseidon Press, ).

4. 6th ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1992).

5. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, [1988]). This little volume has many helpful notes.

6. 2 vols. (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1987).

7. (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1975).